Mary Ann Aldis (1794-1889)

Tivetshall Norfolk in the 1830s - The Historical Background

St Margaret’s Church - Tivetshall
St Margaret’s Church - Tivetshall

England in the early 19th century underwent rapid change. Following the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the population increased markedly, from a recorded 8.9 million in 1801 to 13.9 million in 1831, well over 60% in 30 years. Nowhere was this felt more than in agriculture and related trades which formed the largest single occupation group recorded in the 1831 Census; and as the number of agricultural labourers increased, so opportunities for work declined or at best stagnated. Although the effect of the recession in agriculture was uneven throughout the country, the arable areas of the south-east were particularly hard hit; there large numbers of wage labourers endured unremitting poverty and were forced to rely on the parish to supplement inadequate earnings.

By the early 1830s the situation had worsened to the extent that the Duke of Richmond, for example, raised the matter in the House of Lords and called upon Wellington’s Tory government to launch an enquiry into the state of the working classes. People in England had seen revolution on the Continent, of course, and the increasingly desperate situation at home led to the burning of ricks and barns, the sabotage of threshing machines which were taking people’s jobs, and demands for better wages and job security. The so-called ‘Swing Riots’ occurred throughout the country, persuading the authorities both locally and nationally that drastic measures were needed. It had become abundantly evident to landowners, officials, clerics, and anyone who had dealings with the working class and with the implementation of parish relief, that the labouring population was increasing while the acreage under cultivation was constant.

As a consequence, parish expenditure on the relief of the able-bodied poor was escalating alarmingly. No wonder, therefore, that the logic of sending people to the colonies and, more precisely, of assisting them to emigrate became increasingly attractive. Enlightened landowners such as the Earl of Egremont in Sussex, persuaded by his extremely able clergyman, Thomas Sockett, sponsored private schemes which were successful at a local level. The Petworth Project as it came to be known operated in Sussex between 1832 and 1837; and the scheme continued until about 1845. A detailed and scholarly account of this scheme is to be found in the work by Wendy Cameron and Mary McDougall Maude published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, entitled “Assisting Emigration to Upper Canada, The Petworth Project, 1832-1837”. The present writer of this much more limited narrative is indebted to this admirable work for much historical information and data.

To make any real impact on the surplus labouring population required, however, systematic parish-assisted emigration; and for that to happen at the necessary level government encouragement, both in principle and practically, would be essential. The subject had been discussed in government select committees in 1826 and 1827, and the 'Swing’ disturbances spotlighted the issue in 1830/1831. What emerged was a procedure whereby a parish might obtain loans for the purpose of assisting emigration by mortgaging its poor rates for up to five years at a compound interest of approximately 5%. In practice, raising the necessary funds was achieved in a variety of ways. Executive authority under the Act always rested, however, not with parish officers but with the Poor Law Commissioners who controlled the application process for loans and had the power of veto. Inevitably, disagreements arose between parishes and the Commission, further complicated by the provision of the Poor Law Amendment Act which directed that parish aid be denied to the able-bodied unless they entered the workhouse, a step many, understandably, were reluctant or unwilling to take.

Tivetshall Norfolk in the 1830s - The Local Situation

In 1836 the largest assisted emigration was from East Anglia and was bound mainly for Quebec. Canada, despite its harsh climate and lack of industry, was cheaper to get to (passages cost c£8-10 as compared with c£12 to Australia); and from Canada migrants could cross into the USA, which was the most popular destination. Passage to Canada was also cheaper by virtue of the fact that ships had a guaranteed cargo of timber for the return journey.

Precisely how assisted emigration operated in particular Norfolk parishes can be found in most of the parish records of the time. In Tivetshall, for example, in 1837 parish officials agreed on the 29th of June to raise money by the sale of various portions of Church land and premises to help with assisted passages for poor people who might wish to emigrate. The sale raised £60 (Norwich Record Office, hereinafter NRO, PD79/54 [5]). The parish records of Brinton include a letter sent to all ratepayers inviting them to a meeting on “June 2nd 1836 at 10 o’clock in the forenoon” to discuss the Poor Law Amendment Act and its provision for assisted emigration at a sum not exceeding half an average yearly poor rate. Also in the records is a letter from the Poor Law Commissioner’s Office in London accompanying a cheque for £45 for the purpose of defraying the expenses of those wishing to emigrate. The Commissioner requests the names of assisted emigrants, and the indenture of acceptance of the loan is signed by three churchwardens, namely Nathaniel Pilch, tailor, and Matthew Burrell and James Partridge, farmers (NRO PD504/32). In the parish of Bressingham, on the other hand, an emigration fund was raised by a private loan: the ratepayers acknowledged the receipt of £300 from local farmer Mr Thomas Smith to assist emigration to North America.

Standard letter from the Poor Law Commissioners to parish officials to authorise a loan to assist emigration.   PD5/21 Norfolk CRO
Standard letter from the Poor Law Commissioners to parish officials to authorise a loan to assist emigration. PD5/21 Norfolk CRO