Coming Home

This is the last in the year of blog-posts that have followed the emigration of my forebears, George Robertson Nicoll and Sarah Baird Nicoll, on their life journeys from Dundee in Scotland to New South Wales in 1848. I have learnt a great deal along the way: about my home city of Dundee, about emigration, about gold-digging and farming, about house-building and coastal shipping in New South Wales. I have also learnt that emigration is unlikely to be a one-off experience; George and Sarah returned ‘home’ on a number of occasions, and their ties with ‘home’ remained strong throughout their lives. Towards the end of his life, George came ‘home’ ‘for good’; Sarah had died a few years’ earlier in Sydney. Their children saw themselves as Australians through-and-through, and it is to them that we must look to see the real consequences of the emigration journeys of their parents.

But for now, it is time to look back and also to look forward, to think – what next for this story?

Looking back over the last year

When I began writing the blog in April 2019, I had read George’s book (published in 1899) but not his journal, which ends in 1897. I was hopeful that sharing his story would shed light on emigration as a personal, social and cultural journey, but, if I am honest, I was not at all sure how this might happen. In the event, I needn’t have worried. George’s book and journal, in many ways, spoke for themselves; it was George’s words that captivated readers of the blog, just as they had captivated me. It did not matter that George was my relative; readers from across the world identified with his stories because George was, in a sense, ‘everyman’, at the same time as being a unique individual, with his own history and his own foibles. And yes, he had plenty of them! George was not only courageous, resourceful and insightful; he was also self-opinionated and, at times, downright arrogant. But all of this contributes to the colour and vibrancy of his writing, and in the blog, I tried to share George with readers, ‘warts and all’.

So if George was indeed ‘everyman’, what ‘everyman’ was he? In the blog, I sought to connect George’s account with the larger stories of the day – stories which began in the early nineteenth century, as Scotland emerged from its agrarian past to become one of the major industrialised nations of the day. George and Sarah were, to a large extent, therefore, Dundee – he, the blockmaker who worked at the harbour; she, the mother and linen powerloom weaver who worked in a factory. The story of their migration is the story of every successful migrant that left Scotland for the new worlds in the nineteenth century; in the words of Anthony Trollope (1873):

In the colonies those who make money are generally Scotchmen.[i]

Once in New South Wales, George became the ‘everyman’ who chased the lure of gold, just as Sarah was the ‘everywoman’ whose lot was defined by choices made by her husband and the father of her children. This didn’t make George a bad husband or father, any more than Sarah was a victim without agency. Both were people of their day and time, and their triumphs and defeats say as much about the human condition as they do about themselves as individuals.

But that is enough from me!

It seems that towards the end of his life, like many emigrants, George came ‘home’ to Scotland ‘for good’. I would now like to consider this more deeply in the context of his book and journal, at the same time reflecting on the wider literature on emigrant homecomings.

Return migration

Between 1825 and 1939, 2.3 million Scots left Scotland; if we add to this the number of people who moved from Scotland to England, ‘Scotland might well be described as the migration capital of the Continent at this time’ (Devine 2011: xv). Many of those migrants – estimated at between one-fifth and one-third – returned to their homeland, either sooner or later (op.cit.). Meanwhile, the number of British migrants returning from Australia in the period 1870 to 1914 was even higher. Baines (1985) estimates that around 40 per cent of all those who emigrated in the mid-nineteenth century returned home. These people, Richards (1989: 17) argues, ‘remain virtually invisible and anonymous’.

A wide variety of terms have been used to describe the phenomenon of return migration, including remigration, second-time migration, homeward migration, back migration, re-emigration etc. (Verrochio, 2011:1). George Robertson Nicoll’s story, as we will see, reminds us that it is impossible to discuss return migration as if it were one thing. As we will see, individual and structural issues came together in the decisions both to migrate and to return; this shows that emigration and return are governed by happenchance as much as by design.

The first emigration, 1848

George and Sarah’s first emigration on the Royal Saxon happened because a number of ‘push and pull’ factors came together at a particular moment in time:

  • The economic downturn in Dundee in the 1840s
  • George’s experience of being the youngest son
  • The death of his mother and his father’s remarriage
  • The birth of George and Sarah’s first child
  • The failure of George’s elder brothers’ business
  • George’s skills, self-belief and entrepreneurial qualities
  • The promise of a better life and opportunities
  • The chance of an ‘assisted passage’ to New South Wales (see blog 6).
Royal Saxon

The first return home, 1858

Their decision to return to Scotland ten years later in 1858 was also as a result of a number of coalescing factors:

  • Sarah’s poor health and medical advice to return to a cooler climate
  • The educational needs of the children
  • George had failed to make a living as a farmer
  • George and Sarah had, nonetheless, enough money saved to travel to Dundee and to set up home when they got there
  • They also had family support back in Scotland.

George stayed in Scotland for only six weeks at this point, and went back to the goldfields, leaving Sarah and their five children in Dundee. When he returned three years later in July 1861, he had, he tells us, ‘the intention of […] settling for good in Scotland’ (1899: 68). But life (and the Scottish winter) intervened to make him change his mind. He writes:

It was now winter. I endeavoured to bear with the cold weather until February, all the time suffering acutely with rheumatics, toothache, headache etc. I never felt well, and could not suffer it any longer. I made up my mind to go off to Australia – the Sunny South – and took passages for all of us in the ship Hotspur from London to Sydney (page 69)

What did Sarah feel about this? The two youngest children had died from whooping cough and scarlet fever the previous year in Dundee; one can only guess that she was heart-sick of Dundee and open to persuasion (see blog 8). Moreover, George had had recent success at the goldfields, and had, surprisingly, been able to secure a second ‘assisted passage’ for the family back to Sydney.[1]

The second emigration, 1862

The 98-day journey from Plymouth on the Hotspur was no less demanding than the first emigration ship, and this time, George and Sarah had three children to entertain, and Sarah was heavily pregnant. There were 398 immigrants on board, along with a crew of 49 men. Three people died on the voyage, and three babies were born, including a son for Sarah and George, whom they named John Baird Nicoll.

Passenger List extract, the Hotspur, 1862

I believe that 1862 was the time – that is, 14 years after the first migration – that the Nicoll family could reasonably be described as having ‘settled’ in New South Wales. Over the next 20 years or so, George made a successful living in the coastal shipping business (as a produce agent and later ship-broker) and in house-building. He returned to Scotland in 1877 to have a steamer built for the Manning River trade, but this trip was envisaged as a temporary visit; it was not in any sense a return migration. Meanwhile, George and Sarah’s children – only one of whom had been born in Scotland,[2] were proud Australians. Their eldest sons, George Wallace Nicoll and Bruce Baird Nicoll, became business leaders and politicians in Brisbane and Sydney; they contributed to the development of the Australian federation. Their daughter, Mary Baird Wigmore, put down long-lasting roots in the Ballina area, where she lived with her business-man husband, William.[3] Between them, they each played their part in the creation of the next generation of Australians; George Wallace, Bruce Baird and Mary Baird had 20 children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren besides.

The second return home, 1885

In 1885, when George was 61 and Sarah was 62 years of age, they decided to sell up and travel to Scotland. As George writes, ‘we sold off all our effects and took passage in a New Zealand mail boat, the SS Tongariro, for London’ (1899: 71).

SS Tongariro, 1883

This was not yet, however, a return migration in the fullest sense. It was a holiday; Sarah’s first visit to Dundee since 1862 (as George explains in his journal). Their adult children were now grown up and no longer needed them, and their youngest son had recently died in Sydney, aged just 18 years. They needed a change of scenery, so they travelled back to Dundee and spent the next 10 months in Scotland, staying with relatives and visiting old haunts.

The third emigration, 1887

In early 1887, George and Sarah travelled back to Sydney on another New Zealand royal mail steamer, the SS Rimutaka.

SS Rimutaka

In his journal, George tells us that he felt very ‘unsettled’ to be back to Sydney. He realised it was going to be difficult to get back into the coastal shipping business again, because ‘competition was very keen’ (1890: 117). He turned his attention instead to house-building, and ‘built four new houses in the city, which occupied my time’ (1899: 74). Once they were completed, he decided ‘to have another trip to Scotland, by way of the Suez Canal’ (1899: 75).

Tourist travel, 1888-1898

The trip to Scotland in 1888 marked the beginning of a period of 10 years or so when George was in almost constant motion, travelling around the world twice and other travel besides, sometimes taking other family members with him (including his son, George Wallace Nicoll, daughter-in-law and various nieces), and other times travelling alone. He visited Scotland at least three times over this period; it is difficult to be clear about this from his written accounts. Sarah did not accompany him on these later voyages; she stayed at home in Sydney with her son Bruce Baird Nicoll, his wife and her grandchildren, dying there in August 1897.[4]

We know from Sarah’s obituary[5] that George did not attend her funeral, and I have not been able to work out why, although two possible explanations present themselves. George may have been too unwell to attend. He had had an accident the previous year, and this had left him in great pain and discomfort. When running to catch a ferry after a trip to Neutral Bay, he had missed his footing and ended up in the harbour. He had to wait some time for the next ferry, which, he writes, ‘discomforted’ him greatly:

Unfortunately, as an after effect, I was attacked with acute rheumatism in the shoulders, arms, hips, and left leg. I could not raise my arms to their full extent without experiencing the most acute agony. Walking was slow and painful work to me, and even writing was a torture. I had to keep indoors for some time, and thus neglected my business, and when I did get out again it was with no little danger to myself, for I would suddenly have terrible twinges of pain, which would compel me to slacken my pace; thus it happened I escaped by the merest chance being run over by an omnibus. I was crossing right in front of it, at quite a safe distance under ordinary circumstances, when one of these sudden pangs of pain gripped me as in a vice, and I could not proceed. It was with the greatest difficulty I got out of the way of the bus, and had the driver not done his best, I should have been knocked down by the bus.[6]

Was this fibromyalgia, a chronic, incurable condition triggered by the shock,[7] or was it something else? Given that his three elder children all died unexpectedly young (at 52, 54 and 56 years of age), and given that both his sons described having similar accidents, I wonder if there was another explanation? George’s death certificate cites cause of death as ‘chronic bronchitis (two years) and cardiac failure’. Was this accident the first indication that George had heart disease, and was there perhaps a congenital aspect to this? We will return shortly to George’s final years, but for now, we can only guess that George may have been too ill to attend Sarah’s funeral, and this may also explain why he stopped writing his journal and book the previous month, in July 1897.

There may, of course, be an alternative explanation, one for which I have, as yet, found no documentary evidence. It is possible that George and Sarah were estranged by 1897. They were not formally divorced, but they seem to have been living apart. When George and his niece Sarah (brother James’s daughter) travelled to Sydney earlier in 1897, they had lived for three months in a rented cottage at Strathfield, then a desirable suburb of Sydney, rather than at Gordon, with Sarah, son Bruce and his family.

George’s book continues a little further than the journal, and ends with a description of another trip back home in July 1898. He concludes with the words:

Thence we steamed on to London, via Plymouth, and arrived at the docks safely, after a fine passage from Port Said. Which brought me back to Old England once again, and a convenient proximity to the Land of Scots (1899: 224).

Home ‘for good’, 1900-1901

George must have returned to Sydney one last time, but I have not yet found any record of this. What we do have, however, is a newspaper story from 20th March 1900, which states:

Mr. G. R. Nlcoll, an old colonist of over 50 years’ standing, was amongst the passengers by M.M. Armand Behic at noon yesterday. Mr. Nicoll, who is 75 years of age, is proceeding to Scotland, his native land, where he intends spending the rest of his days. He has made the trip across some 20 times. He was one of the first owners of coastal vessels In New South Wales — a business developed later on by his sons, Messrs. G. W. and B. B. Nlcoll.[8]

The Armand Behic was described in a story in the Sydney Morning Herald some years earlier as ‘the most beautiful steamship that ever left Marseilles’.[9] I believe that George, travelling first class, would have been in his element!

MM Armand Behic

And yet, what if George was actually coming home to die? We know that he was in poor health and a lot of pain. His obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald supports this claim. It states:

… failing in health four years since he determined to try the climate of Scotland, but he was unable to survive the severity of last winter.[10]

Assuming that George arrived back in Scotland in the summer of 1900, where did he spend the last nine months of his life? I have found no evidence that he bought a house when he returned, so it seems likely that he would have lived with one or other of his nephews or nieces and their families in Dundee – in Peddie Street, Craigie Terrace, Victoria Street or Windsor Street, or perhaps  at Derby Terrace (Sandyford Street) in Glasgow.

George subsequently died on 4th April 1901, at Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight. My immediate thought in finding this out was, ‘lucky old George, on holiday again!’.

But I was wrong.  Ten days before he died, George made a will in which he left his Dundee property and savings held in a Scottish bank to his unmarried nephews and nieces (all named)[12]. The will was witnessed by his doctor and nurse, Dr Harold Frederic Bassano[13] and Mary Hill. George was so weak, he was unable to sign the will, and instead marked his name with a cross. What a sad ending for such an articulate man! George’s death certificate provides further information. Here we learn that his 29-year old niece, Sarah Douglas Nicoll (who had travelled with him to Sydney in 1897), had accompanied him on his trip to Ventnor, and was present at his death..

Digging a bit deeper, I discovered that at the end of the nineteenth century, Ventnor had become fashionable as a health resort . Numerous hotels and guest houses had sprung up at this time targeting sick visitors, particularly during the winter.[11]

Ventnor, Isle of Wight, early 1890s

So it was clear that George was not a tourist after all – or not only a tourist – he was sick and seeking relief from chronic pain and disability. His niece Sarah may have been his carer. And that all feels very different …

What next for this story?

I am privileged to have a connection with this amazing story, and I wondered for a while if I might try to turn it into a novel or a screenplay, but that will have to be left for someone else. Instead, I would now like to write this up as a book. There is so much to be learned from the story of George and Sarah and their lives and adventures.

All that remains is for me to thank all of you who contributed to the blog in some way. I appreciated having the benefit of your genuine interest, your knowledge and your skills and your enthusiasm. So, on with the book proposal!

Viviene E. Cree

19th March 2020

 Primary Sources

Nicoll, George Robertson (nd). The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll, unpublished journal.

Nicoll, George Robertson (1899.) Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. London: self-published.



Baines, Dudley (1985). Migration in a Mature Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cited in Richards (1989).

Devine, Tom (2011). Foreword. In Varrichio, Mario (ed.) Back to Caledonia. Scottish Homecomings from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. Edinburgh: John Donald: xv-xvi.

Donnachie, Ian (1992) The making of ‘Scots on the Make’: Scottish settlement and enterprise in Australia, 1839-1900. In Devine, T.M. (ed.) Scottish Emigration and Scottish Society. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd: 135-153.

Freeman, Michael (2014). Ventnor. Isle of Wight. The English Mediterranean. Ventnor: Ventnor & District Local History Society.

Richards, Eric (1989). Annals of the Australian Immigrant. In Richards, Eric, Reid, Richard and Fitzpatrick, David (eds) Visible Migrants. Neglected Sources for the History of Australian Immigration. Canberra: Department of History and Centre for Immigration and Multicultural Studies, Australian National University: 7-22.

Richards, Eric (2005). Running home from Australia: intercontinental mobility and migrant expectations in the nineteenth century. In Harper, Marjory (ed.) Emigrant Homecomings. The Return Movement of Emigrants, 1600-2000. Manchester: Manchester University Press: 77-104.

Further reading

Cage, R.A. (ed.) The Scots Abroad. Labour, Capital and Enterprise, 1750-1914. London: Croom Helm.

Devine, T.M. (2011). To the Ends of the Earth. Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750-2010. London: Allen Lane.

Jupp, James (1991). Immigration. Australian Retrospectives. Sydney: Sydney University Press.

Prentis, Malcolm. D. (1983). The Scots in Australia. A study of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, 1788-1900, Sydney: Sydney University Press.

Richards, Eric (2004). Britannia’s Children Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600. London: Hambledon and London.

Sherrington, Geoffrey (1980). Australia’s Immigrants, 1788-1988. The Australian Experience. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.


[i] Trollope, Anthony (1873) Australia. Cited in Donnachie (1992: 135).

[1] Richards (2005: 90) calls those who secured a second assisted passage ‘double migrants’. He points out that until the Australian shipping lists have been fully computerised, it will not be known how many were in this category.

[2] Only George Wallace Nicoll was born in Scotland.

[3] Mary’s obituary notes that she was ‘well known by acts of charity’, while William was ‘one of the old pioneers’ and ‘one of the founders of the town’ [of Ballina]. See ‘Death of Mrs W. Wigmore’, Northern Star, Monday 9 April 1906, page 3. Accessed 2 April 2019.

[4] Bruce Baird Nicoll owned a number of properties in and around Sydney. He and his family seemed to spend most of their time at Gordon, Palace Street, Petersham; George also lived there in the 1890’s.

[5] The write-up in the Australian Star, Monday 9 August page 7, lists three sons and six grandsons who attended the funeral.

[6] Entitled ‘A SYDNEY MAN’S IMMERSION’, Evening News (Sydney) Saturday 22 July 1899 page 3. The story was covered in 47 other regional newspapers throughout New South Wales and Victoria.

[7] Medical advice from GP consultant/friend on this and all medical conditions discussed in the blog. See also NHS website information, Accessed 13 October 2019.

[8] Entitled ‘Departure of an old colonist’, Daily Telegraph, Sydney, Tuesday 20 March 1900, page 4.

[9] Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 9 March 1892, page 6.

[10] Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 29 May 1901, page 6.

[11] Freeman (2014).

[12] There is no detail as to what property this refers to.

