In the 1920's and 30's my great uncle and aunt, Harry and Temperance Branson, lived in a house made of vertical slabs on the roadside near the Binda cemetery in New South Wales. I knew that the house called "Belle Vue" had previously belonged to Harry's parents but when eventually the house was demolished and a realigned road passed through its site there was little apart from a headstone in the cemetery, a few clumps of daffodils and snowdrops flowering in a paddock in the Spring and the names Miriam and Choulerton passed to my mother and an aunt, to remind one of these first Branson forbears to settle in Australia.
Then we came upon a bundle of letters that had been written to them from relatives and friends in England and I began to look into their background. I found that they had arrived in Sydney on the Agincourt in October, 1848, refugees from France1 At that time the family consisted of William Branson, a 40 year old lacemaker, his wife Miriam, aged 29 years, and children Adah, 9 years; Frederick, 6 years; and Anna, 4 years2. William and Miriam had grown up in the Nottingham district, and had married at the Radford parish church on 23 September 1838. At that time, William, his father John, and Miriam's father, James Choulerton, were all lacemakers. Their two eldest children were born in England but then they moved to Calais where there was a sizable colony of English lacemakers. With the outbreak of the revolution against the regime of Louis Philippe in 1848, industry was disrupted, feelings against foreigners were high and the English lacemakers at Calais were thrown out of work. A letter to the Nottingham Review from English mechanics in France stated3 that all looms had stopped working although formerly there had been upward of 3,000 English lacemakers constantly employed at high wages. Earlier,4 there had been a report that a mob at Havre had menaced flax mills to obtain the dismissal of English workers. A resident in Calais, however,5 denied that there had been any ill-treatment of English workers in Calais while acknowledging the complete stopping of factories.
On 22 March 1848 the English Consul in Calais transmitted to Lord Palmerston the following petition6
"To the Members of the British Government.
In accordance with the sentiments unanimously expressed at a meeting of the English workmen, convened for that purpose in the English church, at St. Pierre les Calais, on this day, March 21, 1848, the following memorial is respectfully presented to your Lordships.
The object of your memorialists is to direct your attention to the singular and painful circumstances in which they are placed by the changes which have been effected in the government of this country.
The present state of money affairs in this country, added to the entire want of confidence in the public mind, has reduced trade in every department to a perfect stand, and consequently left them without the means of obtaining a livelihood for themselves and families. It is also with extreme regret they feel it their duty to inform your Lordships that recent events have called forth feelings of an hostile character on the part of the French towards the English, which we hoped had long ceased to exist, thus rendering their position one of both insecurity and destitution.
We therefore implore you, as the rulers of the country which gave us birth, to take our case into your serious and immediate consideration.
Gloomy as are our prospects here, we feel convinced that our return to England would present no brighter picture, as the paralysed state of trade there holds out not the slightest hope of our obtaining employment; if therefore, we return to England, it will be with the certain prospect of becoming a burden to our countrymen. and inmates of the already too overcrowded workhouses.
Having therefore, put you in possession of the above facts, we take the liberty of suggesting the following plan by which you can render us effectual assistance.
The plan we propose is emigration to one of the British colonies, South Australia preferred, where workmen arc scarce and labour wanted, our experience having shown us the great advantage they possess who live under the protection of the British Government.
We, your memorialists pledge themselves to be men of good moral character and industrious habits, in the full possession of health and strength, and men whose feelings revolt at the idea of becoming a burden to their native land.
If, therefore, you can provide us with the means of free emigration, we shall cheerfully and gratefully accept them, but if unfortunately, it is out of your power to grant our request on these conditions we are quite willing to enter into an engagement to refund a part or the whole expense incurred after our arrival in any way in which you, in your discretion, may think fit.
Should the prayer of your memorialists be granted, you will confer a benefit upon a body of men, who will, in after life, look back with heartfelt gratitude to those who now rule the destinies of their native land.
