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

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

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

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

Situating George’s writing in context

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

A white man’s interpretation of an encounter with Aboriginals

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Blackfellows’ in Sydney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experiencing racism first-hand

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

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

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

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

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

Lau Islands, Fiji

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

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

The story continues:

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

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

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

George continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later years

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

World’s Fair, Chicago, 1893

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

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

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

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

Viviene Cree

20th January 2020

Primary Sources

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

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


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

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

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

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

 Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nothing but Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downtown Grass Valley, California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Gully at Mount Alexander goldfields, November 2019

Garden (2001) is less certain. He writes:

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

He concludes:

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

This is a hugely important point to end on.

Viviene Cree

21st December 2019


Primary Sources

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Who was Sarah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Childhood in Perthshire

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

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

Errol Parish Church (from Errol website)

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

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

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


Baird family stone

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

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

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

Working in Dundee

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

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

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

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

Dens Works

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

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

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

 Sarah meets George

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

The decision to leave

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

So who was Sarah Baird?

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

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

Lucky George!

Viviene Cree

10th October 2019


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

Primary Sources

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The assisted migration scheme

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

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

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

George and Sarah’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons to be learned

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

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

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

Viviene Cree

25th September 2019

Primary Sources

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

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


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

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

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

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


[i] Accessed 12th September 2019.

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

[iii] Accessed 25th September 2019.

[iv] Accessed 12th August 2019.

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

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

[vii] Accessed 12th September 2019.

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

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

Dundee, a City of Discovery?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viviene Cree

22nd August 2019.


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

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

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

On Death and Dying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Families. We cannot make any assumptions.

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

Viviene E. Cree

23rd July 2019


Primary Sources

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viviene E. Cree

24th June 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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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