[13] By 1911, Harold F. Bassano M.A., M.B., B.V. Cantab. was medical officer at St. Catherine’s Home for Advanced Consumption (H.R. & I.H. The Duchess of Saxe-Coburg Gotha (Duchess of Edinburgh), patron), Grove Road, Ventnor. See Kelly’s 1911 Directory, Accessed 16 March 2020.

A Life on the Ocean Wave: Dundee, New South Wales, Shipping and Empire

Welcome to the 11th blog post in my series on my forebear, George Robertson Nicoll, who travelled as an assisted migrant from Dundee to Sydney in 1848 with his wife Sarah and infant son, George Wallace Nicoll. This blog post, like the others, draws from the journal and book written by George Robertson Nicoll, and published in 1890 and 1899 respectively.

As we will see, there was a connection with ships and the sea throughout George’s life. His story was a unique one, with all the ups and downs that are a part of every individual life. And yet at the same time, his story demonstrates the much bigger stories that were unfolding at the time – stories about the place of Dundee in shipbuilding, and more widely, about the part that ships played in industrialisation, colonisation and the empire. British shipbuilding grew throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries; servicing the British colonies was a key part of this growth. At one time, British shipbuilding dominated the world; as late as the 1950’s, a quarter of all ships were built in Britain.[1] Today, only naval ships and island ferries are built in Scotland and there are no shipyards in Dundee. This is the ‘bigger picture’ into which George Robertson Nicoll’s story must be placed.

Early years

It is no exaggeration to say that George Robertson Nicoll grew up with ships. His grandfather, Thomas, was a mast, pump and blockmaker at Fishmarket, Dundee; his father James and uncle George followed Thomas into the blockmaking business, working at East Shore, Dundee. But what did a blockmaker do?

As the name suggests, a blockmaker made blocks; a block was a set of pulleys or sheaves mounted on a single frame. Every ship needed hundreds of blocks of many different shapes and sizes; one reference suggests that a single, large, sail-powered warship in the mid-nineteenth century required more than 1,400 blocks of various kinds.[2] The best way to explain this is with a photo of blocks and a sailing ship’s rigging.

Blocks on a sailing ship

In the nineteenth century, shipbuilding went through a number of revolutionary changes, each contributing to make ships faster, safer, and able to go longer distances. So wooden ships were gradually replaced by iron and steel, sail was overtaken by steam engines and propellers took the place of paddles. Nevertheless, steam ships continued to have sails as back-up at this time, because they could not depend on being able to refuel with coal when on a long journey.[3] So blocks were still needed, in ever-greater numbers.

Some blockmakers (like George Robertson Nicoll) were mast, pump, and blockmakers. They worked alongside a wide range of skilled craftsmen (they were all men) building and repairing ships. These included blacksmiths, carvers, coopers, glaziers, joiners, leadworkers, metalworkers, painters, riggers, ropemakers, sailmakers, shipwrights and sparmakers. As demand for ships increased, so machines were invented that took the place of work originally done by hand; for example, Marc Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, developed machines for blockmaking at Portsmouth docks.[4]

As a child, George was expected to go after school to help his father in his blockmaking shop at the docks:

[…] my school hours were from 9 to 1 and 2 till 4, after which I had to go down to Father’s shop at the Docks, where I had to turn the grindstone, tread the turning lathe, help cut timber with the crossent [sic] often until 9 and even 10 at night, until I was that tired I was unable to walk home (Journal, page 14).

Poor George! Life wasn’t all work though. He had lots of opportunities to mess about in boats at the docks and on the river Tay. His aunts had both married seamen. Aunt Jean had married John Spink, who went on to become Commander of the Dundee & Perth Shipping Company’s SS Perth, a wooden paddle steamer that travelled between Dundee and London from 1834. This ship and its partner SS Dundee were ‘the most luxurious and fastest steamers on the east coast and their Masters took great pleasure in outpacing their Leith and Aberdeen rivals’.[5] George tells us that ‘when they made their first appearance on the River Tay, at Dundee, half the inhabitants turned out to see them’ (Journal, page 5).

SS Perth, 1834

Aunt Janet, for her part, had married George Wallace, also a shipmaster, from South Street, Perth. George Wallace was captain and owner of the schooner Margaret Simpson, trading between Perth and London and sometimes to the Baltics. George recounts that he also went several times with Captain Ross on voyages of discovery to the North Pole (Journal, page 22).[6]

On special occasions, George and his brother John would get up at 3am to travel on one of the paddle steamers, Tay or Lass o‘ Gowrie, to Perth for the day. They would visit Captain Wallace and aunt Janet, who, by this time, were running the Gowrie Inn at the Watergate, Perth. George named his first son ‘George Wallace’, in honour of this, his favourite uncle.

Lass o’ Gowrie paddle steamer

In 1836, George (aged 12 years) was apprenticed to Thomas Adamson,[7] then the largest shipbuilder in Dundee. Although he doesn’t mention this, it seems likely that he may have worked on the building of the coastal paddle steamer the Forfarshire, which was completed in 1836. The ship ran aground two years later on 7th September off the Farne Islands on its regular run north from Hull to Dundee. Grace Darling and her lighthouse keeper father attempted the rescue and this became the story of legends:

Figurehead from the Forfarshire

One of the ships that George does name is the brig Cairo, launched in 1839 from the Calman yard.[8] George had helped to rig her out, and when she was ready for sea, he approached the captain to ask if he could sail with her. Captain Thomas agreed, but George’s father refused to let him go. George remembers that ‘the captain and he had a great row about it, and I had a good cry about it and felt awfully discouraged and disappointed’ (Journal, page 19). Soon after, he ran away to sea, taking a smack to London, where he met up with his cousin David Spink, then working on an Aberdeen ship at St Katherine Dock. The captain contracted to take him on as a sailor (he had these useful extra skills, after all!) and George looked forward to the voyage to Cape of Good Hope. Unfortunately, he had a bad accident and couldn’t go – he fell down the ship’s hold one evening and injured his knee. He was forced to return home in disgrace and penniless, where he got ‘plenty of scolding and little sympathy’ (Journal, page 21). When he was well enough, he returned to work as a blockmaker for his father, firstly in Dundee, and later in Perth, until the early 1840’s recession hit and five of Perth’s seven shipyards closed down (Journal, page 22). George had to return to Dundee, out of work.

Middle years

Times were hard in the 1840’s for those in the shipbuilding industry.[9] A large number of firms (including Thomas Adamson) went out of business completely. When George came back from Perth, he wasn’t employed in blockmaking, but as a storeman and traveller for his brothers, James and Thomas, as they traded under the name of the ‘Dundee Iron Company’. But this was not to last. The brothers’ business struggled and by 1847, he was unemployed again.

Once in New South Wales, George established a mast, pump, block and spar making business at the docks in Sussex Street, Sydney.[10] Some years later, good use of his blockmaking skills at in building wooden, ‘weatherboard’ cottages and repairing fences on a sheep-station. He was a resourceful man, able to turn his hand to many different practical tasks. He was also an entrepreneur, able to spot a gap in the market and capitalise on it. It was this that led him (by then, 40 years of age) to begin a produce agency business in the early 1860’s, with the support of a financial partner, Thomas Isbester.[11] The agency was based at Lime Wharf, Sydney. Over the next 20 years, he built a successful business into which he brought his two sons, George Wallace Nicoll and Bruce Baird Nicoll,[12] taking produce and passengers to and from the developing communities north and south of Sydney. George’s sons went on to expand the business greatly, initially working together as G & B Nicoll (also known as Nicoll Brothers), and then separating in the mid-1880’s to set up their own businesses based on trade in different rivers.[13] The Nicoll sons went on to become extremely wealthy, influential men, so described in the various books that have been written about them and their contemporaries.[14] George and wife Sarah’s only daughter, Mary, meanwhile, married her father’s business partner, William Wigmore, in 1882; William also successfully traded on the Richmond River for many years, and is still celebrated today in names of streets and buildings in Ballina.

George’s first venture, in 1864, was to buy a schooner called the Spec for trading on the South Coast, Wollongong, Kiama and Shoalhaven. Things went well for a time, and trade increased, then on 17th October 1865, the Spec sank in a storm off Kiama. Three men were drowned and one managed to swim ashore to safety. The ship was uninsured; George began a collection for the dependents of the men and raised £100 (Journal, page 113). Following the accident, Isbester withdrew from the produce agency. George’s next venture, in 1866, was to have a schooner built at Broken Bay, on the north coast. The Sarah Nicoll was ready in eight months and George traded her to the Richmond River, where he took timber and maize from settlers, in return for produce (oil, bags, foodstuffs etc.). He also sent the vessel twice to New Zealand, before lengthening her into a three-masted schooner. The following year, he had a brigantine, the Saucy Jack, built on the Manning River, again for trading to the Richmond River.

The Richmond River

In 1873, George bought a ketch, the Confidence, trading her to the Bellinger River and the Macleay. In 1877, he took his boldest step so far and had a steamer, named the Lass o’ Gowrie, built by engineer John Keys at the Abden Shipbuilding yard, in Kinghorn, Fife, for the Manning River trade.[15] When she arrived in New South Wales, the river mouth was found to be too shallow, so the ship was sold.

In 1883, George sold the Saucy Jack and, as he tells us in his journal, retired from the shipping business. This may not, however, have marked the end of his interest in shipping and shipbuilding. As the person who had established the so-called ‘Nicoll line’, it seems likely that although George retired from shipping, he continued to make money through investments in his sons’ and daughter’s businesses. He certainly continued to work from a warehouse and office, at 171 Kent Street, Sydney, at least until 1894.[16] He also built property after retirement, including ‘four new houses in the city, which occupied my time’.[17] (book, page 74).

Looking back over this 20-year period, two features stand out. Firstly, it is evident that when George started trading on the south and northern coasts in the 1860’s, there were very few companies involved, but this changed considerably over time as new companies entered the field. By the time he retired from the business, there was significant competition for trade on the coastal rivers. A name-check of the shipping companies that were operating at this time includes:

The second noteworthy feature is the colossal number of ships that were lost at this time – wrecked in storms, stuck on sand bars and reefs and sunk following collisions with other ships. Few of the ships that the Nicoll family members built survived for more than a few years; today, the wrecks provide sanctuary for sea-life, as well as much-treasured dive-sites for scuba divers.[18]

The wider context

The story of the growth and eventual take-over of the Nicoll family’s shipping business mirrors the story of coastal shipping more generally. Initially, the expansion of shipping came hand-in-hand with the increasing numbers of white settlers; ships (ketches, schooners and brigantines) provided the only means of transport for goods and people at this time. Gradually, steamers replaced the sailing ships of the early years – as Richards (1977: 2) points out, steam navigation came to Australia as much as 23 years before the first railways. Shipping continued to be crucially important even after the railways began, because, as Richards outlines, the nature of the terrain made road and rail-building difficult:

The development of these shipping companies rested solely on the fact that, in the last century, sea communications were the only link with the outside world. […] Roads from one town to the next were little more than a pair of wheel ruts winding painfully through the bush, fording creeks and streams, and ending up at river jetties or mountain ranges. Horses were the only source of motive power, and coaches offered local services between towns not served by navigable rivers and large enough to warrant a service being run. Mostly, however, one travelled on horseback, or failing that, one walked. Cars (or horseless carriages) were unheard of in the bush for years after the first ones chuffed and spluttered their precarious and improbable way down George Street [in Sydney] (page 9).

Two shifts led to the eventual demise of the small companies, and with them, the shipping businesses of the Nicoll family. Firstly, as railways and roads became available, so easier and more comfortable (and significantly, less dangerous) forms of travel emerged. As a politician, Bruce Baird Nicoll campaigned for railways – he was, in a sense, an architect of his own demise. But he understood that this was the way the future was going. Secondly, as successful companies grew bigger, they were able to create considerable economies of scale, thus lowering the cost of freight for business and passengers alike. Small companies were unable to compete and were forced to sell out to the bigger companies.[19] The writing was on the wall for the Nicoll line of steamers almost from its inception. Richards (1977) is sorry to see the end of the fleet belonging to George’s son, George Wallace Nicoll:

He had lifted the standard of our coasters from small, often slow tramps to a new high; fast, pretty little packets that were the envy of all (page 36).

Later years

What George Robertson Nicoll did most in the last 10 years of his life was the thing he loved best – he travelled on ships. He went around the world twice, visiting new countries and cultures, and relishing the opportunity to try out different ships: iron screw barque steamers, single screw steamers and royal mail steam ships. He even travelled on the maiden voyage of the RMS Lucania on 2nd September 1893, travelling first-class. Built in Govan and owned by the Cunard Steamship Line Shipping Company, she was the fastest and largest liner afloat at this time, carrying 2,000 passengers from Liverpool to New York.

RMS Lucania

The last half of George’s book is taken up with his accounts of his travels. He describes in minute detail the places he visited, the people he met, even the meals he ate. For the lover of tourism history, this is a goldmine! George’s story brings to mind a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson, who himself travelled on a Nicoll steamer (the Janet Nicoll) from Sydney to Auckland in 1890:

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more clearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. […] when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? [20]

Viviene E. Cree

February 2020

Primary Sources

Nicoll, George Robertson (1890). The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll, unpublished journal.

Nicoll, George Robertson (1899.) Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. London: self-published.


Bruce, George J. with contributor Ian Garrard (2013). The Business of Shipbuilding. London: Informa Law, Routledge.

Daley, Louise Tiffany (1966). Men and a River. Richmond River District 1828-1895. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Horsburgh, D. (nd). James Horsburgh (1786-1860) Shipbuilder in Dundee, Accessed 12/02/2020.

Jehan, Jean (2007). The Nicoll Brothers. Pioneers of Northern Rivers Shipping. Hurstville: Hurstville Family History Society Incorporated.

Lythe, S. G. E. (1964a). Shipbuilding at Dundee down to 1914. Scottish Journal of Political Economy 11(3): 219-232.

Lythe, S.G.E. (1964b). Gourlays. The Rise and Fall of a Scottish Shipbuilding Firm. Dundee: Abertay Historical Society No. 10.

Moss, Michael S, and Hume, John R. (1977). Workshop of the British Empire: Engineering and Shipbuilding in the West of Scotland. London: Heinemann Educational Publishers.

Myers, Francis (1886). The Coastal Scenery of New South Wales. Harbours, Mountains and Rivers. Sydney: Thomas Richards, Government Printer.

Richards, Mike (1977). North Coast Run. Men and Ships of the NSW North Coast. Killara, NSW: Turton & Armstrong.

Stevenson, Robert Louis (1897. 1993). Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and Selected Travel Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wood, James (1998). Shipbuilding. Scotland’s Past in Action. Edinburgh: NMS Publishing.

Further reading

Craig, Robin (1980). The Ship. Steam Tramps and Cargo Liners, 1850-1950. London: National Maritime Museum.

Harcourt, Freda (2006). Flagships of Imperialism. The P&O Line and the Politics of Empire from its Origins to 1867. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Lythe, S.G.E. (1962). The Dundee Whale Fishery. Scottish Journal of Political Economy 9(2): 158-169.

Mackenzie, John M. and Devine, T. M. (2011). Scotland and the British Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ogilvy, Graham (1999). Dundee. A Voyage of Discovery. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing.

Walker, Fred M. (2010). Ships and Shipbuilders. Pioneers of Design and Construction. Seaforth Publishing.


[1] See Moss and Hume (1977). Also

[2] The Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge, Vol III, (1847) London, Charles Knight, p.436.


[4] See Bruce (2013). Also

[5]  See Accessed 10/2/2020.

[6] George tells us that his uncle had great stories to tell of his travels with Captain Ross, who in 1818, received the command of an Arctic expedition, the first of a new series of attempts to solve the question of a Northwest Passage. Second expedition 1829-1832. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Ross, Sir John”. Encyclopædia Britannica. 23 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

[7] Thomas Adamson shipbuilder came from Grangemouth and set up at the Seagate in Dundee in 1829. He later had a number of yards, including one at Broughty Ferry. Lythe states that Adamson was ‘early into steam – Dundee, Perth & London Company already owned a small steam tug- Sir William Wallace -built in 1829 by Adamson with engines by the Dundee Foundry’ (Lythe, 1964a, page 221). In 1842, Thomas Adamson was in bankruptcy and two unfinished vessels in his yard were sold by his creditors (Lythe, 1964a, page 222, citing Dundee Harbour Trust, Committee of Finance Minutes, 9 May 1844).

[8] See Friends of Dundee City Archives, 19th Century Dundee Ships (from the Directories) 1818-1898, accessed 10th February 2020.

[9] See Lythe (1964a).

[10] Obituary of George Robertson Nicoll in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20th May 1901, page 6.

[11] The partnership did not last. Two years later, it was dissolved, and George took over sole ownership of the company.

[12] Obituary of Bruce Baird Nicoll in the Northern Star, 24th September 1904, page 5.

[13] It is difficult to be sure the extent to which this was an acrimonious separation; similarly, it is unclear how far the two brothers were business rivals over the years. Of the two, it was George Wallace Nicoll who kept going for longer, not retiring until 1904, when he sold out to the North Coast Steam Navigation Company. Daley (1966: 129) suggests that he was forced to sell out. Bruce Baird Nicoll, meanwhile, had retired from shipping in 1892 to concentrate on politics.

[14] See Daley, 1966; Jehan, 2007; Richards, 1977. Also (with pictures of some of the Nicoll ships).

In an interview in the Northern Star, Saturday 21st August 1897, page 2, George Wallace Nicoll (GWN) lists the many ships that he and his brother, Bruce Baird Nicoll (BBN), built and traded. There were also many other ships, as outlined by Jehan (2007).

