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 crows 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.

Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc.

This emigration project has been in my thoughts and dreams for more than 20 years. After my sisters and I cleared our family home in Dundee, Scotland, in 1997, following my parents’ deaths, my mother’s cousin asked me if we had come across a “little red book” written by one of our forebears about his travels around the world. I had never heard about this before, but set out to see what I could find, and I have been on the case ever since, most recently following retirement from the University of Edinburgh.

The book, Fifty Years’ Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. was written by George Robertson Nicoll and printed in 1899 in London by Hazell, Watson & Viney Ltd. In the Preface to the book, G.R. Nicoll writes:

‘At the request of numerous friends I have decided to print only a few copies of this book – a narrative dealing with fifty years of my life spent in Australia, and travels to other parts of the globe. The book has been written, and is intended, for private circulation only. It contains no exaggeration, but is simply a plain statement of the varied experiences I have met with.’

Fifty Years’ Travels

George Robertson Nicoll was a distant relative from my mother’s side of my family; his eldest brother James Robertson Nicoll was my great great great grandfather. George was born on 11 October 1824 in Dundee.  Like his father before him, he was a time-served block, mast and pumpmaker. He married Sarah, a power loom weaver in one of the city’s linen mills, on 17 August 1846.

The starting-point of George’s autobiographical narrative  is 17 March 1848, as he leaves London on the Royal Saxon, bound for Sydney. He tells us that the ship carried three hundred passengers; it stopped off at Plymouth to collect provisions before heading out to sea. From here on, we read about George’s experinces over the next 50 years. So we learn that he initially worked as a shipwright on boats at the docks in Sydney, but soon after, headed for the gold-fields in California and then later Australia, first north of Sydney and then north of Melbourne. He tried his luck at farming, then shipping, and latterly, house-building. There is brief mention of the presence of a wife and also of children being born, as well as stories of a trip back to Dundee in 1858 and subsequent return to Australia. By his early 60’s, George, now wealthy, began to travel the world, not as a migrant, but as a tourist. The remaining two-thirds of his book (almost 150 pages) is a tourist’s recollection of all the places that he visited in the period between 1887 and 1897, sometimes travelling with other family members, but often travelling alone.

Twenty-five copies were printed of Fifty Years Travels.  A copy given to my great grandmother (inscribed ‘to my niece Christian’) has disappeared; all I have is a photocopy of the title page, which was found in papers after my mother’s death. Three copies are held in libraries in Australia: at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, at the Mitchell Library in Sydney and at the University of Melbourne Library. The National Library of Scotland has a microfiche copy of the book, inscribed ‘to my niece Maggie’, and I paid for a photocopy of this for myself and my mother’s cousin in 1997. I read the script with amazement, and began the process (mainly online) of finding out more about this previously-unknown family story. I also tried, without success, to locate a copy of the book for myself. In tandem, the husband of my mum’s cousin spent many hours in local history archives in Dundee, as he set about the job of identifying the family tree.

I visited Australia twice in the years that followed. On my first trip, when I held the ‘little red book’ in my hands for the first time at the Mitchell library in Sydney, I felt nothing but admiration for this skilled craftsman who had had the self-assurance to write down his story for others to read. On my second visit, I travelled to Paddington in Sydney to see the houses that George had built; sadly, they no longer exist. I also looked up the Sydney phone book, finding many Nicolls to whom I might be related. I accessed the book again, this time at the University of Melbourne library, and took notes about gold digging and Mount Alexander. I then put the story to one side, for a time., as I told my family and friends, when this would become my ‘retirement project’.

I finally started again in earnest in early 2019. I re-read the little red book, and did another (unsuccessful) online search for copies that might have turned up for sale. While doing so, however, I was reminded that the National Library of Australia also has a copy of a manuscript, The Life and Adventures of Mr. George Robertson Nicoll. The library catalogue records that this as follows:

Manuscript of “The life and adventures of George Robertson Nicoll”, which was published as “Fifty years’ travels in Australia, China, Japan, America, etc. 1848-1898”. Also included is a 40 page journal of a cruise through the Pacific Islands in 1902 by J. B. Nicoll.

I had initially taken this description at face-value, thinking I would check it later on a visit to Australia. Then I wondered: what if it contained information about George’s early life that would be useful to me now? I therefore paid for a copy to be sent to me by email. When it arrived six weeks later, I found that, attached to the manuscript, was a copy of a letter, dated 16 June 1938 and written to Mr. J.B. Nicoll by the Mitchell librarian, Ada Leeson. In this letter, she acknowledges receipt of the manuscript and says that she has compared it with Fifty Years Travels, which was already in stock. She writes that because the one follows the other ‘pretty closely, there does not seem to be sufficient extra material in the manuscript to warrant my making you an offer for it’.

So this letter gave two new pieces of information. Firstly, we have the source of the suggestion, repeated in the library catalogue, that this was, in effect, a manuscript of the book, Fifty Tears Travels, with the addition of an extra tourist journal written later by J.B. Nicoll. But more intriguingly, there is evidence that George Robertson’s only surviving son (John Baird Nicoll) had tried to sell the manuscript to the library. The fact that it is still in the library today indicates that he was unable, on receipt of the letter of rejection, to go back to retrieve the manuscript. John died in August 1938, which presumably explains why the manuscript is still in the library’s possession today.

