As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close in 1815, British soldiers began returning home. The male population was severely reduced, and those who returned assumed that life would be better. They expected better living conditions and higher wages due to the sacrifices they had made; however, they quickly became disillusioned by conditions at home.
Farmers who had been raking in tremendous profits on corn throughout the war saw an immediate and steady decline. To add insult to injury, the farmers were then forced to contribute an ever increasing amount of corn to the poor via the “Poor Laws.” This not only hurt the farmers, but it trickled down to the farm workers as well, who saw their wages reduced dramatically.
Conditions deteriorated over the next 15 years. Farm workers were laid off as farmers introduced heavy machinery. Poverty was widespread and workers were angry. It wasn’t long before the “Swing Riots” began.
Throughout 1830-31, landowners began receiving threatening letters from the mythical “Captain Swing”. The name was meant to conjure the image of swinging from the gallows, and the intent was to pressure the wealthy land barons into complying with the demands of the laborers. Protests soon followed as workers turned to strikes, arson, mass demonstrations and machine breaking.
Anxious to alleviate the suffering of the angry masses, a few people in power conceived the idea of shipping the poor off to Canada. George Wyndham, Earl of Egremont, Reverend Thomas Sockett, and Sir John Colborne believed that the social unrest could be diminished by providing the unemployed with a fresh start in Canada. Thus, the Petworth Project was born.
George Wyndham owned much of the land around Petworth (where there was much civil unrest) and provided the financial backing for the project. Thomas Sockett was the principal organizer and founder of the Petworth Emigration Committee. Sockett truly deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the success of the project as he not only chartered the ships, recruited emigrants and oversaw the process, but he carefully monitored the adjustment of the emigrants as they settled into their new life in Canada.
From 1832 to 1837, the Petworth Project provided for 1,800 men, women and children to undertake the voyage from Portsmouth, England to Upper Canada. The Emigration Committee instructed the emigrants regarding what they could expect upon reaching Canada, as well as what provisions they would need to bring with them. The Committee provided a list of tools and supplies needed, as well as recommendations for clothing, including warm coats and multiple pairs of stockings in preparation for the biting Canadian winters.
Though the intentions of the Emigration Committee weren’t entirely humanitarian, they did, nonetheless provide amply for those making the trek. Conditions on the ships were significantly better than those on other emigrant ships of the day. Upon arriving in Canada, Sir John Colborne ensured the safety of the emigrants as they travelled across the country to their final destinations. Though the trip was by no means easy, it was free and well-paid work was guaranteed at the end of the journey.
Very soon, the idea caught on in other regions as well. In fact, in 1834, 31,000 emigrants had made their way to Canada. They came not only from Petworth, but they flooded in from Hampshire and Norfolk, as well as from Munster and Leinster in Ireland.
The emigration continued until 1837, when Sir John Colbourne was replaced by Sir Francis Bond Head, who was instead interested in supporting the questionable principles of the “Poor Law” in England.