Signed on behalf of the meeting
Edward Lander, Chairman
In response to this, the Colonial Land and Emigration Office made the following comments:7
The emigrants most in demand and who succeed best in the Australian colonies are agricultural labourers, shepherds, and female domestic servants. A small number of country mechanics can also find employment; but manufacturers, such as lacemakers, stockingers, weavers, etc., would scarcely find employment in their own trades, and would be of little value to the colony.
Whatever scheme therefore it may be decided to adopt in regard to the artizans lately expelled from France, the idea of sending manufacturers of the above or analogous classes to the Australian colonies should be excluded both in fairness to the colonies and in kindness to the individuals. In fairness to the colonies, because the funds for emigration being provided out of colonial revenues, the colonies have a right to demand that they should be expended in the manner most advantageous to colonial interests. In kindness to the individuals because if they be sent to a colony where there is no demand for their peculiar labour they must have recourse to new and unknown employments as a means of subsistence, and thus lose the advantage of their skill and previous education.
But there may probably be among the workpeople in question many who are capable of agricultural labour, and others who though not agricultural labourers have been accustomed to outdoor work. These, if not the most eligible emigrants, would yet be sufficiently adapted to the wants of the colony to justify their acceptance, provided some advantage could be added in their case to counterbalance the disadvantage of their want of training. Thus the great complaint in the Australian colonies being deficiency in the quantity rather than in the quality of labour, if an arrangement could be made to contribute from other than colonial sources towards the passages of the artizans from France, and thus, by economizing the colonial funds, to enable the colonies to obtain without an increased charge to themselves a greater number, though not quite so eligible a description of labourers, there can be no doubt that the arrangement would be acceptable.
The expense of sending an emigrant to Australia, supposing him to be entirely destitute, may be stated as follows:-
Of this, the three latter items only amounting together to about £15 are borne by the colonies; the outfit, deposit for bedding etc. are provided by the emigrant himself. It may probably be assumed that the persons now in question are not so entirely destitute as to require the outfit to be provided for them, and the circumstances of the case will save all cost for agency and diminish that of conveyance to the port of embarkation. If then a contribution could be provided for them amounting to from £3 to £5 a head exclusive of their outfit and bedding by which the whole expense to the colonies would be reduced to about £9 or £10 a head, these persons would be cordially welcomed as emigrants in the colonies.
- Outfit about £4
- Bedding, etc. ,, £1
- Agency, etc. ,, £1
- Conveyance to port of embarkation ,, £1
- Passage ,, £13
- Total £20
It would be desirable however, before any arrangements are concluded. to ascertain what is the probable number of persons for whom passages would be required. Emigrant vessels sent out by this department generally carry about 200 statute adults each. We are now endeavouring to send out six of these vessels every month. It would be impossible, without very largely adding to the establishments both here and at the outports to increase this number; besides that, a largely augmented demand for emigrant ships would raise considerably the price of freight. It is evident therefore that if the number of people in question be large it would not be possible to afford them immediate relief by emigration to Australia. Indeed, under any circumstances it would not be possible to provide passages for any great number of them before the middle or end of April."
The fears of the Calais workmen about what they might expect if obliged to return to England are borne out by reports in the Nottingham Review of unprecedented poverty, unemployment and distress at this time. Appeals were made (the Queen and Prince Albert contributed £2008) and a "Committee of Noblemen and Gentlemen for the Relief of British workmen, Refugees from France" was formed.
The Colonial Land and Emigration Office arranged to inspect the workers at Calais and reported on 27 April 1848:9
"...it appears that for more than a year there has been great distress among the lacemakers of that town, and that recent events have brought the trade of lace-making, like almost every other trade in France, to a standstill. But there has been no attempt to force the people in question out of employment, or out of France, because they are English, nor have the employers been exposed to any annoyance on that account.
If therefore, the motive for our acceptance of these people as free emigrants had been to afford them assistance in their distress, we should have thought it our duty to bring under Lord Grey's notice the fact that these workmen had no claim to peculiar indulgence beyond other persons who are thrown out of work in this country by commercial panics or a change in the course of trade. But the province of this Board in the measure was, to secure to the Australian colonies, at a cheaper rate than usual, a supply of labour, which, though not the most eligible, would still be highly useful; and by this economy of the colonial funds, to increase the whole number of emigrants sent out. The question in regard to the superior claim of these people to assistance, as compared with other distressed operatives, did not belong to us. We accordingly proceeded to select those who appeared fairly eligible. Some we have been obliged at once to reject as bad characters, and others we have felt great difficulty in taking on account of the number of their young children..."