The brothers began with the small schooner, Wallaby (1871), then built the Wallace, the Bruce and the Rob Roy schooners (1873), before going into steamers in 1877, when they imported the Bonnie Dundee, built by Gourlay Brothers of Dundee (see Lythe (1964b). They then bought the Truganini from the Tasmanian Government. In 1877, they imported the first Richmond and the Lass o’ Gowrie (with their father) from Dundee, followed in 1878, by the Australian. Then the Lismore was ordered and came out in 1880, as did the Fijian; two years later, sister vessels, the Casino and Helen Nicoll were imported from Dundee (GWN sold this on arrival), as was the Mallard, built for BBN. In 1883, a steamer called the Rook, re-named the Palmerston, was bought and subsequently sold. In 1884, the Janet Nicoll was brought out for BBN, as was the Bellinger for GWN, followed in 1886, by the Tweed No.1. In 1887, the Wryaallah was operating for BB Nicoll. The same year, GWN opened a shipbuilding yard at Terrigal, near Broken Bay, which built the Tweed No. 2, of wood, and the following year, the Byron. In 1892, BBN retired from shipping, meanwhile GWN relocated his shipyard to Jervis Bay, to ‘utilise that good, but much maligned timber, spotted gum’. The Wollumbin was the first boat launched there, followed by the Chindera in 1894, and later, the Orara and Dorrigo (with engines imported from Gourlay Brothers.)  GWN then commissioned another new steamer Excelsior, in 1897, from Gourlay Brothers in Dundee; in the period between 1881 and 1900, they were responsible for almost half the shipbuilding in Dundee (see Wood (1998: 26-27).  (Interestingly, Gourlay Brothers are described in the newspaper article as ‘near relatives of Mr Nicoll’, but this has still to be proved.) In 1900, GWN commissioned another two ships from Scotland: the Cavanba (built by Bow, McLachlan & Co. on the Clyde), and the Noorebah (built by Scott of Kinghorn Ltd., Fife). GWN finally retired from shipping in 1904, selling his fleet and wharves to the North Coast Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. BBN’s obituary (endnote 11) states that the Nicoll Brothers spent over £250,000 in steamships, droghers, wharfs, and other essentials.

[15] Report of the Lass o’ Gowrie’s departure in the Dundee Courier, Monday 18th February 1878, page 4.

[16] George wrote to the Mayor of Sydney in 1894 complaining about the ‘goat nuisance’ outside the new properties he had built in Gloucester Street, Sydney (letter dated 26th June 1894).

[17] The new houses were in Gloucester Street, Sydney, later compulsorily purchased (after George’s death) as part of ‘the Rocks’ redevelopment to make way for approach roads to the new Sydney Harbour Bridge.

[18] The SS Bonnie Dundee is one such ship, wrecked in December 1878, following collision with the much larger SS Barrabool. See, accessed 14th February 2020.

[19] See Richards (1977) pages 34-6.

[20] From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, which tells the story of his 12-day hike through the Cévennes mountains in south-central France in 1878.

‘Aboriginal’ people, ‘race’ and identity in the nineteenth century

Every blog in this series has begun with a challenge – how to make sense of something in a way that does justice not just to what is said but also to explore what is not said. As with the other blogs, I am working through the publications (a journal from 1890 and a book published in 1899) of my Dundee forebear, George Robertson Nicoll. So I want to think about what George chooses to report and why, what he deliberately omits to tell us, and what he takes for granted and does not even notice. This blog explores George’s experiences of ‘race’ and identity – his own and others – from 1848 when he landed in Sydney with his wife Sarah and infant son, George Wallace, and 1901 when he died.

George was a white, male, Scottish, Presbyterian colonist; I am a white, female, Scottish, currently-agnostic academic, living in Scotland – very much an outsider, just as he was. I have visited Australia on three occasions, and during those times, had very little contact with Aboriginal people. In contrast, on three visits to Aotearoa/New Zealand, I was privileged to meet Māori women and men, some of whom I got to know well as they shared stories of their culture and heritage with me.[1] What does this tell us, about very different approaches to the First Nations people of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand? But that is another story, and it’s George’s experience that I want to foreground in this blog.

What comes across in George’s writing is the story of a man who was trying to make sense of the very different situations he found himself in. He was, at heart, ‘Scotch’, deeply proud of ‘bonny Scotland’ (Journal, page 1), its scenery, its music, its dancing, its education, its whisky! He returned here on many occasions during his lifetime and finally chose to live out his last years in Scotland. Beyond this, he liked to think of himself as a ‘good man’, God-fearing, loyal, honest and protective of the weak and vulnerable; this is the George that he wants the reader to see. But he struggles to live up to his self-image, and this produces some dissonance in his accounts of his life and adventures. At times, he comes across as genuinely sympathetic – he understands and accepts that the white man has done real harm to indigenous peoples. Yet at other times, he seems to accept cultural stereotypes without question. Through a close reading of his book and journal, and by placing this in its wider social context, we can uncover something of the complex reality of the contradictions within a white emigrant’s views of ‘race’ and identity.

Situating George’s writing in context

One of the most striking aspects of George’s journal and book is how little he mentions Australia’s First Nations people (widely known, at that time, as ‘Aborigines’ or ‘Aboriginals’).[2] Either they were so common as to not merit attention (extremely unlikely by 1848) or they simply did not feature in his world (a more likely explanation). We hear much more about his encounters with ‘savages’ in the South Seas than we do about his interactions with the indigenous peoples of Australia. And this requires further reflection.

A white man’s interpretation of an encounter with Aboriginals

Estimates vary, but it is suggested that there were between 300,000 and 600,000 indigenous people living in Australia in 1788, at the time when the first transport ships carrying convicts arrived in Sydney Cove.[3] They had lived in Australia for some 30,000 years and were divided into more than 500 tribes, with at least 220 distinct languages. Their numbers had already been massively depleted by 1848. Not only had many been killed by conquerors’ guns, others had died from the imported diseases of pneumonia and consumption, smallpox and syphilis.[4] Tens of thousands had been forced off their traditional lands, as free settlers, assisted migrants and former convicts had cleared ‘the bush’ and destroyed forests to make way for farming. The impact of the ‘pastoral incursion’[5] cannot be overstated, as Macintyre (2009) explains:

‘[…] there was little effort to increase efficiency or conserve resources. Stock quickly ate out native grasses. The cloven hoof hardened the soil and inhibited regrowth. Patches of bare earth round the stockyards, eroded gullies and polluted water-courses marked the presence of the pastoral invader. So did the signs of human loss, the ruined habitats and desolate former gathering places of the Aboriginal inhabitants, the skulls and bones left unburied on the sites of massacres, and the names that because associated with some of them’ (page 59).

By 1848, large numbers of ‘Aboriginal’ people had been forced to far-flung mission stations and native reserves for their own ‘protection’ – protection from white settlers who shot and poisoned them and protection from each other, as rival tribes fought over land. The discovery of gold in the 1850’s was another nail in the coffin of the indigenous people of Australia, as gold digging in New South Wales and Victoria placed enormous pressure on the land and on a people whose way of life had depended upon living off, while caring for, the land.[6]

A search of local newspapers in 1848 gives a flavour of how Aboriginal people were presented at that time. In the Sydney Morning Herald, we find them convicted of stealing potatoes and sheep and killing cattle; charged with assault, rape and murder. We also find stories of ‘atrocious outrage’ like this one, as one tribe attacked another at night at Gundagai:

Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), Wednesday 26 April 1848, page 3

In contrast, there are positive stories, such as accounts of ‘our sable brethren’ providing ‘great service’ at harvest time. But two strong messages come through again and again in the newspaper coverage. Firstly, we are told that the ‘Aboriginals’ were a ‘backward’ race, ‘incapable of elevation’[7] (all attempts at ‘civilising’ them were bound to be ultimately ineffective). Secondly, we read that they would ‘soon disappear from amongst us’ (the so-called ‘doomed race theory’).[8] Both messages led to the same incontrovertible conclusion: nothing could be done, whether one showed pity for, or hostility towards, Aboriginal peoples. This was the prevailing view that George Robertson Nicoll would have inherited when he landed at Sydney in 1848.

‘Blackfellows’ in Sydney

The first mention of indigenous Australians in George’s writing appears early in his account of his travels and adventures, and it is not a favourable first impression:

‘Next day we came on shore with all our luggage and rented a small two roomed weatherboard house in Sussex Street – a dirty, damp place full of rats and blackfellows living next door nearly always drunk and noisy and singing a song with this chorus: “The world may nag, since I got the bag; for hundreds have got it before me” ‘(Journal, page 39).

This presentation of Aboriginal people as poor and drunk is a familiar one in the newspapers of the day; poverty and alcohol use remain a serious problem in indigenous communities.[9] John Pilger’s (2013) film Utopia is a damning indictment on the conditions in which many First Nations people are forced to live today.

I was unable to find the song that George refers to; it has been lost over time, along with its meaning. What was ‘the bag’ in the song. Was it ‘the sack’ (they had lost their jobs)? Or was it a sexually transmitted infection such as syphilis or gonorrhoea (both were both passed on by white men to Aboriginal women, who in turn, infected their partners).[10] Alternatively, did George misunderstand what he heard; was this actually an Aboriginal word that he was unfamiliar with? We have no way of being sure.

The next mention of Aboriginal people is a few months later, in relation to George’s trip to California as part of the 1848 gold-rush:

‘[…] we made a start. Took two Aboriginals Blacks with us, as they had better eyesight than us and would as we thought be useful to pick up the small gold specks; such was our ignorance of gold finding at the mines’ (Journal, page 47).

This is the one and only mention of these two men. We know that George and his mates failed to find gold and returned to Sydney as soon as they were able to secure their passage. But we have no idea what happened to these men. Did they manage to hitch up with other more successful diggers and make their fortunes, or as seems more likely, did they die of cold and starvation in the snow-bound country they found themselves abandoned in, without money and without support?

Later, George describes the Aboriginal people he sees at the New South Wales goldfields:

‘[…] arrived at Queanbeyan and stayed there with an acquaintance of mates and equipped ourselves with tent, tools, blankets, provisions etc., we arrived in due time and found the country hilly and very cold, well-watered with beautiful spring water on the tops of the tablelands, abundance of grass and potatoes wild, about the size of gooseberries.  We dug them out with knives and boiled them. The blacks come every year for them and live on them while they last, together with kangaroo, Opossums etc., we pitched our tent on one of the hills and made ourselves as comfortable as we could.  Firewood was scarce and the weather extremely cold and the ground damp’ (page 110).

This description fails to indicate that the diggers were making it extremely difficult for the Aboriginal people to live in their traditional ways. Not only were they competing for food, they were also devastating the land, polluting streams and rivers and clearing forests and bushes so that wildlife disappeared.[11] Bruce Pascoe has written a powerful riposte to the conventional presentation of Australia’s First Peoples as hunter-gatherers who lived in an uncultivated land. He argues that they planted, irrigated and harvested; they stored the surplus in sheds; they built dams, houses and villages. But they did so with a larger goal in mind:

‘Earth is the mother. Aboriginal people are born of the earth and individuals within the clan had responsibilities for particular streams, grasslands, trees, crops, animal, and even seasons. The life of the clan was devoted to continuance’ (Pascoe, 2018: 209).

What the First Nations people were faced with was the destruction of their land and culture, as the new ‘Australians’ consolidated their hold on the country. George was inevitably implicated in this process in all his activities, on the gold-fields, in forestry, in farming, and finally, in trading with settlers up and down the rivers of New South Wales. This is not, however, something that he chose to write about.

Experiencing racism first-hand

An interesting aside is that George himself experienced discrimination in San Francisco in 1848, where he and his mates were greeted with posters bearing the message: ‘NO SYDNEY MIGRANTS HERE’. As he explains:

‘[…] A deal of misery existed at this time. The Sydney people were camped at a place outside the town called Happy Valley, where they pitched their tents and erected portable wooden houses which they brought from Sydney and other parts of the colony. We came across some we knew who had arrived before us and who were at work on the streets, but they were much afraid to speak to us for fear any of the Yankees working alongside would hear we were from Sydney in which case they would be discharged or perhaps something more befall them, so we had all to say we were from New Zealand or Canada’ (page 54).

The posters illustrated the widely-held perception that all Australians were convicts – thieves and murderers – and California did not want them! Nevertheless, George does not comment on the much more widespread anti-Chinese hostility at this time, which reached a head in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting the immigration of all Chinese labourers.

Encounters with ‘savages’, ‘natives’ and ‘cannibals’

Returning from California early in 1849, George was shipwrecked at the Bay of Islands for some months. While he was there, he was helped by a number of locals (white men and black men, women and children), and he writes very forcefully about a ship’s captain’s double-crossing of the ‘natives’ who had rescued them.

Lau Islands, Fiji

George describes his encounters with the South Sea Islanders in great detail. He admired the ‘natives’, whom he describes as big and strong, although sadly lacking in clothes (he saw this as a marker of how ‘civilised’ they were). He was especially relieved to be advised that he and his fellow sailors had been ‘tabooed’ – they were not to be eaten! His account includes the following stories:

‘[…] we were in great suspense, when a native came on board. He was very big man, a regular giant. He said nothing but took up my blanket, which I had saved, and a tommy hawk. He placed the blanket over his shoulders and with the axe in his hand sat in the bow of the boat staring at us and waving the small axe for about two hours. He brought neither coconuts nor anything with him and we were in a sad plight to know what was up. In the meantime we were showing off two rusty red flint guns which were no use as we had no powder but thought they might frighten the savage […] the savage plunged in the sea and swam off with blanket and tommy hawk. Nothing occurred until daylight when a native swam to us with some young coconuts tied around his neck and, as this was a sign of peace, we lifted the kedge and went into the beach with the boat (Journal, pages 62-3).

The story continues:

‘We now spread our clothes out on the grass to dry. As soon as they were laid out however, they were all stolen. I saved nothing but what I had on, a shirt and pair of trousers. The natives now came to us in scores, men, women and children. We had saved a saucepan or two and took possession of an empty hut. The cook caught a sea turtle and made some turtle soup for our dinner. There were two natives here from Tonga who were building a canoe and who had been among the missionaries and were now trying to connect the natives. They came to us and made signs that we were to be tabooed. That is, not to be hurt by the natives’ (Journal, page 64).

He then travelled to another island where he lived for a few weeks with a ‘Yankee’, who had a ‘black wife’ and a ‘black man slave and black woman slave’. George describes his shock at the treatment of the black woman slave:

‘One morning his female slave forgot to put the salt on the table for our eggs, he called his tall man and told him to get the whip and bring the female slave to the door of the kitchen, tie her to the post and whip her on the bare back, for that small offence, or rather mistake, in order to show us what he could do and what power he had over these poor creatures. This cruelty interfered very much with our digestion. We had previous to this learnt from him by conversation that he had been colleged in Salem, South America. His father was a clergyman and owned several slaves and said that there was no more pain in that than whipping a horse. After this he fell very much in our estimation’ (Journal, page 68).

George continues:

‘At this time, a white wishing to settle on any of these islands could buy a male or female servant from the chief for about 10/- of trade, such as a cheap gun. The chief would also build him a Fijian house for the same amount. The few whites who were living on these islands got their wives and servants through the chiefs in this way. The wives and servants do all the work, build the houses, plant yams, catch fish, dig the yams, cook, wash etc. The black men do only as they fancy. They make the canoes and implements of war and do any fancy work etc. as well as go to the wars’ (Journal, page 69).

He also writes very critically about missionaries and the harm they had done in the South Sea Islands. His observations are telling:

‘As far as I have seen and heard, it is my opinion that the white missionary has a splendid time of it and may come home to England in less than twenty years with a handsome fortune. However, if they would only send home true reports about the grand life they have they could be forgiven as it is a great shame that the poor people in England and throughout the British Empire should be induced to give so much of their hard earnings away under the cloak of converting the poor heathen. It is all a great mistake for the “poor heathen” in the South Sea Islands are far better fed that the British poor with the advantage of having no work to do, as a rule they are far happier before the missionaries come among them, for they afterwards know the use of money, strong drink, tobacco and vice of which they were innocent before. The money however that is collected for the poor heathen never reaches them, the missionaries agents, presidents, secretaries and other officials, eat it all up in grand style but the “poor heathen” does not want it, they themselves say – feed your own poor in your own country, for missionary eat it all (Journal, pages 72-3).

It is noteworthy that George does not describe the mission stations and native reserves in Australia in the same way; it seems he had no contact with them. Nor does he comment on the notoriously racist Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, which was first passed in Queensland in 1897, and followed in Western Australia in 1905, Northern Territory in 1910 and South Australia in 1911.[13]

George finishes the account of his shipwreck by introducing another story of an inter-racial marriage:

‘Among the whites was a Scotch chap from Montrose, who had the share of a small boat. He had a black wife and black slave, had a family of children and some goats and fowl. I asked him if he would not like to leave the island. He said no, never. I am happy, get a good living, am my own master and can do as I like, with no rent, taxes or wages to pay, with plenty to eat and drink. We also bade adieu to our host and black Nancy, his wife, as well as the other whites and darkeys who were so kind to us. We felt as if we were parting from friends’ (Journal, pages 77-8).

This is the George he wants us to see – open, accepting, non-racist.

