© 2008 Wenban Family. Website by Myles design.
a New Life
Lure of a new life
The Grass Looks Greener
Why Leave Home in England?
Why did these people decide in 1838 to leave the familiarity of their life in rural Sussex/Kent, where their family had lived for at least several generations, and emigrate with their children halfway around the world to the primitive fledgling colony of New South Wales and 10 years earlier to America?
What did they experience during that voyage, and what was life like on their arrival in Sydney?
Despite the lack of family letters or other documents, we can attempt to answer some of these questions by looking at the history of those times.
England in 1838: the reasons for emigration
In 1838, Victoria had been on the throne for only one year, and the Whig, Lord Melbourne, was Prime Minister. A country of fifteen and a half million people, England was economically and politically powerful, presiding as it was, over the Empire. The Industrial Revolution had commenced there in the previous century, prior to its spread to Europe and the United States, bringing with it significant affluence. Despite this, social conditions were terrible for the working person, and were publicised by writers such as Charles Dickens. His book `Oliver Twist', which graphically portrayed the poverty in the cities, was in fact published in 1838.
However, the Industrial Revolution had its greatest impact on rural society, which was breaking down as the cities grew. This had a severe effect upon traditional agricultural workers such as the Wenbans and others. To worsen their plight, there were poor harvests nationwide in 1837, and the country experienced a sharp economic downturn in 1837 and 1838.
The life of the average English rural worker was extremely harsh, with little income, a poor quality of housing, no access to education, and no prospects of improvement for either himself or his children. For many, emigration to either Australia, North America or South Africa, was their only means of bettering their lot in life. Until the 1830's, however, emigration was actively discouraged by the government, as men were required for the American and European wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was also considered that any loss of manpower would drastically weaken the English economy.
Several factors in the 1830's however, changed this negative attitude towards mass emigration. The population of England was growing so steadily that the eminent economist, Malthus, suggested that it would actually be in the interest of the country to encourage emigration. About the same time, Wakefield commenced a public movement to establish free, civilised colonies in Australia. This was associated with a growing public disquiet about the transportation of convicts, which was likened to the slave trade that had only been abolished in 1833.
It was hoped that free emigration would end 'the leper-like ghastliness and deformity of convict society, and human barbarism of the Australian bush'. Additionally, many began to consider emigration to be a preferable alternative to the growing number of the poor being committed to the infamous `workhouses'.
These movements coincided with a drastic need in the colony of New South Wales for workers and, in particular, mechanics, craftsmen and agricultural labourers. The colony was developing rapidly, but progress had been slowed excessively by the shortage of such workers. Emigrants were required `to supply an abundance of cheap, honest and industrious labour'.
As a consequence, the first formal assisted emigration schemes to the colony were established in the mid-1830's. For a brief period, two emigration systems, the 'Government' and 'Bounty' Schemes, operated concurrently. The Government' Scheme, which ran from 1837 to 1840, under which the 'Maitland' was utilised, was the larger of the two, and was directed and financed by the British Government. The 'Bounty' Scheme (1835-1841) was organised by the colonial government of N.S.W. on behalf of the settlers who were dissatisfied with British government programmes. Prospective settlers were offered bounties as an incentive to emigrate. Both schemes, in fact, provided significant financial assistance to emigrate, as the cost of the passage was prohibitive for the majority of intending settlers. The assistance provided was similar under each scheme.
In 1838 the amount offered was:
36 pounds for a man and wife under 40 years of age
18 pounds when the husband was over 40
18 pounds for each unmarried female 15 to 30 years of age
10 pounds for each child 7 to 14
5 pounds for each child 1 to 7
This meant that those who came on the vessel 'Maitland', would have received a considerable amount to emigrate for those days when a rural worker might receive only 7s.6d. a week. The cost of these schemes was subsidised by the sale of land in New South Wales. John and Mary would have received £81.
