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Migration from Northern Europe to America via the Port of Hull, 1848-1914

1999 - Nicholas J. Evans
The town of Kingston upon Hull lies at the point where the River Hull and River Humber meet. Throughout its history the port has enjoyed successful trade links with most of the ports of Northern Europe, from Antwerp in the west, to St. Petersburg in the east, Le Havre in the south and to Trondheim in the north. These commercial links have brought great revenue to the town, as well as adding to her cultural and communal development. Though migrants have been travelling to or via the port for most of her history, it was during the period 1836 - 1914 that Hull developed a pivotal role in the movement of transmigrants via the UK. During this period over 2.2 million transmigrants passed through Hull en route to a new life in the US, Canada, South Africa and Australia. Originating from Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Russia and Sweden, the transmigrants passed through the port, from where they would take a train to Glasgow, Liverpool, London or Southampton - the UK ports which offered steamship services to the 'New World' they had dreamed of.

Before 1836, the number of migrants travelling to the UK via the port of Hull was negligible and was not mentioned in the minutes of either the municipal authority or private businesses. The trade was small and insignificant, with less than one thousand European migrants arriving annually. Most of those who came did so for predominantly commercial reasons and they settled in the urban areas of Hull, York, Leeds, Manchester or Liverpool. Although some did travel through Hull en route to Canada and the US, the small numbers who made the journey reflected the size and infrequency of the vessels that plied the North Sea route to these transatlantic destinations. The sailing vessels were cramped, their timings irregular, and the frequency of the North Sea crossings rendered them unsuitable for the movement of substantial numbers of transmigrants. Whether the emigrants originated from the Baltic, Germany or Scandinavia, the experience of the voyage from mainland Europe to the UK was the same - an ordeal. The journey varied in length depending on the weather and the captain of the vessel, but generally took between 3 and 4 days.

After 1848, there was a gradual emergence of emigrant passenger services via the UK. What started off as limited services by the founding steamship companies in Hull, Leith, Hamburg and Gothenburg quickly developed into regular services operating on regular routes. The steamships not only shortened the time taken to travel between mainland Europe and the UK, but due to the their Royal Mail postal contracts, they offered services throughout the year and not just during the now established 'emigrant season'. From Norway and Sweden, the Wilson Line of Hull began operating steamship services as early as 1843 and was joined by the North Europe Steam Navigation Company in 1853 who quickly built up a fleet of nine steamers to ply the Christiania and Gothenburg route. For each company, the human 'cargo' they now transported offered easy revenue, supplementing their existing services to the various ports of northern Europe. Although the N.E.S.N.C. ceased operations in 1858, the Wilson Line and a few other Norwegian lines continued to develop the routes between Scandinavia and the UK and between them transported nearly all of the Scandinavian transmigrants.

By 1858, the Wilson Line virtually monopolised the Scandinavia to Hull route, although they faced increased competition from the transatlantic steamship companies which transported the migrants directly from Europe to the US. Though Wilson's held the monopoly as far as emigrant traffic was concerned, this did not lead to a development in the quality and standard of the service provided for the emigrants. Throughout the period 1860 to 1880, the Hull Board of Health wrote frequently to the Wilson Line concerning the poor and unacceptable standards of accommodation offered to the emigrants. In one instance, on board the S/S Argo, they described the migrants as second class passengers treated more like cattle than humans. In another they described human excrement running down the side of the ships and sticking to the side of the vessel upon in which 200 migrants were to be housed for the next 4 days until their train for Liverpool was ready. Something had to be done, and that action, in Hull, was introduced through the local sanitary authority.

The Kingston upon Hull Sanitary Authority had been created in 1851. The aim of the Authority was to improve the unsanitary condition of the town and the port of Hull. This was achieved over the ensuing decades by a series of local bylaws and special Acts of Parliament, such as the Kingston upon Hull Improvement Act of 1854. Although a significant amount of the work they carried out concerned the general sanitary conditions in the town, a large part of their responsibility was also to limit the detrimental effects of the thousands of transmigrants passing through the town. Through the Sanitary Committee's Inspectors of Nuisances, Quarantine Officers and Medical Officers, they did not just highlight and report poor standards and overcrowding in the emigrant ships, houses and railway stations, but also sought to enforce the corrective action needed to prevent such conditions continuing.

One of the most significant changes brought about through the intervention of the Inspector of Nuisances concerned the procedures for the landing of emigrants. Up to 1866, the transmigrants had landed either at the Steam Packet Wharf (within the Humber Dock Basin), or the Victoria Dock. The Steam Packet Wharf adjoined the river Humber and was immediately next to the offices of one of Hull's earliest known emigrant agents (Richard Cortis) who operated from the Minerva Hotel. Male emigrants had been free to walk around the town once the steamship had docked in Hull. Although the women and children remained on board throughout, the men were free to walk wherever they liked until evening when they had to return to the ship. After 1866, as a preventative measure brought about by the outbreak of cholera in most of the European ports the railway company, the North Eastern Railway, agreed to transport those migrants arriving at the Victoria Dock by rail, rather than being allowed to pass through the town on foot as they had done previously. Those arriving via the Humber dock increasingly remained onboard ship until shortly before the time their train was due to depart. Although these were only small measures, they helped to alleviate some of the risks posed both to the emigrants and to the inhabitants of Hull alike - by preventing the emigrants from coming into contact with unscrupulous racketeers who preyed on travel weary migrants and halting the spread of disease between the migrants and the inhabitants of Hull.

