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‘The Ill-name of the Old Country’: London’s Assisted Emigrants, British Unemployment Policy, and Canadian Immigration Restriction, 1905-1910

  • Elizabeth A. Scott
Couverture de Volume 26, numéro 1, 2015, p. 1-318, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association

Corps de l’article


When J.S. Woodsworth published Strangers Within Our Gates in 1909, he put the need for British immigrants in Canada plainly: “We need more of our own blood to assist us to maintain in Canada our British traditions and mold the incoming armies of foreigners into loyal British subjects.” [1] Yet, for Woodsworth, not all British immigrants were made equal. Woodsworth could see no candidates suitable for the responsibility of imperial citizenship amongst the almost 12,000 unemployed assisted emigrants sent to Canada from London in 1906–1907. [2] These were people like Richard Carter, a dyer from Whitechapel in the East End of London, his wife, a lace-maker, and their two children. Woodsworth described this family of assisted emigrants with the stereotypical hallmarks of London’s East End poor — degenerate, dirty, violent, weak, and ill:

A charity organization sent them to Canada to farm. They never got beyond Winnipeg. The man was not strong enough physically to farm, and his eyesight was defective. Before many months the wife was in the courts accusing her husband of assault. The children were sickly; after about a year it was discovered that the little boy was weak-minded. The ‘home’ was a copy of the homes in the slums of East London…. We sympathize with these poor people, but we are glad that the Canadian Government is taking steps to prevent the ‘dumping’ of these unfortunates into Canada. [3]

Woodsworth’s sentiments were not singular. Indeed, they were typical of the evermore cautious “mood of the nation” that from 1906 aimed to restrict and deport undesirable immigrants even when they were English. [4] This mood was perhaps best embodied in the figure of Frank Oliver, Clifford Sifton’s successor, the minister responsible for immigration from 1905 to 1911. Under Oliver, Canada retreated from a relatively open immigration policy to one of restriction and selection, codified first in the Immigration Act of 1906. By the Immigration Act of 1910, charitably assisted emigration from Britain was officially banned under subsection 3(h). [5] The act allowed for an exception if the candidate underwent a lengthy investigation of their character, health, and employability, securing landing permission from the Canadian Assistant Superintendent of Immigration in London. Although the exception allowed for a limited degree of charitable emigration after 1910, assisted English emigrants were now unreservedly lumped together with other undesirables in the British World.

The restriction of poor English emigrants poses a problem to assumptions about a historical preference in Canada for British immigrants and a presumed unfaltering imperial connection between the two nations within the British World system. [6] In re-assessing how the 1906 and 1910 Immigration Acts handled assisted emigrants, poverty is understood to have functioned as much as a barrier to entry as did other exclusionary criteria such as non-whiteness and criminality even when immigrants belonged to the preferred British, and further, English ethnicity. These were immigrants Canada did not want, deemed like the more than 100,000 of pauper immigrants before them sent out in the nineteenth century to contribute to the so-called “ill-name of the Old Country.” [7] The Canadian Immigration Acts of 1906 and 1910 illustrate how lawmakers explicitly sought to curb the number of poor London emigrants. Furthermore, these restrictions must be firmly situated in the context of an influx of assisted emigrants to Canada after the passing of the British Unemployed Workmen Act in 1905, which contained an emigration clause designed to move London’s unemployed to Canada during periods of economic crisis. I argue that a more direct relationship between British unemployment policy and Canadian immigration policy must be emphasized, opening a space wherein to examine transnational and imperial legal tensions in the early twentieth century British World. This space reveals a nexus of poverty, migration, and restriction that pitted Britain’s needs against Canada’s and complicates the concept of loyal nations belonging to a cooperative British World. Instead, for most of the history of nineteenth-and twentieth-century-assisted emigration schemes, the Canadian government and British philanthropists were working at odds.

The impact of charitable emigration schemes has long fascinated both Canadian and British historians, but the issue of incompatibilities in immigration policy between the two nations inside the imperial relationship has received less attention. [8] Canadian historians, in particular, have explored the history of unsuitability and undesirability of assisted emigrants from a number of useful vantage points, but little attention is paid to how transnational legal underpinnings were at play in shaping those attitudes. [9] From at least the mid-1860s, when London East End charities began to send out emigrants in high numbers, Canada remained cautious, at times hostile, about their arrival for reasons related to class prejudice, including fears of urban degeneracy, presumed inherent criminality, and reliance on charity. [10] Much of the recent Canadian historiography on this history has built on the important work of Desmond Glynn who argues that emigration charities in East London from the 1880s to 1914 were unable to establish an official framework with Canada that would have helped position their emigrants as desirable. [11] Later works by Myra Rutherdale, Janice Cavell, David Goutor, Valerie Knowles, Marjory Harper, and Amy Lloyd have each examined these issues of undesirability, asserting overall that Canadian anxiety was rooted in fears about the quality and suitability of working-class British emigrants drawn largely from industrial areas. [12] Cavell’s work is particularly useful in moving beyond conflicting assessments in the earlier historiography about Canadian hostility towards assisted emigrants, clarifying that Canada did indeed desire British immigrants, but only those of a “sturdy, independent, hardworking” agricultural type. [13]

