Primary History

Victorian Britain: Famine and Emigration

  • The Potato Famine

    The potato famine of 1846 to 1852 hit Ireland and Scotland. Many poor people grew potatoes for food. Potatoes grew on poor soil, even in wet and cold conditions.

    When a potato disease (blight) arrived, possibly in ships from America, it was a disaster. Potatoes went rotten, and were not fit to eat. People went hungry. More than 1 million people starved to death. Many more got sick. In Ireland, one in four people died or emigrated. The potato famine was one of the most terrible events in Irish history.

    Blight ruined potatoes in Scotland too. Many people there also starved in the 'Great Hunger'.

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  • More mouths to feed

    In Highland Scotland, good farmland had been given over to sheep. In Ireland, most of the best land was used for cattle. Poor farmers were left to grow potatoes, and not much else.

    To make matters worse, there were more mouths to feed because the population was growing. Poor farmers could not grow enough food. If a farmer divided his small plot of land between several sons, each son ended up with a strip of land too small to support a family.

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  • Relief efforts

    For help, starving families turned to the Church, the workhouses and landlords. Churches could not feed so many hungry people. Nor could workhouses, which became so overcrowded many people died from diseases.

    Many rich landlords lived far away in London. They did not believe the famine was as bad as it was. Some landlords forced poor families off their land, to avoid having to pay to feed them. A few landlords did send food to starving people in Ireland and Scotland. Sadly, such help was often too little and too late.

    The government did not do enough to help either. Food from Ireland was still being shipped to England, when Irish people were starving.

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  • 'Coffin Ships'

    To escape famine at home, many poor Scots and Irish emigrated to America and Canada. They went in ships. Charities paid for tickets for some poor families.

    The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean could be terrible. The ship might be at sea for a month. Food was bad and the overcrowded conditions meant lots of people got sick and died.

    Migrant ships were called 'Coffin Ships', because so many people died. It's thought that in 1846/1847 20,000 people died in migrant ships sailing to Canada alone!

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  • To new lives

    Many migrants went to Australia, Canada and the United States. They went in sailing ships and steamers. The journey was long and dangerous, some ships were sunk in storms.

    Migrants took very little with them. On arrival, they had to make homes on their own. Some found work in cities. Others started farms, clearing forests to grow crops and raise animals. It was a hard life, but for many migrants it was better than the hardship they had left behind.

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Fun Facts
  • About 2 million Scots emigrated in the 1800s.

  • Tweed cloth made by Highland crofters became very fashionable.

  • By 1851 one in four Scots lived in the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen.

  • Tenement toilets were in the backyard.

  • The basic food of a poor Scot in the 1840s was potatoes, oatmeal and a little milk and fish.

  • Creels were wicker baskets made by crofters.

  • Weaver's son Andrew Carnegie left Scotland for the United States in 1848, aged 12. He became one of the richest men in the world.

  • Some 'Coffin Ships' took 3 months to cross the ocean to North America.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
This was a wooden frame with beads on it. It was used to help children with counting sums.
agricultural gang
This was a group of workers in the countryside, doing jobs like weeding, sowing seeds, and harvesting crops. Often these gangs would include young children.
barrel organ
A musical instrument which was taken round the streets. It played music when the handle was turned. Often the owners of barrel organs had tame monkeys.
Band of Hope
Temperance organization which tried to stop people, especially children, from drinking alcohol.
boarding school
A school where children live during term time, coming home for the holidays.
Boys' Brigade
Youth organization started in 1883 in Glasgow.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain; later became the Commonwealth.
cane
Thin stick used by teachers to beat children who misbehaved.
census
This is the record of people living at a certain time. It records how many people there are, where people live, their age and what they do.
Charities
Organizations that help people in need and raise money for good causes.
cholera
A disease spread by dirty water.
clans
Highlanders linked by family ties, usually sharing the same name, and following a leader or chief.
coal mine
A place where coal is dug from under the ground.
coal
Remains of prehistoric trees, burned in fires. In Victorian times, coal heated homes and provided steam power for machines, trains and ships.
contraception
Another term for birth control, or stopping unwanted pregnancies.
cotton
Comes from a plant. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.
dame school
A school run in her home by an elderly woman, known as a dame, where children were taught basic reading and writing.
diphtheria
Infectious throat disease that killed many children.

E to G

emigrated
To emigrate is to leave your own country to go and live in another.
empress
The female ruler of an empire, or the wife of an emperor.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
famine
When crops fail and people go without food.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

hokey-pokey man
Icecream-seller, originally usually Italian.
hopscotch
A hopping game played in the street or playground.
hurdy-gurdy
A mechanical violin, played by a street musician.
industrial Revolution
The era of rapid and great change in industry and manufacturing with the growth of factories, beginning in the late 1700s.
ink well
A small pot for ink, used by school children.
logbook
Diary or record book of events.
landlords
A person who rents parts of his or her land to other people.

M to O

magic lantern
A slide projector for showing pictures on a screen.
maypole
Tall pole with long ribbons, for dancing around on May Day.
migrant
A person who emigrates (goes to live in a new land).
moral
A lesson often in a story, about right and wrong.
music hall
Popular Victorian theatre with variety acts such as singers, dancers and comedians.
nanny
servant who cared for rich young children in their nursery at home.
nursery
A room or several rooms where rich children would play and sleep.
orphan
Child with no living parents.

P to S

parliament
Law-making body made up of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and non-elected Lords.
piecer
A child who worked in a mill joining pieces of thread together.
population
The number of people in a country or city.
public schools
Fee-charging schools for children from richer families.
Punch and Judy show
A hand-puppet show which features Mr Punch and his wife Judy. Common at the seaside in Victorian times.
ragged school
A school for poor children in the early 19th century.
reformer
Person who seeks change for the better, to help others.
reign
The length of time a king or queen rules.
school board
A group of people who were responsible for the running of their local school after 1870.
scullery
Small room with a sink, for washing up.
shaft
Deep vertical hole leading down to the tunnels and underground workings of a coal mine.
slates
These were pieces of slate (like a flat stone), sometimes set inside a wooden frame, used for writing - with a special slate pencil. At the end of the lesson the slates were wiped clean with an old cloth.
smallpox
Disease causing fever and, in those who did not die from it, leaving 'pockmarks' on the skin.
steam engine
Engine driven by steam from water heated in a boiler, used to drive machinery.
slum
An area of bad housing, with poor hygiene and sanitation.
Sunday School
School to teach Christianity: the National Sunday School Union was founded in 1803.

T to Z

voyage
A journey in a ship across the sea.
wages
Workers' pay.
wool
Comes from sheep. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.
workhouses
Places where people without means of support (usually the very poor, young and elderly) were sent to live; they got food and a bed in return for work. Most Victorian towns had a workhouse.