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The Farthest Promised Land
 Immigration to New Zealand 1840 - 1880

Judith Cranefield, Dunedin, New Zealand, is a grand-daughter of Joseph South(1). Her mother, Elizabeth Scott nee South (1889 -1987), was the ninth and youngest child of Joseph(1) and his second wife, Mary-Ann Dutton. He was father of eighteen children from both marriages. Judith has undertaken extensive research into the immigration to New Zealand of Joseph(1) and his family in 1874 and their subsequent history. The follwing article is compiled from notes used as a basis for a lecture given to the University of the Third Age in June 1998 and concentrated on assisted Immigration to New Zealand.

The Farthest Promised Land
 Immigration to New Zealand 1840 - 1880

The voyage to New Zealand was a long one - the longest emigration route in the world -three to four months (12000 miles, 20,000 km ) It would seem that those who learnt to adapt well to the voyage and who had the physical and mental energy and capacity to survive were more likely to adapt well to conditions of life in the colony. These emigrants from Great Britain had to cope with seasickness, strange surroundings, strange food, enforced cohabitation with people of different cultures, races, creeds. More diaries and letters seem to have been written on board ship than at any other time. Generally the people who had to travel steerage were used to hardship and discomfort. Their homelands after all were overcrowded with an impoverished humanity, many of whom had given up all hope of a better life.

It does seem that although some horrific stories have come down to us about conditions on the emigrant ships bound from Britain to New Zealand, none were as bad as the very worst of the emigrant vessels going to North America, especially those carrying Irish emigrants during the great potato famine to the United States, and later those voyaging from Europe taking East European migrants to the "New World" Largely because of the sheer length of the journey there was some effective government regulation of conditions on board emigrant vessels coming to the South Pacific (e.g. space allowed, hygiene, food). Also with assisted passages available there was always some element of subsidy to be considered. There appears to have been much less official concern about conditions on ships heading for the United States. These people, after all, were leaving "Mother Empire".

Almost all the emigrant ships coming to New Zealand came under sail until the 1880s, and the Suez Canal, opened in 1869, was not used. There were only four steam ships amongst the hundreds of sailing ships that arrived in New Zealand during the flood of immigration during the 1870s. The first arrived at Port Chalmers in the Otago Harbour from London via the Cape of Good Hope in February 1874 after a passage of just under 50 days. The long steaming distance between coaling ports necessitated the stowage of a great deal of coal and frequent recoaling stops were needed. For the sailing ships the long sea route utilised the north easterly wind in the Atlantic until the ships were near the Canary Isles, then they continued to sail south west towards Brazil until past the equator. Once the "roaring forties" were reached it was hopefully a fast passage skirting south of Capetown, passing Tasmania and then swinging south east around southern New Zealand to arrive at Port Otago or Lyttelton. The sailing ships were a lot cheaper for emigration to New Zealand and, for this purpose, considered more efficient.

As early as 1838, two years before the first oft he New Zealand company ships sailed for Port Nicholson under the Wakefield scheme(1), a strict code of regulations was drawn up and implemented by the British Government. Eleven emigration agents had been positioned during the 1830s at the principal ports used for emigration in England, Scotland and Ireland. This number was to grow to seventeen. The regulations governed the basis on which emmigrant ships might put to sea and the conduct of the vessels during their passage. At some very busy ports it proved difficult for the agents to enforce these regulations but they did stay in force. In the light of experience they were amended from time to time and they remained during the whole of the nineteenth century and mostly put an end to, or at least limited, the terrible conditions of passage which had pertained up till then. They undoubtedly saved many lives.

From 1840 the New Zealand Company put out very clear instructions as to who could get an assisted passage, and how they should prepare themselves for the voyage. Assisted immigrants were accommodated in steerage which was essentially converted cargo space, to be reconverted back to take wool on the return trip. The steerage passengers were therefore accommodated below deck, single men in bunks six and a half feet long and two feet wide, married couples ill bunks three and a half feet wide. The space allocated to each person or family had to accomodate not only the people but also everything they needed with them for the whole voyage. Privacy was provided by a curtain and people got dressed and undressed kneeling on their bunks. Down the centre of steerage ran a long table at which the immigrants had to eat and do everything that required a flat surface. For washing they drew tip buckets of water from the sea. There was usually a limited time on deck for these people. There was a doctor, four voluntary "constables, and a matron for the single women who had to abide by very strict rules and who were locked away down in their quarters from about 8pm to 7am. Cabin passengers could number up to 40. If the live animals on board were slaughtered it was to feed them, and usually stewards cooked and served their meals. Even with the best regulations things usually went wrong somewhere. In 1848 on the Philip Laing mutiny nearly broke out. The distribution of food was unsatisfactory, the toilets were blocked (a common probleni) and drunkenness was common. Liquor was not allowed but it could be smuggled on board.