Prior reliance on Glynn was well-placed as little work on the subject was published before the 1980s that dealt with assisted emigrants from East London in such a focused manner. However, all of these assessments rely heavily on Canadian historical sources and have not fully accounted for social and economic conditions in Britain. To develop this British perspective, I have elsewhere extensively examined the history of emigration charities in East London from their inception in 1857 to their decline in 1914. [14] Viewed from the London perspective, charities clung to the belief that their vigorous selection methods were beneficial to the empire, failing to understand how imperial spaces like Canada could refuse to absorb their candidates. [15] Charities developed a rather circumscribed system of assisted emigration that suited mainly their own objectives of curing London’s poverty. The Boer War had ushered in new unemployment problems in Britain, prompting emigration charities, unemployment agencies, and the national government to again position Canada as a depository for the unemployed. In addition to assumptions about shared imperial values, these agencies rarely heeded Canadian warnings about poor emigrants because conditions at home were increasingly intolerable. [16] For decades, Britain wrongly presumed an almost borderless relationship existed between the two nations at exactly the same time as Canada began to constrict and render impermeable that same border. Despite this tendency to ignore Canadian demands, emigration charities in this period did change course somewhat to better accommodate Canadian standards of immigrant quality after decades of disappointing reception and deteriorating public opinion. Employing a transnational lens helps illuminate in new ways the understudied connections between these developments in competing national unemployment and migration policies. [17] Moreover, the emigrants at the heart of these matters were subjects who occupied a tenuous space across the blurred lines of empire — unwelcome both at home and abroad. This article demonstrates that these transnational tensions and the emigrants themselves became particularly relevant to the evolution of restrictive Canadian attitudes towards British immigrants after 1905, when British unemployment policy introduced new emigration measures.

Ninette Kelley and Michael Trebilcock have suggested the period in which the 1906 and 1910 Immigration Acts were passed was foundational to Canada’s immigration legislation for the rest of the twentieth century. [18] K. Tony Hollihan similarly suggests that the 1906 act was a “benchmark” in the history of Canadian identity politics, defining how Canadians saw themselves in relation to the rest of the world. [19] The twentieth-century legacy of exclusion and enforcement in Canadian immigration policy began with these acts. It was not exclusive to race since it included restrictions for criminals, the mentally and physically unfit, a range of subversives, as well as the English poor. [20] Beyond their significance for Canadian history, it is useful to think about Oliver’s acts transnationally, embedding them within the wider crisis of whiteness that Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds argue pervaded the British World in the early twentieth century. [21] Essentially, the spirit of the 1906 and 1910 acts was rooted in a particular brand of transnational imperial fear that permeated the British World as Asian migrants more easily circulated around the globe. The acts represent more than the abstract racist and classist ideas of their makers in a national context, functioning as examples of the machinery and bureaucracy of imperial anxiety, the project of Britishness and whiteness, and the tensions of nascent colonial autonomy in the opening decade of the twentieth century. Each of these acts can be styled as a “strategy of exclusion,” [22] situated in the project of whiteness that underpinned the increasingly inelastic borders of the British World and the United States in these years, where strengthening landing controls aimed to keep white men’s countries white.

Frank Oliver belonged to this community of white men. At the heart of the 1906 and 1910 Immigration Acts also lay the idea that the state was responsible for dictating the kinds of immigrants the nation desired and could economically support. [23] One way to understand how this new articulation of preference worked in practice is to consider how the acts impacted emigration charities in London in a transnational and imperial context. Emigration charities felt a betrayal of imperial kinship with the passing of the acts, noting at length in their annual reports about how both recent increases in rejections and deportations had “greatly curtailed the possibilities” for their candidates. [24] On the other hand, charities tried to make the best of these restrictions, arguing they helped bolster their already meticulous selection methods, diplomatically praising the work of the Canadian Immigration Department in London: “Of one thing we are assured; we could not have a more kindly and considerate interpreter of the very stringent regulations issued by the Government of Canada, than the present Assistant Superintendent of Immigration, Mr. Obed Smith.” [25] The emergence of a more bureaucratized system of assisted emigration in London after 1905 meant that more of the city’s unemployed sought entry at Canadian ports. The outcome of this increased demand was that legislation on one side of the Atlantic, designed to distribute Britons throughout the empire, was increasingly at odds with legislation on the other side designed to keep them out.

