William Webb (1830-1919): Migration, Immigration & Emigration


'Race to the gold diggings of Australia' board game, 1850 - 1865
‘Race to the gold diggings of Australia’ board game, 1850 – 1865

The history of Australian immigration is as long as it is complex, so much so that readers could almost be excused for thinking that William’s participation in it was so small and insignificant that it is hardly worth a mention. This is not the case. It is because William’s experiences are symptomatic of a whole generation of working-class emigrants that his autobiography warrants closer inspection. His choice to uproot and set forth on a journey to a strange and foreign land, with no promise of reward at the end of it all, stands as a testament to all those individuals who pursued a new life and better fortunes. While on the surface it may appear that the earliest emigrants comprised of a handful of hopefuls attempting to seek out wealth and good living, for others the reality was much harsher. Although it is true that many were captivated by an ideology and driven by the will to self-improve, countless others were forced into taking drastic measures as their whole way of life and social identity had become endangered – especially as post-Napoleonic War Britain struggled to stabilize and regain its feet.

It is not always clear which category William falls into, the idealist searching for fortune and new beginnings or the pragmatist employing reason and logic as means of surviving in a cruel world. What is clear though is that William was discontent with the status quo, which gave little hope for social mobility, and so he pursued an escape from it all:

The ruling idea in both my own and my brother’s minds in emigrating […] a better chance of making something of [our] lives was offering in The Colonies. The gold discoveries in Australia also were attracting much attention at that time in England (Webb, p.5).

William’s own tale of hope, promise and misfortune may not provide a unique perspective on emigration, but it does help to better understand the situation in Britain during the mid-nineteenth-century, particularly in terms of: the state of the economy; the troubles facing the agricultural industry; changes in political attitudes and the formal agendas being adopted; as well as all those social distresses, fears and Victorian anxieties. All of these push factors, and indeed more besides (see table below), were instrumental in persuading a steady flow of people to leave Britain to join a new colony on the far side of the globe. Equally, there were numerous pull factors which encouraged immigration and these will be explored in detail later, however, for now it is perhaps appropriate to contextualize William’s experience of emigration by providing a short history of Australian immigration.


Push Factors (particularly in relation to rural communities) – elements encouraging individuals to leave Britain Pull Factors – elements encouraging individuals to emigrate to Australia
Hunger, poverty, low wages and unemployment Employment, food and higher wages
Post war depression Economic prosperity, stability and growth
Poor harvest (potato famine in Ireland, 1844) and inconsistent price of wheat Reports of better living conditions and greater wealth made by friends, families and neighbours already settled in the new colony
A change in government/public attitudes – Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 Cheap land, low rent and employment perks
Industrialisation and the advent of the steam engine/railway transportation (Swing Riots) Provision of free or assisted passage by UK or Australian governments
Change from arable to pasture land Media and advertisements
Overpopulation and overcrowding The gold rushes and the promise of good fortune
Class inequality More opportunity for achieving upward social mobility
Death of the Artisan Strong market for skilled workers and tradesmen

Table outlining just some of the main “push” and “pull” factors which influenced people’s decision to emigrate

An Overview of Australian Immigration & the Gold Rushes

The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788
The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788

The story begins on the 26th January 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillips anchored his ship in Sydney Cove along with 736 convicts as they attempted to establish a new penal colony. Over the course of less than a 100 years this band of reprobates expanded as they were joined by hundreds of boats carrying fresh offenders. In all, 164,000 convicts found themselves being transported in the hull of a ship, only to properly see the light of day many weeks later as they emerged from the depths, slightly bewildered, setting their sights on Australia for the very first time. It was these social outcasts, many of whom barely escaped the noose, who put in place the essential building blocks for what was to come next; an unprecedented wave of migration.

While convict transportation officially ended in 1868 there were other hopeful individuals wanting to make the treacherous journey voluntarily. The idea many had was that they might find their fortune by exploiting free convict labour and the cheap land made available to them by the terra nullius (“nobody’s land”) policy adopted by British colonialists. Naturally the first to snap up such a golden opportunity were British landowners and entrepreneurs who could afford the costly passage. These were business minded men who either preempted the countries good fortune or simply took a chance by investing money into land, agriculture and infrastructure. Fortunately, for most, the gamble paid off as Australia’s population increased exponentially over a short period, allowing a free market to develop. Most importantly though a stable economy emerged, a recognizable government was installed and good solid trade links were established early on. Having secured the three main structural pillars on which any developing country is reliant, Australia’s future seemed to be set on a path leading towards growth and prosperity.

