Defining Moments in Australian History: Assisted migration

By AG STAFF 15 May 2024
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1832: Aid to encourage migrants to Australia begins.

The number of convicts sent to Australia increased sharply in the 1820s, lifting the proportion in New South Wales in 1828 to 46 per cent of the population – up from 30 per cent two decades earlier. At the same time, Australia was becoming attractive to Britain’s relatively wealthy. After the crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813, huge land tracts became available in NSW, the wool industry thrived and wealthy migrants could hope to join the colonial upper classes.

The 19th century was a period of mass emigration from Europe. Between 1815 and 1840, 1 million emigrants left Britain, most of them crossing the Atlantic to the USA and Canada. The much longer passage to Australia was too expensive for many poor migrants.

Governments in both Britain and Australia wanted to increase the number of free migrants arriving here. Britain experienced much social upheaval and widespread unemployment after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Authorities were worried that a growing population was outstripping resources and that the disaffected working classes might pose a threat to social stability. In Ireland and Scotland farmers were losing their land and Irish farmers with small plots were forced to rely solely on potatoes.

For many, emigration to either the Americas or Australia was the answer to catastrophic crop failures. To the authorities it was a cost-effective solution to the oversupply of able-bodied workers. For parishes in Britain who had to levy rates to support the very poor, migrants would cease to be a burden and could lead to an overseas market for British goods.

In the 1820s one scheme sought to send the poor to Canada. In 1832 the Land and Emigration Commission was set up under the Colonial Office to do the same for Australia. During the following decades it organised voyages for hundreds of thousands of emigrants. The Australian colonies were particularly in need of skilled labourers and single women. There was strong demand for labourers to work in the interior on land that wealthy settlers had acquired with large grants that supported grazing rather than agriculture, while single women could help address a severe gender imbalance.

Not everyone favoured assisted migration. Opposers feared the country would become a dumping ground for the dregs of British society. Notably, presbyterian minister John Dunmore Lang claimed female migrants had made Sydney “a sink of prostitution”.

While there’s no doubt some women did find employment as sex workers, as NSW governor Richard Bourke pointed out to the Colonial Office, there was only limited demand for governesses, ladies’ maids, milliners and dressmakers. Mostly, the colony needed women who would go to rural areas and work on farms.

In the early 1830s migrants were given assisted passage but incurred a debt they had to repay when they found work. By the late 1830s the colonial governments were providing debt-free passage to migrants, funded by land-sale schemes.

In 1839 Henry Parkes and his wife, Clarinda, were among thousands of assisted migrants who arrived in Australia. Parkes, who had trouble making a living as an ivory turner in England, later became NSW premier and one of the fathers of Federation. Like many migrants, they arrived with almost no money, although Henry eventually found work.

Assisted migrants were allowed to live on board the ship for 10 days after arrival to give them time to find paid work, but then they had to fend for themselves. Although Parkes had been optimistic while in England about the riches awaiting migrants in Australia, he later reported that many were starving in Sydney’s streets.

Assisted migration brought 127,000 people to Australia between 1832 and 1850 – about 70 per cent of all immigrants in that period. It continued at an even larger scale after the discovery of gold in 1851. In the 1850s there were 230,000 assisted migrants, about 50 per cent of total migrants, most of them from the UK (including Ireland).

To differing degrees in the various colonies, assisted migration continued and was a significant factor in the expansion of Australia’s European population.

Assisted migration’ forms part of the National Museum of Australia’s Defining Moments in Australian History project.

Related: Australia’s forgotten child migrants