Assisted Emigration in Britain and the Unemployed Workmen Act of 1905

Since the late 1850s, London emigration charities had been sending out London’s labouring poor to other parts of the British World, mostly to Canada for its ease and cheap cost of transport. By the onset of World War I, when the schemes all but ended, London charities had sent about 120,000 of the city’s laboring poor to the peripheries of the British World. [26] After 1905, these new starts in Canada were made possible by the interventions of several agencies working together with emigration charities, namely the Charity Organisation Society (COS), the Central (Unemployed) Body for London (CUBL), and local Poor Law boards of guardians. After the Boer War ended in 1902, London and particularly its East End were further economically destabilized. Social reformers descended on the East End as an exemplary site of the phenomenon of long-term or even permanent unemployment. Still largely disenfranchised and dealing with ever-increasing levels of unemployment, the laboring poor continued to be interested in emigration to British colonies in the 1890s and early 1900s. In these decades, they were presented with several new ways in which they could go about leaving England. However, amidst the widening of emigration programming for the poor in Britain, actual opportunities for new starts in Canada were becoming more difficult to secure as the maturing nation progressively tightened its admittance regulations. [27] Many of the assisted emigrants in this period faced opposition and deportation once they arrived in Canada. [28] J. Hall Richardson, for example, reported in 1909 in the Fortnightly Review that the city of Oshawa in Ontario had not welcomed the recent influx of assisted emigrants from London. An Oshawa newspaper contended that the recent deportations of assisted emigrants were warranted and that the emigrants had in fact “signed the order for their own deportation, thus confessing their failure.” [29]

After the passing of the Unemployed Workmen Act in 1905, unemployment and emigration discourses intersected to form new policies and practices for assisted emigration in the East End. Prospective emigrants continued to be stuck in the middle of these complex relationships and often encountered disappointment in the selection process. Even though they continued to face discrimination in Canada’s emigration system, the number of emigrants leaving the East End through the East End Emigration Fund (EEEF) generally increased between 1899 and 1907 before the restrictions took force. [30] Assisted emigration was now situated in an emerging modern bureaucracy subject to rigorous policy, legislation, inspection, and surveillance. New emphasis was placed on emigrant training at home in farm colonies in order to meet the Canadian government’s preference for farm labourers. [31] The emigrants they chose, however, still rarely impressed Canadians.

In the decade leading up to World War I, emigration charities, local councils, boards of guardians, and the national government began to work together more closely on assisted emigration in London. This new degree of cooperation in assisted emigration was fostered by wider political and social changes in approaches to poor relief, unemployment, and migration in Britain. It was in this context that the direction of the emigration program in the East End changed dramatically from a patchwork voluntary sector rooted in Christian charity, to a more systematized and bureaucratized service characterized by more government intervention and secularism. The new cooperation also meant that the delivery of emigration services in the East End became more intertwined and multi-directional, with new people and agencies involved at every stage of the process. This was in part supposed to assuage Canadian anxiety about emigrant selection methods and suitability. Boards of guardians had long been able to assist poor emigrants to British colonies to ease poverty in the capital. Their powers to do so were enshrined in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and were revised on several occasions throughout the nineteenth century to reflect changing needs, attitudes, and migration trends. [32] Much of this legislation concerned the emigration of pauper or orphaned children, but the law also set out the parameters for assisted adult emigration. Under the 1834 Poor Law, boards of guardians were legally allowed to use their rates to emigrate poor persons from their parishes and overcrowded workhouses. These entitlements stayed essentially the same until the passing of the Local Government Act in 1871, wherein a new approval process was created relating to Poor Law sponsored emigrants. Under this new legislation, prospective emigrants now had to be approved not just by the sponsoring board of guardians, but also by the newly created Local Government Board (LGB). [33] Because boards of guardians used emigration charities to facilitate the journeys of their emigrants, the emigrants also had to pass through the approval process of the charity that made their arrangements. All of these regulations were explicitly applied to prevent colonial misgivings about poor English emigrants. Yet, for all of the power vested in them to emigrate their local poor, boards of guardians tended to prefer spending their rates on out-relief and workhouses in the nineteenth century. Additionally, most of the evidence for boards in the East End of London in the nineteenth century shows emigration being used only occasionally to send out adults; they were more often interested in sending out children. Indeed, for all of England and Wales between 1881 and 1890, boards of guardians only sent out 4,278 emigrants to British colonies, about 60 percent of whom were children. [34]