Illustrated poster informing of changes to legislation following the new Poor Law Amendment Act 1834
Illustrated poster informing of changes to legislation following the new Poor Law Amendment Act 1834

Just as the British government had used Australia as its dumping ground for convicts, emigration to Canada, America and later Australia was, as Dr. Snow suggests, ‘looked upon as a remedy for social distress’ (Snow, p.244). At the root of this so called distress were the undeserving poor, a category of poor who were, for the most part, unemployed, unskilled and undesirable. They were the idle population, burdening society and infesting the Poorhouses which drained the government’s resources; especially prior to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. In a report made by the Select Committee for Parliament on emigration it was put to the House of Commons that:

Your Committee cannot but express their opinion, that a more effectual remedy than any of those temporary palliations which have been offered, is to be found in the removal, by Emigration, of that excess of labour by which the condition of the whole labouring classes is deteriorated and degraded (Select Committee, p.7).

Evidently it was perceived that the best solution to the problem was a national purge, ridding Britain of its paupers and vagrants by dispersing them across the Americas and the Antipodes. Similarly, emigration was widely thought of as an answer to unemployment, especially in rural areas where poor harvest, the conversion of land from arable to pastoral and the arrival of new machining methods and farming implements, meant that jobs were being put in jeopardy. All of this gave birth to the assisted passage scheme. This saw the British government begin to provide subsidies to those individuals who could not afford to pay the whole sum of the transportation cost to get them from Britain to Australia. To achieve this the Colonial Land and Emigration Department was established in 1840. Its main function was to oversee the sale of land in Australia, the proceeds of which contributed towards the assistance of passengers.

This policy did not however benefit skilled workingmen such as William, the likes of whom the British government were keen on retaining. This later resulted in the emergence of a conflict of interest between the Australian and British governments, especially because it was being frequently observed by immigration officials in Australia that ‘the persons who arrive are not the best that could be desired’ (Emigration, p.4). This resulted in a drastic change of attitude, which was underpinned by the demand that ‘the duty to which the officers at home must attend is, to send the best who can be procured’ (Emigration, p.4). With it no longer being acceptable for Britain to simply palm off its damaged goods onto Australia there was a reshuffle in the way immigration was managed, with Australia taking hold of the reigns. By the time William was beginning to think about emigrating in 1852, he observed that:

the Government of Australian Colonies [had] devoted a large portion of the fund raised from the sale and leasing of land to the purpose of paying the passage of selected working men (my emphasis) and their families, to Australia (Webb, p.5).

Emigration poster/advert promoting free passage to Australia for selected individuals only
Emigration poster/advert promoting free passage to Australia for selected individuals only

By taking control of immigration Australia was able to start attracting the kind of people it wanted and almost immediately began to build up a more diverse social demographic. Meanwhile, the involvement of the British government diminished as they took a step back and adopted more of an advisory role. With this the number of subsidies issued by the British government was also reduced, however, there was no significant effect on Australian immigration because the responsibility of assisting passengers had simply swapped hands. In terms of the classes of persons being encouraged to emigrate, individuals such as William were the kind of people Australia was targeting. This was because it was these young and ambitious tradesmen who could help strengthen the labour force and begin to shape the country.

The gold rushes which commenced in 1851 proved to be a useful propaganda tool for enticing young hopefuls like William to enter the country. It also became a nuisance for some and had a noticeable impact on small businesses and landowners. This was because it caused massive internal migration as individuals grew more interested in downing their pitchfork and taking up a pickaxe to join the frenzy. William himself admits that ‘I had always been anxious to try my luck as a gold digger’ (Webb, p.7), a temptation which seemed to seep into the minds of many young Britons. This mentality emerged because the gold rushes were being portrayed in the British media in such a way that they gave the impression that vast amounts of wealth could be accumulated in a short period of time, and with little skill or knowledge too. For instance, from 1851 and 1852 Charles Dickens published a periodical, Household Words, which gave reports of the prospects for young Britons in Australia.