The Wenbans aptly fitted the family grouping that was preferred for emigration. "No families are better suited than those of which the parents, being 30, 40 or even 50 years of age, have still power to work themselves, and at the same time can take out with them strong and healthy sons and daughters, of proper age to endure the mode of life at sea and to render themselves serviceable shortly after". Emigrants of "good moral character and industrious habits" were sought, and these had to present testimonials of their good character from a clergyman or other notable person from their region of origin.
The late 1830's was the first period of large-scale free emigration to New South Wales. In 1838, over 6,100 assisted emigrants made the journey. Despite the large scale of these schemes, they were smaller than the influxes of the 1850's Gold Rush era, when the population of the colonies increased dramatically.
The major ports of embarkation to New South Wales were Birkenhead (near Liverpool), and Gravesend in Kent (near London), the place of departure for the 'Maitland's passengers. In the late 1830's, it was policy to have groups from the same region travel together in the ships. Many of those on the 'Maitland' in 1838 were from villages in Kent and East Sussex, as can be seen from the Passenger List.
The journey was long and hazardous. During the emigrations of the nineteenth century, at least 26 ships were lost on the passage. In 1838, the route used to travel to New South Wales covered more than 13,000 nautical miles. The ships would stop at Capetown and perhaps Teneriffe (or the Cape Verde Islands) to replenish stocks of food and water. The 134 day journey of the 'Maitland' was faster than the usual five months of that era. The psychological and physical impact of such a long journey on the emigrants was considerable, particularly as many rural people, had barely ventured beyond their own rural district, let alone contemplated a lengthy sea passage.
The arduous nature of the voyage was worsened by the poor standard of accommodation on the ships. Assisted emigrants, or 'steerage passengers', were housed in the lower decks, with only paying passengers living in the upper deck area. Married couples and children under 14 were in the centre of the lower decks, with the single women and girls in the 'after-berths', and the single males and boys in the 'fore part' of the ship. The 'steerage quarters' were cramped, with only six feet and four inches (193 cm) of headroom. A meal table ran the length of the ship, with two levels of bunks on either side. These bunks were each three feet (91 cm) wide. Married couples would have an upper bunk, and up to four of the children the bunk below. The 18 inches (45 cm) width allowed for each person was identical to that which had been used in the convict transports.
Understandably there was limited privacy. Men were able to have saltwater showers on the upper deck, but many women did not bathe during the whole journey.
Those cramped unhygienic quarters encouraged the spread of infection. Some of the 'Government Scheme' ships, including the `Maitland', were notorious for the number of deaths due to infection. It was not until after the 1830's that strict regulations to ensure adequate hygiene were enforced to reduce death rates. Before that time, however, many passengers died from diseases such as scarlet fever, typhus and cholera. To avoid these tragedies, surgeons were appointed to each vessel to ensure adequate standards of hygiene and nutrition. Interestingly, they were also employed to select a suitable quality of migrant for the journey.
For meals, emigrants were grouped into a 'mess' of 6-12 people who were usually from the same neighbourhood, church or factory. Friendships formed during these months, in such close quarters, were no doubt renewed later in New South Wales, and many of the 'Maitland' passengers, or their descendants, intermarried. A 'mess captain' would be selected to obtain the weekly rations and then take the food to the galley to be cooked. Meal rations varied from ship to ship, but were comprised of meat, bread, flour, suet, plums, rice, peas, coffee, tea, sugar, mustard and vinegar. Biscuits were also provided, but were often a source of complaint as they were frequently baked so hard they were impossible to eat. Prior to embarkation, emigrants were advised to bring jam and things to mix with the water when it gets stale!'.
The long journey was arduous and time hung heavily. When weather allowed, pastimes such as concerts and dances were arranged on deck, though strict supervision of the single males and females was always maintained! On Sundays, formal Church of England services were led on the upper deck, either by a clergyman or by the captain. Non-conformist or Catholic services were held below-decks. Many emigrants, could not write or could not read, or both, so teachers were often organised to take classes during the passage.
John would have been fortunate enough to be already literate, coming from a literate family, so the voyage may have been where John got the inspiration to become a teacher.
Sydney c1828 looking North over Hyde Park