“It is a Better Country for Girls Than Home:” Chain Migration at Work

One of my favourite pieces of family memorabilia is a letter written in August 1877 by my great-grandmother, Mary Hamilton, to her friend, Jeannie Kirkwood, who was still back in Scotland. Mary had recently emigrated to New Zealand with three of her siblings, having sailed from Glasgow on the Marlborough on 12 October, 1876 and arrived in Otago on 20 January, 1877. On arrival, the family moved immediately to the small town of Palmerston (then known as Clifton), where their sister, Janet, was already established with her husband, John Kirkwood.

Mary had been born on 5 March, 1855 at Kirkfieldbank, a small village on the banks of the Clyde in Lesmahagow parish in Lanarkshire, to John Hamilton, a 38-year-old carpet weaver, and his 33-year-old wife, Mary Moffat. The fifth child when she was born, Mary would have three younger siblings by 1863.

In the 1871 Scottish census, Mary was living with her mother (her father was enumerated elsewhere) and her four sisters and two of her brothers in the Calton district of Glasgow. Mary herself and her three elder sisters were working as steam loom weavers, her younger sister still at school. Three years later Mary’s mother was dead of heart disease and a year after that her sister, Janet, who had married John Kirkwood in 1871, left for New Zealand. The Kirkwoods’ reports of their new life must have been positive enough to persuade Mary and her youngest sister, Jean (or Jane) to follow them in 1877, along with two of their brothers, James and Thomas. The two women are described on the ship’s manifest as domestic servants, steam loom weavers not being required in New Zealand. Both James and Thomas are listed as curriers. Mary’s letter to her friend and sister-in-law, Jeannie Kirkwod, indicates that domestic work had been easy to find, was well paid and something she liked well enough to recommend that Jeannie, also a cotton weaver, come and join them. Which she did, arriving in August, 1879 and later that same month marrying Mary’s brother, James. Family lore suggests the couple had been engaged before James emigrated.

Palmerston, 19 August/77

Dear Jeanie

I think you will never forgive me for not writing sooner. I have no excuse to make for myself but I will trust to your good nature not to think to [sic] hard of me and I will try and make up for it. You only ask me to write 3 lines well I will [scratched out] try if can [sic]. Well to begin I would advise you to come out here it is a better country for girls than home we are getting on very well and we like it very well. Jessie and me have got 26 pound a year we could get more wages but we would have more work so we think we are better with what we have. Give my love to all the Simpsons and tell them I am going to write a long letter to them. Tell Janet I am glad to hear that Willie Linsay and her is going together again. Tell her to give my love to Ellen and Hugh. I hope they are married. I think I will close now as this is only an excuse for a letter but I will write a long letter the next time. Love to your mother and Agnes and Archie not forgetting your own Dear Self. I am your loving friend, M. H.

Two other members of the Hamilton family followed: another brother, Adam, a cabinet maker, although his year of emigration is not known and their widowed father, John, in about 1885. The fate of the remaining two Hamilton siblings is not known. A brother, John, is said to have become a draper in London and sister, Margaret, disappears after the 1871 census.

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