Sidney Herbert’s Emigration Plan

The Right Honourable Sidney Herbert M.P. was a prominent member of Parliament at the time of the publication of the “Labour and the Poor” investigations. He proposed the following plan arising from the public reaction to the letters, encouraged by Caroline Chisholm who was herself a staunch proponent of emigration to relieve poverty at home and to progress the colonies, and who had herself written many articles on the subject. Another person of note associated with the plan was Lord Ashley. Following on from this the Female Emigration Society and Family Colonization Loan Society came about, which funded the emigration of thousands of settlers to Australia and other colonies. You can find more information on emigration including some of the articles written by Caroline Chisholm on our Emigration pages.



Sir—The public have read with painful interest the able reports of your Correspondents on the state of the labouring classes in England.

That these disclosures of the sufferings of the poor have excited a general and a sincere sympathy is proved by the many and liberal contributions which are daily forwarded to your office for the relief of the most suffering of these classes—namely, the needlewomen. I rejoice at this evidence of a Christian spirit. It emboldens me to lay shortly before your readers some suggestions which, I trust, they may think not unworthy of their consideration.

Let me begin then with the class which has an indisputable right to priority—the needle-workers. Theirs is the most helpless sex—the most intense poverty—the most fearful degradation.

Make every allowance for the natural exaggeration of sufferers relating their own wrongs, and for the involuntary exaggeration of a benevolent man listening with horror to the detail of such sufferings—strip your Correspondent’s letters of all but the bare recital of facts—omit all his description of the sufferers themselves—forget, if possible, their own shame-stricken and despairing recitals—and what a picture is left! 33,500 women engaged in this one trade, of whom 28,500 are under 20 years of age, and of these a large portion living, or attempting to live, on sums varying from 4½d. to 2½d. a day!

I rejoice that the ready sympathy of your readers has sent alms to these poor creatures; that is, to those few out of the 33,500 who had the fortune to come under the observation of your Correspondent. There will be a week’s food for the children of one; there will be clothes got out of pawn for another; till, in a few weeks, the alms will be exhausted—the subject, by all but a few, forgotten—and the same dreary monotony of starvation will again be their lot.

Cannot these alms be so applied that permanent good may be effected? Instead of palliating the symptoms, might we not trace the causes of the malady, and make a vigorous attempt to repress or diminish them?

Let us see what these causes are.

“The cause,” says every one, “is the mania for cheap goods, which drives down profits and wages to the starvation point.”

But a mania for cheapness would not, in itself, enable the purchaser to get goods cheap, unless other causes operated to their cheap production. The will of the purchaser has, in fact, much less to do with the matter than the position of the salesman and the producer.

Every capitalist—by which I mean every man embarking his money in any trade or calling, with a view to get his living—is trying to attract custom to himself by underselling his neighbour.

Every labourer—i. e., every man, woman, and child working for wages—is trying to secure employment by accepting lower wages than his neighbour; and every purchaser, as a matter of course, prefers the cheapest article.

The truth is, our wealth and our population have both outgrown the narrow area of our country. We want more room. We have too much capital and too many people—more capital than we can employ with profit—more people than we can maintain in comfort.

All your reports tell the same tale in a greater or less degree. In the mine, in the field, in the factory—everywhere a fierce competition between money and money—between man and man.

This does not apply to all trades in the same degree. In some, either wages have not fallen, in which case the labourer has gained in income, as the same money wages will now command far more of the necessaries and comforts of life than formerly; or else, they have not fallen in a greater proportion than the prices of the necessaries he purchases, in which case he stands just where he did.

But in no trade does the competition of labour with labour exist to the same extent as in all kinds of apparel-making; and for this reason—the labour is principally done by women. But the number of women in Great Britain greatly exceeds the number of men. In 1821, the females out-numbered the males, in round numbers, by 117,000; in 1831, by 213,000; in 1841, by 320,000; and at this moment, so great has been the male emigration in the last nine years, that there cannot be less than half a million more females than males in Great Britain. Now, women have far fewer trades in which they can engage than men. Their choice is very limited, and as their field of employment is narrower, so is it, proportionably, far more crowded. This needle-working, which is one of the largest, is the most over-crowded of all trades; in none, consequently, has the reduction in the price of labour and the cost of the article produced been so great.

Theirs, then, is the case in which the causes I have pointed out are in most active operation, and the effects produced the most baneful. What then is to be done for their relief? I hear many say—“This system of cheapness or competition must be put an end to.” But how? By whom? By the Government? Now, what is meant by this? Does it mean that laws shall be made to regulate the retail prices of every article sold in every shop, street, and alley, in every town and village in England? Let us suppose that this, if it were possible, would secure a certain profit more or less to the vendor; but, for the producer, there must be, further, a law regulating the amount of wages for every labouring man, woman, and child. Due regard, of course, must be had, not only to the different prices of the necessaries of life in different districts, but also to the varying skill, strength, and application of each individual person. This scheme is, of course, too absurd to be entertained seriously by any one. But I see that it has been seriously proposed to remedy the evil by forbidding schools under heavy penalties to take in needlework beyond what is necessary for the purpose of instruction. On what principle are we to forbid any one from working or earning what they can, especially children, whose education often depends on the maintenance of their school by this very needlework?

Are we, then, to persuade people, as a matter of duty, to give more for a thing than they can get it for—the tradesman to pay for labour, the consumer for his goods, more than the market price? Is all bargain to became a matter of charity?

No; social evils are neither to be cured by act of Parliament, nor by attempting to contravene the laws of nature.

What, then, is to be done?