When it arrived, the manuscript, in contrast to the catalogue description, turned out to be a real treasure. Although much of the its 368 hand-written pages are indeed a slightly extended version of Fifty Tears Travels, the first 30 pages or so tell us about George Robertson’s early life in Dundee, answering many of my questions about his upbringing, schooling etc. It was therefore a real gift to my project, and an important reminder of not taking other people’s views for granted.

What we have in Fifty Years Travels, and in the manuscript, The Life and Adventures, is an amazing first-hand account of travel. Reviewing the book in the NLA News in July 2003, Judy Cannon applauds its vivid accounts, written at a time when only the ‘wealthy and leisured’ could travel. She reminds us that very few travellers reached China and Japan at this time, then known as ‘the Far East’. But the book and manuscript are much more than this. This is a ‘real life’ account of someone who lived through a time of major social, economic and personal change between 1824 when he was born and the end of the nineteenth century. George and Sarah epitomise the two pillars of Dundee in the 1840’s: shipbuilding and linen weaving. Their story is one of bravery and struggle, success and failure, achievement and disappointment. It is also a story of loss: loss of status, money, gold, and also cherished family members – parents, siblings and children.

The blogs that follow will focus on George’s autobiographical narrative, and place this, as far as is possible, in its economic, social and cultural context.  I will draw on the findings of my own research and also the research undertaken by the husband of my mother’s cousin, Neil Munro. I will also include new insights from Australian friends and relatives shared with me via the social messenging site Facebook. So… onward!

Viviene E. Cree


Cannon, Judy (2003). ‘For the love of travel. China and Japan through the eyes of a nineteenth century Scot’, NLA News, 3rd July, Volume XIII No. 10, available at: First accessed 29/10/2004

Emigration: a personal, social and cultural journey

This website is devoted to understanding the experience of emigration through the story of one Scottish family.

Emigration is one of the world’s biggest challenges. Thousands of people are on the move, fleeing war, terror and ecological disasters. There are also thousands more who are looking for a better life: an education for their children, and an opportunity to advance financially and socially. The distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees and asylum seekers’ is made each day by immigration officials, and this differentiation can make the difference between life and death for some. But these labels are misleading, masking as they do the very real crossovers that exist between forced and unforced migrants, as this study of emigration to Australia will make clear.

Richards (1989) argues that migration to colonial Australia was ‘the longest and the most difficult mass migration in human history’. More than 1.6 million migrants came to Australia in the nineteenth century, a large number of whom were escaping urban and rural poverty in Scotland and Ireland; ‘their history’, Richards asserts, ‘has yet to be written’ (page 7).

This study takes as its starting-point the story of one such migrant, George Robertson Nicoll, a shipwright from Dundee, who travelled on an assisted passage to Sydney in 1848 with his wife Sarah Baird (a linen power loom weaver) and their infant son, George Wallace Nicoll. Over the next 50 years,  George (senior) kept a journal of what he called his ‘life and adventures’, and he also self-published a short book in 1899 with the wonderful title, Fifty Years Travels in Australia, China, Japan, America Etc. Through George’s first-hand account, we learn about the Californian gold-rush, about gold digging in New South Wales and Mount Alexander, about farming in Victoria, and about shipbuilding in Sydney. We also hear about family life, and about the births and deaths of children and close family members. And we discover, perhaps most significantly, that emigration was not a one-off experience. On the contrary, George kept his Dundee connections alive through visits ‘home’, in spite of the 90-day passage from Sydney to London.

What I have done so far is a close read of George Robertson Nicoll’s 368-page hand written journal and 224-page book. I have also researched more widely: primary sources (newspaper reports; genealogical sources; other histories) and secondary sources (academic research and fictional accounts in relation to emigration, Dundee history, Australia, shipbuilding and weaving etc.). I have visited places of interest in Scotland, including the archive and local history rooms in Dundee, and three former mills in Dundee and Perth. And I plan to visit Australia in the autumn to follow the Nicoll trail there. I have also set up a community of interest on the social networking website, Facebook, as a way of connecting with individuals and sources in Australia, and this has already generated contacts that were previously unknown to me.

And this is where I have to admit a personal interest in this story – George Robertson Nicoll’s eldest brother James is one of my forebears. I will set out the family tree in more detail in a subsequent post, but for now, it is fair to say that I feel a closeness to George, Sarah and all the Nicolls that followed not least because in uncovering their story, I begin to see my own in a new light.

The biggest challenge I now face is how to manage the huge amount of data that this amazing story will uncover; my intention is that this website will allow me to share as I go along, and so allow others to have an input into this developing project. So if you have information about the Nicoll family, or have carried out a similar project, please get in touch with me through Facebook or Twitter (@VivCree).

Viviene E. Cree

Reference: Richards, Eric (1989) ‘Annals of the Australian Immigrant’, in Richards, E., Reid, R. and Fitzpatrick, D. (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.



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