In 1879, the miners in Maryport went on strike. Their wages had been cut by 37 per cent. The region was suffering in the economic recession. The west Cumberland iron miners were working only nine days out of twelve. Weavers in Carlisle and threadworkers in Cockermouth were forced to take a pay cut of ten per cent. Pay cuts and unemployment were exacerbated by poor and late harvests on the farms. Thirty years later families in Egremont “were begging for food . . . not having any money at all” and soup kitchens were opened in the town.
Life in the nineteenth century could be very hard. People sought to escape overseas, to the colonies, to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and to the United States. They sought a better life, often pursuing the life they had known back home, working on the land or going down the mines.
This vast movement of people, that, in little more than two centuries populated the Americas and Australasia, is one of the most momentous occurrences in human history. Many left England, perhaps over five million in the latter half of the nineteenth century alone, and Cumberland and Westmorland played their part.
In that period the population of England and Wales increased by eighty per cent. During the same years the number of people in Cumberland rose by just over a third and in Westmorland by less than twenty per cent. New people were coming to the two counties, but many more were leaving to find work in the expanding industrial and urban areas elsewhere in Britain or taking the huge step of emigrating to a strange and unknown country.
They were pushed by poverty, but they were also pulled by the possibilities that an adventurous new life might offer. Some made their fortunes. William Workman from Clifton, just south of Penrith, became a pioneer of the American West, owned land in San Francisco, including Alcatraz, and became a leading banker and a founding citizen of Los Angeles. Andrew Veitch, having worked on the railways in Carlisle, rose to become General Superintendent of the Chicago-Alton Railroad. Fisher Thwaites of Keswick, having began life in Australia as a fencer, came to own an extensive sheep run which, like many of his fellow migrants, nostalgic for his home country, he named Newlands. In 1873, William Collins, who was living in the Orange Free State in South Africa, named his farm St. Bees.
The emigrants – often the men went first and their wives and families followed later – took much of their home culture with them. There are Carlisles, Penriths, Wigtons and Whitehavens around the world.
Margaret Shepherd, an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, has undertaken the immense task of uncovering the lives of the thousands of anonymous people who made up the emigration statistics of the nineteenth century. Through their descendants, through local newspapers and through the letters and documents and other traces, she has discovered the lives of four thousand people who emigrated from these counties in that remarkable century of change and growth, of terrible poverty and immense wealth.
Her study provides a balanced, quantified picture of where the people came from and where they went,. It also enables us to see something of who they were, the lives they led before and after emigration and their successes and failures. We catch a glimpse of brave, sometimes desperate people, undertaking the greatest adventure of their lives. It is a fascinating, little regarded and vitally important part of our local history.
Doctor Shepherd is a leading expert in historical population studies, and this interesting and scholarly book will be essential reading for anyone concerned with the history of Cumbria.