George Robins, my paternal great-grandfather, was an agricultural labourer who was raised in the High Weald of eastern Sussex and western Kent. At age 26 he was working near the Kentish village of Marden in 1874. Through a scheme promoted by the Kent Agricultural and General Labourers’ Union, George was enticed to emigrate to New Zealand.
The scheme was devised by the union secretary, Alfred Simmons, “who was instrumental in directing the frustrations of the rural labour force towards emigration to New Zealand” according to Jock Phillips and Terry Hearn. [Settlers – New Zealand Immigrants from England, Ireland & Scotland, 1800-1945]. Falling agricultural prices from 1870, and the consequent squeeze on labourers’ wages, threatened many Kentish workers’ livelihoods. This gave rise to the infamous ‘Revolt of the Field’ in which agricultural unions were formed for the first time.
Alfred Simmons saw that a good way to reduce the pool of labourers in England, as well as to improve individuals’ prospects, was to sponsor emigration to the colonies. Phillips and Hearn again: “The prospect of unemployment or a penurious old age had become something to be feared. The thought of independence in a new country where the family could support its dependents on land was an enticing prospect.”
The union’s newspaper, the Kent Messenger of 21 November 1874 [British Library Newspaper Library, ref: EW M83447] noted the departure of the contingent of emigrants which included George Robins:
“DEPARTURE OF EMIGRANTS
Last Tuesday morning a party of nearly one hundred emigrants left Kent for New Zealand under the auspices of the Kent Union. Mr. Simmons, hon. sec, met the emigrants on their arrival by train at London Bridge, and took them by vans to Blackwall to the Emigrants’ Depot. Here they stayed till the following day, when they embarked in the ship “Gareloch,” which is bound to Port Otago. Nearly all the emigrants were agricultural labourers and their wives and children, and many of them had received liberal grants from the Union, and the private fund at the disposal of Mr. Simmons. Two of the labourers were men who had been locked-out of employment, and who then determined to leave the country. It is a great satisfaction to know that almost without exception, the Kentish emigrants give great satisfaction in New Zealand, and are prospering very excellently in their new home.”
After 79 days at sea, George’s ship, Gareloch, duly arrived in Port Chalmers on 12 February 1875. The ship was immediately quarantined as eight cases of scarlet fever had occurred during the voyage. The ship’s master, Captain Greenwood, blamed the unhygienic conditions at the Blackwall Emigrants’ Depot for this. After several days of quarantine in port, to ensure that the fever did not spread to the population onshore, George was eventually allowed to go ashore to start his new life.