ST Gill Portland from the Bay 1857

Portland from the Bay 1857. Engraving by S.T Gill. Gift of the Port of Portland, 1996. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

The perils of the journey were well documented, yet thousands still risked their lives and that of their loved ones to make a new home for themselves in the colonies of Australia.

Assisted immigrant Patience Whitmore's poignant letter home in November 1853 is a telling reminder.

"It is by the blessing of the almighty that enables me to write to you, my dear father and mother.

"The trials and tribulations I have met with since I left my home have been very great my dear friends. It almost breaks my heart to tell you that I lost my dear good husband and two of my dear children on the voyage."

Between 1851 and 1857 a total of 11,395 people made the same journey as Patience, from Great Britain across the perilous seas to the shores of Portland Bay under the assisted immigration scheme.

 

Lighters 1

Lighters on Henty Beach, Portland. Courtesy: Portland Family History Group.

From Plymouth to Liverpool, Southampton to London, the ships kept coming with men, women and children wishing to make a new life for themselves in all parts of southern Australia including Portland and Victoria's western district. It was a plan designed to populate the newly established colony and provide much-needed labour to help the economy grow and prosper.

Portland Family History Group President Anne Grant says the assisted immigration scheme saw a total of 38 ships arrive in the bay over six years.

These ships had spent anywhere between 78 and 135 days at sea. All bar one lost passengers along the way, the most being 41 on the Eliza, the ship on which Patience and her family had sailed.

But there was joy mixed in among the sadness with births occurring on every single one of those journeys. The most births recorded was 30 born on the Helen, which sailed from Gravesend and spent 132 days at sea.

 

Lighters 2

Lighters on Henty Beach, Portland. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

Anne explains that assisted immigration saw Australian government agents search for people from across Great Britain willing to leave their old lives to make a new start in a new land. Under the scheme, the government paid the fares of immigrants who usually ended up in Melbourne from where many travelled to the Victorian goldfields in search of their fortunes.

But, in an effort to address labour shortages, a group of squatters and townspeople from western Victoria joined forces in the early 1850s and requested the government also send ships directly to Portland.

Anne says that before this concerted effort to attract more residents, Portland had a population of just 500 people and with each ship being able to carry up to 500 passengers, the arrivals were welcome boosts for the town.

"A ship coming in would virtually double the population," she says.

Not every assisted immigrant stayed on in Portland. After being processed at the immigration depot, passengers were greeted by all manner of local business people and landholders from inland, all of whom were desperate for workers.

Some immigrants had already lined up work with friends and family before they arrived, and others settled on newly established stations in the north of what is now Glenelg Shire. Some stayed in town to be tradesmen or teachers, work in shops or well-to-do households, and some left for the goldfields in search of their fortune.

 

Severn Ad

Advertisement - Portland Guardian, 1855.

"On the immigrants' arrival, after all the official immigration business was finished, a red flag would go up at the immigration depot signifying there was labour for hire," Anne says.

"Locals would go down to the depot with their labour 'shopping list' and find the right person for the job they had on offer. Establishing a new colony was very people-intensive – anyone with a degree of literacy or trade skills could usually get work and there was a lot of opportunity for people who wanted to make a new life for themselves and their families."

It was this golden opportunity that must have steeled people like Patience Whitmore and her family against the thought of the perilous journey over, and given them strength and faith that it would all be worth it.

On the 38 ships that sailed into Portland Bay under the assisted immigration scheme, there were 319 deaths at sea caused by disease outbreaks including measles and cholera.

Patience was left to settle in a new land with no husband and two young sons yet her letter home does contain a positive note that indicates why so many people made that treacherous journey to Australian shores. The opportunities for her family with good wages and low living costs were too good to shun.

 

Patience 1

Patience Whitmore’s Letter (first page), 30 November 1853. Courtesy: Portland Historical Society.

"Do not grieve for me for I get a very good living – I want for nothing," she continues in her letter home.

"It is a beautiful country and if it had pleased God to have spared poor Henry (her husband), to me it would have been a good thing for us that we came, for there is a good living to be got for everyone.

"I could very soon save money enough to come back to England but I think it would be a pity to take my poor boys from where they could do well."

Download a full list of assisted immigrant ships that docked in Portland Bay here.

How did Patience Whitmore and her two sons' lives unfold after they arrived in Portland?

Booze, deliberate sinkings and secret passageways – these were just some of the scandals that rocked some of the 38 ships over the six years of assisted immigration directly to Portland. What else happened aboard these ships?

How did assisted immigration impact economically and socially on the town of Portland and surrounds?

To read Patience's original letter and find the answers to these questions and more, visit Glenelg Shire Council's museum and research centre History House, where you will find images and documents that go into more detail about the assisted immigration scheme into Portland in the 1850s.

 

And you'll also find passionate volunteers willing to share their immense knowledge with you!

 

History House – Museum and Research Centre
Cliff Street, Portland VIC 3305 (PO Box 409)

Phone: (03) 5522 2266

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Open daily 10am-noon and 1pm-4pm. Closed Good Friday and Christmas Day.