Entertainments were frequently organised by the passengers to relieve the tedium. These were segregated like the accommodation. Also special occasions were often celebrated and many ships, although not all, had ceremonies when the equator was crossed.

There was much social distinction - cabin passengers steered well clear of "emigrants", the steerage passengers who were considered very low in social class and who were thought to have "common" habits. With reluctance, captains usually allowed them to come on deck with the cabin passengers for the Sunday service and hymn singing. Cabin passengers became particularly, angry when people from steerage trespassed on the poop deck, though occasionally, if they were nicely tidied up, they might be allowed up for a little while. The poop deck was 90 feet by 35 feet and this was available to maybe 40 people. The main deck was very much smaller and this is what was available for up to 500 people.

A whole article could he written about illness and deaths on immigrant ships. Many unfortunates actually died of seasickness. It is possible to imagine the horror for the doctor's wife on a ship in 1861,who died of'exhaustion after 90 days of being seasick. However at ill times from 1840 to 1880 the greatest single cause of' death was disease. It is interesting that people who fell at the end of the English winter coped less well than those who left at the end of summer and autumn. Many were already ill and medical checks were not uniformly adequate. Babies accounted for most deaths.

In 1852 a new constitution was granted to New Zealand giving it a federal provincial structure and after this the provinces took over their own immigration policies. In place of an agent employed by the New Zealand Company to recruit potential immigrants they sent their own agents to Britain or appointed companies there to act for them. Otago and Canterbury were the most active here. By this time not all reports of life in New Zealand sounded so rosy. The agents had quite a lot of competition. The 1860s polarised the flood of immigration to the South Island. The northern provinces were missing out on the wealth from gold discoveries and were facing the upheavals and the cost of the Maori Wars. British soldiers and their families brought in to military settlements were the most notable group moving into the North Island at this time..

The gold miners of the 1860s usually came most immediately from the Victorian goldfields in Australia and were not particularly welcomed by established Otago and Canterbury society.. My father's grandfather, William Scott, with his wife and six sons arrived in Christchurch from Scotland during this immigration period. They travelled tinder the assistance scheme operated by the Canterbury provincial Council and he came to work on the new Canterbury provincial railways.

At mid century accommodation in steerage was no better, in fact, it appears that available space had shrunk. Single men now had bunks measuring six feet by twenty inches, married couples had six feet by three feet, and there was a smaller space for children. There was no provision for those under a year. During this gold rush period, with space at a premium, entirely unsuitable vessels were often pressed into service to meet demand. Stories abound of rats, smelly overflowing toilets, putrid water, cockroaches, leaking quarters, rotten meat and generally insufficient food.

There were special initiatives to encourage young single women to emigrate from Britain to New Zealand. This had begun in the 1850s and these provincial schemes continued through the 1960s. Probably in reaction to the strictness, and what would certainly have seemed unreasonableness of the rules restricting their lives on board, the young single woman frequently were the only threat to the discipline imposed by the captain and the doctor on immigrant voyages. Keeping track of them was considered to be a major problem. Very amusing stories can be read about their cheekiness and outspoken ways. On the "Montmorency" in 1863 they sang rude songs about the doctor and when they were confined to their quarters for this transgression, they made up equally offensive songs about the purser who was sent down to talk to them. We can also read about the girls who sang music hall songs at a church service, their refusal to leave the poop deck, their insistence on speaking to male passengers (this was always forbidden). Punishments like a diet of bread and water, being put in irons, being hosed with cold sea water, appear not to have deterred these rebellious young working class women. It must have been difficult for the married women with babies who were on their way to Join husbands in New Zealand. They were usually accommodated with these girls unless they were wealthy  enough to atford a cabin..

By the end of the 1860s immigration was falling off steeply. Gold was declining, wheat and wool prices too. The new government of 1869 under Julius Vogel set out to solve these problems. In 1870 he said "Immigration is one of the greatest questions of the day". His solution was a bold one. He saw a need for public works and immigration and wanted to borrow ten million pound over ten years to develop these policies. The central government took over immigration from the provinces and then, eventually, in 1876, seeing their powers as divisive and their attitudes often obstructionist, abolished them.

