A difficult choice
An estimated 11 million people emigrated overseas from Britain between 1815 and 1930. Most went to the United States, with the rest going to British colonies, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa.
|The Emigrants, by Jacques-Joseph Tissot. © NMM|
More than 30 million people left Continental Europe for overseas destinations during the same period. Most of them also went to the United States, and millions of Europeans travelled via British ports.
Not everyone who emigrated settled abroad. Some were 'temporary migrants', who planned to return after they had become successful. Whether people planned to make new lives abroad or whether they planned to return, emigration was still a huge decision.
|The Parting Cheer, by Henry O'Neil. © NMM|
For most emigrants, the fare was expensive, so the majority travelled by the lowest class.
|A model of a brig carrying emigrants (c. 1840). © NMM|
In the days of sail, even the journey across the Atlantic could take many weeks. The trip to Australia could take up to five months.
|A plan of the emigrant ship St Vincent. © NMM|
The emigrants had to travel in cramped conditions, as much of the available space was filled with cargo. With so little space, overcrowding and poor food, the long journey was unpleasant at best.
Emigrants often had to put up with storms, damp weather and sultry tropical heat. Infectious diseases thrived in such conditions, and many children and adults died during the journey.
|Below deck on the emigrant ship St Vincent. © NMM|
The journey to the southern hemisphere was very expensive in the 19th century, and was beyond the means of many who wanted to emigrate. Even worse, emigrants faced the prospect of not earning wages for up to five months.
Successive British governments, eager to people the overseas colonies, provided special grants to help people to travel to Australia and New Zealand.
|The Canterbury Association ships. © NMM|
Another way of getting people to emigrate to distant lands was to offer them the chance to buy farmland at a reasonable price. One such scheme was the Canterbury Association, a plan to found an Anglican colony in New Zealand.
A dozen Canterbury Association ships left London for New Zealand in the early 1850s. In time, the colonial governments offered their own inducements.
The steam age
|A model of a steam passenger liner (c. 1885). © NMM|
Technological progress in the shape of efficient steamships transformed overseas travel. For emigrants, steam reduced the length and the cost of the journey.
As it became easier to emigrate, numbers of emigrants from Britain and Europe rose dramatically in the decades before World War I.
In the 20th century
World War I marked the end of mass emigration from Britain and Europe. Although emigration did resume in the 1920s, political and economic considerations ensured that it was on a far smaller scale than before.
|The Rangitoto (1949). © NMM|
British emigrants to Australia and New Zealand still sailed on the great liners until the 1960s, and several major shipping lines continued to build large passenger ships after World War II.
However, by the 1960s, air travel was making great inroads into all passenger traffic, and the great liners were mostly gone by the end of the decade.
|The Empire Windrush in 1948. © NMM|
There had been little long-distance immigration into Britain before World War II. The many Irish and Jewish immigrants in the 19th century had travelled relatively short distances.
In June 1948, Tilbury received the Empire Windrush, with 492 immigrants from Jamaica.
|The Empire Windrush. © NMM|
Because these were the first of many immigrants from the 'New Commonwealth' - the non-white countries then part of the British Empire - the Empire Windrush has become a symbol of post-war immigration into Britain.
However, by the 1960s, most immigrants from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent were arriving by air.