Later years

There is no other mention of black or First Nations people at any point in the rest of George’s narrative of his life and adventures in Australia. In his final years, he travelled the world as a tourist almost non-stop, and he provides vivid accounts of his trips to mosques, temples and churches, to museums and burial sites, to shops and schools. He also visited World Fairs on three occasions, in Paris in 1889, in 1893 and 1895 in Chicago, where he would have seen displays of First Nations’ peoples, seen at the time as educational, not controversial in any way.[14]

World’s Fair, Chicago, 1893

In all this writing, George comes across as someone who was interested in how other people lived their lives, open to difference, with a curiosity and lively intelligence. He was not obviously racist in any way.  But maybe that is not the point. George benefited from the privilege of his own gender, ‘race’ and culture. As Satnam Virdee (2019) points out, racism works through ‘multiple routes’; it is ‘incremental’ and ‘relentless’:

‘It is only through concretisation that we can demonstrate the interplay among causal mechanisms, idiosyncratic events as well as powerful contingencies. In that process, we can illuminate what work racism accomplished across time and place as well as for whom and why’.[15]

George Robertson Nicoll was a man of his’ time and place’. His story is both unique and, at the same time, symptomatic of this wider reality. He was, at the end of the day, a British coloniser, complicit in the imperial project. Two of his sons went on to become prominent politicians: George Wallace Nicoll at local level as an Alderman in Canterbury, Sydney and Bruce Baird Nicoll at state level as the Protectionist member for Richmond on the New South Wales Legislative Assembly (M.L.A.) between 1889 and 1894. Both men were ‘Federationists’, proud Australians who supported the coming-together of the six self-governing colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia into the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Bruce was also a Protectionist, and as such, would have been sympathetic to the ‘white Australia’ policy as outlined in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which outlawed the immigration of non-Europeans, specifically Chinese people and Pacific Islanders.

As George’s descendant and a British person, I have benefited both from his individual achievements and from the imperial colonising project in general, just as I currently benefit from my own privileges of class and ‘race’ every day of my life.

Viviene Cree

20th January 2020

Primary Sources

Nicoll, George Robertson (1890). The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll, unpublished journal.

Nicoll, George Robertson (1899.) Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. London: self-published.


Cree, Viviene E. (ed.) (2013). Becoming a Social Worker, Global Narratives. London: Routledge. ISBN 978 0 4156 6694 7

Macintyre, Stuart (2009). A Concise History of Australia. 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pascoe, Bruce (2018). Dark Emu. London: Scribe Publications UK Ltd.

Ritchie, John (1975). Australia As Once We Were. Melbourne: Heinemann.

 Further reading

Attwood, Bain (1989). The Making of Aborigines. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Docker, John and Fischer, Gerhard (eds) (2000). Race, Colour & Identity in Australia and New Zealand. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Elkin, A.P. (1945). The Australian Aborigines. How to Understand Them. Sydney and London: Angus and Robertson Ltd.

Evans, Raymond, Saunders, Kay and Cronin, Kathryn (1988). Race Relations in Colonial Queensland: A History of Exclusion, Exploitation and Extermination (Second edition) Brisbane: University of Queensland Press.

Evans, Raymond (1999). Fighting Words. Writing about Race. St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

Kidd, Rosalind (1997). The Way We Civilise: Aboriginal Affairs – The Untold Story, St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

Loos, Noel (1982). Invasion and Resistance: Aboriginal-European Relations on the North Queensland Frontier, 1861–1897, Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Macmillan, David S. (1967). Scotland and Australia 1788-1850. Emigration, Commerce and Investment. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Richards, Eric, Reid, Richard and Fitzpatrick, David (1989). Visible immigrants, Neglected Sources for the history of Australian Immigration. Canberra: Dept. of History and Centre for Immigration and Multicultural Studies, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies. Research and Indigenous People. Dunedin: University of Otago Press and Zed Books.


[1] For more information, see chapters written by Moana Eruera and Gaylene Stevens in Cree (ed.) (2013).

[2] To find out more about the various terms given to Australia’s First Nations people, see

[3] Ritchie, 1975 page 26; Macintyre, 2009 page 61.

[4] See Campbell, Judy (2002). Invisible invaders: smallpox and other diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1780-1880. Carlton South, Vic: Melbourne University Press.

[5] Sheep numbers increased from 100,000 in 1820 to 1 million in 1830, and while the production of other livestock and cereal crops also increased sharply, it was sheep that were ‘the shock troops of land seizure’ (Macintyre, 2009: 58). New South Wales flocks numbered 4 million in 1840 and 13 million in 1850.

[6] See my previous blog for a fuller t of the negative impacts of gold digging.

[7] See Westgarth, William (1948). Australia Felix, Historical and Descriptive Account of Port Philip, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.

[8] See McGregor, Russell (1997). Imagined Destinies. Aboriginal Australians and the Doomed Race Theory, 1880-1939. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. It was this idea that led to the conclusion that aboriginal children should be taken from their mothers (both so-called ‘half-castes’ and ‘full-blooded’ children) and placed with white families for their own ‘protection’; they have been called the ‘stolen generation’. See

[9] Study reported in the Guardian newspaper, 20th February 2015. See For more recent research, see Lee, K.K., Conigrave, J.H., Wilson, S. et al. (2019). Patterns of drinking in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as self-reported on the Grog Survey App: a stratified sample. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 19, 180. doi: 10.1186/s12911-019-0879-8

[10] See Dowling, Peter J. (1997). ‘A Great Deal of Sickness’: Introduced Diseases among the Aboriginal People of Colonial Southeast Australia. Unpublished PhD thesis, Australian National University, Canberra.

[11] See my previous blog for a fuller account of the negative impacts of gold digging.

[12] Although cannibalism was practised in a number of the islands at this time, white people (and missionaries) were treated as ‘taboo’ (ref).

[13] This legislation established reserves to which Aboriginal people could be forcibly taken and removed their civil rights, treating them as dependents rather than citizens. The Act was strengthened by subsequent amendments.

[14] Such displays were a common feature at the fairs. There has been much debate about how far this was degrading and exploitative, and to what degree Native Americans, for example, were able to use these displays as an opportunity to represent themselves in an authentic way. See Beck, David R.M. (2019). Unfair Labor?: American Indians and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[15] Satnam Virdee, Unthinking Sociology and Overcoming its History Deficit, The Sociological Review Annual Lecture, 18th August 2019, available on Youtube:


Nothing but Gold

‘In 1852, Australia became the talk of the world. It was the moment in our history when there was nothing but gold.’ So writes Robyn Annear, as she tells the story of her great-great-grandmother’s experience of life as the wife of a gold-digger in Victoria in the early 1850’s.

167 years later, I visited the Victorian goldfields, retracing the steps of my own ancestor, Dundonian George Robertson Nicoll, who took part in gold rushes in California, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria over a period of 12 years, on and off, from 1849 to 1861. His story – of failure as well as success – is the story of many gold-diggers of this period. Just as importantly, the repercussions of the gold rushes on both the landscape and the culture of both countries are still being felt today.

It was on the 24th January 1848 that gold was first discovered in John Sutter’s mill-race on the Sacramento River in California. Reaction to this momentous event was initially slow, but as news spread, what has been called the California gold rush began. By the middle of 1848, San Francisco was half empty, with three-quarters of the men off to the mines, shops closed, newspapers suspended and ships in the harbour deserted by their crews (Holliday, 1981: 35). The consequences of the California gold rush were ‘vast and far-reaching’ (Rohrbough, 1997: 1), felt not only across America, but also across the world, including 10,000 miles away, in what was then the Australian colony of New South Wales (NSW), where George Robertson Nicoll was living with his wife Sarah and young son George Wallace Nicoll. In his book of his travels, George describes the impact of the California gold rush on Sydney in late 1848:

‘In Sydney, hundreds sold off their household furniture, and also their houses, for what they could get. Those who could not dispose of theirs, borrowed money on the security of the title-deeds, if they could raise as much as would pay for their passage. Property could be bought at this time for a mere song, so great was the excitement’ (1899: 5).

George tells us that there were no steamers fit to make the journey to California, so small coasting vessels were used instead, and he was kept busy making gun-cartridges and other fittings; the boats were being armed against pirates! George also made wooden tent poles and wooden portable houses to be shipped to San Francisco for people on the goldfields. By late December 1849, he himself ‘caught the gold-fever’ (1899: 6) and was persuaded to buy a share in the Sea Gull, a schooner that he had fitted out for the journey to San Francisco. The 25 shareholders hatched a plan, that half of them would go to the goldfields, while the rest would sail and trade on the Sacramento River. They would meet up in two years’ time and divide the profits or losses.

As things turned out, neither part of the plan succeeded. By the time they arrived (at the end of February 1850), the goldfields were swamped with diggers: most of the rivers and their tributaries had already been claimed and the gold-finds themselves were greatly reduced. Thousands of miners were giving up and heading for home (Holliday, 1981: 300). There was also, however, a more pressing problem, and that was the weather. Heavy snow meant that George and his mates were unable to even reach the goldfields, let alone dig for gold.

Downtown Grass Valley, California

They were also unable to sell their carefully accumulated supply of fresh fruit, vegetables and provisions, because when they arrived, their boat was impounded by the Customs’ Authorities and all the produce confiscated.[1] George and his shipmates were forced to seek work where they could get it, some discharging ships in the harbour and others working on the roads. With his money rapidly dwindling, George signed up as an able-bodied seaman on a brig, the Lady Howden, bound for Sydney. Following shipwreck and various near disasters (including encounters with cannibals!), he finally returned to Sydney on a small man-of-war, the Bramble, in the middle of 1850. He had been away for eight months and had ‘saved nothing but what clothes I had on, viz shirt, trousers and hat’ (journal, page 82).

George’s experience was shared by many who clamoured to the California gold rush, then and later. Even when gold was discovered, the people who made most out of gold were not the diggers themselves, but the people who supplied them. Writing about the Scots who went to the Californian goldfields, Jenni Calder states that much of the gold acquired ‘was quickly spent. Wherever there were miners, there were those who supplied their needs – provisions, equipment and entertainment. Most of the supplies came via San Francisco, and none of them came cheap’ (2009: 106). This point is echoed by economic historians, Clay and Jones, who state that economic outcomes were ‘generally small or even zero for miners, but were positive and large for non-miners’ (2008: 997). George was lucky. When he got home, Sarah had saved enough to allow him to start work as a shipwright again, and he rebuilt his business, later supplying diggers with tents poles and pick-axes after gold was discovered in NSW. But the lure of gold was too strong, and by August 1851, he headed off in a party of 10 shipwrights, again determined to make his fortune.

George’s second attempt at gold-digging was more successful than his first. His book of his travels details how ill-prepared they were for what lay ahead of them; for example, they took far too much equipment and lost a great deal of it on the way. The weather was cold and some members of the party soon lost heart and returned to Sydney. It was, as George describes, an uncertain and difficult life:

‘One moonlight night, about twelve o’clock, there was a rush of people tramping past our tent up the Turon [river], going to a new place just discovered. I rose, hastily got on my clothes, and followed them. They were going off to a place called Golden Point, about six miles farther up. I took a meal and my billy with me and went too, but did not get a claim. They were all taken, and the holders were waiting for the commissioner to come and give them the necessary documents before they could begin. Some of the men were lying on the ground, taking hold of the long grass with their hands, while others – rival claimants – hauled them off, swearing and fighting. I was too late for Golden Point, but fortunate enough to get a claim on the next point on the river – Maitland Point. I marked it out and left it in charge of one of my acquaintances while I returned for my mate and tent etc.’ (1899: 39).

Men digging for gold, by Edwin Stocqueler. With thanks to National Library of Australia

George spent four months at the digging, before returning to Sydney where another son, Bruce Baird Nicoll, had been born. This time he did the journey unencumbered by horses or equipment; he and his mate walked barefoot for five days (130 miles) carrying only a blanket each, later picking up a stagecoach at Parramatta. (There were no railways at this time.) George had earlier sent his gold pickings by government escort; this was a much safer (though expensive) way of taking gold back to Sydney. He then returned to the Turon, where he heard about gold being discovered at Mount Alexander,[2] 80 miles north of Melbourne. So he and his mate sold their claim and headed back to Sydney on foot again, before booking passages on a brig, the Thomas and Henry, bound for Melbourne.

Map of the Victorian Goldfields, 1851-52 (Annear, 1999)

After checking out that the goldfields seemed profitable, George went home to collect Sarah and the three children, and they all travelled together to Golden Gully at Mount Alexander, where George built a two-roomed tarpaulin house in a wooden frame, with one room for his family, and the other for his mates. It was now 1852.

George and his mates did find gold at Golden Gully; his share amounted to 17 pounds of gold, a substantial sum, then and now. The family returned to Sydney, where he bought a shop and dwelling houses, before the tug of gold caught him again, and he headed off for the Ovens diggings, travelling 400 miles on foot, and then another 300 miles in order to reach Mount Alexander again. George worked alone for a time, before teaming up with a man from Northern Ireland. In his book, he describes both the hard work and the risks attached to the digging process:

‘… we made a clearance and a start. We got out the washing stuff. The first tub washed out about two ounces. We went home rather cheery at our venture, and returned next day, commencing in the tunnels. In about three weeks’ work we got about three hundred pounds’ worth of gold out of it. We now all of a sudden got out of it, and tried another old tunnel. I was fossicating with my knife one day when I heard a cracking noise. I was lying at full length, with the candle lit, working in a crevice of the rock. The cracking continued, and I moved out as quickly as possible. All at once tons of earth and stones came crashing down, which buried pannikin, candle, knife and pick, and all but caught me. This was the last of these claims for me. They might be lucky, but they were also unlucky, and we thought it was time for us to clear out of it’ (1899: 53-54).

George returned to Sydney, following a letter from Sarah (another child was born), then went back again, this time to the Forest Creek goldfields at Mount Alexander, where he teamed up with another old friend and, going over old ground, they ‘did very well together’ (1899: 55) for a time. He then reverted to Sydney, where he bought a general store along with stock near Burwood, on the outskirts of the city.  He did not return to the goldfields until 1859/1860, after a disastrous attempt at farming in Shoalhaven, which precipitated him taking Sarah and their five children back to Dundee. This time, he headed for the Snowy River goldfields in NSW, where he and his mates struggled for six weeks in heavy snow before he accepted a position at the Mitchell’s Creek quartz mine near Bathurst, working for the Glasgow company on wages, doing carpentry work and erecting engines and stampers. George subsequently had one final attempt at digging a claim for himself, but finding it unsuccessful, he sold it. In 1861, he worked his passage on the Oliver Cromwell, heading for London, to meet up with Sarah and the children again in Dundee.

So, what conclusions can be drawn from George’s experience of gold digging, and what evidence is there of the gold rush today?

Perhaps the most striking aspect of George’s account is how haphazard it all seems to have been. George was forever on the move, teaming up with different ‘mates’ at different times and in different locations, but always travelling. With little in the way of public transport, much of his journeying was done on foot. Life must have been hard, physically and emotionally, as diggers fought each other and the environment to gain rewards that were, for the most part, disappointing. Diggers had to pay the British government 30 shillings a month for the privilege of working a claim whether or not they found gold, and this meant that many lost what little they gained.

And yet on the more positive side, gold was the prize that encouraged George to test himself in new and often challenging situations. It also brought him into contact with people from all over the world – from across Europe and North America and from as far away as China. It also brought him face-to-face with the Aboriginal people whose lands and livelihoods were decimated by the destructive effects of gold on their land and livelihoods; this subject will be picked up again in Blog 10.

I have said that George was one of the lucky ones. It is estimated that 10% of diggers became very wealthy, 10% made enough to set up in small business or farm, the other 80% made nothing, or were worse off than if they had never left home. George was in the second group. His gold spoils allowed him to set up two businesses and, on another occasion, to buy a farm. None of this money lasted, however, and it was not until 1862 that George’s new career as a produce agent brought him the stability and prosperity that he was searching for.

Looking ahead, the kind of gold-digging that George and his mates engaged in (in both California and Australia) was soon overtaken by big companies and massive machinery that could dig much deeper and further than the itinerant diggers had ever achieved. And while the early diggers had felled thousands of trees (often for firewood, sometimes for building mine shafts and houses) and cleared vast areas of native bush, now large companies also polluted rivers and streams in the dash for profits from gold. The story of the devastation wrought by gold is still being played out today in South Africa, Nevada, Indonesia, Western Australia, Peru, the United States, Canada, Papa New Guinea, Japan and China.[3] Meanwhile, Mount Alexander today is a pleasant place to ramble; nature seems to have recovered from at least some of the damage done by the nineteenth century diggers.

Golden Gully at Mount Alexander goldfields, November 2019

Garden (2001) is less certain. He writes:

‘In the bush around gold towns […], vegetation grows on the uneven clumps of clay and stone which cover the landscape. It might be mistaken for harsh natural bushland, but in reality, these are disrupted and degraded ecosystems, devoid of any of the range of species of flora and fauna which once were present. Apart from possums, the small mammals are almost universally gone’ (page 35).

He concludes:

‘Ironically, the scenes of these environmental cataclysms have in recent years become valuable sites in our cultural heritage. […] Environmental issues and repercussions are generally not yet included in our study of or interest in gold mining, but their time must come if we are to learn to live more sensitively in this fragile world ’ (page 43).

This is a hugely important point to end on.

Viviene Cree

21st December 2019


Primary Sources

Nicoll, George Robertson (1890). The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll, unpublished journal.

Nicoll, George Robertson (1899.) Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. London: self-published.



Annear, Robyn (1999). Nothing but Gold. Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company.

Calder, Jenni (2009). Frontier Scots. The Scots who Won the West. Edinburgh: Luath Press Limited.

Clay, Karen and Jones, Randall (2008). Migrating to Riches? Evidence from the California Gold Rush. The Journal of Economic History 68(4): 997-1027.

Garden, Don (2001). Catalyst or cataclysm? Gold mining and the environment. Victorian Historical Journal 72(1&2) Special Issue Celebrating 150 Years of Goldmining in Victoria: 28-44.

Holliday, J.S. (1981). The World Rushed In. The California Gold Rush Experience. New York: Touchstone.