The bad characters were apparently those who could not produce their marriage certificates, were possibly not married and may even have had legal wives in England. While sending such out may have given "great cause of complaint in the colony", the secondary consideration that the Government might be called on to send out the deserted family later was no doubt as important as the possible affront to colonial morality.
Young children would be unable for some years to give any return of labour for the expense of their passage and it was felt that the presence of large numbers of young children on board ship was prejudicial to health, that infantine complaints broke out, spread to adults and caused considerable mortality. In the event, the initial rejection of six large families was withdrawn on the ground that they had been led to expect acceptance. The refugees sailed in three ships: Fairlie, Harpley and Agincourt in April, May, June 1848, the Harpley for Adelaide and the others to Sydney. Before they left the Harpley emigrants again addressed the Members of the British Government:10
". . . to convey to your Lordships, to the Relief Committee, to the Emigration Board and to all who have assisted in the good work, our heart-felt thanks for your truly noble conduct towards us . . . and whatsoever may be our future lot, the welfare of our native land, and the happiness of those who rule her destinies will ever be the wish and prayer of a little band whose proudest boast will be to say. that your kindness has not been bestowed in vain."
Although the English authorities regarded the lacemakers as not the most eligible emigrants, the N.S.W. Immigration agent, F. L. S. Merewether, made these comments on the Agincourt migrants:11
" that as respects physical capabilities and mental intelligence these immigrants were as a body superior to any I have ever inspected and that their conduct during the voyage and after their arrival here, their respectful demeanour and their readiness to proceed at once into the Country Districts fully justified the expectations formed by the authorities in England . . . and proved that they were . . men whose feelings revolted at the idea of becoming a burden to their native land."
The Bransons settled first in the Bathurst district, and four more children were born: Harry (1850), Charles (1853), William (1855) and Adeline Amelia (1863). Adah married Henry Carr and the two families moved to Binda, near Crookwell, where descendants still live.
The family had been in Australia for almost 30 years when a correspondence began with relatives and friends in England. Using the letter paper of the Nottingham Manufacturing Company Limited a nephew wrote from Caythorpe, near Nottingham, on 6 January 1878:
After a silence that has lasted a Life time we have heard from you (through the Clergyman of the Parish). I need hardly say I am delighted to hear you are still in the land of the living; I had concluded years ago you must be dead or we should have heard from you ere now. There are some strange things happened in this world and this is one of them. However, it is a real gratification to me to hear from you but I suppose it is beyond the range of possibility of ever seeing you again in this world. I will now proceed to tell you who are left in our family. Tom is still alive and lives at Sutton Bonnington he has a large family and in not very good circumstances in fact he is nearly past work. Myself are now at this time hale hearty and well. I married for a second wife Ann Hardy of this village we have 3 children all Boys. John, Richard and Alick. Richard the writer of this letter is living in Nottingham and employed by the firm at the head of this note. I had a son William by the first wife but he is dead. After you went away I started travelling the country with Hosiery goods and still stick to it. I have had pretty good luck combined with hard work and have done very well. I have also a small farm as well, the one that used to belong to Bobby Keworth and have also bought the place that belonged to the Hardys family and 2 fields belonging to Ragsdals. Have about 30 stocking frames; of course of late years there has been quite a revolution in the stocking trade nearly all the goods of the present day are made by steam in factorys and the perfection they have got them to is something wonderful. In a few years a frame worker by hand will be a thing of the past. I make all kinds of goods both in silk wool and cotton and have a sale for them all over the United Kingdom. My trade lies with the Upper Ten and I have some of the greatest nobles in the land as customers. John, the eldest son, looks after the Hosiery trade. He is married with three children and lives in that house of John Hardy. Alick is also married with 2 children, he is employed on the farm. I have two children. Your brother Harry is dead; he married and settled down at Belper. He has been dead about 2 years. Rick Hardy, my wifes Brother is a preacher and lives at Halifax in Yorkshire. He has been there for 40 years. Caythorpe instead of improving gets worse instead of better, the trade having left the village.
