19th Century Emigration from Oxfordshire: A Book Review

The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown (1855)

A fascinating new book has just been published which will be of interest to us in the Wychwoods, especially those who have ancestors who made the often-perilous journey to a new life in the colonies. The book is called ‘The Promised Land” and subtitled “The Story of Emigration from Oxfordshire and Neighbouring Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire 1815-1914”.

Despite the difficulties we are enduring in the current health emergency, it is perhaps sobering to be reminded of the problems and uncertainties afflicting the rural poor in the UK during the upheavals of the 19th Century.
This is a lively and well-researched survey, written by Oxfordshire-based local historian Martin Greenwood. It focuses on the drivers which caused individuals and families to embark on the often-hazardous pathways to a new life. These were times of great upheaval for village communities affected by several seismic developments in both international and domestic politics of the nation.

The Roots of Emigration

The book opens with an outline of the establishment of penal colonies in Australia following the voyages of Captain Cook. We are reminded of the draconian penal system of the time which fuelled the initial population of these places. A survey then develops to highlight the mass migration initially to the USA and then in large numbers to Canada in the years 1815-1850. The early chapters outline the opening-up of land and opportunities in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Some emphasis is placed on the development of faster, iron-hulled shipping more suited to the long and often hazardous journeys involved, and there are many illustrations of the ships of the time.

Political changes around the Poor Laws and then the Corn Laws are highlighted, and the effects of both developments in terms of population change is fully demonstrated in charts which show these numbers village-by-village over the course of the century.

The Great Exodus

The even more dramatic developments from 1850 are also covered, highlighted by changes in agricultural policies and the lack of work and opportunities. This “Great Exodus” as it is called, is finely documented with examples of personal stories from many towns and villages. These chapters are a fascinating read for all who understand how the stories of individuals are the bedrock on which history can be understood. These stories also evoke the bustle and confusion of migrants at Liverpool, and the emotions of departure. It looks at their shipping, health problems, costs, and shipwrecks, and at their experiences on arrival.

Emigration and the Wychwoods

Among the stories pertaining to the Wychwoods, we find the Ascott Martyrs as part of the discussions around the establishment of the National Agricultural Labourers Union in the early 1870s. Also highlighted is the disafforestation of the Wychwoods which contributed in part to the recruitment of 10 families in an organised meeting in Shipton, to travel for work on a railway project in New Zealand. Also covered is the sad loss of life – not an isolated incident – of Wychwoods emigrants in the fire and shipwreck of the Cospatrick. [ See our Cospatrick Tragedy Article here ]

About the Author

Martin Greenwood’s book is a mine of information but is also an easy read, brought to life also by the author’s own personal experiences during the research, and his family connections with ancestors who had made their own journeys to “The Promised Land”.

Other Books by Martin Greenwood

Martin Greenwood has written previously about village life in Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise Country and more widely in Banburyshire. Here is the list:

How to Purchase “The Promised Land”

The book costs £9.95 plus £3 p&p = £12.95, if ordered from the author at: Sarnen, Main Street, Fringford, Bicester OX27 8DP.

The book is also be available from Coles, Banbury bookshops (Waterstones and the Tourist Office), the Old Hall Bookshop in Brackley and Blackwells in Oxford. ISBN: 978 1 908738 40 0

The publisher is Robert Boyd Publications, 260 Colwell Drive Witney, Oxon OX 28 5LW