After the publication in 2006 of my book, Australian Migrant Ships 1946–1977, I was frequently asked for information about ships that brought migrants to both Australia and New Zealand in pre-war years. This book is the result of several years of intense research about these ships.

There are numerous differences between the pre-1939 and post-1946 periods with regard to migrant movements. In the years after World War Two there was an intensive assisted passage scheme to attract migrants from Britain and several European countries,
and also the mass migration of ‘displaced persons’, under the auspices of the International Refugee Organisation, using specifically designated ships for this role. In the period covered by this book, there was no regular assisted passage scheme available, though from time to time incentives would be offered by various governments. For the vast majority of migrants, moving to a new country meant paying a full fare on regular passenger liners.

In 1899 William Ranstead, founder of the socialist Clarion Fellowship in Manchester, had visited New Zealand and decided it was a good spot to start a new community with some of his followers. The next year about 1,000 ‘Clarionettes’ funded their own emigration to New Zealand. A branch of the fellowship was established in 1901, and the settlers were also involved in the formation of the New Zealand Socialist Party.

Domestic servants were in great demand in New Zealand in the early 1900s. In Wellington, middle-class matrons would board immigrant ships to lure any single women into their employ. In Napier in 1906 a ‘domestic syndicate’ paid the fares of 23 servants. In the early years of the twentieth century notable British companies providing passenger services to Australia included P&O, the Orient-PSNC joint service, and the Aberdeen Line, as well as North German Lloyd and the French company, Messageries Maritimes, while Shaw Savill & Albion, White Star Line and the New Zealand Shipping Company were the primary operators to New Zealand. Several more companies were offering passages to Australia and New Zealand via South Africa in cargo ships providing cheaper temporary quarters in their holds for persons wishing to migrate but unable to afford the fares required by the liner companies.

The first ten years of the new century saw the regular introduction of new and larger tonnage to operate to both Australia and New Zealand. Probably the most notable of these vessels was the trio built for the entry into the New Zealand passenger trade of the White Star Line, while from 1903 P&O began taking delivery of what would develop into a class of ten liners in their ‘M’ class for their Australian service. The newbuildings culminated with the five ships built for the Orient Line in 1909, while the New Zealand Shipping Company took delivery of three new ships during 1909/10. A year later, the P&O Branch Line took delivery of five vessels specifically designed to bring migrants to Australia in large numbers.

Although the vast majority of migrants arriving in Australia and New Zealand came from Great Britain, there was also a steady flow of settlers from Germany and Italy, as well as a trickle from other countries. From 1910 there was an enormous increase in demand for migrant passages to Australia and New Zealand from Britain, largely at the expense of migration to Canada. In April 1911 came the arrival of the first batch of twelve ‘Dreadnought Boys’ from Britain. They were sent to the Government farm at Pitt Town, outside Sydney, for three months training, following which they would be found suitable situations with farmers.

Instead of the Commonwealth Government trying to attract migrants to Australia, this was largely left to the individual states.  On 23 January 1912 the Victorian Government signed contracts with shipping lines to bring some 24,000 British assisted migrants to Melbourne at £12 per person over the next three years. The companies installed temporary accommodation for up to 1,000 migrants on large cargo ships. These facilities were quite good for the time, with a combination of cabins and dormitories, all fitted with iron beds and washbasins, a dining room seating 500, smoking rooms and lounges, and additional toilets and bathing facilities.

New South Wales was also seeking new settlers, but preferred a scheme of nominated immigrants, whose fares would be paid in part or full by relatives or friends already in Australia. To meet the increase in demand for migrant passages to Australia and New Zealand, several shipping companies built large cargo ships which could be fitted with temporary quarters for a thousand or more passengers on the outward voyage. One such ship was Port Lincoln, which departed London in August 1912 on its maiden voyage to Australia. The ship’s doctor for the voyage, Bernard Dawson, later recalled that he “had to look after the crew and 700 migrants, including 150 children, who were accommodated in cramped eight and sixteen-berth dormitories, hedged with flimsy walls and lined with wooden bunks scarcely softened by straw mattresses and pillows”.

The high cost of a passage to New Zealand had discouraged migration, but numbers rose with the introduction in 1904 of government assistance for the fare, and boomed in the six years before the First World War, reaching a peak of 12,000 in 1913. Migrants considered suitable were not the down-and-out, but, as Prime Minister W F Massey said, ‘people of the right class – steady, industrious and respectable people.’ They had to provide evidence of some capital, and a certificate as to health and character. New Zealanders could also nominate friends and relatives for assistance; about half of the 36,563 assisted immigrants of 1904–15 came out to New Zealand  in this way.

The outbreak of war brought the transportation of migrants to Australia and New Zealand to almost a complete halt, with many ships being taken up for military duty, leaving a skeleton service which gradually reduced to almost nothing as the war progressed. The end of the war brought about another boom in demand by migrants for passages, as for the first time the British government subsidised migration. This started with a scheme in 1919 to assist the migration of ex-servicemen to Australia, New Zealand and other British possessions, and was followed by the Empire Settlement Act 1922, which provided support for family emigration to the dominions.

As a result, the early 1920s saw a major increase in the number of new ships being introduced onto the migrant trades.  During 1922 alone no less than twelve new liners joined the Australian migrant trade, these being the five ‘Bay’ ships built for the Australian Government, a second group of five ‘B’ ships for the P&O Branch Line, and two ships built for the Aberdeen Line.

The early 1920s also saw one of New Zealand’s major immigration flows. There was much that was familiar about the character of the migrants – women and children were well represented, craftsmen and builders were common among the men, domestic servants among the women. For the first time industry workers figured prominently. One unusual immigration scheme brought out juveniles to New Zealand farms. Funded by New Zealand sheep farmers, it was known as the Flock House scheme, after the property in the Manawatū where the young people were trained as farmers, and was intended as a debt of gratitude to British seamen. The 635 boys and 128 girls who came out were the children of seamen killed or wounded in the First World War.

During the early 1920s the number of migrants arriving in Australia from Italy began to increase quite dramatically. Initially the Orient Line brought most of these new settlers, with their ships making a regular call at Naples, while others came on Italian cargo ships fitted with temporary quarters, but in December 1922 the liner Re d’Italia brought over 650 Italian migrants.

The influx of migrants from Italy continued at a steady rate through the 1920s, a situation that did not always sit comfortably with many Australians of British background, who wanted more settlers to be encouraged to migrate from the ‘mother country’. On 8 April 1925 an announcement was made that over the next ten years the British and Australian Governments would provide funds to enable about 450,000 men and women to migrate from Britain to Australia, and help them buy stock, equipment and the materials required to build houses for themselves.

An economic downturn hit New Zealand in 1927 and became a full depression from 1929. The country was no longer an attractive destination for migrants, and government assistance tailed off before being abandoned in all but name in 1931. The Department of Immigration was shut down in 1932. From that year until 1935, 10,000 more people left New Zealand than arrived. In 1935 there was only one assisted migrant.

With the deepening effects of the world wide depression, the number of migrants seeking passages to Australia also began to drop off during 1930, and by the end of that year shipping companies were reducing their sailing schedules. To try and attract migrants, in March 1938 the Australian Government decided to reintroduce an assisted migration scheme from Britain. In September 1939 the movement of migrants to Australia and New Zealand came to a complete halt with the outbreak of war in Europe.
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Migrant Ships 1900 - 1939

First Published

August 2009




290 mm x 210 mm

Type of Book

Paper back



Price (AUD)