"Why, what a thing it would be for yourselves and your family, Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, if you were to emigrate now."

"Capital, madam, capital," urged Mr. Micawber, gloomily.

"That is the principal, I may say the only difficulty, my dear Mr. Copperfield," assented his wife. [David Copperfield (1911), Vol. 2, 393]

Some five months before Charles Dickens published the seventeenth number of David Copperfield, in which the above dialogue appeared, in the opening number of Household Words (30 March 1850), he placed before his readership a number of emigrants' letters given him by the founder of the Family Colonisation Loan Society, Mrs. Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877), an irresponsible parent whom the novelist later satirized for her "telescopic philanthropy" as Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House (1852-3), but whom Australians later memorialized as a principal figure in their history by placing her image on their 1967 five-dollar note [see bottom of Wikipedia page]. By way of preface to the article, Dickens penned an argument in favour of this scheme for transferring Great Britain's poor, unemployed, and starving from the slums of London, Liverpool, Manchester, and other blighted urban areas to the "Bush" and the new cities of Australia, especially Sydney and Melbourne, where they could contribute their energies and skills to the greater good of the Empire and build prosperous futures for themselves. To resolve the Micawbers' financial difficulties, Dickens has the novel's fairy godmother, Betsey Trotwood, as soon as she has learned that she has recovered her fortune, propose a similar "assisted emigration" scheme to Mr. Micawber, who for most of his married life has been just one step ahead of the debt collector as he perpetually anticipates that "something will turn up."

And where else should the Micawbers, staunch British subjects, go but the new "Land of Opportunity," the vast continent that had replaced the American colonies lost in the Revolutionary War of 1776-1781? In all likelihood, they are not bound for the principal settlement in Western Australia, Perth (founded in May 1829, but not sufficiently populous to be declared a city until 1856), but the southeastern coasts of Australia, founded as a penal colony in January 1788, when the mother country's initial fleet of eleven ships carrying some 1350 immigrants arrived at "Botany Bay," otherwise Sydney Cove, New South Wales. Not many months after Dickens's Household Words article on the Australian emigration scheme and the conclusion of the serialisation of David Copperfield, a gold strike in the continent down under would ensure that a more than adequate supply of British immigrants would settle in such places as the Micawbers' "Port Middlebay" in the new 'land of opportunity'. The novelist based David Copperfield's Wilkins Micawber on his father, John Dickens (1785-1851), Mrs. Micawber on Elizabeth Barrow Dickens (1789-1863), and Wilkins Micawber, Jr., partly on the musical Fanny Dickens (1810-1848) and partly on himself. Therefore when he wrote the chapter entitled "The Emigrants" (illustration) he might well have believed he was re-writing his own family's biography, enabling his youthful self to escape the wretched memory of Warren's Blacking Factory and his parents the taint of the Marshalsea, where for a mere three months in 1824 that must have seemed an eternity to his twelve-year-old son John was imprisoned for a debt of just forty pounds. To Dickens in 1850 the prospect of work, dignity, and perhaps even distinction and rank in another English-speaking country must have seemed irresistible. Here, then, is Dickens's non-fictional article:

A Bundle of Emigrants' Letters

A scheme has been proposed by Mrs. Chisholm, a lady to whose great exertions in reference to the emigration of the poor, especially of her own sex, the public is much indebted, — for the establishment of what it is proposed to call 'A Family Colonisation Loan Society.'

The design is based, in the main, upon three positions. First 'that it is melancholy to reflect that thousands of British subjects should wander about, more like spectres than beings of flesh and blood; and that hundreds should die from starvation, while our vast colonies could provide abundantly for them.' Secondly, 'that in England a society is much needed, the great moral aim of which should be to check crime, by protecting and encouraging virtue.' Thirdly, 'that the zealous endeavours of the charitable, combined with the industrious and frugal efforts of the working classes themselves,' could accomplish great ends in the way of emigration.

For these leading considerations, it is proposed that the projected society should assist persons desiring to emigrate, by loans of money for two year or longer without interest. That these loans should be made to friendly parties or groups of approved individuals, acquainted with the character of each other, and becoming jointly and severally responsible for the loans made to them. That agents should be appointed in different parts of Australia, to maintain a general knowledge of the emigrants so assisted, and a general communication with them; and that the advances should always bear a certain proportion to the amount of the funds raised by the emigrants themselves, or by their friends in the Colonies, at the time of their making application for assistance to quit this country.

The re-uniting of various members of one family when some have emigrated, while others have been left at home; and the removal of the difficulty too often found in raising sufficient funds to effect this re-union, is one important object of Mrs. Chisholm's [19/20] scheme. And it must not be forgotten that money lent and repaid, would be lent again and again; and thus the good effected by one small sum would become quite incalculable.

It is admitted in the published letter setting forth the design, that the friends and well-wishers of the society can hardly expect the full confidence of the public at its commencement; the great moral problem being yet to be solved; 'whether the various grades of the working classes can be trusted, or whether, with all our religious, moral, social, and commercial advantages, we are rearing rogues or honest men;' at the same time it is understood on the authority of the projectress, that in numerous cases where private advances have been made with similar objects, the rule has been gratitude and honesty — not ingratitude and dishonesty; and that her personal experience on this point, under many disadvantageous circumstances, is powerfully encouraging.

There may be difficulties in the details of such a plan; and it is possible that many persons who would retain an honourable sense of an obligation to an individual, would subside into a more lax morality, if the obligation were to a Board. The observation is trite enough, that a number of individuals united in an association will do, without any scruple, in the name of the society, what each of them would deem unworthy of his own character; but there are two sides to this question, and it is equally certain that many persons will take advantage of an associated body, if they can, who would hesitate to cheat any single member of it.