Even though it was not frequently invoked, the Poor Law did legislate and dictate how the poor moved around the British Empire throughout the nineteenth century. More than any other factor, boards of guardians’ involvement would have serious repercussions for Canadian attitudes towards assisted emigrants from London. Indeed, since the late 1860s, Canada had made efforts to curb the arrival of Poor Law sponsored emigrants after the EEEF and the Poplar Board of Guardians in the East End had sent out unemployed shipbuilders and ironworkers during an industrial depression in 1866. [35] By April 1868, the Canadian Government had adopted new policies disallowing the giving out of landing money, making it a requirement that immigrants land with enough resources to be able to reach their final destination on their own. [36] This decision was reached in large part in 1867 after assisted East End emigrants were unable to find employment in Canada and wound up destitute in Canadian cities relying on local charity. Similarly in the 1880s, trade unions in Canada opposed assisted emigration from the East End. The Toronto Trades and Labour Council was particularly upset with the position of the Canadian government, commenting on the ineptitude of plans to settle the urban poor on the land: “With reference to the importations from the east of London, the Minister [Hon. Mr. Pope] records with satisfaction that it is possible for people brought up in cities, in many instances, to change their mode of life, and to become successful agriculturalists under the simple conditions afforded on the prairies of the North-West.’ The utter heartlessness of thus encouraging destitute people to the North-West is appalling.” [37]

Poor Law emigration provoked colonial anxieties about pauper emigration. The stigma of this type of emigrant was largely inescapable. The intersection of class and gender also played a role in Canadian disapproval of these mass migrations — single working-class men descending in large numbers on Canadian cities provoked anxieties linked to their particular brand of rough masculinity. For example, in April of 1907, the Assistant Superintendent of Immigration in London received a worrying letter from the Ontario Department of Agriculture referring to problems it was having with a group of assisted emigrants from Poplar, East London:

On Sunday night there arrived here thirty-one men, bringing cards of introduction from L. Leopold. I interviewed some of them yesterday morning, and, picking out the one that appeared the least drunk of the lot, I learned that they had been engaged on some farm colony for some three or four months. They received an express order when they landed, which they cashed in Toronto, and immediately proceeded to get drunk. At the lodging-house last night they raised such a disturbance that they had to send for the patrol wagon and send several of them to the police-station. We sent a few to Harrowsmith this morning, and they will probably work in some mine; but I do not think they are at all fit men to send to farms, although they are said by Leopold to be wanting farm work. They did not want to go on farms, and I do not think they would be the kind of men whom it would be safe to send into a farm house. They are, without exception, the toughest lot, that I have seen for years. [38]

The reception these men encountered in Canada reveals multiple anxieties about assisted emigrants from London in Canada. The agent wrote the letter almost immediately after the men’s arrival, alarmed by their raucous behaviour. He felt quite strongly that these were not the kind of immigrants suitable for agricultural work and that it would be unsafe to send them onto farms suggesting they were inherently criminal. Finally, the agent was put off by the men’s lack of interest in taking up agricultural work and preference for working in towns. Overall, these emigrants were regarded as a nuisance to Canada for both social and economic reasons, failing to meet the imperial racial standard of whiteness expected of them. Their poverty placed them in the middle of fierce debates about the future of the British Poor Law. These men can be seen here to have been but one example of unemployed men jostled about the Empire in search of a cure for their economic plight.

After what Gareth Stedman Jones dubbed the “rediscovery of poverty” in the 1880s, British economists, politicians, intellectuals, and philanthropists debated the aims and direction of unemployment policy and poor relief. In their estimation, emigration remained an option for dealing with acute and chronic unemployment in the East End. [39] Emigration was also invoked when new unemployment schemes such as farm colonies, smallholdings experiments, labour yards, and expanded out-relief programs failed. The phenomenon of increased emigration assistance from the 1890s to 1913 occurred within of the context of moral and political changes around the very nature of poor relief in Britain. Conservative views, like those of the LGB and the COS, continued to support the deterrent aims of the old Poor Law in their policies, focusing their efforts on reducing what they believed was indiscriminate alms-giving by some local boards of guardians in the city. [40] Conversely, radical liberals and socialists criticized the treatment of the poor under the 1834 laws as archaic and cruel, advocating for a poor relief system that sought to remedy the newly recognized problem of structural unemployment. [41] In this vein, the COS turned its attention to emigration to Canada as a new option in its fight against indiscriminate out-relief and the social problems of poverty in the 1890s. The organization aimed to run this program with the cooperation of existing emigration charities in the East End and in particular with the well-established East End Emigration Fund.

