O is for Oceans and Oban


I am participating in the A to Z 2012 blog challenge throughout April. My theme is a genealogical travelogue or a travel genealogue (I’m not sure which). The focus today is on migration to Australia.

O is for OCEANS

A sketch showing life on board for emigrants in the 1870s. State Library of Victoria IAN24/03/75/40 copyright expired. Searching Picture Australia for emigrant+ship will give you images of ships of the era.

My ancestors crossed the oceans wide to come to Australia braving the oceans’ hazards, health risks on board, and a new world. We can’t really imagine what they went through, cheek by jowl in the sleeping quarters, mixed with people of other nationalities and even counties, with whom they’d had no exposure prior to the emigration depot with all its own challenges. Just imagine the Babel, or babble, of the different dialects, including Gaelic, Irish, and English regional accents. Then put them all together on one small ship (averaging around 600 tons in the 1850s) and expect them to negotiate their mess arrangements and sleep in a hammock with others so close. Throw in the wild seas, anxiety and excitement about their future lives, and the potential for boredom and its surprising there wasn’t more dissension.

It was certainly one way to prepare them for what was ahead. For all that the emigrants to Australia had so much further to go, they were actually well looked after by the arrangements put in place by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners (CLEC) with required lists of clothing, specified dietary standards, a surgeon to supervise their health and a matron to take care of their other welfare. Education was often offered but not always availed.

The Irish were unusual in that Irish women were as likely to emigrate as men, atypical compared to other nationalities which either exported single men or families. Even where these women appeared to travel alone, a closer look at the shipping records will reveal there may have been cousins or neighbours on board. In the later years of emigration, they would have family in Australia who may have sent their remittance for emigration. It pays to look beyond just the name you’re researching to see who they may have travelled with…they weren’t as alone as we sometimes think.

My ancestral migration to Australia is spread from the 1850s through to 1911. This graph gives some indication of the family pattern -only two people travelled without known family/friends. © P Cass 2012.

Pondering on my post from Saturday about the precious packages my ancestors would have brought with them, I decided to have a look at their travel and migration status: who they arrived with, and whether they had family in the colony. Even this is deceptive because it only looks at their relatives, not at their broader social connections such as people from their home village. George Kunkel, for example, is not known to have had any family here before he arrived, nor did any arrive after him (chain migration) that I know of. However there were quite a few people from his home village living quite close by in Queensland. Did he arrive after them or before? Either way he wasn’t entirely alone, there was the solace of some compatriots.

How did your families arrive, alone or in a family group? Did it change depending on when they arrived?

To quote an unknown immigrant Mary Anne, writing home:

There are no backdoors in Australia to creep out as you must take everything as it comes when you get here.”[i]

O is for OCEANS OF CONSOLATION

Important reference books for migration research to Australia in particular.

If you have Irish ancestry in Australia there are two books you really must beg, borrow or steal (just kidding!). They are Oceans of Consolation by David Fitzpatrick, an analysis of letters from Irish immigrants and Richard Reid’s Farewell my Children which I posted about last year. Also worth looking at are any of the little Invisible Immigrant series by Eric Richards with chapters by Richard Reid.

Fitzpatrick uses the emigrants’ own letters to tell their story of settling into a new land. I particularly liked some of the comments from Biddy Burke, an immigrant from Galway to Moreton Bay. She commented “you must think it was hot when the plaits (sic) on the dresser should be handled with a cloth[ii] She was intrigued rather than horrified by the mixture of religions and races[iii], showing the adventurousness of those who made this journey.

Fitzpatrick argues that the migration decision was a family one, but my research suggests this may not always have been so. Wills tend to indicate that at least some emigrants went where they thought it would suit them best. The decision by some emigrants to come to Australia even though other family members had already emigrated to America suggests they were clear about what opportunities they wanted to pursue.

O is for OBAN (Argyll, Scotland)

Early morning over Oban's harbour, March 2006. © P Cass

Back in March 2006 we were in Oban, planning to visit Mull the next day. In the middle of the night we got a phone call from daughter #2 to tell us that my mother-in-law was dying. Now a B&B is not the best place to get this kind of news (is anywhere?) so we had to skulk down to the harbour to make calls on the public phone to get the whole story and try to arrange flights before the B&B came to life. Suffice to say that those who helped us on that occasion have our gratitude: the B&B owners who didn’t hold us to our three day booking, the staff member on the desk at one of the harbour-side posh hotels who helped us with internet links, and Emirates who made and held our booking until we got to Glasgow, unlike our national carrier. That morning at sunrise we saw seals in the harbour and as we made our way back into Glasgow, the skies were clear blue and the snow on the hills was magnificent…a blessing in a strange kind of way.

The Scots may not be effusive but we couldn’t fault their wonderful support. We were home within 48 hours and could have made it sooner had we not been a bit far from Glasgow airport, and thankfully we made it in time to say our goodbyes. Sure this is recent history, but as I want to publish this series of posts for our family and descendants, I wanted to tell this story, and checked my husband agreed.

Imagine what it would have been like for our ancestors to finally receive a letter telling them of a parent’s death, months after it had happened. Would they have sensed something pivotal had happened or would that barrier have passed when they left their family behind in the homeland?

In the A to Z challenge, Julie at Anglers Rest is continuing the story of her 20th century travel to Australia and her family’s links to the land Down Under.


[i] Haines, R. Life and death in the age of sail, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2003, page 190

[ii] Fitzpatrick D. Oceans of Consolation, Melbourne University Press, 1994, page 149.

[iii] Ibid, page 148

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4 thoughts on “O is for Oceans and Oban

  1. My family made the trek across the Atlantic in various stages from Germany, Switzerland and England. They came for the same reason most did, to escape poverty and have a better life.

    • Thanks for dropping by Stephen. I enjoyed looking at your stories on space. I think our ancestors were very brave, as well as desperate for a better life.

  2. This is a fascinating post Pauline. Like you I marvel at our ancestor’s strength & courage in travelling all that distance and in such unimaginable conditions… driven often by desperation. Those ships were amazingly small, phew… There’s a reconstruction of their living quarters in our South Australian Maritime Museum. Pictures can be accessed by googling “The Ships List”. Love your expression “cheek by jowl… a wonderful “word picture”. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Catherine. Although I used to visit Adelaide fairly regularly for work, I’ve never made it to the Maritime Museum even though it’s been on my agenda. There are some good pics out there but mostly copyrighted/reproduction controlled.

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