Scene from Golden Point Ballarat, 1851 shows the industrious scale of the mining operations
Scene from Golden Point Ballarat, 1851 shows the industrious scale of the mining operations

This following report from the Aberdeen Journal, taken from an article written towards the end of the gold rush period, gives some indication of the chaotic scene which followed the news of a gold discovery:

During the last month this colony [Australia] has been witness to one of those extraordinary instances of popular frenzy which serve to show how little men are guided by reason, and how much by impulse. The recent rush of miners from California to Fraser’s River, has been paralleled by a similar rush of Australian diggers to a point on the north-east coast of this continent. The locality which has thus become suddenly populous and famous, is situated on the bands of the Fitzroy River […] A convict station was once formed there, but was soon abandoned […] Gold, however, was found by a man named Chapple, at a spot called Canoona […] Hutkeepers, shepherds, and the few labourers employed in the neighbourhood were soon collected on the spot. Vague reports of their wonderful success were circulated and soon reached Sydney […] It was in vain that the only daily journal Sydney now possesses entreated the infatuated people to exercise a little patience, and pointed out that the gold actually found had been a mere trifle […] Men were throwing up their situations in all directions, and in many cases even employers, deserted by their workmen, were following them to the fields (Aberdeen Journal).

What is most striking here is the role rumour and suggestion played in causing a mass hysteria. It may seem odd now that unconfirmed reports of a meagre gold discovery would be taken at face value and result in the development of a massive industrial project to salvage what little gold could be found. Also, it is apparent that while immigration was a positive and essential component which the Australian government required to ensure the continued expansion and economic growth of the country, it did not always have the desired effect as shown here in this report. However, despite an initial influx of immigrants directing their attention towards the goldfields, when the fantasy dream faded away and reality kicked in, most immigrants started to return to the major towns and cities while a few stragglers, mostly bushwhackers, remained behind. William was no acceptation to this and he too faced the conundrum that ‘on the one hand there was simply the gambler’s chance; on the other, the knowledge that work and good wages awaited’ (Webb, p.8) him back in Belfast (Port Fairy). It was with little deliberation that William saw reason and opted for the latter. The promise of security was enough to encourage him and his party to disband and head home. After enjoying a brief and fruitless stint on the goldfields of Ballarat he returned to Belfast and resumed working in the family business along with his brother. He later married Elizabeth Jane Francis on 29th July 1860 and they had ten children together before he passed away in July 1919.

Reasons for Moving

Portrait of the fictitious character Captain Swing who became the symbol/mascot of the 1830 Swing Riots
Portrait of the fictitious character Captain Swing who became the symbol/mascot of the 1830 Swing Riots

While it has been fairly well established what drew people to Australia (pull factors), in order to fully appreciate why William decided to emigrate in May 1852, some attention must be given to the conditions in Britain at that time, as well as more personal matters which relate to William specifically (push factors). The earliest indication of a reason which may have later influenced William’s decision to emigrate comes during his childhood when he observed how ‘the state of the agricultural population in that part of England [Wiltshire] was miserable in the extreme’ (Webb, p.2). This observation resonates with ‘An Australian Ploughman’s Story’ printed in an early issue of Dickens’ Household Words. The fictional character Carden is an agricultural labourer with whom the reader sympathises as he recalls how he fell into crime because:

Hard times came on; wages were lowered again and again; and at the same time a cry rose up round the country against the threshing-machines that were being very much used, and were throwing a good many poor people out of work (Dickens, p.41).

This shows that social troubles were not just localized to Wiltshire, but were of a national concern. Everywhere small towns and villages were feeling the squeeze as farming communities began to falter under the immense pressures which followed the end of a war which had consumed the whole country, both physically and financially. So prolific was the nature of this plight that civil unrest had already endangered parts of the country. As shown the 1830 Swing Riots, which was a backlash against new industrial threshing machines that had made many agricultural workers redundant, saw working-class discontent reach new and dangerous levels. The rioters achieved a powerful sense of unity through their mutual-disaffection, an early sign of class consciousness no doubt.

While Dr Snow solidifies the point that, ‘[agricultural] difficulties arose mainly from the continuous fall of prices after the Napoleonic War’ (Snow, p.249) and acknowledges an important link to emigration, this was not the main reason why William left Britain. On the contrary, his profession as a developer of agricultural implements would have served him well if he had chosen to remain in a rapidly industrialising Britain. His skills as a tradesmen were not inextricably linked to the cultivation of land, therefore giving him a degree of liberty which was not afforded to most. This means that William had an element of choice when he decided to move to Australia, he was not driven by desperation or the need to survive, and so there is some ulterior motive yet to be discovered. One possible explanation is William’s desire for a cathartic release. There is no doubt that he felt a loss when his four brothers and sisters all died following an outbreak of Black Fever. What is more upsetting though is the way in which William recalls how ‘other children came to replace those who were lost’ (Webb, p.3) and his sense of belonging in the new family unit diminished. Calling them the “second family”, William constantly distanced himself from them both emotionally and physically, and never quite felt part of, but rather apart from them. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the trauma he experienced as a child stayed with him through to adulthood and having gained the means to live independently he escaped his problems by fleeing to another country.

