In early 1848, British workers began to leave France in large numbers. In April, May and June 1848 a particular group of lace workers left Calais to start new lives in the Australian Colonies. These are the Lacemakers of Calais.
Who and Why?
In early 1848 there were some 3000 British workers including their families in the lace industry in Calais and St Pierre and many of them had inter-married with the local French population. By then the British had been in Calais for about three decades and they and the native French people had co-existed in close and productive harmony. At least, that had been the position until a year or so before when crop failures and economic turmoil strained the resources of the European governments and most businesses were affected. By December 1847 work in the Calais lace industry was scarce. The lace workers, both British and French, suffered as many of the factories and small-holdings closed.
In February 1848 the political situation in France deteriorated rapidly and following street uprisings in Paris, the King abdicated and his government was replaced by a provisional body that attempted to restore some order. However, work for the workers in Calais did not recommence and many of the British workers, never affluent were low on funds to support their families and, despite the friendly attitude of their French neighbours, they were concerned of anti-British sentiment in other French towns.
By March 1848 and still with little or no work, banks closed and funds frozen, many workers were living off their meagre savings. The plight of these workers, both British and French was now miserable and desperate.
National Guard in Place d'Armes, Calais 1848
Watercolour by F Lennel
The National Guard began to patrol in Calais in response to some verbal but non-violent behaviour by French rowdies towards the non-French population. However, while in Calais the British were generally well treated by their French neighbours who were enduring the same hardships, many of the English workers became very concerned about their plight.
What to do?
Some of the British lace workers in Calais had been there for decades. Their ties to the town were strong while those of the recent arrivals were perhaps weaker. At this time of hardship, it seems likely that the Channel packet boats were very busy. They embarked British families eager to leave France. They also carried letters back and forth across the Channel between Calais and family and friends in the workers home towns. The Calais workers would know that conditions back home were almost as hard as in Calais where they were living in misery and desperate.
What could they do? They were powerless to influence the economic and political forces that had created their plight so the obvious options were either to stay until things improved or leave Calais. But go where? For many, a return to England meant little or no improvement over their current position. There was a real possibility in England that they would be a burden on their parish and the likelihood that their families would be split up and confined to the local work house. This prospect horrified the lace workers.
Another option circulating through the community was migration to one of the British colonies.
St Pierre Church c1830
The British Consul in Calais, Edward Bonham was well aware of and concerned for the plight of the British workers there and wrote many letters to the British Government advising it of the situation. In one letter to Lord Palmerston on 21 March 1848 he informed him of the continued hard times of the workers but also of a particular group of British workers who were discussing a different solution to their problems.
Later that day, some British lace workers held a meeting in the English Church in St Pierre to consider their situation including the idea of migration to a British colony. The meeting agreed on migration to the Australian colonies with South Australia being the preferred destination. The meeting elected a committee to draw up a petition to the British Government outlining their plight and their request for assistance to migrate. The petition or memorial was accepted by Edward Bonham the next day and included in his letter to the British Government with a list of 642 men, women and children willing to migrate.
Bonham's correspondence was frequent and detailed as was his assistance to and entreaties for funds for the British workers; both those departing from France and those choosing to stay for the moment. Over the next few days he wrote letters to Lord Palmerston about the support offered to the British workers by their French coworkers and acknowledging the receipt of funds allow him to assist the workers.
The British Government may have had some reservation about the lace workers suitability as emigrants to Australia, but they did move swiftly to assess the lace workers' proposal. The long-titled Committee for the Relief of British Workmen Refugees from France had been established. At the end of March 1848, a flurry of correspondence went between the Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, and the committee regarding the Government's support for the lace workers proposal and that every assistance be given subject to the limitations on that assistance. One of these limitations related to the type of emigrant wanted by the Colonies, which did not included lace workers.
Rue de la Paix, Calais 1832
Watercolour by David Cox
Meanwhile, in Calais the lace workers situation has not improved. Bonham reported that Calais and St Pierre were receiving destitute British workers "almost daily from Lille, Dunkerque and other places" where mobs had threatened to burn factories. Reports of angry mobs destroying buildings in other towns continued to arrive in Calais and the cost of providing for the unemployed British workers continued to rise. During April 1848, the correspondence between London and Calais related to the funds provided by the British authorities and the ......... , the continued deterioration of the civil and social conditions in France and the means of transferring the intended immigrants from Calais to the vessels being prepared for them in England. The British Government had agreed to provided vessels specifically for the lace workers in Calais in addition to those in its ongoing migrant program.
Therefore the British Government had intended that the first group of migrants would be sent on the vessel Harpley. However, Bonham's reports of the deteriorating conditions and the rising support costs prompted the Emigration Board to change its plans. Places were found on its next immigration ship leaving for Australia. This was Fairlie that sailed from Deptford on 19 April with 56 lace workers and their families from Calais who joined the bonded migrants already selected to voyage to Sydney.
