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Emigrants from Wilshamstead

In the mid 19th century emigration was seen as a way of alleviating the problem of poverty and the maintenance of poor people by their parish. The local Poor Law Unions were encouraged to find volunteers to emigrate to the New World. The parish archive for Wilshamstead throws light on this forgotten episode and the following notes [CRT130Wilstead11] were prepared by Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service staff.

A letter from the General Emigration Office in London was sent to all parishes in England on 15th April 1844. It reads [P22/19/2/2]: “As soon as the Meeting of Ratepayers has been held the resolution must be sent through the Clerk of the Union to the Poor Law Office, & if he will … send a contract to us with the Union Seal attached we will execute it & have it registered at the Poor Law Office”.

“If the Child is at the breast, and is entered in the schedule to the Contract as an infant under 12 months old there will not be any charge for it, but if entered as more than one year old we must issue half a ration of provisions for it and charge half price”.

“The Emigrants will be received at our depot either on the 23rd or early on the 24th instant and embark on the latter day”.

The General Emigration Office wrote again on 17th April [P22/19/2/3] that it required: “parties desirous of emigrating”. There had evidently been some local difficulty as the office also stated that they would “look into the refusal of the Bedford Poor Law Union to communicate with the commissioners on the matter”.

About the same time a broadsheet from a firm called Carter and Binns came around, with information as follows [P22/19/2/1]: “In First-class Ships, to receive their Passengers on board punctually, on fixed days, at Southampton … Passengers … by way of London, will be conveyed, free of charge … by the South Western Railway … the Railway Carriages going direct alongside the Ships lying at the Quay … and whence they will proceed the first favourable wind afterwards, for Quebec and Montreal … Each ship carrying equal to 100 Passengers will have on board an experienced Surgeon … The days on which these ships are appointed to sail will be adhered to with strict punctuality, viz. – the 1st April, 22nd April, 20th May, 17th June and 15th July … John Marshall & Co., Emigration Agents, 26 Birchin Lane, Cornhill, London, Who have sent out nearly one hundred ships, conveying altogether about twenty-three thousand persons, to the Australian Colonies, without any accident occurring on the voyage to any of the ships”.

A draft of the vestry minutes of 11th April 1844 [P22/8/2/1] reads: “At a vestry meeting duly called and assembled for the object of sending out persons as emigrants to Canada it was proposed by Mr. Henry Peacock and seconded by Mr. Ebenezer Peacock that the sum of forty pounds ten shillings be charged upon the Poor Rate … At the same meeting it as resolved that Benjamin Litchfield and Wife and child under one year old, Daniel Simms and Wife and child, Richard Simms and William Watts be the persons recommended as those to be sent as Emigrants”.

Draft vestry minutes of 13th June 1844 read: “The case of Samuel and Samuel Whiteman, who expressed a wish to emigrate to America, was taken into consideration and negatived owing to the unsatisfactory manner in which they answered questions relative to property which might have been disposed of to assist in defraying the expenses towards sending them out”. The final minute adds a little more: “The case of Daniel and Samuel Wightman who had expressed a wish to emigrate to America was taken into consideration, and from the very vague and unsatisfactory manner they answered various questions, it was unanimously agreed that their application could not be entertained by the meeting for the present”.

Emigration firm Carter and Binns wrote to the Vicar of Wilshamstead on 1st July [P22/19/2/4]: “We have much pleasure in handing you an abstract from a letter from A. C. Buchanan Esqr., the Government Emigration Agent at Quebec dated the 12th June … Sister [presumably the name if the ship] arrived here yesterday – Passengers all in good health and the Ship clean and in good order. The Passengers all speak in the highest term of the accommodation and treatment during the voyage”. The Overseer of the Poor’s receipt and payment book [P22/19/3/1] for 13th July has a line: “paid to the Treasurer by order for Emigration of Poor People £40 10s”.

Nearly ten years later the process was continuing. A vestry minute of 7th April 1853 read: “Mrs. Rogers applied for some assistance owing to her husband having left her and gone to America – The meeting permitted her to remain out of the Union House [Bedford Workhouse] with her eldest and youngest children, the other two to remain in the House for a time. With a distinct understanding that this is not by any means to be considered a precedent”.

Mrs. Rogers was in Wilshamstead a year later, the vestry of 13th April 1854 noted [P22/8/1]: “The application of Mrs. Rogers was fully considered – and the Vestry not being satisfied that they could appropriate any of the poor rates to such a purpose; but owing to the excellent character of the applicant as an industrious woman, the Meeting sanctioned her making a personal application to such of the parishioners as she might deem fitting in her present emergency, she having received £20 from her husband in America to defray a portion of her passage and that of her four children”. Six days later the vestry noted [P22/8/1]: “The case of Mrs. Rogers was considered and Mr. Thomas Armstrong said he had no objection to going to London to see her properly started under certain conditions”.

Parish registers show us that Benjamin Litchfield, who was a labourer, and his wife, Ellen, had a son, Thomas, who was baptised on 13th August 1843. Daniel Simms’ child does not seem to have been baptised but we know that he married Martha Thody, who was a minor at the time, on 29th November 1839. Francis and Sarah Rogers’ four children were Joseph, baptised in 1844, Elizabeth, baptised in 1846, Mary Ann, baptised in 1847 and William baptised in 1851 so, if Francis left for America in 1853, they would have been about nine, seven, six and two at the time. It is thus easy to see why Sarah needed help.