The East End Emigration Fund and the Charity Organisation Society

In 1890, the EEEF and the COS joined forces to manage their emigration work in the East End. Founded in 1869, the COS aimed to synchronize the work of charities with the Poor Law. [42] Its founders included prominent London philanthropists, social reformers, and politicians. Charles S. Loch was appointed as its first chief executive officer in 1875. Supportive of a more literal and rigorous application of the Poor Law than some London charities, the COS worked to direct charities away from indiscriminate out-relief which it believed only further demoralized and degraded the poor. [43] The COS was also influential in formalizing and perpetuating the mid-nineteenth century distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, assessing each of the cases it investigated along this spectrum of moral merit. The COS dealt with the complex web of emotional, physical, and spiritual causes and consequences of poverty in its attempt to reach the root of poverty for those suffering in the capital. In addition to its casework, the COS struck several committees in the 1880s and 1890s to deal with more specific problems of poverty, such as employment and sanitation. In 1886, the COS struck an emigration sub-committee to assist families who wished to emigrate to British colonies and, in particular, to Canada. [44]

In 1894, the EEEF reported it had entered into a “very satisfactory arrangement” with the COS’s emigration sub-committee. [45] In 1899, the COS likewise reported in its annual meeting minutes that it was satisfied with the good relationship it had developed with the EEEF. [46] The two bodies shared an office at 44 Newark Street behind the London Hospital in Stepney for which they shared all expenses. [47] They also formed an executive committee to deal with COS referrals. [48] The creation of the shared office, the drafting of shared paperwork, the employment of shared administrators, and the referral of shared cases suggest the two charities were committed to bureaucratizing and streamlining their processes in both principle and practice. Efforts to streamline the charitable emigration program in the East End made applications more straightforward for the emigrant, but it also subjected them to more scrutiny by officials. Not only did prospective East End emigrants now have to pass though the selection methods of the EEEF, but they also had to be approved by the COS or vice versa. After the passing of the Unemployed Workmen Act in 1905, prospective emigrants would have to pass through yet another set of officials on the CUBL emigration committee when they applied for emigration through the COS or the EEEF. Its relationship with the COS allowed the EEEF to expand its operations and the two together intensified the emigration program in the East End, moving it towards a more systematized modern delivery system capable of sending thousands, rather than hundreds, of emigrants to the colonies annually. This lengthy but sophisticated process hinged on the importance of selecting the right kind of candidate. Both the COS and the EEEF sought sureties that their reputations would be upheld in charitable circles; these processes reflected the need to formalize a system of selection that relied on the intense investigation of poor clients while at the same time reducing the costly duplication of work and multiple offices.

Before 1905, the COS and the EEEF sent only a small number of emigrants to Canada together each year. Once the CUBL was created to administer the poverty reduction aims of the legislation, the COS and the EEEF suddenly had a third partner with whom to work on emigration. Between 1905 and 1907, the EEEF, the COS, and the CUBL together sent an unprecedented number of unemployed Londoners to Canada. [49] For example, of the 3,955 emigrants the EEEF and the COS joint committee sent out in 1906, the CUBL paid for 1,760. In 1907, of the 6,103 emigrants sent out under the EEEF and the COS joint committee to British colonies, 2,377 were sponsored by the CUBL. Almost all of these emigrants went to Canada — 3,930 in 1905–1906 and 6,096 in 1906–1907. [50] Before its program ended in 1913, the COS emigration sub-committee published one more annual report in 1912, providing a glimpse of the program near the end of its life and the aftereffects of changes to Canadian immigration law. The report speaks to the “general criticism prevailing with regard to emigration work.” [51] The COS can be seen here grappling with one of the foremost tensions in the emigration of the London unemployed. On the one hand, critics chastised emigrationists for sending England’s best and brightest workmen to British colonies, leaving behind those deemed unfit. On the other hand, emigrationists could not send the neediest emigrants to the colonies as they would usually be refused. Therein lay the crux of the assisted emigration dilemma — while only the best should be selected they were generally not those in need of the most help.

As a charity concerned primarily with helping the ‘deserving’ unemployed, the COS subscribed to a more general view in the early twentieth century about the seemingly permanent nature of unemployment in the capital. The contrast between Canada and London remained as it had been ever since assisted emigration first became a mechanism by which to move the poor from one part of the Empire to another — the COS believed Canada could provide work where London could not: “It is not necessary to multiply such extracts to show the opportunities that await the willing workers in our dominions overseas, and the Committee’s experience of the difficulties in the way of adequately helping a family in need through lack of work in London immensely strengthens the force of the contrast.” [52] Yet, restrictions to Canada’s immigration law meant that fewer assisted emigrants would make it through the gate after 1906. Because of the difficulty assisted emigrants faced in entering Canada, the COS grew anxious to increase the number of cases it sent to Australian colonies, which never materialized. Instead, one of the ways the COS and other charities continued to send emigrants to Canada was earmarking the assistance as a loan and increasing the number of people sent out to friends and family who could help them resettle. [53]