Because of the risks to the town's health from the large numbers of European migrants passing through the port, the North Eastern Railway Company built a waiting room near Hull Paragon Railway Station in 1871. This waiting room had facilities for the emigrants to meet the ticket agents, wash, use the toilet and take shelter from the weather. At no time throughout the age of mass migration did the authorities in Hull provide purpose built emigrant lodging houses for the migrants. Although 20 emigrant lodging houses were given licenses by the Town Council in 1877 alone, the emigrant lodging houses differed from other common lodging houses only by their description and size (the emigrant lodging houses licensed after 1877 holding between 20 and 80 people at a time). Most emigrants only stayed in these lodging houses when necessary and most arrived in and departed from Hull within 24 hours. Although the majority of emigrants were only in Hull for a short period of time, the emigrant waiting room at Paragon Railway Station was doubled in size in 1881 due to the numbers of transmigrants passing through the town. The extension provided a separate waiting room for the women and children and more extensive toilet and washing facilities than had initially been provided. A second emigrant railway platform was built in 1885, but this was by the Hull & Barnsley Railway Company who had built the facilities as part of their new dock - the Alexandra Dock. This was the first purpose-built dockside railway platform for emigrants, with deeper docks to cater for larger steamships and a longer platform for the large numbers of emigrants who needed to board the long emigrant trains to Liverpool.

"The Emigrant Waiting Room of the North Eastern Railway Company at the Hull Paragon Railway Station. The waiting room was built for the Scandinavian transmigrants who passed through Hull in 1871 and then extended in 1882. [Photograph copyright of the Nicholas Evans Collection, 2000]".

Most of the emigrants entering Hull travelled via the Paragon Railway Station and from there travelled to Liverpool via Leeds, Huddersfield and Stalybridge (just outside Manchester). The train tickets were part of a package that included the steamship ticket to Hull, a train ticket to Liverpool and then the steamship ticket to their final destination - mainly America. Sometimes so many emigrants arrived at one time that there would be up to 17 carriages being pulled by one steam engine. All the baggage was stored in the rear 4 carriages, with the passengers filling the carriages nearer the front of the train. The trains took precedence over all other train services because of their length and usually left Hull on a Monday morning around 11.00 a.m., arriving in Liverpool between 2.00 and 3.00pm.

In 1904 the number of emigrants travelling through the UK via Hull was so great that the Wilson Line leased a separate landing station called Island Wharf. This Wharf was located just outside the Humber Dock in Hull and was one of 4 separate landing stations used by emigrants to enter the town. After 1905 the numbers of emigrants travelling via the UK was severely restricted by the Alien Immigration Act. This new law limited the number of European immigrants who entered Britain each year, but did not limit the number of transmigrants who travelled through Britain.

In 1906 the Wilson Line formed a separate company with the North Eastern Railway Company to integrate some of their rail and steamship services. This new company, the Wilson and North Eastern Railway and Shipping Company, made even greater profits by shipping and then transporting by rail the thousands of emigrants they brought to the UK each year. The new joint company limited the numbers who travelled via any other shipping or railway company and ensured a degree of continuity in the journey from steamship to quayside not seen at any other UK port of entry. Although it was the Allan, Cunard, Dominion or White Star Lines who sold tickets throughout rural and urban Scandinavia to would-be migrants for travel to America, it was Wilson ships which brought almost all the migrants to the UK - thus generating huge profits for their owners. The Wilson Line was at the time the largest privately owned shipping line in the world and its size accounts for the dominant role it held over the migration of thousands of Scandinavian emigrants between 1843 and 1914.

By 1914 the level of migration via Hull had declined. With the outbreak of the First World War and the passing of immigration acts in South Africa and America, the era of mass transmigration via the UK, and from Europe at large, ended overnight. Although transmigration on a smaller scale did resume after 1918, it would never be of the volume witnessed in the period now known as that of mass migration. Between 1836 and 1914 a revolution in transport occurred in which the steamships became 'trains on water', linking Europe with America or Canada, transporting thousands of would-be migrants in ever shorter periods of time. Without this revolution in transport millions may not have made the decision to venture from their homes in Scandinavia to a new life in the west.

The head office of Thomas Wilson, Sons & Co. Limited, Commercial Road, Hull. The offices were located next to the Railway Dock in Hull and it was from this site that the world-wide operations of the Wilson Line were managed by the Wilson family. [Photograph copyright of the Nicholas Evans Collection, 2000].

This article was written by Dr Nicholas J. Evans who has lived in Hull for most of his life.

Nicholas J. Evans is a Lecturer in Slavery Studies at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE) at the University of Hull. He is currently engaged in a project that examines aspects of voluntary and coerced Jewish emigration to South Africa between 1890 and 1960. He gained his BA (Hons) Degree at the University of Leicester and has currently finished his Ph.D. (based at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull) that examined the neglected subject of European transmigration through Britain between 1836 and 1914. He is the former Caird Fellow of the National Maritime Museum, London, Kaarle Hjalmar Lehtisen Researcher of the Institute of Migration, Finland, and Research Assistant at the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen, UK.

He can be contacted at:
WISE (Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation)
University of Hull
Oriel Chambers
27 High Street
Hull, HU1 1NE

Any information on emigrants who travelled via Hull or any of the UK ports of arrival would be very welcome. If you have such information please contact Nick Evans or the web master.

For more information on Transmigration through Britain see another of Nick's articles "Indirect Passage from Europe. Transmigration via the UK, 1836-1914" in the Journal for Maritime Research. He has also written an article on Jewish immigration to Britain for The National Archives in London as part of their Moving Here Project. The Scottish Emigration database also provides information on transmigrants leaving Scottish ports between 1890 and 1960. Latter-day Saint Scandinavian Migration through Hull, England, 1852-1894

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