Why people left Britain
Many people have had to travel from or to Great Britain to
escape poverty, or to flee religious, racial or political
repression. Some had no choice, for social or economic reasons.
Others have wanted to start a new life. Perhaps they were setting
up home with a new husband in the USA. Many wanted to breathe the
freer atmosphere they expected to find in Australia or New
Until recently, these many millions of people had no choice but
to travel by sea. This section explains why they set out for a new
life by sea. It also describes some of the hardships they
encountered in their determination to begin again overseas.
Transportation, clearances and famine
People have had many different reasons for leaving Britain to
settle permanently abroad. Many emigrants had no choice. These
included the `convicts`, convicted criminals guilty of minor
offences such as poaching or prostitution. They were mostly
transported to Australia, and particularly to Van Diemen`s Land, as
the island of Tasmania was then known. Transportation was the
forced sending of criminals to another country, or rather colony;
after America gained its independence in 1776, Australia was
chosen, and convicts sent there from 1788 to 1858. Transportation
was seen as a humane alternative to death by hanging, and death
sentences were often `commuted` to transportation. For the
convicts, conditions on board were no better than on slave ships.
Indeed, they were treated as slaves, and sold to work for
plantation owners when they arrived.
Escaping poverty - slums in King Street,
The many Scots thrown off their land during the Highland
clearances of the 18th century and the Irish escaping the potato
famines of the 19th century were, at least, more free than the
convicts. They felt that emigrating to another country would give
them a better chance in life than at home. However, their limited
resources meant that conditions on board their emigrant ships were
little better than those for convicts. The poor emigrants and their
few belongings were packed into the holds of sailing ships for the
voyage, often to the USA or Canada. The same ships would often
bring a timber cargo back across the Atlantic. As can be imagined,
facilities for passengers were very primitive.
Persecution and oppression
Emigration was not just for economic reasons. Religious
persecution, or fear of it, was why some emigrants left. For
instance, those most peaceable of people, the Quakers, wanted
somewhere they could pursue their beliefs undisturbed. So many, led
by William Penn, emigrated to North America in 1682 and founded
Fear of cultural domination by the English drove some Welsh
emigrants firstly to the USA. However, they still felt oppressed by
Englishness even there. So, in the 1860s, some moved to a remote
and arid region of Argentina, along the Chubut river in Patagonia.
Their descendants still live in an area with an odd mixture of
Spanish and Welsh place names, such as Puerto Madryn.