Rohrburgh, Malcolm J. (1997). Days of Gold. The California Gold Rush and the American Nation. Berkeley, LA: University of California Press.


Further reading

Clarke, Percy (1889). Three Diggers. A Tale of the Australian Fifties. London: Faudel Phillips & Sons.

Flett, James (1970). The History of Gold Discovery in Victoria. Melbourne: The Hawthorn Press.

Hocking, Geoff (2007). Castlemaine. From Camp to City. A Pictorial History of Forest Creek & the Mount Alexander Goldfields 1835-1900, 2nd edition. Castlemaine: New Chum Press.

Korzelinski, Seweryn (1979). Memoirs of Gold-digging in Australia. Translated and edited by Stanley Robe. St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

Ritchie, John (1975). Australia: As Once We Were. Melbourne: Heinemann

Victorian Historical Journal 72(1&2), September 2001, Special Issue Celebrating 150 Years of Goldmining in Victoria.



[1] In his journal, George explains that British vessels were not allowed to trade on the American coast or on any of its rivers (1890: 50).

[2] Mount Alexander was the name originally given to all the goldfields around present-day Castlemaine, as far as Bendigo in the north (Annear, 1999).

[3] The world’s 10 most prolific goldfields are described in 2011 in an online article (see I have added China to this list, because the gold-mining industry here is currently undergoing massive expansion (see

Stand by your Man

‘Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, giving all your love to just one man.
You’ll have bad times and he’ll have good times, doin’ things that you don’t understand
But if you love him you’ll forgive him, even though he’s hard to understand
And if you love him oh be proud of him, ’cause after all he’s just a man
Stand by your man’ (Billy Sherrill & Tammy Wynette, 1969).

The previous blog focused on Sarah Baird’s early life in Dundee, before she left with her young husband, George Robertson Nicoll, on the Royal Saxon in 1848. It’s now time to turn to her life in Australia, acknowledging that neither George’s book (Fifty Years’ Travels etc.) nor his journal (The Life and Adventures of Mr. George Robertson Nicoll) say very much about her life. Children were born and died, gold was discovered and stolen, houses were built and sold, businesses were established and passed on, ships were purchased and wrecked, and through all of this, George was constantly on the move, either travelling within Australia or journeying to and from America, Dundee, the Far East and eventually around the world twice. Sarah, meanwhile, was (we can only imagine) the loyal wife, mother and home-maker, living as a single parent for sometimes years on end, and at other times, travelling with George, putting up with the privations and hardships that went along with being a settler in New South Wales in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Because George makes so little mention of Sarah, I have had to follow his story, thinking all the while – but what about Sarah? – locating this in wider literature and using my imagination to do the rest.

Emigrating to New South Wales (NSW), March-July 1848

Sarah’s emigration journey must have been exhiliarating, terrifying, and often gruelling. It is reasonable to assume that she may never have been at sea before, and yet here she was, responsible for not just her own life and well-being, but for that of 10 month-old George Wallace, whom she was still breastfeeding. The small family left Dundee on a steamer for Leith (Edinburgh’s port) in March 1848 and then travelled to London by another steamer (a three-week journey) where they waited for a week at an emigration depot while the barque, the Royal Saxon, was made ready for sail.

Adapted from image of Duke of Lancaster merchant ship in 1842, with the Royal Saxon (pictured here) off her starboard bow. See

Conditions on the Royal Saxon were, initially, good – there was plenty of fresh food and water, and the passengers settled down and organised themselves for the three-month passage. Over the course of the journey, however, everything changed. First, they hit storms in the Bay of Biscay, and everyone was seasick. George tells us that he could ‘hear the heavy seas coming on board the upper decks, thumping like great guns, which made the women and children scream, thinking they were going to the bottom’ (Fifty Years Travels, page 2). They then passed Gibraltar and onto the Tropics where they were becalmed for two weeks. The drinking water was, by this time, stinking and rotten, and passengers and crew alike became ill with fever. A young Scottish man from Glasgow in Sarah and George’s berth died and was buried at sea, his body sewn in canvas with a lump of stone, and ‘slid over a hatch into the deep’ (journal, page 36). Meanwhile, baby George Wallace became ‘very ill indeed’, ‘reduced to a skeleton, having got the Ricketts’ (op. cit.) The ship’s doctor advised Sarah to wean him, which, George notes ‘was very bad at this time’ (op.cit.). How George Wallace must have cried and cried! The doctor himself died soon after, and was also buried at sea.

From here on, the voyage seems to have been unremarkable. George tells us that they fell in with the trade winds, which made it cooler and everyone’s health improved, and the journey progressed satisfactorily. He made himself useful repairing blocks for the ship’s captain, while Sarah looked after her own and other families in their berth. Eight babies were born on the voyage, one to Sofie McDonald (aged 23) from Ross-shire, who gave birth to a son. It seems very likely that Sarah would have been involved in the birth in some way, either supporting Sofie’s labour or looking after her other children, John (aged 4) and Murdoch (aged 2). Three children died on the journey (no names are given); the mortality rate for seaboard infants was extremely high, with as many as one-quarter of infants not surviving the voyage.[1] Margaret Hinshelwood, who travelled to Queensland as a Scottish emigrant in 1883, gives some clues about what it felt like to be a woman passenger:

‘What a strange world we live in, one weeping and another rejoicing. Last night the sound of mirth and music ranged from forecastle to stern, and before dawn the wail of sorrow echoed over the peaceful sea. A fine little fellow of eighteen months was seized with croup and severe bronchitis in the night, and though the doctor tried every remedy, it was of no avail. The poor mother was nearly frantic, it came so suddenly, so unexpected. I could not go on deck to see the little body consigned to the waves. I felt it would be more than I could stand. The captain desired as much quietness as possible, as there is so much illness on board.’[2]

Life in NSW, 1848-1858

Arriving in Sydney must have been a welcome relief for everyone – the sun, the sky, the birds, the light, the dry land! Then again, the mosquitoes, the flies, the snakes, the spiders… And yet this was Sydney in winter, and the Southern hemisphere was experiencing a period of unusually cold and wet weather (Ashcroft et al., 2014; Neukom et al., 2014). Maybe this felt a bit like home? Sydney, like Dundee, was a place of great contrasts, with a lot of poverty, unmade streets and hastily thrown up buildings, but at the same time, a substantial number of public and private buildings, churches, libraries, theatres, banks and shops, a court and a police station. With a population of around 50,000 people, it was considerably smaller than Dundee (reckoned at about 80,000 in the 1851 census). But it was a city that was growing all the time, and one that was about to benefit – as Melbourne did – from the profits from gold.

This was a busy time for George: he travelled a lot and spent considerable amounts of time away from home, chasing gold in California, NSW and Victoria, and farming at Shoalhaven. It was also a busy time for Sarah, who had four more pregnancies that we know about and four more children (there may have been other pregnancies that did not go to full-term). It seems that every time George returned home, Sarah got pregnant again. Was she happy? We cannot know, but there is at least one suggestion in George’s journal that she may have felt lonely; why else would she have walked miles each day to bring him his lunch (journal, page 41). Of course, Sarah would have made friends – she would have had to, just to survive. But the family’s constant moves must have made it difficult to sustain mutually supportive relationships, and while Sarah would have received occasional letters from home, these would have taken months to arrive. [3]

Five months after they arrived in Sydney, George headed off for the Californian gold rush, leaving infant George Wallace and Sarah, now 4-months pregnant, living in a two-roomed house at Miller’s Point in Sydney; Mary was born in May 1849. When he returned in 1850, George was penniless. Not only had he been unable to get anywhere near the goldfields because of snow, he had been shipwrecked on the way back. How did Sarah manage when he was away? And how did they all manage when he came back? Over the next two years, George spent many months away from home, firstly, digging for gold at Maitland Point in NSW, and then at Mount Alexander in Victoria. Another child was born in October 1851 – Bruce Baird – and in March 1852, the family relocated to Melbourne, where George rented a small cottage in William Street, before heading off with the family for the goldfields, along with ‘two mates’ (sailors William Trail from Dundee and Jamie Lawton from Lerwick). He writes in his journal:

‘The wife and children rode on the dray while we [the men] walked. This was the only way we could get up as the road was very rough and the weather hot with plenty of mosquitoes, flies and hot winds, worse than Sydney. We arrived there in about six days, camping at night underneath a tarpaulin. We enjoyed it much as we were young and strong…’ (page 94).

This does not sound like much fun to me, with three children under five years of age! At Golden Gully, George and his two mates built a wooden-framed house covered in tarpaulin, divided into two rooms (one for the men and one for the family). The men worked together for a time digging for gold, while Sarah kept house.

Men digging gold, by Edwin Stocqueler. With thanks to National Library of Australia

Life in the gold fields cannot have been easy for Sarah. Not only were there few women, but those who were there were as likely to be sex workers as they were wives and mothers.[4] George tells us that the children became unwell because of the heat and the ‘bad water’, and George was left working alone, after his two mates took off for Bendigo and Ballarat following new discoveries there. One of the only stories that George tells us of this time is of Sarah’s care for two neighbours on Golden Gully. The men were very sick, and Sarah fed them, cleaned them and looked after them for a week until they were well again; they gave her 2 ½ ounces of gold in thanks. George’s digging was ultimately successful: over time, he amassed 17lbs of gold (a considerable amount, then and now), and with this carefully stashed and a loaded gun by his side, the family headed back to Sydney, where he bought and renovated an old property, the Saracen’s Head Hotel, then a shop and dwelling-houses ‘which proved a good investment’ (journal page 99). George returned to the goldfields, working with limited success, until Sarah wrote to tell him to come home again; we do not know why. He stayed only for a short time and returned to the diggings again, ‘just making wages or thereabouts’ (journal page 103), before returning to Sydney where he bought the goodwill, stock and a general store in Burwood, Sydney. From here, he supplied goods to the team of navvies working on the construction of the Sydney to Parramatta railway. He also got up early each morning to go into the bush and fell ironbark trees, selling firewood around the houses in Sydney. After building up the business, he sold it for a profit, and having heard there was money to be made in farming, he decided to try his luck in Shoalhaven. He subsequently bought a farm with crops and cattle at Shoalhaven, where land was said to be fertile and plentiful, and took his family to live there, including another baby boy, Allen George, born in November 1854.

Time passed, and George tried and failed to make a success of farming. Sarah was pregnant again, and George tells us in his journal that she was unwell, so he bought 2.5 acres of land, along with a clearing lease, and built a cottage at Nowra on higher ground, because the doctor said that ‘the low ground was killing her’ (page 105).

A typical early slab and dash Nowra cottage
A typical slab and dash early Nowra cottage, from Coombs (2014).

Soon after, another baby (James) was born in May. Meanwhile, George sustained heavy losses at farming and Sarah was still unwell, so the family went back to Sydney, again renting a house on high ground. When the doctor recommended a return to Scotland, I can only guess that Sarah must have been overjoyed.

But what was wrong with Sarah? Was this a physical illness – perhaps a respiratory problem (such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD) brought on by her 10 years’ working in a linen factory, and made worse by the damp flood-plains of Shoalhaven?[5] Or was this a mental health problem – was Sarah suffering from postnatal depression, or was she simply missing her family back in Scotland? Powell (2007) outlines many of the challenges faced by women in this new world:

‘The trauma of being a new immigrant and the loneliness and separation that it entailed could prove to be defeating for both men and women. […] But women more likely to die from other causes – high numbers of women died from respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Moreover, women of childbearing age throughout the country had to contend with the complications of pregnancy and childbirth which often proved fatal’ (page 76-77).[6]

Return migration, 1858-1862

After 10 years in NSW, the family (Sarah, George and their five children) returned to Dundee in 1858. George paid for second-class berths on the clipper Duncan Dunbar, sailing on 10th February 1858, a ‘splendid passenger ship’ with ‘mostly squatters and wealthy colonists’ (as George’s journal relates, page 107).

Duncan Dunbar, by T.G. Dutton (1819-1891). See

After a 90-day passage, they travelled by steamer to Dundee, arriving in the middle of May 1858, with a white cockatoo, two Gilear parrots and two dozen Java sparrows. They returned, to all appearances, as successful colonists, coming ‘home’ to Dundee to educate their three older children, no doubt bearing gifts for their many nephews and nieces, and something special for Sarah’s mother, now 69 years of age (Sarah’s father had died the previous year in 1857). The family moved into a rented house in Lochee, with a large fruit and vegetable garden, and spent the summer visiting friends and enjoying the climate and scenery of ‘Bonne Scotland’ (journal page 108.) Six weeks later, the lure of gold meant that George was off again on another ship to Sydney. He was then away for the best part of three years, digging for gold at the Snowy River goldfields, and later working as a carpenter near Bathurst. During this time, Sarah’s lifestyle and happiness took a dramatic turn for the worse.

I was shocked to find her listed in the 1861 census records, living in a tenement flat in Albert Street, Dundee, with only her three eldest children; the two youngest had died, James, on 24th January 1859 (aged 1 year 8 months) of ‘scarlatina dropsy’ (scarlet fever), and Allan George, three months later, on 4th April 1859 (aged 4 years and 5 months) of ‘effusion on the brain’ (possibly meningitis), which George calls ‘hooping cough’. Both deaths were registered by George’s brother, Thomas; George is recorded on the death certificates as a ‘farmer from Nowra, Shoalhaven, Australia’. This was not actually accurate, but may have been felt to be more appealing than ‘itinerant gold digger’! George does not mention the children’s deaths in his book, but he does in his journal, where he describes arranging for a headstone to commemorate them when he returned to Dundee in July 1861, with the intention of ‘settling for good in Scotland’ (as he says in his book, page 68).

How did Sarah cope with all of this loss and grief on her own? Of course, infant mortality was a massive problem in early Victorian Scotland. For example, in 1861, children under 10 years of age made up 54% of all deaths in Glasgow, and figures for the years 1861 to 1870 show that tuberculosis, whooping cough, and diarrhoea and dysentery accounted for the highest number of child deaths. (Flynn et al., 1977: 404-5). But knowing that it is a common occurrence cannot in any way take away from the terrible loss this must have been to Sarah and to the other children.

And how did the little family readjust to George’s presence again in 1861? It must have been strange for everyone. He had been away for three years, and it seems likely that George Wallace (at 14 years of age) would have, by then, seen himself as the ‘man of the house’. The other children were 12 and 10 years, and were used to having Sarah to themselves. And how did Sarah feel? She was pregnant again within a month of George’s return. I would like to think that she still loved George and that this was a union of equals. In truth, George had conjugal rights[7] and this pregnancy may not have been something she wanted. Whatever the truth, George could not settle back in Dundee. He hated the Scottish winter and suffered from ‘rheumatics, headaches and toothaches’ (Fifty Years’ Travels etc., page 69). He longed for the warmer climate, and persuaded Sarah to go back to Sydney with him again. I can only guess that she was glad to go too, sickened by the deaths of her two youngest children. The family returned to NSW, again travelling as assisted migrants in March 1862, this time on the Hotspur. Baby John Baird was born on the journey, and it was Sarah who appeared in the statistics of births on board.

Settling in NSW, 1862-1897

The next thirty years or so seems (on the surface) to have been a more settled time for the family. George set up a new business in Sydney, working as a produce agent, first representing the South Coast, and later trading on the North Coast on the Richmond and Manning Rivers, and he brought his two elder sons into the business. George named one of his steamers the Sarah Nicoll and another the Lass o’ Gowrie, built for him in Dundee. Another child was born in Paddington, Sydney, in October 1867. Named David, he was a much-cherished last child; his siblings were 20, 18, 16 and 5 years of age. George was, by this time, relatively wealthy. Son George Wallace married in 1872 as did Bruce Baird the following year, and both went on to have children of their own soon after. George says very little about this period in either his book or his journal, so it is difficult to be sure what either he or Sarah was doing. An obituary states that Sarah was ‘of a lively and intellectual disposition, and was possessed of considerable literary ability, and her kindly efforts in the cause of charity were many’ (The Australian Star (Sydney) Monday 9 August 1897 p.7). This suggests that Sarah – never afraid of hard work – was probably a volunteer for some voluntary organisation or church society, and she may even have written about her own adventures (though presumably without using her own name[8]). So far, I have not been able to find any evidence either of Sarah’s writing or her charitable work.

Inevitably, there were highs and lows over this time. The two elder sons did well in the shipping business, building it up considerably, and between them, had a combined fleet of 44 steamers. They have been described as ‘iconic figures in the Northern Rivers region’, who had ‘opened up the area to trade’.[9] They also became politicians, at both local and state level: George Wallace was an alderman and later Mayor of Canterbury in Sydney, and Bruce Baird represented the Richmond electorate in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly (Jehan, 2007). Behind the story of the family’s success, there were, nonetheless, other, more difficult life-events. In 1870, their only daughter Mary ran off with a married man, whom she married bigamously, each using false names. Mary came back home the following year, presumably in disgrace, and her father initiated a private prosecution against her former partner. Mary did not then marry until 1882, and this was to a middle-aged widower friend of her father and brother.  Just as shocking for the family, son George Wallace’s wife, Helen, had an affair in 1882, while George Wallace was in Dundee commissioning the building of a steamship; two of her babies had died earlier that year, and it seems that she was struggling on her own. George Wallace subsequently divorced her, taking custody of their three remaining children. The divorce caused a public scandal (as all divorces did)[10], and was carried in all the local newspapers for days on end; extremely distressing for Sarah, who may have felt either/or/ both sympathy and fury with Helen, whose experience of motherhood was not unlike her own.