Between 1893 and 1913, the COS and the EEEF joint committee sent out 12,145 poor emigrants to British colonies, 11,454 of whom went to Canada. This accounted for about half of the EEEF’s total count of 22,152 emigrants to all British colonies in the same period. [54] The relationship was thus a fruitful one and significantly expanded the EEEF’s program. In the twelve years prior, the EEEF had been able to send out 4,792 emigrants to British colonies for total of 26,623 in the pre-war era. While the EEEF never produced the kinds of numbers achieved by other emigration philanthropists such as Barnardo’s or the Salvation Army, its influence and reach were nevertheless impressive. What started out as a small local charity became a highly functioning emigration promoter, facilitator, and processer that helped not just East End families emigrate but those suffering in other parts of the capital and beyond. It worked tirelessly to promote its legitimacy as an emigration agency in the face of multiple instances of opposition, some of which were warranted, some of which simply played on the fears and discrimination of poor Londoners on either side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the EEEF pursued its own self-preserving philanthropic agenda of poverty reduction. This would have severe consequences for assisted emigrants since the charity often ignored Canadian information about the labour market. Like other emigration charities, the EEEF continued to send poor emigrants to Canada when Canada did not want them. Another scheme in 1905 would do the same.

The Daily Telegraph Shilling Fund — More Unwanted Emigrants for Canada

West Ham, a suburb just east of the East End proper, housed a large working-class population in 1905. At the turn of the century, the area suffered from fluctuations in the labour market and unemployment grew to unmanageable proportions. Much of this problem was attributable to the casual labour system in the Victoria and Albert docks making chronic cyclical unemployment a particular phenomenon in West Ham. [55] From 1901, available hours of work in the docks began to decline after remaining relatively steady into the late 1890s. Researching these economic problems in West Ham, Edward G. Howarth and Mona Wilson deduced that the rise in pauperism between 1901 and 1905 directly corresponded with the decline in the availability of work at the docks. They also found that pauperism rates in 1905 were exceptional and “abnormal” after a “cyclical depression of trade reached its culminating point.” [56] The collapse of the demand for labour after the war in South Africa combined with a thick river fog saw work grind to a halt in the winter of 1904–1905. It was in this highly distressed atmosphere that London newspapers launched charitable campaigns to raise extra relief funds for those suffering in West Ham. [57]

The newspaper campaigns of the Daily Telegraph, the News of the World, and the Daily News began as out-relief projects delivering cash to the unemployed in West Ham in conjunction with the efforts of the local board of guardians. This initial system proved to be unworkable mostly because the relieving officers could simply not keep up with the demand. The Daily News found work for some men paving and painting but these schemes were temporary and so the newspaper turned its attention to emigration in the hopes of providing a permanent solution to the distress in West Ham. As much as these newspapers believed they were helping solve poverty, they actually created more problems. Casual labourers began to flock to West Ham from other parts of the city attracted by reports of relatively easy access to out-relief, thereby exacerbating the situation. Moreover, the newspapers created an atmosphere of universal panic in the area, painting all parts of West Ham with the same brush when in fact conditions were dire in only some parts of the borough. [58] For their part, Howarth and Wilson agreed that pauperism in West Ham eased after 1905 not because of emigration, but “owing mainly to better administration due to experience gained from the past, more strict control from the Local Government Board, the gradual improvement of trade, and the creation in September 1905 of a Distress Committee for the purpose of dealing with the unemployed.” [59] However, for the approximately 1,000 emigrants who left West Ham for Canada in 1905 with the assistance of the Daily Telegraph funds, prospects of a bright and secure future in London surely seemed slim in comparison.

The Daily Telegraph had aspirations to raise over £20,000 to sponsor 3,500 unemployed families from West Ham to Canada in 1905. [60] While these ambitious figures were never reached, the campaigners still managed to raise just under £15,000 allowing them to assist about 1,000 people to emigrate. [61] In an unprecedented co-operative move, the Salvation Army, the Self-Help Emigration Society, and the EEEF worked together with the Daily Telegraph to send these emigrants to Canada. [62] At its height, over 45 distinct agencies were working on the shilling fund campaign, either raising funds or administering the emigration scheme. [63] All of the unemployed men this committee selected were put through a course of agricultural training at one of the newly established emigration farm colonies around the London perimeter. Men selected for emigration travelled to either the Salvation Army’s Hadleigh Farm or philanthropist Frederick Charrington’s unemployment make-work scheme at Osea Island, both located in Essex, where they were tested for their ability to perform general or agricultural labour before transportation to Canada. [64]

