Tag: Liverpool

The Lascars of London and Liverpool

Reproduction ID: P85233 Maker: Marine Photo Se...

As the British maritime trade expanded throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, ships began to look further afield for seasoned sailors. Indian seamen – or “Lascars” – had been serving on European ships since Vasco da Gama hired an Indian pilot in the late 15th century, so naturally, the British shipping lines turned to this ready force. Throughout the 1870s, a huge number of Lascars were contracted into service for the United Kingdom, as the British East India Company recruited seamen from Yemen, Assam, Bengal, and Gujarat.

The Lascars played a valuable role throughout this period, and manned many British ships through times of war and times of peace. Their skillful ship handling ensured safe passage of merchandise as it was shipped from the Orient to London and other British ports.

Despite their skill and invaluable contribution to the commerce of the day, the Lascars were unfortunately treated very unfairly. They served on the British ships under “lascar agreements”, which gave ship owners an undue power over the Indian sailors.

Lascars were paid a pittance, making a mere 5% of the white sailors’ wages, while being expected to work at far longer hours. They were given food in smaller portions and of inferior quality. They were often quartered in the most cramped and dingy areas of the ship with the poorest ventilation.

The Lascars lived under conditions not unlike slavery, as ship owners could retain their services for up to three years at a time, transferring them from one ship to the next on a whim. They sometimes served as deck crewmen, though more often they worked as stokers below decks, as the task was deemed to be below the dignity of a white man.

Not surprisingly, there were many desertions among the lascar ranks. Others were forced to wait in England for long periods before they could find work on a ship returning to India. When the Navigation Acts were passed, many Indian sailors arriving in London could not even be reemployed for return journeys, and thus, they were simply abandoned.

Lascar and unknown ship
Lascar and unknown ship (Photo credit: ballasttrust)

The impoverished and ill-prepared Lascars would be left to fend for themselves, wandering the streets of London, Liverpool and other ports, often forced to beg in order to survive. Many took up low-paying, menial jobs sweeping streets or peddling. Initially, many would sleep out on the streets or in sheds on the docks.

Eventually, the ports at London, Liverpool, Southampton, Cardiff, Manchester, and Glasgow began to provide temporary housing for the Lascars; though these barrack homes were often filthy and pest-ridden. By the 1930s, conditions had improved somewhat, and Lascars  were able to find lodging and eventually employment through The Stranger’s Home or other similar Indian lodging houses in East London.

A substantial community of Indian sailors grew up in East London, Liverpool, and other seaport towns, and by World War I, there were 51,616 Lascars settled across Britain. As the Indian sailors integrated into the community, many of their customs and festivals became part of the British social scene. A Parsi chapel and cemetery were established, and eventually a mosque.

Many of the Lascars took British wives, and thus further integrated into the British culture and community. In fact, at one point, the Lascar seamen were almost exclusively marrying white women as there were very few Indian women in England at the time. While some expressed disgust over this interracial marriage, there were no legal restrictions against the mixed marriages. This resulted in a strong interracial community being established in Britain’s major port cities.

Irish Migration into Liverpool in the 19th Century

There has long been much coming and going between Ireland and England. In fact, historians note that a scattering of Irish names existed in Liverpool as early as 1378. However, it was when Liverpool gained prominence as a port city that it became the primary access point for Irish immigrants as they made their way to England.

Liverpool waterfront
Liverpool waterfront (Photo credit: djmcaleese)

The Irish population in England grew gradually through the 19th century. Many poor labourers, drovers and artisans emigrated due to economic reasons. They weren’t the only ones, however. Middle class Irish moved in and made their mark on the history of Liverpool. Michael Whitty, for example, founded the Liverpool Fire Brigade and the Liverpool Daily Post. William Brown was another prominent figure, who financed the building of the public library.

But the situation took a drastic downturn during the tragic Potato Famine which stretched from1846 to 1852. A succession of the worst potato crop failures led to massive poverty and starvation in Ireland. The potato was a staple food of the poor, especially in winter, and the loss of the crops was devastating. Over one million people lost their lives over the course of the famine.

The Irish escaped in droves, with approximately 1.3 million immigrants passing through the port in Liverpool. Though a substantial Irish population already existed in England, the enormous influx deeply impacted the city of Liverpool.

English: Irish immigrants in Kansas City, Miss...
English: Irish immigrants in Kansas City, Missouri in c.1909 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many immigrants saw Liverpool as a stepping stone on their way to the United States; however, a large number ended up staying on, making their homes in Liverpool. By the end of the famine in 1851, there were some 90,000 Irish born and living in Liverpool. In fact, the Irish immigrants made up about 25 percent of the town’s population.

Those that stayed in Liverpool gravitated toward established Irish communities. The Irish community developed predominantly around St. Anthony’s Church in Liverpool. Further Catholic churches quickly sprung up throughout the 19th century, providing a ballast for the droves of Irish immigrants.

Unfortunately, the Irish who arrived in Liverpool were starving, weak and extremely vulnerable. Certain groups sprung up almost immediately and found an easy livelihood taking the little money the immigrants possessed upon arriving on the Mersey docks. Many of the Irish immigrants quickly moved on; however, those who stayed near the docks were at great risk and were often preyed upon by the unsavoury characters.