Nicoll divorce, Brisbane Courier, 1882

George Wallace married again in 1883, and went on to have six more sons. Soon after this marriage, Sarah and George’s last child, David, a painter, died of ‘phthisis’ (tuberculosis) after ten months of illness, at 18 years of age on 12th October 1885. George and Sarah were distraught, as demonstrated by the eulogies in the press and also the huge obelisk that was erected in the Rookwood cemetery in Sydney (Blog 3 discusses the impact of loss and bereavement on this family).

Soon after David died, George and Sarah went back to Scotland in 1886 to visit family and friends. They travelled in relative comfort on the New Zealand steamship, the Tongariro, and if George is to be believed, they both enjoyed the trip, following it with a three-month holiday in Tasmania. George went on to spend the next ten years travelling around the world twice, while Sarah lived with her son Bruce and his family.  She died there on 6th August 1897, not long after celebrating her 74th birthday; George was not with her.


This blog began, tongue in check, with the first verse of the song, Stand by your Man. Looking at Sarah’s life as a whole, it is clear that this is what she did: she stuck by George ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health’, as traditional marriage vows dictate. But did she? She did not accompany him on his last two world trips and was not living with him at the time that she died. In the end, I suspect that she stood by her children and her family, not her man. And maybe that was the best – and the only thing – that she could do, as a woman of her time.

Viviene E. Cree

25th November 2019

Primary Sources

Nicoll, George Robertson (1890). The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll, unpublished journal.

Nicoll, George Robertson (1899.) Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. London: self-published.


Ashcroft, Linden; Gergis, Joëlle & Karoly, David, John (2014). A historical climate dataset for southeastern Australia, 1788-1859, Geoscience Data Journal 1(2): 158-178. doi: 10.1002/gd3.19

Cooms, Roger (2014). Shoalhaven District. Pictorial History. Alexandria: Kingsclear Books.

Frost, Lucy (1995). Immigrant women in narratives of divorce. In Richards, Eric (ed.) Visible Women. Female immigrants in Colonial Australia, Visible Immigrants: Four. Canberra: Centre for Immigration and Multicultural Studies, National University: 85-111.

Jehan, Jean (2007). The Nicoll Brothers. Pioneers of Northern Rivers Shipping, Hurstville: Hurstville Family History Society Inc.

Lai, Peggy S. and. Christiani, David C. (2013). Long term respiratory health effects in textile workers. Curr Opin Pulm Med. Mar; 19(2): 152–157. doi: 10.1097/MCP.0b013e32835cee9a/ Accessed 15th October 2019.

MacDonald, Charlotte (ed.) (2006) Women Writing Home 1700-1920: Female Correspondence Across the British Empire, Volume 5: New Zealand, London: Pickering and Chatto.

Neukom, Raphael; Gergis, Joëlle; Karoly, David J.; Wanner, Heinz; Curran, Mark; Elbert, Julie; González-Rouco, Fidel; Linsley, Braddock K.; Moy, Andrew D.; Mundo, Ignacio; Raible, Christoph C.; Steig, Eric J.; van Ommen, Tas; Vance, Tessa; Villalba, Ricardo; Zinke, Jens & Frank, David (2014). Inter-hemispheric temperature variability over the past millennium, Nature Climate Change 4: 362–36, doi: 10.1038/nclimate2174.

Powell, Debra (2007). ‘It Was Hard to  Die Frae Hame’: Death, Grief and Mourning among Scottish Migrants To New Zealand, 1840 -1890, Unpublished Master of Arts in History dissertation, Waikato:  University of Waikato.

Shlomowitz, Ralph and McDonald, John (1991) Babies at risk on immigrant voyages to Australia in the 19th Century. Economic History Review 44(1): 86-101.

Weber, Brooke (2018) ‘A Mad Proceeding’: mid-nineteenth century female emigration to Australia, Unpublished PhD thesis, London; Royal Holloway, University of London. https://2018weberphd.pdf.pdf


 [1] Schlomowitz and McDonald (1991) state that although the seaboard adult death rate had declined to roughly the same level as the poorer classes of land-based people from Great Britain and Ireland, the child death rates remained significantly higher. Nearly one-quarter of infants died on voyages between 1838 and 1853. See also Powell (2007).

[2] Extract 1.5 Margaret Hinshelwood, account of voyage to Queensland, 1883 (NLS, Acc. 12149). In Breitenbach 2013: 293.

[3] Letter-writing was hugely important means of women keeping in touch, in spite of the great time-gaps. See MacDonald (2006).

[4] See permanent exhibition, Melbourne: Foundations of a City, Old Treasury Building, Melbourne.

[5] Textile dust related obstructive lung disease has been found to have characteristics of both asthma and COPD. See Lai and Christiani (2013).

[6] See also Weber (2018) on migrant women’s mental health.

[7] The assumption that ‘marital services’ (i.e. sexual intercourse) should be expected was not abolished in the UK until 1971.

[8] A delightful book written by ‘A Lady in Australia’, entitled Memories of the Past (1873), recounts the experiences of one middle-class woman who travelled to Australia in the early 1840’s with her husband on a convict ship from Gravesend, England.

[9] Website accessed 17 April 2019:

[10] Public scandal was one of the ways that the behaviour of women and men was policed. See Frost (1995).

Who was Sarah?

When George Robertson Nicoll begins his account of his Fifty Years’ Travels, he does so with the following words:

‘We left London on March 17th, 1848, in the good ship Royal Saxon, a 700-ton vessel with three hundred passengers’ (page 1).

What George does not tell us is that his 24-year old wife, Sarah, travelled with him on that first journey, and remained his partner over the next 49 years until she died in Sydney in 1897, aged 74 years. There is, in truth, very little mention of Sarah in George’s book or in his very detailed journal, The Life and Adventures of Mr. George Robertson Nicoll. She is, like so many women in history, an enigma, there but not there, sometimes a passing mention but more often, missing completely from the narrative. As early as 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote:

‘The history [of England] is the history of the male line, not of the female. Of our fathers, we know always some fact, some distinction. They were soldiers or they were sailors; they filled that office or they made that law. But what of our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers, what remains?’

Over the course of this and the next blog, I will try to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Virginia Woolf and countless feminist historians ever since and ask: what of Sarah, or rather, who was Sarah Baird? I will set on record what is known about her from official sources, starting in this blog with her early life in Scotland, and moving on in the next blog to her life in New South Wales (NSW). In piecing together her story, I will draw widely on women’s history from the UK and Australia. I will also, inevitably, make calculated speculations to fill in the gaping holes that are her own thoughts, feelings and experiences.

In attempting to shed light on Sarah’s story, it needs to be acknowledged that I am not forgetting all those other women whose stories are erased in history (Weisner-Hanks, 2001): in the context of this story, that includes the poor, often Irish women who worked as spinners in the Dundee mills, and the Aboriginal women who were persecuted and displaced by the colonising settler women (and men) who took over their land. Their stories deserve to be heard in their own right, not as a postscript or ‘add-on’ to this story, but if it is at least possible to wave in their direction, I will do so.

Childhood in Perthshire

Sarah was born on 23rd June 1823 at Errol, a parish in the Carse of Gowrie, Perthshire, on the east of Scotland. The Carse of Gowrie is a low-lying, fertile plain between the River Tay to the south and the Sidlaw Hills to the north, and is about half-way between Perth and Dundee. Sarah’s father, John Baird, was a mason. The work of stone-masons in the nineteenth century was highly variable. Sometimes, they would have been employed on prestigious building projects, and at other times, on more mundane work, carving, paving, fixing sinks and chimneys as well as doing ‘memorial work’ (building gravestones), as described in the diary of Arthur Peck, a stonemason in the 1850’s and 1860’s in Hertford, England.[1] Their work would have been physically hard and, at times, extremely dangerous, especially if they were carving stone inside poorly-ventilated buildings or working out-of-doors high up on scaffolding with the minimum of protection. And (as Arthur Peck tells us) the work was never well-paid, in spite of the skill it required.

John Baird had been born in Muiravon, Stirlingshire, the son of Alexander Baird (mason) and Heneretta (also spelt Henereta and Henrietta) Thorntown (sometimes spelt Thornton and Thomson); it is likely that he would have served his time working for his father at Muiravon. He probably travelled to Errol for reasons of work; in the early years of the nineteenth century, the village was growing, with the establishment of a brickworks at Inchcoonans to the north-west in the 1810’s,[2] and the building of new houses and then a new parish church (known as ‘the cathedral of the Carse’), completed in 1833.

Errol Parish Church (from Errol website)

John Baird married Elizabeth Tait on 23rd September 1810, three months before the birth of their first child, William, as was common at the time.[3] Elizabeth had been born in Errol. Her father was William Tait, a handloom weaver; her mother was Isabel Baxter. William would have worked from home, assisted by his wife and children,  which means that Elizabeth would have been familiar with the weaving process (Turner, 1983). Humphries (1995) asserts:

‘Women have always worked. What has changed historically has been the form their work has taken’ (page 85).

Over the course of 20 years, Elizabeth gave birth to 12 children: seven boys and five girls (Sarah was her eighth child). Six of the seven boys died young: two aged 21 years and one aged 11 years; three more were drowned at sea (this information is gleaned from the Baird’s gravestone at Errol church-yard).[4]


Baird family stone

None of the children’s deaths appear on the Old Parish Registers (OPR’s), suggesting that John and Elizabeth may have been members of one of the dissenting churches. This suggestion may be significant, because George’s mother, Margaret Ogilvie Robertson, also worshipped at a United Free Church until her death in 1832.

We have no way of knowing whether Elizabeth worked in an occupation other than as wife and mother, but it is very likely that she did. Whether she did needlework, took in a lodger, looked after other women’s children or carried on her father’s occupation of weaving on a small loom at home, she would have had to contribute to the family income in some way.

All John and Elizabeth’s children would have attended the parish school in Errol. It was a feature of the Scottish education system at the time that although the school leaving age was 12 years, both boys and girls learned the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, while girls were also taught housewifely activities such as needlework.[5] This meant that when Sarah and George travelled on the Royal Saxon in 1848, both were able to read and write, unlike their Irish and some of the English fellow assisted migrants.[6]

Working in Dundee

Whenever anyone mentions Dundee and the textile industry, it is usually in the context of the production of jute rather than linen, and spinning rather than weaving (Miskell and Whatley, 1999); this is clear in the name given to Dundee in the nineteenth century – ‘Juteopolis’. But the experience of the Baird family reminds us that it was linen manufacture that preceded jute, and that powerloom weavers were as much part of Dundee’s story as were the spinners and all the other textile occupations.

So, why did the family relocate to Dundee in the 1830’s? Given that the parish church had been completed in 1833, John Baird may have also found himself without work, or at least without enough work to care for his large family. The children were growing up too; they needed to find work with they left school at 12 years of age. Dundee would have had far many more opportunities than the village of Errol. The family appears in the 1841 census, living in the Hilltown of Dundee, a place where a large number of handloom weavers lived, described in 1850 as ‘one of the poorest and most populous quarters’ (see Turner, 1983: 24). The census reports that Sarah and her sister, Elizabeth (aged 18 and 15 years), were now both working as powerloom weavers. Their sister Henrietta was away from home by then, married to a lapper[7] called James Robertson Nicoll (no obvious relation), and probably a powerloom weaver herself. No occupation is given for her mother, in common with recording practice (enumerators were instructed not to include married women’s work in 1841).[8] The 1851 census records the family living at 12 Rosebank Road, by which time Sarah’s father was a mason (journeyman) of 70 years of age, paid by the day for his work, while her sister, Mary, and brothers, Robert and Andrew, had joined the textile industry and were working as a powerloom weaver and starchers respectively.[9]

We have no way of knowing which mill (or mills) the young Bairds worked in. Were they employed at the Laing Works, about half-a-mile from home, or perhaps at W.G. Grants in Constitution Road? Wherever it was, it was likely to have been close to home; a 12 hour-day (with two breaks for breakfast and lunch) meant that most mill workers lived near their place of employment, and bells and whistles signalled that the working day was about to begin. The mechanisation of the linen industry had a major impact on Dundee; by the late 1830’s, Dundee rivalled Leeds as the principle British linen town (Jackson 1991: 2) and in 1851, there were 43 spinning mills and eight powerloom factories in Dundee, as well as 10 finishing, calendaring and packing plants. The industry by then employed 11,382 workers and imported 40,000 tons of flax (Lenman et al., 1969), turning out coarse linen for sacks and bagging (for transporting cotton and other goods), osnaburg (for plantation slaves’ clothing), and sailcloth and canvas (for the expanding merchant and naval fleets) (Turner, 1983).

We have already seen that Sarah and her sisters were powerloom weavers. Weaving had been a male occupation, and a skilled one at that – their grandfather had been a handloom weaver – but when machinery was introduced to the production process, powerloom weaving became a women’s job, viewed as less skilled and meriting lower wages. The first powerloom fac­tory in Dundee was built by Messrs. Baxter in 1836 at their works in the Dens. Baxter’s factory was 150 feet long, 75 feet wide, and, on one floor, lit from the roof (this was heralded as a progressive development).

Dens Works

Dens Mills was followed soon after by Alexander Rowan at Dudhope, John Laing at Dens Road, and Messrs. Edward at Logie and for some years, these four works were the only powerloom factories in Dundee. Later, their numbers multiplied, to the extent that almost all the spinning works had weaving departments.[10] Wainwright (2002) draws attention to the rigid hierarchy that operated within the mills. Not only were there men’s jobs (so-called ‘skilled’ tasks such as beaming and dressing, and supervisory and maintenance tasks), there was also a strict differentiation between women weavers (who were the aristocrats of the mills) and the lowly spinners (see also Cox, 2013). This is demonstrated vividly in a description of weavers and spinners in the Dundee Year Book for 1903:

‘In at the same gates […] go the respectable, well-dressed industrious girl, and the frowsy-haired, bare armed, short petticoated, shawlied lassie of hard voice and rough manners.’[11]

The weavers, unlike the spinners, underwent a period of on-the-job training alongside an experienced weaver so that they could learn to operate their loom or looms. They were ‘piece-workers’. This meant that their earnings depended on their own exertions and were therefore more variable. But it also meant that they had a measure of control over their work that was not available to the spinners who worked for set wages. Weavers experienced higher rates of industrial injuries than any of the other processes, because they were often tempted to do minor adjustments and repairs to machines themselves, sometimes ignoring the safety procedures that slowed down production and their affected earnings (Cox, 2013: 23). Their work environment was cleaner and less dusty than those of the spinners. But what the weavers suffered from most was the incessant din of the machines. They developed severe hearing loss because of their work, and were forced to use a kind of sign language and lip reading to communicate with one another on the factory floor.[12]

 Sarah meets George

How did Sarah meet George? It would have seemed, on the surface, more likely that she would have teamed up with a young man from the mill, as her sister had done. But Sarah married a young man aged 21 years, almost two years younger her junior, someone whose life was spent at the docks, not the mills. My guess is that they may have met at church, rather than the dancing or any other popular entertainment venue. Both were devout Protestants, and we know that in his journal, George expressed great antipathy towards alcohol. Putting two and two together, I suspect that they may have shared a religiosity, which may also explain Sarah’s willingness to ‘stand by her man’ (as the song goes) over the many difficult years that followed. (We will find out more in the next blog.)

The decision to leave

By the time that George and Sarah discussed emigrating to NSW in early 1848, life must have been difficult for Sarah, as it was for George, whose wages in the warehouse at the Shore had just been cut, as recounted in his journal). George and Sarah were living with their baby in two rooms in the West Port in Dundee. It is very likely that Sarah would have returned to work soon after George Wallace was born on 13th May 1847, almost exactly nine months after they were married.[13] She probably fed him before leaving for work (her day would have started at 6am) and then returned at lunchtime for another feed, before the last feed after she got home in the evening. George Wallace was probably cared for through the day by her mother (who lived for another 19 years) or by one of her younger sisters, fed boiled water or gruel (powered milk was not available until 1923), and Sarah would have been permanently tired, hungry and thirsty. NSW must indeed have seemed like ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’, as George describes it in his journal (page 33). Estimates suggest 51,000 emigrants left Scotland in the 1830’s, rising to 59,000 in the 1840’s and 154,000 in the 1850’s; the figures for the 1840’s and 1850’s include the very many Irish people who came to Scotland before travelling on when they had made enough money. Emigration, Cage (1985) argues, was ‘becoming part of the consciousness of an increasing number of families’ (page 7).

So who was Sarah Baird?

The picture that emerges from this story is one of an independent, self-reliant, family-oriented young woman, educated to a point, able to look after herself and others, brave and willing to take a risk for her young family. She had, George acknowledges, more to lose than him, as he writes in his journal:

‘My wife had some good cries about parting with her people but I had no reason to cry as my home would now be where I could make my best living and enjoy good health’ (page 34).

Lucky George!

Viviene Cree

10th October 2019


With thanks to all those on the Facebook group, Dundonian History for all, and staff from Verdant Works and Dundee City Archives – your insights were most helpful!

Primary Sources

Nicoll, George Robertson (1890). The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll, unpublished journal.

Nicoll, George Robertson (1899.) Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. London: self-published.


Anderson, Robert D. (1983). Education and Opportunity in Victorian Scotland. Schools & Universities. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Cage, Robert A. (ed.) (1985). The Scots Abroad. Labour, Capital, Enterprise, 1750-1914. London: Croom Helm.

Cox, Anthony (2013). Empire, Industry and Class. The imperial nexus of jute, 1840-1940. London: Routledge.

Gleadie, Kathryn (2001). British Women in the Nineteenth Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Humphries, Jane (1995). Women and paid work. In Purvis, Jane (ed.) Women’s History in Britain, 1850-1945. An Introduction. London: UCL Press.