A much more likely explanation than this was the influence of news reaching home about emigrants who had been successful in making the move. While William’s exposure to such material is not made explicit it cannot go unmentioned, especially because in 1851 the Wiltshire Emigration Association relocated 258 men, women and children from across the county. Writing extensively about this group’s experiences, Mark Baker reveals how Jacob Baker (no relation), an autodidactic Wiltshire farmer who had spoken out publically against the condition of the agricultural working-class, wrote from his new home in Adelaide in 1852, boasting that the ‘poor people of Hodson do not know what good living is. We have a joint of fresh meat on our table everyday’ (Baker, p.1). While it is unlikely that this exact testimonial reached the ears of William, it is possible that he would have known about the association itself, if not only because he worked and lived in close proximity to many of the group members before they departed. News of this rags to riches story would have travelled far and wide, and would have certainly been the inspiration for many more emigrants to come. It is perhaps a slightly romanticised view to think that William had some fleeting connection to an organised travel group such as this, however, one thing is certain just a year after the association disembarked William was making arrangements of his very own.

Moving away from all of these speculations there is one incident which cannot be ignored:

My brother Henry, at Exeter, wrote to me suggesting that I should join him in immigrating to Australia. After some correspondence I agreed and we at once set about the necessary preparations (Webb, p.5).

With Henry being the eldest surviving sibling from the “first family”, William would have been easily persuaded by this endearing offer to accompany his brother and his family. It is important to remember here that the strong bond of brotherhood is a relationship which can at times show signs of homosocial behaviour. William and Henry’s connection certainly has an affinity with this notion, especially because Henry appears as a leading figure, more fatherly at times than William’s actual biological father who he grew distant from. What underpins this relationship is the fact that Henry is William’s mentor and helped guide him on his journey as they made an important transition together. This sort of solidarity was not uncommon and countless friends, families and neighbours made the move together in order to greatly improve their chances of successfully relocating.

Once again William’s experiences have proven to be a useful starting point to begin exploring dense topics such as emigration, politics, morality and social stratification. While I may have only briefly touched on some of these points I do hope to have presented William’s journey to Australia in its relevant context. It may have appeared at times that I was being overly speculative, especially in the section covering his “Reasons for Moving”, however my intention was to only demystify some of the ambiguity in William’s autobiography and provide a succinct narrative. Further to this, in my conjecture I have tried not to distort William’s story but bring in secondary material to complement it and at times expand on areas where detail has been lacking or omitted altogether. One such area which I would have liked to have explored in more detail was William’s experience of the journey from Plymouth to Portland Bay via the Priam, however, he wrote about it in such minute detail that it was not possible to recreate. That being said Jennifer Burrell wrote in detail about the Smith’s family journey on the Priam in May 1852 and her comments give some indication as to what the conditions were like. Lastly, what I think can be learned from William’s experiences is that they were not isolated occurrences, they were shared. Despite this ordinariness I still maintain that William’s autobiography offers the reader a unique perspective not only of emigration, but an array of key themes and issues which arouse in the nineteenth-century.

I would like to thank Jennifer for her contribution towards the research into William. The resources and images she provided have helped shape these blogs, and without them I would have had great difficulty.


‘Gold Rush in New South Wales’ The Aberdeen Journal (Aberdeen, Scotland) Wednesday, January 5, 1859; Issue 5791.

Baker, Mark. (1979). From Wiltshire to Australia, 1851, The Story of an Emigration. Available: http://www.burbage-wiltshire.co.uk/historic/Emigration1.htm [Accessed: 22nd January 2016]

Burrell, Jennifer. (2001). Voyage of the Priam 1852. Available: http://users.ncable.net.au/~jburrell/gen/smith/priam2.html [Accessed 22nd January 2016]

Dickens, Charles. (1850). Household Words. London: Bradbury and Evans Printers Whitefriars

Doust, Janet. (2012). Two English Immigrant Families in Australia in the 19th Century. The History of the Family, 13:1, 2-25.

Emigration Committee, Third Report from the Select Committee on Emigration from the United Kingdom 1827, 29th January 1829, HC 550 1826-1827.

Richards, Eric. (1993). How Did Poor People Emigrate from the British Isles to Australia in the Nineteenth Century?. Journal of British Studies, 32:3, 250-279.

Snow, C. E. (1931). Emigration from Great Britain. Available: http://www.nber.org/chapters/c5111.pdf [Accessed: 22nd January 2016]

Webb, William (1982). Reminiscences of an Ordinary Life. Burnett, J Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Allen Lane. 78-82.

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