Conditions worsened as the enormous volume of immigrants quickly exceeded the available housing and employment. The sanitary system was taxed to its limit – as was the Poor Law system. Liverpool taxpayers quickly became disgruntled, feeling that the immigrants were overburdening the Poor Law system.

Many Irish workers were forced to take low-paid, labour-intense jobs at the docks, processing plants, in the chemical industries, and as warehouse and construction workers. Irish women found even fewer opportunities, and were relegated to low-level jobs like hawking box chips and crushed sandstone residue.

To compound matters, typhus, dysentery and cholera swept through the population with epidemics so severe that floating hospitals and fever sheds were built along the Mersey. The overcrowded living quarters were breeding grounds for disease, and despite numerous attempts to improve sanitary conditions, “Irish Fever” persisted. In fact, at that time, life expectancy in the dock areas of Liverpool fell to the lowest in the country.

Eventually, the Irish came to dominate the Liverpool docks, and in fact had quite an impact on how the port developed. As Liverpool became a prominent port city, efficiency on the docks was a priority, and Irish dock workers played a huge role in making that possible. Irish “lumpers” loaded and unloaded cargo on the ships. Irish “carters” carted tobacco between the port and various private warehouses. Around 1900 Irish porters were employed in warehouses on the Liverpool docks. The Irish were involved with dock construction on the Mersey, and many found work as stevedores, sailors and ship’s firemen.

All-in-all, Liverpool just might not be the place it is today without the influence of the great Irish migration. The impact of the Irish on the city as a whole can still be felt today. After all, a couple of the most famous fellows to come out of Liverpool – John Lennon and Paul McCartney – do carry Irish surnames.

Single to Wisconsin, Please!

Kingston upon Hull sits quietly at the junction of the Rivers Hull and Humber. Due to its ideal location, the port has long enjoyed a successful and lively trade with most of Northern Europe. Shipping lines not only brought significant financial revenue to the town, but also added greatly to the culture and community as migrants made their way through the port.

English: "Farewell to home." Emigran...

Prior to 1836, however, migrants flowed in at a mere trickle. Those who passed through were primarily there for commercial reasons. Some migrant ships did pass through Hull on their way to Canada or the US, though these were infrequent and the numbers negligible. The few ships that did accommodate migrants were unpleasant and the journey was a tiresome ordeal. Accommodations were cramped and voyage timings were irregular.

All of this changed in the 1840s as steamship companies in Hull, Leith, Hamburg and Gothenburg began offering regular emigrant services via the UK. The steamships dramatically shortened the time it took to travel between mainland Europe and the UK ports, and thanks to contracts with the Royal Mail postal service, steamship companies were able to offer trips all throughout the year (rather than being limited to the previously established “immigrant season”).

The Wilson Line of Hull began running steamship services from Norway and Sweden as early as 1843. The North Europe Steam Navigation Company followed in 1853, running a strong fleet of nine steamers back and forth on the Christiania and Gothenburg route. By 1858, however, the Wilson Line practically monopolized the route from Scandinavia to Hull, and brought the majority of emigrant traffic.

From the port cities, the transmigrants were taken by train to Southampton, Liverpool, Glasgow, or London. In these larger cities, the migrants boarded large transatlantic liners for the final leg of their journey to the United States. Passengers could purchase a complete travel package that covered the entire trip including the steamship to Hull, the train ticket on the Transpennine Railway Line to Liverpool, and the final ocean liner ticket that would take them to their final destination.

This brought on a boom of transmigration as folks travelled en masse from Sweden and other Northern European countries. Of course, the city of Hull was not initially prepared for such an enormous number of emigrants, thus emigrant houses and railway stations quickly became overcrowded and a serious health risk. After a cholera outbreak in 1866, the city put major preventative measures in place. Travellers were no longer allowed to roam the city on foot, but were required to remain on board the steamers until their trains were ready to depart.

In 1871, the Northeastern Railway Company built a waiting room near Paragon Railway station so that the emigrants could relax, meet ticket agents, use the washrooms and facilities and be sheltered from the wind and weather. Eventually, the majority of the emigrants were passing through the Paragon Railway Station. Though the travellers were only there for a short time, their numbers were so great that in 1881, the station doubled the size of its waiting room. Women and children were able to wait in a separate room, and sanitary facilities were expanded and improved to meet the greater demand.

At times, so many emigrants were arriving that up to 17 carriages would be hooked up to a single steam engine. Passengers would cram into the forward carriages, while their baggage was piled high in the rear four cabs. Trains pulled out of Hull every Monday morning to make the three to four hour trip to Liverpool.

By 1914, however, transmigration had slowed to a crawl once more. The UK’s Alien Immigration Act of 1905 had severely restricted travel, and when WWI broke out followed by the passing of immigration acts in America, mass transmigration came to an end. Over those 70-odd years, however, 5 million transmigrants flowed through the UK, with approximately 60% of them passing through the port in Hull.

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1. The research of Dr Nicholas J. Evans at the University of Hull. For further information please access the following article he has written Indirect Passage from Europe. European Transmigration via the UK, 1836-1914,  Journal for Maritime Research, Volume 3, No 1 (2001), pp. 70-84


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