Jackson, Gordon with Kate Kinnear (1991). The Trade and Shipping of Dundee. Dundee: Abertay Historical Society Publication No. 31.

Lenman, Bruce, Lythe, Charlotte and Gauldie, Enid (1969). Dundee and its Textile Industry 1850-1914, Dundee: Abertay Historical Society Publication No. 14.

Miskell, Louise and Whatley, C.A. (1999). ‘Juteopolis’ in the making: Linen and the Inustrial Transformation of Dundee, c.1820-1850, Textile History 30(2): 176-198.

Turner, W.H.K. (1983). Flax weaving in Scotland in the early 19th century, Scottish Geographical Magazine 99(1): 16-30, doi: 10.1080/00369228308736540

Weisner-Hanks, Merry (2001). Gender in History. Oxford: Blackwell.

Woolf, Virginia (1929). Women and fiction, The Forum, March, reprinted in Virginia Woolf (1966). Collected Essays, volume 2, London: Hogarth Press, page 141.


[1] Peck’s great grandson, Ian Fisher, has reproduced Arthur Peck’s diary. See, Accessed 4th September 2019.


[3] Gleadie (2001) suggests that premarital sex was not only common amongst the rural working-class but was actually encouraged by the kirk in Scotland. I have not found any confirmation of this claim elsewhere.

[4] The gravestone in Errol churchyard records: William (born 28/12/1810, died 10th May 1832 aged 21); James Nichol (born 8/8/1821, died 19th October 1832 aged 11); Alexander (born 12/6/1814, drowned at sea); John (born 22/12/1819, drowned at sea); Thomas (born 21/4/1816, Captain, drowned at sea); Andrew (born 1831, died 1853 aged 21 years).

[5] The school leaving age was not raised to 14 years in Scotland until 1883.

[6] In 1855, 89% of Scottish men and 77% of Scottish women could sign their name compared with 70% of men and 59% of women in England and Wales. There were, of course, regional differences, so that Lowland counties did much better than some Highland counties such as Argyll. See Anderson (1983: 8).

[7] A lapper was a textile industry worker who transferred yarn between machines. See Accessed 4th September 2019.

[8]  Humphries (1995) argues that as a result, the 1841 census probably displays a gross under-remuneration of women workers (page 91).

[9] Starchers worked on machines for saturating cloth with hot starch, prior to the cloth going through an ironing machine.

[10] From ‘The Staple Trade of Dundee’. From The 19th Century History of Dundee reproduced by FDCA. See, Accessed 1st October 2019.

[11] ‘Women’s Work and Wages in Dundee’, Dundee Year Book for 1903, page 154, repeated in Wainwright (2002) page 188.

[12] Interview with Lily, former power loom weaver at the Verdant Works, Dundee, on 21st September 2019.

[13] Although the 1847 Factory Act had restricted the working hours of women and young persons (aged 13-18) in textile mills to 10 hours a day, it was not until 1850 that subsequent legislation established a legal working day, and this affected all workers.

‘Us and Them?’ Assisted migrants and the Royal Saxon,1848

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts about my forebears, George Robertson Nicoll and Sarah Baird, who travelled from Dundee with their infant son in 1848 as assisted migrants to make new lives in New South Wales (NSW). The blog asks three questions:

  • What was an ‘assisted migrant’?
  • What does George and Sarah’s story have to tell us about Australian immigration?
  • More broadly, what does this have to tell us about economic migration today?

In answering these questions, I will draw on different sources of evidence: contemporary records from New South Wales, research studies on Australian immigration and, of course, my ancestor’s own journal and book (both are referenced at the end). I hope to show that the familiar binary – immigration/asylum, ‘bad’ economic migrant/’good’ asylum seeker – what Anderson calls ‘us and them’ – is not only untenable in practical terms but unhelpful in political and economic terms too.

The assisted migration scheme

The term ‘assisted immigrant’ refers to those people whose passage to NSW was subsidised or paid for through one of the assisted immigration schemes that operated between 1837 and 1871;[i] many years later in 1945 a similar scheme was put in place, when adult migrants were charged £10 for their fares (they were called ‘Ten Pound Poms’).

To understand why these schemes were thought to be necessary, we need to look further back, to the establishment of NSW as a penal colony in 1788 – notwithstanding the existence of indigenous Aboriginal people for at least 40,000 years before this. Between 1788 and 1842, 80,000 convicts were transported to NSW: 85% men and 15% women.[ii] As a result, the majority of white inhabitants of the colony (which, at this time, included what later became Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania) were, for many years, either convicts or former convicts, guards or soldiers. While there were also small (and growing) numbers of unassisted migrants (‘free settlers’ who were wealthy enough to pay for their own transport to the new world, and who tended to be either farmers, clergymen or work for the colonial administration), most voluntary emigration from the UK up to the 1840’s had been to the United States, because the distances were much less and hence the passage much cheaper. The discovery of gold in NSW in 1851 exacerbated the problem of population imbalance in NSW, with an influx of huge numbers of single men. Within ten years, the population of Australia doubled, and gold fever was blamed for family breakdown, lawlessness and general disorder.[iii]

Assisted migration was introduced, in consequence, as a deliberate strategy of population management; its purpose was to rectify the gender and the social imbalance of the colony, by bringing in women and children and hard-working, non-drinking, God-fearing men who were neither convicts nor gold diggers.[iv]  What began as a British Government-sponsored activity was later handed over in 1840 to the newly-created Colonial Land and Emigration Commission; commissioners acted as agents for the colonial governments which sold land and used the proceeds to assist passages to Australia, as well as to New Zealand and the Cape (Macintyre, 2009).

George and Sarah’s story

George Robertson Nicoll and Sarah Baird were married in Dundee on 17th August 1846. He was a 21 year-old blockmaker (ship’s carpenter); she was a 23 year-old linen power loom weaver. Life was not easy for them. George had been forced to leave Perth in 1842 when his father’s blockmaking business contracted, and he had subsequently worked for his brothers in the Dundee Iron Company before their partnership collapsed in 1846. He tried working for himself, but didn’t enjoy being in competition with his father. Meanwhile, Sarah worked for long hours in an incredibly noisy, unhealthy flax mill; the Ten Hours Act that restricted women (and children’s) work to ten hours a day was not passed until 1848. Sarah had a child in May 1847, and George struggled to make enough money to support his young family.

In his journal, George tells us that what made up his mind to apply for assisted passage to NSW was a story in the Chambers’s Journal, written by Dr Lang;[v] George was a devout Presbyterian and would have been taken Dr Lang’s account of life in the colony seriously. He says he was ‘smitten with a desire to go there and try my fortune, as it was described as a land flowing with milk and honey’ (page 33). In truth, it is likely that George had been thinking about emigration for some time. In the 1830’s and 40’s, emigration stories were common-place, in newspapers and in books; there were advertisements for emigration on billboards on the sides of city-centre buildings, and when the Dundee Iron Company was dissolved, the story immediately next to this in the Dundee Courier and Argus on 1st September 1846 was an advertisement for assisted passages to NSW. The first Scottish ship with a full complement of emigrants, the John Barry, had sailed from Dundee in 1837 with a cargo of 323 specially-selected shepherds and farmers, masons, joiners and engineers. Over the next three years, more than 5000 emigrants travelled to NSW from Dundee (Macmillan, 1967: 275).

By the time George and Sarah decided to ‘try their fortune’, Dundee sailings of emigrant ships had ended, and they were forced to leave from London. First they had to apply to the emigration agents, supplying references from clergymen and magistrates, and paying a fee of £1 each.[vi]  Then two months later, they had to take a paddle steamer to Leith, where they met up with the rest of the Scottish contingent before travelling, again, by steamer, to London. This journey took three weeks. In London, they underwent health and paper checks, while waiting for a week at the Emigration Depot at Deptford for their ship to be ready to sail.  In his journal, George admits that he and Sarah had serious second thoughts at this time about whether the decision to leave was the right one; they were confronted with ‘a perfect babel of tongues and noise by people from all parts of Britain, Welsh, Irish, Scotch, Cornish, English, Highlanders etc.’ (page 34).

George begins the book about his travels with the following words:

‘We left London on March 17th 1848, in the good ship Royal Saxon, a 700-ton vessel with three hundred passengers. Called at Plymouth on our way, took in some stores etc., passed the Eddystone Lighthouse with a fair wind, all in good spirits and in hopes of a pleasant passage to our new home in the Antipodes’ (page 1).

This is adapted from a larger image of The Duke of Lancaster merchant ship in 1842, with the Royal Saxon (pictured here) off her starboard bow. The image appears on the website

The Royal Saxon landed at Port Jackson near Sydney on 19th July 1848. The journey, on a three-masted sailing ship, had covered over 13,000 nautical miles and taken four months and two days. It had seen fair weather and foul, calm and storm, as well as the flogging of seamen and a ship’s carpenter placed in irons for refusing to work on a Sunday. It had also seen the births of eight children, three of whom had died, and the deaths of two adults: a young Glasgow passenger, Samuel White, who had been travelling with his family, and the ship’s surgeon, George Grant, another Scotsman. When the ship finally anchored off Farm Cove, and the health checks had been completed, the passengers disembarked and went off ‘to their friends, some to the up-country parts and some settling in the city’ (page 3).

Remarkably, there are detailed records of the passengers on this and other migrant ships, providing information about the name, age, gender, occupation, birthplace and county, religion and literacy of passengers (this is expressed in the final column of the ship’s log as ‘read, write or both’).[vii] (This was particularly the case for assisted migrants; records for unassisted migrants are much more patchy, because there was no government insistence that ship-masters kept such records.)

There is also additional information available in a supplement in the Government Gazette,[viii] reported in the local press so that potential employers would know who to look out for:

Males Married Unmarried
Smiths 41 1
Agricultural labourers 26 35
Ploughmen and labourers 6 2
Shepherds 2 3
Carpenters 2 0
Coopers 0 1
House-painter 1 0
Harness-maker 1 0
Total 79 42
Females Married Unmarried
Cooks 1
House-maids 17
Nursery-maids 7
General housekeepers 16
Dairy women 3
Total 79 44

What this shows is that there were almost equal numbers of women and men on the Royal Saxon, clearly demonstrating the colony’s desire to redress the gender imbalance. Nearly all of the women passengers who were travelling alone had been in domestic service, working as servants, cooks and maids. The greatest majority of the male passengers, whether travelling alone or in families, had been farm labourers; only a handful were bricklayers, tailors, stablemen, coopers, or, like George, carpenters. Oxley and Richards (1995) point out that domestic servants and agricultural labourers were exactly what NSW needed at this time. Unsurprisingly given that the Royal Saxon left from London, the greatest number of passengers were from England: 58%, as compared with 30% Irish and only 12% Scots. The 28 Scots had come from across Scotland: Dundee and Errol (George, Sarah and infant George Wallace), Glasgow and Dumfries-shire, and the Highlands and Islands, with one Scottish family having travelled from as far away as Shetland. The Scots passengers were overwhelmingly Protestant (including a family of Baptists and another of Wesleyans), and all could read and write, with the exception of one Catholic woman aged 25 years from Glasgow who was said to ‘read only’. Most of the Irish people were Catholics, and few could both read and write.

We don’t know what happened to the 241 people on the Royal Saxon. A reasonable number will have made a success of their lives, but for a considerable number, life in the new world may have been little better than the poverty they had left behind. Some will have returned home, and return migration will be a topic of a future blog. Few, like George, will have kept journals and published written accounts of their experiences; the next blog will explore the absence of women’s emigration stories.

Lessons to be learned

What comes across loud and clear from George and Sarah’s story is that they, like their fellow passengers, had a range of reasons for finding themselves on board the Royal Saxon, and that these reasons were not simply individual ones. When we think about economic migration today, we often do so assuming that the migrants at the centre are self-actualising individuals who are capable of rational choice, who weigh up competing factors and make deliberate choices that are theirs and theirs alone. But many of those on the Royal Saxon were not self-interested actors: they were desperate people fleeing famine and destitution in Ireland and in the Highlands (and indeed Lowlands) of Scotland, as land reform had uprooted families and individuals and traditional systems of support had broken down. For their part, George and Sarah left Dundee because they felt they had little to lose; their journey to the new world can be understood as the next stage on a journey that had begun much earlier, as their fathers and grandfathers had moved from the countryside of Perthshire and Angus into the city of Dundee in search of work. They were, in that sense, the next generation to experience the incremental impact of the agrarian and industrial revolutions.

This is important, because it forces us to think differently about economic migrants today, by placing social, economic and political considerations alongside personal and individual ones. It also challenges the idea that we can easily separate out ‘us and them’ (Anderson, 2013): that is, ‘good’ asylum seekers from ‘bad’ economic migrants; ‘innocent’ victims of people traffickers from ‘corrupt’ people who give money to people smugglers. On the contrary, all need to be understood as people on the move. As the Word Migration Report (2018) states:

‘Migration […] encompasses a wide variety of movements and situations involving people of all walks of life and backgrounds. More than ever before, migration touches all States and people in an era of deepening globalization. Migration is intertwined with geopolitics, trade and cultural exchange, and provides opportunities for States, businesses and communities to benefit enormously. Migration has helped improve people’s lives in both origin and destination countries and has offered opportunities for millions of people worldwide to forge safe and meaningful lives abroad. Not all migration occurs in positive circumstances, however. We have in recent years seen an increase in migration and displacement occurring due to conflict, persecution, environmental degradation and change, and a profound lack of human security and opportunity’ (page 1).[ix]

Viviene Cree

25th September 2019

Primary Sources

Nicoll, George Robertson (1890). The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll, unpublished journal.

Nicoll, George Robertson (1899.) Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. London: self-published.


Anderson, Bridget (2013). Us and Them? The Dangerous Politics of Immigration Control. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Macintyre, Stuart (2009). A Concise History of Australia. 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macmillan, David S. (1967). Scotland and Australia 1788-1850. Emigration, Commerce and Investment. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Oxley, Deborah and Richards, Eric (1995). Convict women and assisted female immigrants compared, 1841 – a turning point? In Richards, Eric (ed.) Visible Women. Female immigrants in Colonial Australia, Visible Immigrants: Four. Canberra: Centre for Immigration and Multicultural Studies, Australian National University: 1—58.


[i] Accessed 12th September 2019.

[ii] › archives › guides-and-indexes › convicts/ Accessed 14th September 2019.

[iii] Accessed 25th September 2019.

[iv] Accessed 12th August 2019.

[v] Rev. John Dunmore Lang arrived on the Andromeda in May 1823. He was the colony’s first Presbyterian Minister and served as a Member of Parliament.

[vi] Oxley and Richards (1995) point out that while shippers were paid a bounty for the immigrants they delivered to the colony, they were allowed to charge the immigrants for their journeys.

[vii] Accessed 12th September 2019.

[viii] Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 20th July 1848 page 2.

[ix] International Organization for Migration (IOM) (2018). Word Migration Report 2018, Accessed 25th September 2019.

Dundee, a City of Discovery?

As a native Dundonian, I have spent my life telling others that Dundee is a “much maligned city”. The Dundee Council website seems to agree with me. It states:

‘Dundee, the City of Discovery, is a modern and vibrant city set in a stunning location at the mouth of the River Tay on the east coast of Scotland with a population of approx. 142,000.

With more hours of sunshine than any other Scottish city and an abundance of green spaces – Dundee provides an unrivalled quality of life. It is a thriving regional economic and commercial centre drawing commuters from a catchment population of 640,000 within a 60-minute drive.’

And yet, I have missed out the second paragraph from the webpage, which seems to suggest that what is really special about Dundee is that it is easy to escape from:

‘The city benefits from a central geographic location, with 90% of Scotland within 90 minutes drive. Dundee is a main station on the UK east coast line, has excellent motorway network access and a regional airport with direct flights from London. It is also a significant cruise ship port.’

The idea that Dundee is a city to escape from resonates with the story I am researching just now – the emigration of George Robertson Nicoll and his wife Sarah Baird to New South Wales in 1848 as ‘assisted migrants’. Unusually, George and Sarah returned to Dundee ten years later in 1858, and subsequently secured a second ‘assisted passage’ to Sydney in 1862. From then on, George completed the three-month journey to and from Dundee a further five times, returning in 1877, 1886 (with Sarah), 1888, 1890 and 1898. He finally settled again in Dundee in 1899 and died on holiday in the Isle of Wight in 1901.

Like most migrants, George was devoted to his homeland, which he calls ‘bonnie Scotland’, and was especially fond of the Perthshire and Angus countryside, which he writes about with great affection. He named his Sydney home Taybank, and one of his ships (built in Dundee for the coastal trade in Australia) the Lass o’ Gowrie. Yet George says almost nothing about Dundee itself, beyond expressing his reluctance to return from his stay in Perth after the shipyards there closed down in 1846. A contemporary description of Dundee from the Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, published on 13th March 1847, may explain why he had no wish to return to what he called ‘smoky Dundee’. The author describes his short trip on the ferry from Fife over to Dundee:

‘… leaving Fife behind, we must get on to Dundee, which, enveloped in a cloud of smoke, issuing from a crowd of lofty chimneys, did not make itself visible till I was actually landed on its quays.’

This is a dreadful picture of Dundee, so what must it have been like for the people who had to live and work in such an environment? The account continues encouragingly:

‘The Dundee folk, however, as I am well informed, care little about the smoke; the great thing with them being plenty of orders for the products of their foundries, spinning mills, and factories. A sagacious, enterprising set of people, with an indomitable spirit of industry, are the inhabitants of Dundee’ (page 161).

