English Immigrant Voices: Labourer’s Letters from Upper Canada in the 1830s – CAMERON et al (CSS)

CAMERON, Wendy; HAINES, Sheila; MAUDE, Mary McDougall (Eds.). English Immigrant Voices: Labourer’s Letters from Upper Canada in the 1830s. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000. 527p. Resenha de: Canadian Social Studies, v.37, n.2, 2003.

Nearly one million people emigrated from Great Britain to British North America between 1815 and 1850. Most were refugees from a changing economy in which they had been marginalized. Most were small landowners or tenants but not paupers. Moreover, most came with families or as members of extended families with relatives already in North America. Some came through the assistance of the state or private philanthropy. They came from every corner of the British Isles though nearly one-half came from Ireland and one-quarter from Scotland. The story of Selkirk’s promotion of Scots settlement in Prince Edward Island, Upper Canada, and Red River is generally well known but Scotland provided a different context from England for Victorian emigration. English Immigrant Voices, for example, could be employed for a small study of English Poor Laws circa 1830.

This book is the second concerned with the immigration scheme devised by Thomas Sockett, rector of Petworth, to send English agricultural labourers and their families to Upper Canada. The project grew out of the tumult in rural England in the early 1830s during which rural labourers protested wages, working conditions and employment through incendiary attacks on farms and the destruction of machinery. Sockett persuaded Lord Egremont, lord lieutenant of Sussex, to support the project. During the years 1832-37, approximately 1,800 emigrants – men, women and children – made their way to Canada from Petworth. An account of this project, Assisting Emigration to Upper Canada: The Petworth Project, 1832-1837, was written by Wendy Cameron and Mary McDougall Maude and published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. English Immigrant Voices – Labourer’s Letters from Upper Canada in the 1830s, a worthwhile publication, is a companion volume to this earlier study.

English Immigrant Voices contains correspondence from participants in the Petworth assisted immigration project. This correspondence provides historical evidence germane to a number of historical themes. The editors explain that

As social history these letters document the daily lives and working conditions of labouring people – they reflect a shared heritage at home and they carry precise information back to family members and friends who were thinking of emigrating. As personal records, they reveal hopes, aspirations, fears, loneliness, excitement, and wonder (pp. xii-xiii).

English Immigrant Voices contains a fine introduction to the letters and details the history of the correspondence contained in the book. The letters, dating from 1832 to 1838, fill 260 pages and are organized chronologically. They are carefully and thoroughly annotated to assist the reader with historical references contained within the letters. There are also pertinent illustrations throughout to break up the text.

The letters were written mostly by rural, working-class emigrants from the south of England who ventured to Upper Canada in the early 1830s. Most ended their travels in counties west of Toronto including Home, Grey, Niagara, London or the Western Districts. Detailed maps of Sussex, southern England and the Niagara Peninsula allow the reader to follow the progress and settlement of the subjects and authors of these letters.

The editors suggest that this correspondence should be viewed as part of the immigrant literature associated with the period of enthusiastic ‘discovery’ of Upper Canada. Many of the letters were published in pamphlet collections and in newspapers in the 1830s to encourage emigration to Canada. Even the London based Canada Land Company made some use of them.

A small number of the letters survive in manuscript form, but most exist only as part of a published record. Yes, they were edited for spelling, repetition and punctuation. English Immigrant Voices contains the edited versions even when a manuscript copy was available. It should be noted that a few letters in manuscript form without editing have been included in an appendix to give the flavour of the unedited correspondence available to the editors. Cameron, Haines, and McDougall Maude have done a substantial amount of work to prepare the letters for the eyes of readers. The result: the interaction of readers with this correspondence will be both pleasurable and rewarding.

How might they be used in the classroom? In recent years, some historians have turned to the task of opening up the past through a close reading of historical documents. Carlo Ginzburg’s micro-history, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, is now a classic in this genre. Such approaches have illuminated just how much is lost when documents-literary and otherwise-are used only as evidence of larger historical patterns. While these letters do suggest larger historical patterns they might be used even more effectively to explore human subjectivity. How did the emigrants frame their encounter with Canada’s agricultural frontier? What narratives did they use to structure their accounts of travel from the old to the new? How do these letters convey notions of social identity, class and ethnic relations that were at the centre of the culture of these emigrants? The 1830s were an era of tumult and popular movements of reform in both Britain and Canada. Do the letters contain evidence of social protest or do they suggest that the Petworth letter writers embraced orthodox social and economic views? The letters in English Immigrant Voices might also be usefully compared with immigration literature from other eras and locations in Canadian history. Here a search might be undertaken for texts on immigration made available through Early Canadiana Online. This is a service provided free of charge by the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions (CIHM). A search on the internet will take interested parties to the collection at http://www.canadiana.org/eco/english/about.html.

Tom Mitchell – Brandon University. Brandon, Manitoba.

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