Reserving such questions, there can be little doubt we apprehend, of the soundness of the three positions we have briefly stated. It is unquestionably melancholy that thousands upon thousands of people, ready and willing to labour, should be wearing away life hopelessly in this island, while within a few months' said — within a few weeks' when steam communication with Australia shall be established — there are vast tracts of country where no man who is willing to work hard (but that he must be, or he had best not go there), can ever know want. That we have come to an absurd pass, in our costly regard for those who have committed crime, and our neglect of those who have not, must be every day more manifest to rational men whose thoughts are not confined within the walls of prisons, but can take the air outside. Nor is it to be contested — either that where it is possible for the poor, by great self-denial, to scrape together a portion of the means of going abroad, it is extremely important to encourage them to do so, in practical illustration of the wholesome precept that Heaven helps those who help themselves; or that they who do so help themselves, give a proof of their fitness for emigration, in one essential, and establish a strong claim on legitimate sympathy and benevolence, to do the rest.

Besides which, it appears to us that there are strong reasons in favour of this emigration of groups of people. It is not only that colonial experience, acting on this side of the water, can wisely proportion the amount of strength and the amount of weakness in each group — the number of single people, the number of married people, the number of women, and the number of children — but it is, that from little communities thus established, other and larger communities will rise in time, bound together in a love of the old country still fondly spoken of as Home, in the remembrance of many old struggles shared together, of many new ties formed since, and in the salutary influence and restraint of a kind of social opinion, even amid the wild solitudes of Australia.

These remarks have originated in the circumstance of our having on our desk certain letters from emigrants in Australia, written to relatives and friends here — to serve no purpose, to support no theory, but simply to relate how they are doing, and what they know about the country, and to express their desire to have their dearest relatives and friends about them. As the truth, whatever it may be, on such a subject, cannot be, we think, too plainly stated or too widely diffused in this country, we consider ourselves fortunate in the possession of these documents. We are responsible, of course, for their being genuine, and we write with the originals before us. The passages we shall give are accurately copied, with no correction, and with no omission, but that of names when they occur.

The first is from a man in Sydney, who writes to his brother. He 'would like to come to England one day and no more to see the Railways and the baptist chappel.'

Dickens now provides illustrative excerpts from various letters: from a man in Sydney to his brother; a man in Melbourne writing to his wife, an Anglican minister describing Sydney; a poor woman recently reunited with her children at Sydney; an orphan girl at Bathurst who has been granted free passage writing to a lady in Ireland; a woman in Port Philip, near Melbourne, writing to her brother and sister; a labouring man who, although formerly poor, has attained a position of influence in Sydney; and finally a former penal transport now working as a servant writing from Sydney, New South Wales, to his wife and family. The outward-bound voyage was just under four months, according to the last writer, who finds the climate "a perpetual Sumer [sic] [that] ... will prove congenial for" (24) his wife's health. He reports provisions both plentiful and inexpensive, but notes that "Wages is not so very high out here not so much as they are in England" (24).

Placed, as the writers of these letters are, in a position to judge of the advantages and draw-backs of the new world upon which they have entered; they ask, in inviting their relatives to join them, the trial of no mere experiment: the hopes and fears, the doubts and anxieties, which beset the head of an emigrant party in journeying to an untried region, are mitigated, or, in a great measure, smoothed away. Each of the families with Mrs. Chisholm's system proposes to aid in emigrating, has already their pioneer at work for them to obviate at least one principal source of failure in the prospects of emigrants; — ignorance of the local and social circumstances of the new sphere. In the letters we have just read, every sort of information which is useful to the out-goer is given to him, precisely in a way which enables him best to understand it. When arguments only moderately feasible are advanced, or prospects no more than partially encouraging are held out in the simple language, and from the affectionate hopefulness of kith and kin — a hopefulness justified by experience of the country — they are irresistible, even they appeal to mere self-interest; but when such inducements are warmed and intensified by the yearnings of natural affection and the pangs of exile; when a husband writes a longing invitation to his wife; as father craves, in his own homely language, to be united with his children; when a brother asks a brother, or a sister, to join him in the land where "all who will work may eat;" the desires of the invited to hasten to the land of promise are strengthened and redoubled. When, therefore, indigence forbids the faintest encouragement of the hope that such relatives will ever be able to transport themselves to the adopted land of those they love, their disappointment and distress amount to despair.

For the interest, then, of this country, as well as for the interest of our colonies, it is well to encourage the emigration of exactly the class of persons whom Mrs. Chisholm proposes to assist; — those who have already relations in the more distant colonies. The best persons to settle in a new colony are those whose morals are subject to the check of family responsibilities. Nothing can be more unwise than the preference which colonial employers show for single men, without what they are pleased to term "encumbrances." A wife and children are precisely the encumbrances which, in a new country, chain a man to hard work and to probity. They also tend to confine him to his place of service, if it be a good one, and prevent him from making rash and fruitless changes.

But, apart from these considerations, the simple "annals of the poor," from which we have quoted — written for no eyes but those to which they were addressed — are surely very pleasant to read, and very affecting. We earnestly commend all who may peruse them, the remembrance of those affectionate longings of the heart, and the consideration of the question whether money would not be well lent or even spent in re-uniting relatives and friends thus parted, and in sending a steady succession of people of all laborious classes (not of any one particular pursuit) from places where they are not wanted, and are miserable, to places where they are wanted, and can be happy and independent.


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts-on-File and Checkmark, 1999.

Dickens, Charles. The Personal History of David Copperfield, il. Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). The Centenary Edition. 2 vols. London & New York: Chapman & Hall, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911.

Last modified 23 February 2024