In an effort to stall the emigration of unemployed East Londoners descending on Canadian shores, the Toronto Globe organized its own charitable fund for the unemployed in West Ham, a place the editors said both Canadians and Britons knew relatively little about. [65] The Toronto Globe informed Canadians that “at the centre of British power and civilization” was a teeming mass of starving men and their families: “Through the blinding fog that reigned on the riverside and in the miserable streets hundreds of woebegone men, chilly in their scanty clothing, walked dully to find warmth.” [66] The Globe’s “London Poor Fund” raised $5,721.35 to be dispensed through local charities as cash relief in West Ham. [67] The money raised, however, was not well received by those administrating the Daily Telegraph Shilling Fund who wished instead to direct such funds towards emigration. J. Hall Richardson, special commissioner for the fund, all but chastised the Globe for its interference in local affairs, claiming the Canadian money had “frustrated” the Telegraph scheme. [68] Richardson claimed that families who took the Globe relief would have otherwise emigrated. The Globe countered this claim citing that “kindness of heart” had been the only motivation in raising funds for the poor in West Ham. Furthermore, the Globe said it would never interfere in “local conditions and local machinery.” [69] The newspaper even went so far as to say that newcomers to Canada could certainly not arrive without proper clothing and food and that their assistance could at least help prevent the arrival of destitute emigrants should they leave Britain. [70] Whatever their motivations, the Globe and the Daily Telegraph funds resulted in the sending out of a great number of families from an area of highly visible poverty in 1905. This high number of unemployed Londoners would not go unnoticed at Canadian ports of entry.

The Daily Telegraph Shilling Fund and the emigration charities it worked with boasted choosing only the best workmen, claiming that “a better, fitter set of emigrants had never been selected to leave our shores.” [71] Harry Lawson, MP for Mile End in the East End whose family owned the Daily Telegraph, believed that emigration of the unemployed workmen from West Ham had tangible imperial benefits; in his view, the men could become “free and independent electors of the Empire of the King’s Dominion beyond the seas.” [72] The fund committee chose 1,000 out of 17,000 who had inquired. [73] Presumably, the 17,000 represented inquiries made by male heads of families which would have made for a much higher number when the entire family was accounted for. The West Ham emigrants who arrived in Canada between January and April of 1905 were settled mostly in Ontario and Manitoba. Many were general labourers or agricultural labourers, mechanics, dockers, and other skilled tradesmen. [74] The Globe reported that of the 700 West Ham emigrants who had already passed through Toronto most were “thoroughly cosmopolitan,” and that some were “plainly above the average” in terms of “means and intelligence.” [75] Yet, the Globe worried that the quality of the West Ham emigrants might not be sufficient for the needs of the Canadian labour market: “it is doubtful to what extent the settler of a type desirable for Canada and competent to face the new condition arising here is to be found among the underfed, city-bred population of a crowded London suburb.” [76] Richardson reported to the Times in August of 1905 that approximately 90 percent of the Salvation Army emigrants sent out under the fund had been placed in agricultural jobs. However, according to Richardson, the Salvation Army had applied the definition in its “widest sense.” [77] Richardson worried that the “town birds” selected at West Ham were ill-suited to agriculture and that Canada had every right to be concerned. [78] He thought the next year would provide evidence of their success or failure as agriculture immigrants. Richardson went on to lament that he had heard reports of failures amongst the group and that the entire project had been “defective” from the outset. [79]

Richardson’s concerns point to the wider problem all emigrationists faced with emigrant selection and suitability for the Canadian labour market. Yet, the organizers of the Daily Telegraph fund clung to their belief that they had found a suitable set of emigrants. The fund believed it had been able “to raise up the standard of the West Ham folk” by providing them with emigration training before departure at a farm or work colony. [80] This relatively new idea was taking hold more broadly in the emigration program in London unemployment circles. Indeed, farm colonies would be the new preferred option in the assisted emigration system before World War I. Their introduction and success would be largely contingent on the kinds of partnerships formed in the early twentieth century amongst emigration agencies such as the COS, the CUBL, boards of guardians, and the EEEF. However, the effort poured into farm colonies at home would do nothing to stop Canada from enacting more restrictive immigration controls for assisted emigrants after 1905.

Imperial Betrayal — Canada’s Immigration Restrictions, 1906–1910

To British commentators and charities, Frank Oliver’s restrictions were baffling. To them, Canada was indisputably a key part of the British Empire. In 1909, Basil Stewart, an English railway engineer and supporter of assisted emigration to Canada, came across this passage in the Winnipeg Free Press as he was writing a book on Canadian displeasure with English immigrants: “Many a British immigrant comes to Canada with the antique notion that he is coming to a country owned by Great Britain.” [81] Throughout his small book entitled ‘No English Need Apply’ or, Canada as a Field for Emigration, Stewart commiserates on the fate of the English immigrant in Canada, where the newcomer was by virtue of his ethnicity supposed to have found a welcome home. Stewart chastises Canada for the recent legal decisions to restrict assisted English immigration and the wide brush with which it painted all English immigrants. He reminded Canadians that they “should stop and remember they are a British country and rely on British assets and protection for trade.” [82] In assisted emigrants, Stewart believed Canada would find only hard-working citizens belonging to a common heritage. For its part, Canada felt the shock of the 1906 influx almost immediately. The perception of these men as unsuitable can be tracked not just in discourse but in deportation statistics. Of the 6,096 emigrants the EEEF sent out in 1906–1907, for example, 247 were deported immediately upon arrival. [83] In 1908, 70 percent of deportations from Canada were of British immigrants, a large portion of whom came out under the Unemployed Workmen Act and Daily Telegraph emigration programs. [84]

