Monday, March 24, 2014

Scum and Refuse on the Southern Ocean

Idealised Deck Scene on an Immigrant Ship
The Graphic (London, England), May 6, 1871
My opinion is that the inhabitants of Queensland would better consult the ultimate interests of their country by putting up for a time with a limited supply of carefully selected immigrants than by having it cursed and polluted by the introduction, under whatever guise, of the scum and refuse of the town populations of Great Britain.

THOMAS HARLIN, M.A., F.G.S.[1], &c., Fellow of St. Peter's College, Cambridge.[2]

Thomas Harlin ca. 1870
State Library of Queensland

In 1866 a recently arrived Englishman felt impelled to write a long letter to the Brisbane Courier questioning the quality of immigrants being recruited in Britain to sail to Queensland.

Thomas Harlin had sailed on the ship Southern Ocean for Moreton Bay. On board was a large number of assisted and free passage emigrants intended for public works in the Colony, chiefly to work on the railway being constructed from Ipswich to the Darling Downs.

Harlin and many other paying passengers soon noticed that, among the labourers, a group of men that seemed grossly unqualified for the jobs for which they were recruited. Harlin described them thus:

It was quite unnecessary for me to look twice at the men, two hundred and fifty or thereabouts in number, consigned to Queensland as "railway artisans," in order to feel satisfied that a considerable proportion of them had been drawn from the loafing, and not from the working, population of Great Britain. [3]

Henry Jordan 1887
State Library of Queensland
Several years previous, in 1861, Henry Jordan had been appointed as Emigration Commissioner for the Colony of Queensland. On a summer’s evening, Jordan addressed a rowdy public meeting in Brisbane. The whole immigration issue had long been a political hot potato. Jordan described the situation which existed in the past, when emigrants were chosen by British Commissioners.

Two ideas seemed to have possessed the minds of the Commissioners; the first was - that the poorest, idlest, and most worthless - those who were no use at home, and whom they were very glad to get rid of, would do very well to send out here; and secondly, - they appeared to think that the whole of our land fund would be properly disposed of in sweeping England of her useless population.

The very poorest, the most degraded, the most worthless, men of no value, either to their employers or to themselves, seemed to have been selected as being most in need of a change of air, as if their removal to a distant part of the globe would effect any transformation in such characters - make the lazy, hulking loafer an industrious, thrifty, and frugal man, or transform the miserable slattern into a clean and tidy housewife.

Now, however, these things were altered. The Imperial government has placed the money derived from the sale of lands into the hands of the colonists themselves, to do with it as they thought best, and it was not now deemed desirable to devote it to the purpose of relieving England of her worst paupers. [4]

No more of your rubbish!
Ipswich Punch April 1866
According to Harlin, the navvies recruited by Jordan were properly vetted and required to provide references. Simpson, another emigration agent, took it upon himself to make up the numbers before the ship sailed, by recruiting a large number of emigrants from the poorer areas of London. It is unclear what connection, if any, Simpson had to Jordan.

[It was] my belief that several of the chosen of Mr. Simpson had been loafers and lurchers[5] about the street corners of Whitechapel, Rotherhithe, Greenwich, and Deptford, well known, at all events in personal appearance, to the police of those districts, who had probably never taken kindly to regular work, and had certainly never been regularly employed as navvies.[6]

Henry Jordan’s time as the Emigration Commissioner was marred by controversy and he returned to Queensland in 1866.  He continued his parliamentary career into the 1880s & died in 1890.

His best efforts at bringing immigrants to Queensland were undone by the economic crisis in the late 1860s, which resulted in the unemployment suffered by many of the newcomers. A cartoon in the Ipswich Punch magazine nicely sums up the mood of the time.

Ipswich Punch April 1866

In 1869, Thomas Harlin was appointed as the first headmaster at the Brisbane Grammar School. In the 1870s he moved on to Melbourne Grammar School & died in Melbourne in 1913.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2014.

[1] Master of Arts, Fellow of the Geological Society.
[2] The Brisbane Courier Wednesday 6 June 1866
[3] The Brisbane Courier Wednesday 6 June 1866
[4] The Moreton Bay Courier Thursday 10 January 1861
[5] a petty thief, swindler, rogue
[6] The Brisbane Courier Wednesday 6 June 1866