At first in 1870 the Immigration and Public Works Act empowered the New Zealand central government to select and bring out the number and type of immigrants requested by the provincial superintendents. This was very difficult to operate so in the next year the government took over the complete control of immigration though it did consult with the provinces about their needs.

Everywhere they asked for very large numbers of workers. Until 1873 free passages were offered to agricultural labourers, "navvies" (to build the railways), shepherds, mechanics, domestic servants who were sober, industrious, of good mind, in good health" and intended to work for wages here. This wasn't getting enough people so now not only free passages were offered but also the cost of the immigrants' trip from their home to the port of embarkation if necessary. Also it provided them with the outfit needed for the journey.

These terms were responsible for the peak period of` assisted immigration. Between December 1873 and February 1874 sixteen ships arrived with 4973 on board. From April to June 1974 around 9700 arrived. In May alone there were 4500 new workers coming in on the assisted scheme. Amongst this crowd were Joseph and Mary Ann South and their five children.

By the end of 1875 around 28580 people had arrived at our ports under this scheme. The labour market in New Zealand could not absorb so many and the intake was reduced in 1876 then increased a little in 1877. To look after the selection and despatch in Britain the position of Agent General was established by the govenment. The first one to take up this position in London was Featherston.

There were two methods of recruitment, The first was to be nominated by someone settled in New Zealand. It was officially considered that this got a better type of person but in fact was responsible for quite a low proportion of the immigranrs. The more successful method was by selection by local or itinerant agents (e.g. teachers, booksellers, lawyers, estate agents) who were responsible for posters, advertisements and forms advertising the scheme. They travelled around their local district, made enquiries about people who might be interested. and answered questions. Two certificates were needed from "respectable householders" of the parish. Magistrates or clergymen had to witness signatures. A doctor's certificate was required before embarkation. After 1880 this "selected scheme" was phased out leaving only the "nominated" one if an assisted passage was required.

In 1874 new regulations were laid down governing the equipping of ships and dietary scales. These and the increasing competition between the shipping companies involved resulted in some improvement.

The New Zealand Government after 1870 entered into contracts with the new New Zealand Shipping Co., Shaw Savill, Albion Shipping Co. and others and they all agreed to charge it a flat rate of' fifteen pounds per immigrant . The government took advantage of this increase to demand better conditions. The demands concerned matters like sleeping space per person, food and diet, the hospital, water distilling, child care (school masters were to have books supplied), constables, matrons, deck and luggage space, fire regulations, life saving drill. In spite of this many people, especially children, continued to die during the long voyage.

On arrival, after careful check, the immigrants were either put in quarantine or in immigration barracks where they could stay, usually a week, until they, found employment. These were gradually improving. Dunedin's new barracks at Caversham were opened in 1873.

By the 1880s immigration was falling off and as New Zealand entered the long depression there was a "Great Exodus". In 1880 2744 more people left the country than came in. They usually made the voyage over to Australia.

The great era of mass migration into New Zealand had ended. Never again has the country seen such waves of immigration as seen in the 1840s with the various New Zealand Company settlements, in the 1860s with the gold miners, and in the 1870s with the influx of workers for Vogel's great development schemes.

Judith Cranefield 1998 (rev. 4/01)


(1) The "Wakefield Scheme"

In Wakefield's scheme of systematic colonisation land would be sold to settlers and investors before the emigrants left Britain. The money was then to be used to buy the land from the Maoris, prepare sites for settlement and to send people to New Zealand. Because he wanted a "cross section of English society", he tried to attract a balance of gentlemen landowners, tenants, and agricultural labourers. The price of land (a  "sufficient price") was made too high for the workers to immediately afford it. This would mean that they would have to work for (the landowners, and at breaking in the settlement for the Company, for several years before they had saved up enough money to buy their own land - for of course that is what everyone wanted in New Zealand. Work was guaranteed once they arrived and there were big problems in both Nelson and in New Plymouth in finding guaranteed "public work" for the labourers.


Artnold, Rollo "TheFarthest Promised Land"

Blaikstock, Raewyn " Immigration in the 1870s" from "New Zealand Heritage" no. 38

Borrie,W.D. "Immigration to New Zealand 1854-1938"

Millen, Julia "Colonial Tears and Sweat"

Simpson Tony  "the Immigrants"

also the diary of Henry Bennewith written during the voyage to New Zealand 1874 on board the "Buckinghamshire". It is held in the archive of the Otago Settlers Museum.


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