The 19th century population explosion in the United Kingdom saw millions living in poverty or, when faced with disaster such as the Irish potato famine, even starving to death. Emigration was seen as an opportunity to seek better conditions or a new life.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Australian continent was only sparsely populated by convicts, soldiers, and pioneer settlers. In 1831, the British government established the Emigration Commission which offered assisted migration schemes to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land for those who could not otherwise have afforded it. Over one million immigrants (either assisted or unassisted) arrived in Australia from the United Kingdom during the 1800s.

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Before 1860, the British Emigration Commission selected potential assisted emigrants by a set of strict criteria. The Australian colonies sought single and married agricultural workers and, with so many male colonists, single female domestic servants were also in demand. Specific assisted emigration schemes were set up to encourage women to undertake the passage to Australia.

Voyages were long, uncomfortable and dangerous. Emigrants faced the threat of storms, sickness, fire, icebergs, and shipwrecks. For passengers in steerage, conditions were cramped and levels of hygiene poor. Bad weather meant passengers were often stuck below deck, unable to access their trunks in the hold for clean clothes or bedding.

The discovery of gold in 1851 saw a rise in full fare-paying passengers and an increasing demand for faster travel. Prior to the 1850s it was common for sailing ships to stop en route but, by the early 1850s, most ships made the trip without stopping. The voyage became faster, with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the increasing speed of ocean-going steamships, but still took six or seven weeks to reach Australia.

> See a selection of 19th century passenger lists
Passenger lists

> See a selection of 19th century passenger tickets
Passenger tickets

 > View a chart showing ships' tracks
Route chart

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Made possible through a partnership with Robert John Pritchard