That this plethora of capital and population must have room found for them elsewhere is no new doctrine, nor do many now dispute it. But I have shown that there are peculiar circumstances affecting the female labour market which entitle it to a priority of relief. Leave this crowd of women here, and they will destroy one another—more and more poverty, more and more infamy—body and soul both destroyed. Why not give them the means of escape? In the southern hemisphere is a vast continent, which is as much a part of the British Empire as Wales. It has been peopled partly by forced partly by voluntary emigration. In the first case, the disproportion of the sexes (the reverse of course of that which we see in England) is enormous. Philanthropists have been shocked at the results upon society there. But even in the case of voluntary emigration, the greater hardihood and spirit of adventure of the male sex have naturally brought out a greater number of male emigrants. In 1847 there were in South Australia only 13,622 females to 17,531 males, including children, the disproportion among adults being, of course, greater. In New South Wales, in 1847, of the adult population 83,572 were males, and only 41,309 were females. In Van Diemen’s Land the same disproportion exists.

A redress of this inequality is the crying want of society there; just as the redress of the opposite inequality in this country is the necessity here.

Any woman so emigrating is a woman saved; and further, if any numbers go out, the status of the remainder is bettered. The competition is diminished, and wages pro tanto improved.

The cost of a passage for an adult to Australia is £15; wonderfully little when the length of the voyage and the comforts provided are considered, but very large when we have to deal with the removal of numbers.

But let us suppose that we only deal with a few. The sums sent through your office for the relief of the needle-workers must amount now to some hundreds of pounds. These sums have been directed to be employed for the benefit of particular individuals, whose cases seemed to your readers to be especially distressing. But these alms must at last be exhausted, and when exhausted, if the recipient has not been altogether removed from the trade, she will be in no way benefited. On the contrary, she will return to her privations with a keener sense of their intensity from the contrast she has known; whereas, the same sum which has thus been almost wasted, in enabling her to continue in a trade which can bring her nothing but suffering and temptation, would, if applied to her emigration, have enabled her to escape from it.

But I do not intend that we should deal with a few only. I propose that we should offer to those who still have health and years before them, and above all, who still have character, the means of escape from a country where their only possible calling brings them ruin, to a land which offers them the prospect of a home where they may dwell in comfort and honour.

The emigration of a few is a certain and positive benefit to those few; but unless we enable large numbers to go we can effect no sensible or permanent improvement in the situation of those who remain. What we do must be done on a large scale. For this a vast fund will be required; but I have no doubt that in this country, abounding in wealth, abounding also, I trust, in a self-denying and Christian spirit, such a fund can and will be raised.

Neither will machinery be wanting. The clergy who, in these poverty-stricken parishes, themselves unsupported by wealth, are nobly fighting the Battle of the Cross; the excellent societies which are labouring for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the poor—individuals also—men like Lord Ashley, whose energetic benevolence sent him, years ago, through the courts and alleys which your Correspondent has now re-visited—all these would give invaluable assistance in administering the fund, and in selecting candidates for emigration.

Communications may be opened with the colonies with the view to the reception of the emigrants on their arrival. “Homes” may be established similar to the one founded at Adelaide by Mrs. Chisholm, whose name is widely and honourably known in connection with emigration. This will secure to the emigrants protection and guidance, and facilities for placing themselves respectably.

Some difficulty might at first be found in the unwillingness of the poor women themselves to emigrate. The long sea-voyage—the strange country—the fear “of ills they know not of”—the unwillingness to sever the ties which bind them here—all are discouragements at first. But at a meeting which took place in Shadwell last night, the subject was broached to upwards of 1,000 of these poor creatures, to whom it appeared to be anything but distasteful.

These things are not done in a day. But if they are to be done, the sooner the work is begun the better.

In the selection of emigrants, one condition must never be lost sight of. None but women of good character must be assisted to go. There must be no taint or discredit upon them to mar their prospects when they arrive at their new home.

These, then, are my proposals:—

That a fund be forthwith raised to assist distressed females to emigrate.

That this fund be administered by a committee, with the assistance of the local clergy, and the religious societies in the districts.

That measures be taken in the colonies to ensure protection and guidance to the emigrants on their arrival.

This is the outline of a plan by which, as it appears to me, permanent good can be effected. There are many details upon which I do not touch.

What proportion to the whole cost of the passage of the emigrant the assistance from this fund should bear—whether that assistance should be by way of gift or loan, or both?—these are questions which the committee must decide.

In a few days I trust that such a committee will be organized, and at work.

The names of the committee, and a list of the subscribers, will be published as soon as possible.

In the meanwhile subscriptions will be received by the gentlemen named below.*

One word in conclusion. Let us not be scared by the magnitude of the evil with which we have to contend; but rather let us make our efforts commensurate with it. We must have vigorous action and large means. Let those who cannot give a large sum down, give it in instalments in three, four, or five years. Let those who have much, give much, and let all give generously according to their ability. Neither time nor money can be wasted which is devoted to such a work.

I have the honour to be, sir,

Your obedient servant,


5, Carlton Gardens, Dec. 4, 1849.

* Subscriptions in furtherance of the objects advocated above may be paid to the joint account of Lord Ashley, the Right Hon. Sidney Herbert, the Hon. Arthur Kinnaird, and the Rev. W. Champneys, rector of Whitechapel; at Messrs. Ransom and Co., Pall-mall; Herries and Farquhar, St. James’s; Messrs. Hoare, Fleet-street; and Messrs. Williams, Deacon, and Co., Birchin-lane, who have kindly consented to receive them.

The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, December 5, 1849.