3rd April 2013: Emigration Farewell to Kent

The Society's April lecture (the last in the current season) was, as usual, well attended. Helen Allinson a keen researcher and writer on Kent local history spoke on the topic 'Emigration: Farewell to Kent'. Her talk provided a sympathetic, and at times humorous insight into the system of assisted emigration, in the first half of the 19th century, whereby some of the very poorest people in the county emigrated to America, and to various British colonies, on passages paid for by their parishes.

The early nineteenth century saw a steep rise in the population of England and in unemployment, which led to an increase in the number of impoverished families relying on their parishes for material assistance through the poor rate (a tax on property levied within a parish and used to provide relief to the parish poor). Poor rates rose steeply and it became clear that new ways of helping the poor were needed. The government began to discuss assisted emigration as a way of doing this (and of bringing down the poor rates). Rural unrest in the south of England in 1830-1831 made the matter more critical and in 1834 the Poor Law Act put in place a comprehensive system whereby parishes could help their poor to emigrate to the colonies. Prior to this parishes had been making their own individual arrangements for sending willing groups of their parish poor, mainly to America. (Headcorn was the first Kent parish to assist labourers to emigrate, in 1824, when they began to send about 20 emigrants a year to America at a cost of £8 a head.)

Mrs Allinson's talk included lively descriptions of some of the emigrant groups in various Kent parishes and the preparations that were made for their long and arduous voyage. Faced with leaving their relatives, friends and familiar surroundings, some would-be emigrants changed their minds, but others took the courageous step to seek a new life, in the hope of bettering their own and their children's prospects. Not everyone who embarked on a voyage reached their destination as there was a steady mortality rate during the months at sea, particularly among children. Conditions were cramped and, at worst intolerably overcrowded. Yet the records show that makeshift schools might be set up for the children on board ship, church services were held regularly and entertainments, often involving music and dancing, were allowed.

Assisted emigrants were only a small proportion of a far larger number of Kentish people who emigrated without the need of any financial assistance. But for the very poor, emigration required particular courage and a high degree of self-reliance, sustained invariably by a strong Christian faith, to enable people at the very bottom of the social scale to make good, as many did, in their country of destination.

Jenny Oram