Obstacles and opportunities: labour emigration to the ‘British World’ in the nineteenth century

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Labour emigrants in the nineteenth century had ever-increasing access to a global employment market. Many of those who left Great Britain looked beyond Europe, to the British Empire and the United States. They took advantage of improvements in transportation, especially the availability of transatlantic sea passages, and they followed a wide variety of occupations. This study considers a selection of globe-trotting British settlers and sojourners who went to Canada, the United States and Australia between 1815 and the 1880s. An introductory historiographical overview is followed by an empirical study, constructed around four pieces of analytical scaffolding: the motives and expectations of participants and sponsors; the mechanisms by which decisions were implemented; the immediate consequences of the emigrants’ relocation, in terms of their experiences and the attitudes they encountered or engendered; and the long-term legacy of these narratives. The first three categories, which constitute the bulk of the chapter, are scrutinised through a long chronological lens, incorporating different types of labour migration, as well as several places of origin and destination. First under the spotlight are Scottish handloom weavers, who imported a tradition of political radicalism to the Ottawa Valley in the 1820s. The focus then shifts to Scottish and Welsh colliers in the United States. The final case history is a study of contract labour emigration which highlights the positive and negative experiences of granite masons and stonecutters from north-east Scotland who sojourned in the United States after the Civil War. The paper’s short epilogue identifies recurring threads in the multi-hued tapestry of labour emigration, and highlights how concerns and traditions about recruitment, wages and working conditions which had emerged in the nineteenth century created legacies that persisted into the period after the First World War.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-62
Number of pages20
JournalContinuity and Change
Issue number1
Early online date14 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - May 2019




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