In December 1907, Oliver spoke in the House of Commons about the recent activities of the East End Emigration Fund, the Salvation Army, and other emigration charities. His comments capture the frustrations of the London charities that felt Canada should be obliged as imperial kin to help ease unemployment there:

while we recognize their charitable efforts in trying to do well for the people of whom they have taken charge, we do not recognize any such obligation on our part. We deal with these people simply on their merits as prospective citizens of Canada, and if they come up to a sufficient physical standard and if they come with good intentions and if there is reasonable opportunity for their employment in Canada in the calling which we desire to have filled, we give those immigration societies the same consideration as we give any other booking agent. [85]

Oliver’s comments hint at the underlying reasons why unemployed assisted emigrants were a problem: they were not deemed suitable prospective citizens for Canada or its Empire. Opposition members of Parliament expressed their displeasure with even more candor. Thomas Simpson Sproule, the member for Grey West in Ontario, stated plainly that in his opinion, “it will be an unfortunate condition of affairs if such organizations are permitted, unrestricted and unrestrained, to pour upon the shores of Canada large numbers of persons, few of whom are morally and physically fitted….” [86] Both Liberals and Conservatives were vocal about the unsuitability of emigrants from the East End of London whom, they believed, ran the gamut from economically useless to clinically insane.

By 1907–1908, the EEEF and other London charities found themselves severely hampered by the new Canadian restrictions, sending out only 833 emigrants to Canada that year. [87] To be fair, the decline in 1907 was also partly due to an industrial depression fueled by the American ‘Panic of 1907’ which created a surge of unemployment in Canada. [88] To diminish the perception that its emigrants were unworthy, the EEEF maintained that it chose only the most suitable emigrants and that it took “no part whatever in sending to Canada any person who, however poor, is not in our estimation a worthy British citizen.” [89] Furthermore, the EEEF pleaded with Canada to take more English emigrants in order to balance the “already too large number of emigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe” it deemed far more unsuitable for Canada. [90] This commentary did little to persuade the Canadian government to change its attitude towards charitable emigration. Moreover, Canadian opposition to English emigrants did not begin and end with the poor. Amy Lloyd has recently shown that Canadians took issue overall with English emigrants’ suitability, criticizing “their tendency to grumble” about Canadian work, their arrogance and ignorance, and their criticisms of Canadian customs. [91] One of the most common complaints amongst Canadians was that the English viewed Canada through an imperial lens, arriving with little motivation to adapt to the foreign customs that had evolved in the former colony.


Emigration charities such as the EEEF would never recover, although they did manage to send over 1,000 emigrants to Canada annually until the outbreak of the war. [92] The language in their annual reports after 1906 illustrates a complex reaction to the restrictions. On the one hand, the EEEF was often deferential to the Canadian government, thanking the Assistant Superintendent for his careful inspection of their emigrants. On the other hand, this deference was often sarcastic the charity suggesting the new measures only lent credibility to their already fine work. Yet, in another breath, the charity chastised the government’s decision, complaining quite bitterly about the nuisance of the added inspections and having to repeatedly make assurances about the quality of their emigrants and methods. All of this ill feeling culminated in May 1910, when the EEEF together with the Self-Help Emigration Society, the COS, the British Women’s Emigration Association, and the Church Emigration Society petitioned Lord Strathcona and Colonel Seeley, the Undersecretary for the Colonies, in person in an effort to convince them to relax the recent restrictions. [93]

Overall, Canada chose not to fulfil the charities’ expectations that the two nations shared an imperial responsibility for the well-being of the English poor. While a more bureaucratized form of emigrant selection developed in these years in Britain, the maturation of the system failed to fully convince Canadian officials that better, more suitable candidates were en route. This was in part because the people needing the most help were usually those who had long suffered the effects of poverty and unemployment in London. Since the 1860s, the system had thus been inherently flawed and never well aligned to the imperial needs of either sending or receiving nation. [94] While British charities and agencies pressed on with their work, flooding the Canadian immigration office in London with prospective candidates, and British immigrants overall continued to account for the largest ethnic group arriving every year, Canada turned away thousands of its supposed preferred ethnic immigrants with a clear message codified in new laws that called for only a particular kind of British immigrant. The direct impact of unemployment legislation at home in Britain on immigration legislation in Canada reveals this complex transnational interplay between poverty, imperialism, and ethnicity in a supposedly shared British World.

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Parties annexes