This, then, is the reality of Dundee in the nineteenth century. During George’s lifetime, the city underwent a period of major social and economic expansion. In 1801, the population had been only 2,472, and yet over the next 50 years, it had grown to 64,704, and by 1901, it was over 161,173. The Dundee Directory and General Register records six ship-building yards in full employment in 1834, as well as three iron foundries at which steam engines and boilers were manufactured and six further ‘manufactories’ (firms that supplied all the smaller machinery for the spinning trade). A recently-completed research project on Victorian professions includes Dundee as one of its study sites. It offers this description of Dundee in the nineteenth century:

‘The export of wool in medieval times was replaced in the 18th century by the production of linen in substantial four storey-mills, supported by the 1742 Bounty Act. The phasing out of this government subsidy in 1825 and 1832 stimulated demand for cheaper textiles and the town switched to jute production, using its easily accessible supply of whale oil to lubricate the dry fibres. At its height in the 19th century, the Dundee jute industry had 62 mills, employing some 50,000 workers. This jute boom led to an expansion in the supporting industries of whaling and shipbuilding. Around 2000 ships were built between 1871 and 1881 and because of its experience building whaling ships to withstand extreme conditions, Dundee was also chosen to build the RRS Discovery which took Captain Scott to Antarctica – the last traditional wooden three-masted ship to be built in Britain. The second half of the 19th century was a period of great prosperity for the town and it is often said that Dundee was built on the three J’s: “jute, jam and journalism”.’

Another historical source states that ‘at its zenith, the harbour in Dundee sprawled over 119 acres and three and a half miles of quayside, and more than 200 ships and 18 whalers registered in Dundee traded around the globe’ (Ogilvy, 1999: 72).

Inevitably, Dundee’s industrial success did not make it a healthy place for its residents. Not only did they (particularly the women) have to contend with working 12-hour days in noisy, poorly-ventilated factory buildings, their living accommodation would have been overcrowded, with little or no sanitation and no running water. Dundee also had major social problems associated with drunkenness at this time. It was estimated that by 1888, Dundee had more public houses per head of population than anywhere in Scotland, ‘with 447 licensed premises plus innumerable shebeens selling illegal liquor’ (Ogilvy 1999: 185).

One of the things I have been trying to do is to imagine Dundee as George and Sarah would have seen it. This has proved all but impossible, not least because Dundee lost so many of its landmark buildings at two key moments: firstly, as a result of actions taken as part of the Dundee Improvement Act on 1871, and then again more recently, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, as Dundee’s crumbling city centre began to be modernised. Lamb’s Dundee, published in 1895, describes the High Street that George would have known as follows:

‘When the Town House, Trades Hall and Union Hall were all in existence in the High Street of Dundee, the place presented a very picturesque appearance, recalling the market-square of some Flemish burgh rather than the thoroughfare of a Scottish Town’ (page XII).

This early photograph, taken around 1878, captures some of the sense of this. When George was a small boy, the Nicoll family lived in rooms above the shops on the left hand side, and his Robertson grandparents lived across the road and up a bit. Only a few years later, The Trades Hall and Union Hall disappeared, removed for the purposes of road widening. The Town Hall, initially extended to the rear in 1872, was later demolished, along with St Clement’s, Dundee’s earliest parish church, to make way for the Caird Hall, built between 1914 and 1923, and the new city chambers and City Square in 1932.

Another of Dundee’s famous buildings, reproduced by Lamb in 1895 and demolished twenty years earlier, was Our Lady Warkstairs, which stood on the north side of the High Street, opposite Crichton Street. It was, Lamb tells us, the last of the old timber-fronted houses in Dundee, standing nine stories high: ‘one of the most magnificent mansions in Dundee’ (page XXI):

George’s birthplace, Campbell’s Close, 74 High Street, Dundee still exists today, although it is well-past any grandeur it may have held in the past. The rooms at Campbell’s Close, with its wrought-iron gateway, were undoubtedly sought-after property in their day. Today, the High Street still contains some smart stores and shops, but there are also parts that are significantly down-at-heel; Campbell’s Close is now entered to the left of a garish gambling arcade full of slot machines. The close itself is unappealing and dirty, and a homeless person uses the front entrance as his begging stance:

And so my discovery? – to conclude – is that George would not know Dundee today. It is a very different city to the one he and Sarah left in 1848 and to which he returned on many occasions. Its traditional industries of shipbuilding and textiles have gone, and it has sought to re-invent itself as a centre for medical research and the digital entertainment industry, as well as being a major tourist destination, bolstered by the presence of the RRS Discovery and the recent addition of Scotland’s first design museum, the V&A. It is home to thousands of university students; one person in seven of Dundee’s current population is a student. There is, in reality, little that connects it with its past, while only fragments remain: St Mary’s Church, which was rebuilt after fire in 1844; the High School of Dundee, originally opened in 1834 as the ‘public seminaries’; Morgan Academy, established in 1866 as the ‘Morgan Hospital’; the McManus Gallery and museum, formerly the ‘Albert Institute’, founded in 1867;  Couttie’s Wynd (the original through-way that connected the town centre and the harbour). And, of course, Campbell’s Close, which, I hope, may some day get the recognition it deserves as one of the few remaining closes in Dundee.

Viviene Cree

22nd August 2019.


Lamb, A.C. (1895). Dundee. Its Quant and Historic Buildings. Nethergate, Dundee: George Petrie.

It was not until the 1870’s that Dundee inhabitants were able to access clean water, thanks to the building of the new Lintrathen reservoir (Ogilvy, Graham. (1999). Dundee: A Voyage of Discovery. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing).

Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal Volume VII, No. 167, › dundee

On Death and Dying

The title of this blog pays homage to (or should I say ‘waves at’?) the classic text by the psychologist, Elisabeth Kubler Ross, first published in 1969 and in print ever since, read by successive generations of students of psychology, nursing, medicine, and of course, social work. I first read the book in 1980 when I was a Master’s student at the University of Edinburgh. It is fair to say that this book, along with a very few others at the time, changed how I thought. I understood for the first time that death was, and should be, a part of life; that we needed to open up conversations about death and dying, not leave it to ‘experts’, or hide it away in medical institutions. Many years later, I had the privilege of working with Sally Paul, a PhD student, now Lecturer in Social Work at Strathclyde University. Her thesis, completed in 2015, described her action research project ‘Let’s Talk about Death and Dying’, in which she worked with children to develop tools for death education in primary schools in Scotland. Her work as a hospice social worker had taught her that children needed to be able to talk about the taboo subject of death. She argued that our wish to protect children from hurt would only cause them more lasting harm.

But I digress … (The wonderful thing about writing a blog rather than an academic paper is that you can wonder off the main subject and back again with impunity!)

One of the important messages from Kubler Ross’s book was that loss and bereavement are not one-off events, over and done with in a specific (and probably short) time period. Instead, she pointed to the various stages we go through, and often return to. Death and dying are, in many ways, lifelong processes. And it is this awareness that I now take to my emigration story. In the life of George Robertson Nicoll and his family, there are countless deaths and losses, some remarked on by George in his journal (The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll), and some not. There is also physical evidence of some bereavements (in the form of gravestones, death notices and obituaries) but not others. And the times when deaths go unrecorded are, to the social historian, as interesting as the ostentatious displays of grief that adorn some of the various memento mori.

So to George Robertson Nicoll’s story. The first, and possibly most significant, death that he experienced was that of his mother in 1831, when he was just eight years of age. This loss devastated him, and changed the course of his life, as his father subsequently remarried and his place as ‘baby in the family’ was usurped by a new, much treasured child to father James and new wife Helen. Listen to how George describes this in his own words:

‘I was very ill about Mother’s death and did not know till afterwards the want of a Mother’s care. I was taken into the room where her dead body was laying stretched out on a broad deal board, her face wore a smile and her cheeks were as red as a rose, as when in life, next night I was called in the room to see her coffined, or as they called it then, chested, the coffin was laid on the floor, and then the body was placed in it. […] I was then eight years and three months old, too young to be left without a Mother, two days after she was buried in the Old Howff, Dundee, in her Mother’s grave, my Grandfather Robertson being twice married. It was a sad day when I saw the funeral leaving the house for I was kept at home, there was a large gathering, no hearses or mourning coaches in Dundee then, to my knowledge. The coffin was laid on two back wooden spokes and carried by eight of the mourners and friends of deceased and an officer, generally one of the sheriff’s men, dressed in a black cloak or gown, with a large black cocket hat, and a long black stick or rod walking slowly and solemnly in front, and the procession of friends following in the wake. […] After Mother was buried, there seemed to be a great want in our house. We missed her very much, as we had no one to advise and direct us.’

It is the detail that is so moving in this account – I am particularly touched by the description of ‘the black cocket hat’, and the fact that George was expected not only to see his mother’s body, but also to watch while her body was placed in the coffin. This seems very far removed from today’s Western expectations of rituals around death. George’s mother died of ‘consumption’, that is, pulmonary tuberculosis (TB). She was only 37 years old. TB was a major cause of death in Scotland in the 1800’s, particularly in the densely-populated parts of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, where sanitation was non-existent and whole families lived in single rooms in a tenement building. This was not the case for Margaret. She and her family were living in Campbell’s Close, off the High Street in Dundee, in rooms that would have been considered of a decent standard for the time. And yet TB was not only a condition that affected the lower classes. On the contrary, the ‘great white plague’, as it was called, was epidemic in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries and caused millions of deaths (Frith, 2014). Margaret may have been exposed to infection in a number of places, including the many churches she was keen to frequent.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest that Margaret’s death must have played a part, albeit indirectly, in George’s later decision to emigrate to Australia. At the very least, her death reduced the ties he felt to family, Dundee and Scotland, making more possible the very idea of emigration. Unlike many migrants to Australia, George and Sarah were the first people in both their families to make the long journey to the other side of the world (Richards and Templeton, 1998). They did so as ‘assisted migrants’, paid for by the colonial government of New South Wales.

This was not, of course, the only death that impacted deeply on George. Over the course of the next 70 years, he lost his grandparents, parents, brothers and three more children, including his youngest son, David, who died (also of tuberculosis) in 1885 in Sydney at 18 years of age. Such a catalogue of loss might lead us to imagine that George would have been used to death by now; that death would have somehow become an acceptable part of life, as the historian Philippe Ariès (1974), has suggested. But nothing could be further from the truth, as the anguished inscription on David’s tombstone demonstrates:

My David is laid in his dark lonely bed And the cold earth now covered his beautiful head He is gone – gone for ever No more will I see The dear loving eyes that look’d kindly on me. I asked for his life and continued to pray To my father in heaven by night and by day. My wish was not granted and we had to part The pain and the agony sunk deep in my heart.

Oh sad was the parting His last heaving sign I kissed his pale lips And he breathed his goodbye My pitying saviour For thine own name’s sake Oh shelter, uphold me, Or this heart will break.’

David’s death, far from being routine, was a tragedy for his parents, bringing to the surface other long-submerged losses. Soon afterwards, George’s wife, Sarah herself died in 1897, while George was back in Scotland visiting other family members. She had stuck with him through thick and thin, and by the time she died, she was living with their son Bruce Baird and his family in Sydney. George does not comment on her death in either his book or his journal. And this is what I would now like to consider in a little more detail – why are some deaths noteworthy and others not so? What might this tell us, is anything, either about the status of the person, or the relationship with the bereaved person?

Let us now consider this by comparing two very different presentations of death: George and Sarah’s eldest son, George Wallace, who was buried at Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney in 1906, and their last surviving son, John Baird, buried at the Field of Mars, Rhyde in 1938.

George Wallace’s grave is, as we might expect, a monument to a successful businessman, ship-owner, politician and generally upright citizen; John Baird’s in contrast, is an unmarked grave. At the time when he died, the Nicoll family fortune, in as far as his inheritance was concerned, had disappeared. How could this have happened in the space of just 30 years? Did none of the other family members who were still alive care enough to pay for a stone to mark John Baird’s passing?

So here we have it – the story of family members who prospered and perished, lived and died, supported each another and yet left one of their own to struggle. There are echoes too, of George Robertson Nicoll’s half-brother William, who died destitute and alone, in the Dundee poorhouse hospital in 1900.

Families. We cannot make any assumptions.

But to return to where we began – the impact of loss and bereavement. My preferred story is that George does not write about Sarah’s death in the end because he cannot bear to do so – she was, quite simply, the anchor that held him throughout his 50 years of travelling the globe, and without her, he was lost. Or have I read too many love stories over the years?

Viviene E. Cree

23rd July 2019


Primary Sources

Nicoll, GR. (1899) Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. London: self-published.

Nicoll, GR. (1890) The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll, unpublished journal.



Ariès, P. (1974). Western attitudes towards death from the middle ages to the present. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Frith, J. (2014). ‘History of Tuberculosis. Part 1 – Phthisis, consumption and the White Plague’, Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, 22(2) Accessed 23 July 2019.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan.

Paul, S. (2015). Advancing education and support around death, dying and bereavement: hospices, schools and health promoting palliative care. Unpublished PhD thesis, Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh.

Richards, E. and Templeton, J. (eds (1998). The Australian Immigrants in the 20th Century. Searching Neglected Sources, Canberra: The Australian national University.

A Document of Life? – exploring the memoirs of George Robertson Nicoll

This blog post has been a difficult one to write. I wanted to unpack the process of researching a family history, but I have become so immersed in the story of George Robertson Nicoll and his extended family that, for a time, I have been unable to work out what it is that I am actually doing. Am I writing historical sociology (as I had initially intended) or is this a work of fiction (novel, movie or serial)? Or is it both? What are the implications if this is so?

In a classic text on history, E.H. Carr (1961) reminds us that historians always have an angle; history is never neutral, it is always told for a purpose and from a particular point of view, so that one person’s account of an historical event or situation may be very different to that of another person. More recently, critical humanist researchers have argued that people are ‘active, competent interpreters and theorisers of their own lives’ (Stanley 2013: 5). Because of this, those telling a story do so in full knowledge that others will read what they have written. They choose what should be said and what should not be said, in doing so, present a version of themselves that they wish to share with others.

This is a helpful way into thinking about Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc and its accompanying manuscript, The Life and Adventures of Mr George Robertson Nicoll. The author of these biographical memoirs, George Robertson Nicoll, is the hero of his own life story, which is a tale of action, adventure and derring-do; he is also a social commentator and chronicler of other cultures and societies, even though he is at pains to tell readers in the introduction to the manuscript that he is ‘not a scholar’.

Of course, George Robertson Nicoll is not the only active, generative voice in this project. This is equally true of me, self-appointed narrator/ interrogator of George’s memoirs. What I bring to this project is many years of studying history and sociology, as well as a life lived as a self-confessed feminist and socialist, mother, and most recently, social work academic. I inevitably see George’s story in a particular way, and the things that interest me most may not be the same as those that capture the imagination of others, family members and external readers alike.

But there is another complicating factor. This isn’t just any old historical memoir that I have come across and found fascinating. It is the journal of a distant relative of mine, my great great great great-uncle, and all the stories that he tells, and the people who came after him, have a real connection with me. This brings a whole extra dimension to the project, because this becomes not just a biographical study, but, in many ways, an autobiographical one too. What will I do if I come across a story that places a family member in a bad light? Will I be tempted to skip over this, or look for alternative explanations that I would not have done if George had not been, in a sense, part of ‘me’ and me of ‘him’? The need for reflexivity will be no less in this historical project than in any more conventional social science research project.

One example of something that currently perplexes me relates to Blog 2, in which I suggested that George’s last surviving son, John Baird Nicoll, probably died before he had been able to retrieve the manuscript from the National Library of Australia in Canberra, after he had tried (unsuccessfully) to sell it to the librarian. Further research (thanks to my very distant cousin John Macvean from the Gold Coast) proves that John Baird did collect the manuscript after all. His wife Gertude (Cassie) subsequently went on to sell it to the library following John Baird’s death in 1938 because she needed money to pay for doctor’s bills; what can only be described as a begging letter to the library demonstrates that this was indeed the case. But why were they so short of money at this time? We know that John Baird and Gertrude went on a cruise in 1901, presumably paid for with John Baird’s share of his father’s estate (his account of the trip is attached to the manuscript of George’s adventures). We also know that George was a wealthy man when he died in 1901. His elder sons, George Wallace and Bruce Baird, also died wealthy, as did his daughter Mary (they all died in their 50’s, in 1904 and 1906).  So was John the ‘black sheep’ of the family, the one person who had not inherited an aptitude for business and for making money? Or is there another explanation, one that is caught up in the relationships within the family, and which may emerge at some point over the course of this biographical/autobiographical journey? Time – and further investigation – may tell. Then again, it may not. This might become one of the very many questions that remain unanswered, even after the genealogical digging has ended, and the story has been put to rest.

This short scenario illustrates the way I hope to use this blog as an opportunity to practise the ‘uncomfortable reflexivity’ that Pillow (2003) urges on all researchers. It will be a place to ask questions, try out ideas and share vulnerabilities in a way that might be less possible within the confines of a more formal academic paper (Guerin et al., 2015). Through this process, I hope others may bring their own observations and inquiries, here or on my new Facebook site, and that this then may lead to more questions and more insights, and with luck, a deeper understanding of this personal, social and cultural journey.

Viviene E. Cree

24th June 2019


Carr, E.H. (1961). What is History? London: Pelican.

Guerin, C., Carter, S. and Aitchison, C. (2015) Blogging as a community of practice: lessons for academic development?  International Journal for Academic Development, 20(3): 212-223.

Pillow, W. (2003). ‘”Confession, catharsis, or cure?” Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 16(2): 175-196.

Plummer K. (2001). Documents of Life 2. An Invitation to a Critical Humanism. 2nd edition. London: Sage.

Stanley, L. (2013). Documents of Life Revisited Narrative and Biographical Methodology for a 21st Century Critical Humanism. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.


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