Migration and Transportation in the Industrial Age

Migration during the Industrial Revolution

Millions of people moved during the Industrial Revolution. Some simply moved from a village to a town in the hope of finding work whilst others moved from one country to another in search of a better way of life. Some had no choice, transportation  was a punishment for some crimes.
The main reason for migrating during the 19th century was to find work. On one hand this involved migration from the countryside to the growing industrial cities, on the other it involved movement from one country, in this case Britain, to another. Poor working conditions, housing and sanitation led to many people opting to emigrate. The British at the time controlled a massive empire including America, Canada, South Africa and Australia and people soon started to move to these countries in search of a new life.

These people would save money and seek assistance from others to pay for the journey, by boat, to these new lands. Some of the reasons for this desire to move are highlighted in this letter written in 1837:

“we take the liberty of writing to you again upon the subject of emigration to America for we are quite tired of this country… For the thought of being ushered into the workhouse with our wives and children and the miseries of starvation and poverty make us quite tired of our native land. For we know that we cannot be worse off than we already are.”


Other emigrants had a little less choice in the matter, they were ‘transported’. Transportation was a punishment. Britain had for a long time sent convicts to her colonies, a practice that had appeared to be in turmoil after the Americans won their independence (The British used the American Colonies as a place to send criminals). The discovery of Australia though led to transportation being reintroduced and the first convicts arrived in Australia on 26th January 1788. By 1868, when transportation ended, over 150,000 criminals had been sent to work in Australia. (Transportation was not only used for the most serious crimes, for example one lady was sent to Australia for 14 years for the crime of receiving 21 bottles of wine which she knew to be stolen).

Migration was not just people moving out of the country, it also involved a lot of people moving into Britain. In the 1840’s Ireland suffered a terrible famine. Faced with a massive cost of feeding the starving population many local landowners paid for labourers to emigrate (it was cheaper than paying them poor relief or housing them in a workhouse for a long period of time). About a million of these labourers migrated to Britain, many others moved to North America.

Promoting Colonies

The colonies themselves needed a steady stream of new migrants. They would bring new skills, additional labour and expand the market for goods. Without new faces, colonies could struggle. The colonies themselves often asked people to migrate. The advert below shows that they even helped to pay for some people to move.

Emigration. Free Passage to Australia. Poster encouraging migration

Many of the early migrants were men. Some were convicts who had been transported. Others wanted religious freedom. Lots wanted a new opportunity. The work in the early stages of any colony was manual and difficult, which led to the pattern of male dominance in the population. This led to some problems. The men still wanted to have relationships. The colony needed children for it’s future. Therefore migration to the colonies was promoted for women at times. It was also promoted for people with specialist skills: migration of this kind still happens today.


Industrialisation led to many goods being mass produced, quite cheaply. This meant that there was a new opportunity to export. Colonies and far off lands were easier to reach due to the invention of steam propelled ships. Merchants and Industrialists could open up offices in far off lands and profit from the emerging markets there. This led to migration of some workers. These migrants needed new homes, roads, services. This led to additional migration.

Some of the colonies and lands that had been settled by the Europeans had large areas of unexplored land. These offered people an opportunity to exploit the land. That could be through farming, fishing, mining or sourcing valuable minerals and gems. Things such as the Gold Rush in America led to people migrating.

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