Since you left Nottingham there has been a great improvement. It is now a very large Town. It has now something like 160,000 Inhabitants. It extends now right down to the Trent Bridges and on to the Forest the other way. The Castle is being restored for a Art Museum at the cost of 30,000 pounds subscribed by the Inhabitants of the Town. The Lace trade is in a very queer state just now. They have had a very good run and there has been some immense fortunes made in a few years. Trade in England at the present time could not be worse, all branches are alike; of course it is the Eastern Question that is the cause of it. Father just reminds me that Henry Oxley, one of your old mates, would very much like to hear from (you), in fact he says there is not a man a breathing he would sooner see or hear from than you. He is living in London but I will get his address and let you have it when I write again. Lady Rancliff is dead a short time ago. We have not any photos that have been taken recently but will have some taken of all the lot of us and let you have them. Did you see any of the English Cricketers that were over in your neighbourhood? I was talking to Selby and he had an impression that someone asked him something about our family.
I hope you will not be long before you write and let us know how you have been going on all this long time and whether your wife is still alive, in fact all particulars. I might say that Father has built himself a house which he lives in. He is a man about 16 stones in Weight. If you could send us a C.D.V. [Carte-de-Visite photograph] of yourself and family l should feel obliged. I will now conclude with kind Love to you and yours and accept the same from us.
Another correspondent wrote from Stapleford on 9 January 1878:
"My Dear Old Friend Wm Branson
I was very pleased to hear that you are still in the Land of the Living and I hope in good health. Is your dear Wife alive if so please give my very kind regards to her. My sister Martha often talks about her and the happy hours we had together but those days are gon and a many of our old acquaintances have departed with them. Old Father time is bearing all things away. I hope we are getting ready for a better world as we shall soon have to leave this. I am still in the old warp trade as when you left England and have about 80 machines about 50 at work but trade is very bad with us. All trades are alike more or less cole and iron is very bad. We have 5 to 6000 pieces in the Brown so you may guess what a state things are in. Your brother John is still working for me. He is much in the old way. He is stinted to one piece a week which onley comes to one pound and that is not very much for a family to live upon. When rent cole and a few other things are paid their is not much left for food. Rent is very high 4 to 6/- a week for a small house. Food is very dear Beef is from 11d to 1/4 per lb pottatoes are 1/8 to 2/- per peck Eggs 6 to 8 for one shilling. Bread is a fair price say 2 to 2/6 per stone so you may guess a pound a week does not go far. I have three [children] two daughters and one son. One daughter is married and gone to Africa married a grandson of Mr Thos Whiteley the son of Mr Wm Whiteley-so you see things are ever changing. Some are drinking and smoking themselves to death. I have lost 3 or 4 men through drink say B. Barbe Steven Daykin . . . all through drink but it is no warning others are still carrying on in the same way. The Fabrick Trade for gloves is very good made from the warpe machine I have a nice little factory built in the old paddock, the field where we used to play at Cricket I mean Bartons Close. My sister lives in the old house where your dear wife used to come to see us. Our mother has been dead 12 years. Old Betty Buller died 99+ years old P[illegible] is still as drunken as ever. My brother Jno is gon to the bad all through drink - drink is one of the great curses of the world. well I must conclude wishing you and yours every happiness in this world and Life everlasting in the world to come. I still remain yours Truly
There are about thirty letters12 from friends and relatives, some of whom would not have been born when William and Miriam left England. They suggest that the couple cared about their friends and were generous to impoverished relatives but give no indication why they should have waited thirty years before making contact. Perhaps the attitude of officials in 1848 had impressed on the lacemakers that they were recipients of charity and this had made them loth to reform ties until they had achieved independence and modest prosperity. William died in 1884 and Miriam in 1898. They are buried in Binda cemetery only a few yards from where they had lived. All their children are buried nearby.
This, as it happens, was the issue marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Society.