Assisted Emigration under the Superintendence of Peter Robinson

In 1823 & 1825, the British government assisted over 2,500 poor men, women and children from the south of Ireland to settle in the backwoods of Upper Canada under the superintendence of Peter Robinson. Robinson had been recruited for this onerous task by Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton, Under-Secretary for War and the Colonies, and the chief proponent of assisted-emigration at the time.

Wilmot-Horton had designed these “experimental emigrations” to test the viability of assisting hundreds of thousands of paupers from across the United Kingdom to emigrate to Colonies around the world. Indeed, Wilmot-Horton was arguably one of the leading social scientists of his time — his policies were informed by the latest social and economic theories; he prescribed the selection of emigrants to ensure a fair test of his hypotheses; and he monitored Robinson’s work closely to ensure that the experiments were carried out as planned.

Wilmot-Horton’s methodology included taking various measures of the individual settler’s circumstances at several points in time. Some measures (e. g. number of acres cleared, bushels of wheat harvested, livestock raised) yielded relatively “hard” data that had long been gathered by economists; other measures (e.g. one’s satisfaction with the government’s assistance, perceived change in one’s quality of life, preference for one government policy vs. another) yielded “softer” data – and are ground-breaking.

Peter Robinson’s Papers & Correspondence – 1823-26

An extensive collection of business records and correspondence relating to the selection, transport, and settlement of Robinson’s Irish Emigrants has survived in the British National Archives, the Archives of Ontario, and in a remarkable cache kept by Robinson and donated by his family to the Peterborough Historical Society in 1899.

For the first time we bring together this extraordinary body of documents – and open a unique window on conditions in pre-Famine Ireland and their connection with the early settlement of Upper Canada.

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A Survey of Robinson’s Irish Settlers – 1828

Wilmot-Horton’s approach to establishing an evidence-base for public policy is exemplified by his wide-ranging survey of 180 Irish settlers in the Bathurst and Newcastle Districts of Upper Canada in 1828. The settlers’ personal accounts, offered in responses to this survey, have gone virtually unnoticed for nearly two centuries – indeed, some historians have doubted that they ever existed at all!

Happily I came upon the settlers’ responses in the Sir Robert Wilmot Horton fonds in the Library and Archives of Canada.

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