Cockneys to Canada

We read an awful lot about immigration to the East End – the history of our area is all about the multitude of cultures, races and languages that have poured in to the East End over the centuries. A recent count made it 78 different tongues currently spoken within the borough.

But the traffic hasn’t all been one way. During the latter half of the eighteenth century, politicians, churches and charities were desperate to do something about Britain’s overcrowded and pestilent cities.

The East End of London had an unprecedented industrial and population boom in the mid-1800s. The new industries powered by steam made cheap manufacturing possible, and drew hundreds of thousands into Whitechapel, Stepney and Poplar, to man the machines in the new ‘manufactories’.

Factory owners had grown rich – though their employees saw little profit and lived in increasingly squalid and subdivided housing. Worse still, by the 1870s, Britain’s boom was over, the economy was stagnating and there weren’t enough jobs to support the exploding East End population.

In 1871, the National Emigration League, with its board of assorted knights, MPs and clergy, produced a report detailing the problems. It spoke of the ‘great and increasing [economic] depression in the condition of the industrial and other classes’; that ‘this depression is chiefly due to, and yearly intensified by, the numbers of the population for whom the field of employment is insufficient; and that ‘the number of persons employed in work throughout the United Kingdom is an excess of the numbers necessary to execute it’.

The conclusion of the League was that there were too many people. And with the vast new country of Canada short of bodies to exploit its enormous natural resources, the answer seemed obvious: emigration to the Colonies.

The report, presented by League chairman the Duke of Manchester to prime minister Gladstone, noted nervously that ‘the population of the United Kingdom is increasing at 240,000 per annum beyond the usual rate of emigration’. They were after money to fund the programme, pointing out precedents set by Government assistance ‘in the loans for drainage and improvement of waste lands in England and Ireland.’ The carrot for the Government was that the new settlers would grow Canada’s economy, providing a market for UK goods, and in turn provide trade and traffic through London’s docks.

The League was only one of the Emigration Societies formed around the United Kingdom. There were societies formed by various religions and there were others formed to assist child migrants, including children who set out from the East End’s own Ragged Schools. The East London Emigration Fund was one such body, set up by the Honourable Frederick and William Hobart, the Countesses of Ducie, de Grey and Denbigh, ‘and other ladies of distinction’.

The Fund’s reports proudly boasted that ‘the total number shipped by the Committee was 1035 souls’. And that ‘since their arrival in Canada excellent accounts have been received from all the emigrants, not one of whom has expressed a regret at having left England. Even when difficulties have arisen, such as must naturally be expected from persons settling in a new country, there is a tone of hopefulness in their letters, which show the writers had no doubt of their ultimate success.’

The robust and confident Victorian worthies seemingly had no worries about their motivations or about the success of their plan. To the modern reader it seems a drastic solution – getting rid of the East Enders rather than creating jobs or houses for them in London; and the word ‘shipped’ suggests that they saw the emigrants as cargo rather than human beings. But the assorted Reverends, Duchesses and Sirs saw the filthy and overcrowded east London as a corrupting influence in itself. To get people out of this ‘abyss’ and into the clean fresh air of Canada must have seemed the ideal solution.

But what a shock it must have been to the cockney emigrants. The prime task in Canada was to tame and farm the huge prairies. And though their forebears may have come from the Essex and East Anglian countryside, this must have been quite a shock to the recruits, who ‘came principally from the districts of Poplar, Bow, Isle of Dogs, Limehouse, Stepney, Mile End, Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Clerkenwell, Shadwell, St. George’s East, and Spitalfields’.

But with extraordinary English sang froid, the Fund’s Mrs Hobart made this enormous expedition sound rather like a weekend charabanc trip to Margate. ‘Before leaving London they were invited to tea, for the purpose of explaining to them the final arrangements made for their departure to and reception in Canada. Each head of a family was called upon to sign a paper promising to pay the amount advanced for this passage and outfit, as soon as he should be able to do so.

By early 1870, the Fund had collected £388 and five shillings; ‘equal to $1,889.19c’ … for the use of the people sent out by them, which was paid to them on arrival’, they explained. And between April and September 1870, 974 East Enders took the Allan Steamships boats across the stormy Atlantic. It was as well they ‘had no doubt of their ultimate success’, because few of them would ever see London again.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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2 Responses to Cockneys to Canada

  1. Marianne says:

    My mother’s grandfather, Richard Smith, a shoemaker, brought his family to Canada in 1870 courtesy of Mrs. Hobart and the East London Emigration Fund. As the descendant of one of these people who came from London’s east end to Toronto, Ontario, I will forever be grateful. By the way, neither he, nor his children ever returned. However, his grand-daughter (my mother) visited London in the 1970s and his grandson (mom’s brother) was there during WWII. Furthermore, the shoemaker’s great-grandchildren (myself included) have visited London at various times. My great-grandfather was never rich, but he seemed to live a decent life, fulfilling the requirement of Mrs. Hobart.

  2. John Rennie says:

    Hi Marianne,
    There are so many amazing stories of people like this, who from nothing built new lives for themselves… And I’m glad he led a decent life!

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