At the end of April (Friday 28th) Harpley, moored at Deptford, was almost ready to sail and the Emigration Board advised Calais to send over the intended passengers by steamer "no later that the [following] Thursday morning". The steamer was to go alongside and the passengers put "on board at once, by which the expence [sic] & inconvenience of landing & reembarking them will be avoided". Harpley finally sailed for Adelaide on 12 May and the migrants penned a letter of heartfelt thanks to all those who had helped them. This letter was included in Bonham's letter of 13 May to Lord Palmerston in which he also referred to another ship having "been engaged in the purpose of conveying to Sydney a portion of the large remaining number of the workpeople".... This other ship was the barque Agincourt.
In the next few weeks more lace workers and their families travelled across the channel to London in expectation of boarding Agincourt but the final group of would-be migrants was still in Calais with expectations of leaving soon. Bonham was aware that the next vessel would be ready to depart London for Sydney on 6 June and was concerned about getting all of the accepted immigrants to the ship in time. On 31 May Bonham wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston proposing that he hire a packet specially to transport the final group of workers to the ship. Three and half weeks after the departure of Harpley the group were on the Calais dock saying goodbye to loved ones and friends before they boarded hired the paddle steamer Tourist. The steamer took them across the Channel, up the Thames and alongside Agincourt where they joined their waiting friends. On 6 June Agincourt slipped her mooring and began her journey to Australia.
Some of the would-be migrants had been rejected because of the lack of a marriage certificate or other non-compliance issues. However, the Immigration authorities were not completely heartless at the distress of families and friends being broken apart at the last moment. The authorities ensured that the "stragglers" followed their friends and families in the last months of 1848 and into the new year.
A detailed description of the circumstances of why and how the lacemakers departed Calais and London for Australia is found in Gillian Kelly's book Well Suited to the Colony referred to in the Resources section of this website.
Packet Boat Entering Calais, 1837
How did they leave?
The Lacemakers travelled from Calais to England on small vessels. The packet boats made numerous trips daily across the Channel from Calais, Boulogne, Dunkerque and other French coastal towns to Dover, Deal and London in England. By 1848 some of these vessels were still traditional sailing craft . However, the majority were steam-powered side paddle steamers. These powered vessels became know as packet boats.
Today we use the term ‘packet’ to describe the container or wrapping in which items are wrapped, but its earliest use was to describe a parcel carrying English State papers to and from foreign countries, and so the boats that carried these packets (or pacquettes to the French) became known as packet boats.
They were small, fast, and chartered by the Government to carry mail and dispatches between London and the Government officials in foreign countries. By the 1820s sail had been replaced by steam.
From 1820 until 1837 the Government entrusted the Packet service to the Post Office. It was then handed over to the Admiralty. It was an essential service that ran at a loss, unsustainable for private enterprise. By 1846 the run, on a fast packet, could take as little as one and a half hours – the same time as taken by today’s massive ferries. The King’s Messengers would ride from London to Dover using relays of horses to make the journey as fast as possible.
By the late 1830s these Government steamers were considered to be the most reliable transport to Calais and as well as carrying the King’s Messengers and their valuable packages, they became the favoured mode of transport for all ordinary passengers including the Lacemakers.
There were several crossings both ways daily from Calais to both Dover and London. The King’s Messengers, carrying the arrangements, agreements, decisions and directions between the British Government and Consul Bonham’s Calais offices could rely on several deliveries each day!
For a detailed description of the packet service, see
Packet boat entering and leaving Calais
In both images the sea-based Red Fort is prominent with the Tour du Guet and then Town Hall tower visible in the background.
Packet boats entering and leaving Calais
In 1848 the Lacemakers made their way down to the Calais waterfront in groups as Edward Bonham arranged passage to England where they boarded the ships provided by the British Government for their passages to Australia.
Calais Bassin du Paradis 1849
Packet boats are alongside the embankment of the Bassin or inner Harbour with passengers waiting to board.
The railway station on the right was nearing completion when the lacemakers boarded the boats for their journeys to Australia.
Was their departure noted?
When each group of the lacemakers and their families left Calais to begin their journeys to Australia, the first reports were in the Calais newspapers. The following excerpts, in English and French are examples.
The Lacemakers vessels all travelled down the English Channel and so passed Calais. Perhaps it was a clear day and they had their last glimpse of the town. No matter, but many of them were glad to be on their way and grateful to the British Government for the assistance provided over the previous few months. Others were leaving behind family and friends, and for some the only home they had known.
Did they all leave?
No. Many British workers did leave Calais and St Pierre for England and Australia and probably other lands. However, some of them returned within a few months or in some cases, a few years later. Others never left and these included the family and friends of many of the Australian-bound lacemakers.
This migration saw many British families split as some left and some stayed. Those that stayed found work within a year or two as the economic and political turmoil subsided. They married amongst themselves and with their French neighbours; they raised families; they lived, worked and died there and were buried in the cemeteries of the expanding town.
The descendants of some of those families are still there.