Liverpool as a Diasporic City

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Liverpool as a Diasporic City
John Herson

Liverpool John Moores University

‘The streets of Liverpool during the emigrant season present stirring spectacles of cosmopolitan animation, and the city itself is the temporary resting place of visitors from all parts of the hemisphere. Russians, suspicious and sullen, … Finns and Poles, men of fierce and haughty natures, … Germans, quiet and inoffensive, brave and determined … the flaxen-haired Scandinavians, paragon of nature’s handiwork, erect and stately.’1
With these poetic, if crude, stereotypes the Liverpool Mercury sought to encapsulate Liverpool’s emigrant trade in 1887. The paper’s correspondent described with pride the city’s role ‘as the European centre of emigration’, and Liverpool’s importance in the worldwide scattering of European peoples has been an element in its heritage ever since. It is mainly in this sense that Liverpool is perceived as a diasporic city, but the term diaspora must also include the city as the residence of diasporic settlers and sojourners. This paper seeks to outline the scale and character of emigration through Liverpool and its significance for the city. It also examines the impact of nineteenth-century in-migration and questions whether it is useful to view Liverpool as a diasporic city. It suggests that Liverpool’s ambiguous nineteenth-century identity reflected the tensions of its complex migrant connections.

Emigrants through Liverpool, 1825-1913
It is easy to assume that the emigrant trade was important for Liverpool’s economic and social development, but there has been little attempt to examine this proposition in any depth. Furthermore, despite frequent references to the scale of emigration through Liverpool in the nineteenth century, nobody seems to have produced time series data on the actual numbers of emigrants passing through from the 1820s to the Great War. Neither Liverpool’s changing position relative to other UK ports, nor the significance of various emigrant destinations for Liverpool has been documented. This section of the essay is based on data that remedies these deficiencies.
Table 1 Extra-European passengers from British and Irish ports, 1825-1913
















Other English ports



Scottish ports



Irish ports






Sources: see note 2.
Liverpool was the most important emigrant port in the British Isles and table 1 shows the extent of its dominance. Over twelve million passengers passed through the city between 1825 and 1913, nearly 56 per cent of all those leaving UK ports.2 London, the next biggest, took less than a fifth of Liverpool’s total, and those emigrating directly from Ireland were only a quarter of Liverpool’s number. Liverpool’s top position amongst British ports was never challenged before 1914, but there were some changes in the general picture. The port only achieved overall domination – more than half the outward passengers – in 1843. Its heyday, when it had more than 60 per cent of the traffic, lasted from 1850 to 1874. In the depressed years of the late-1890s Liverpool’s proportion dropped below half, but it enjoyed one last emigrant bonanza in the years before the Great War (figure 1). This again pushed its proportion of passenger traffic over 50 per cent - and indeed beyond 60 per cent - until 1912.
Table 2 Destinations of extra-European passengers from Liverpool, 1825-1913




United States



British North America



Australia/New Zealand



‘East Indies’



West Indies



South Africa



Central/South America



Unspecified destinations






Sources: see note 2
Liverpool’s role in the emigrant trade was multi-facetted. Although dubbed the ‘second city of empire’, Liverpool’s main emigrant traffic was to the United States. Over nine million people left Liverpool for the US, almost three-quarters of the total passengers going to extra-European destinations (table 2 and figure 1). Two features stand out in relation to the American traffic – its sheer size and its volatility. In all but three years (1825 and 1911-12) more went to the US than to all the other destinations combined. Even so, the demand for passages was so volatile that in peak periods it was over four times as great as in the troughs. The port nevertheless played a significant role in transporting people to the British empire and Liverpool’s second-ranked emigrant traffic was generally that to British North America. Although this was to British dominions, for most of the period the traffic was an adjunct to the dominant US route and many of the migrants sooner or later crossed into the US. This was particularly the case with the Irish famine emigrants around 1847.3 Canadian traffic did not become significant on its own account until after Confederation in 1867. The numbers going to Canada never exceeded those going to the US, but they came close in the four years before the Great War.

The only other large numbers of emigrants through Liverpool in the nineteenth century were to Australia. Liverpool’s entry into the Australian market really came with the gold rush of the 1850s, but the end of easy gold finds diminished numbers after 1858 and Liverpool shipping lines left the trade between 1857 and 1866.4 The traffic was effectively dead by 1873 and only revived to a very modest degree in the 1900s. London became the predominant port of embarkation for Australia. The number of passengers travelling to destinations elsewhere was small in relation to the big flows to North America and Australia. Even so, their political and economic importance may have been greater than the numbers might suggest. From 1825 to 1913 nearly 344,000 passengers went to Central and South America, the East Indies, West Indies, Africa and other unspecified destinations. Some would have been permanent emigrants, but most were colonial administrators, troops, traders and business representatives. The port was a significant conduit for these people, although London and later Southampton were more important ports for imperial functionaries. These traffics and the major emigrant flows to Canada and Australasia nevertheless indicate Liverpool’s role in peopling the British empire. Between 1825 and 1910 just over 60 per cent of passengers to British North America passed through Liverpool, and the proportion was over 80 per cent from the 1880s to the mid-1900s. Over 40 per cent of those going to Australia from the mid-1830s to the early-1860s left from Liverpool.

Many emigrants were Irish and most went to the westward-colonising United States. For those going to the British empire the journey was inherently more ambiguous. As Alvin Jackson has argued, for the Irish ‘the empire was both an agent of liberation and of oppression; it provided both the path to social advancement and the shackles of incarceration.’5 Ironically, the Irish emigrants could be seen as colonised and exiled people who became, in turn, colonisers, exploiters and enforcers of British imperialism. Many, particularly those going to Canada, came from Protestant loyalist backgrounds, but the Celtic-Catholic Irish also played a major role in settling, administering and policing the self-governing dominions.6

Liverpool’s Irish connection has tended to obscure the port’s importance for emigrants from Britain, particularly England and Wales, as well as from the continent of Europe, and an estimate of the ethnic breakdown of Liverpool’s emigrants from 1853 to 1912 is shown in table 3.7 About 4.4 million continental transmigrants passed through Liverpool. They formed under 10 per cent of passengers from 1853 to 1862, between 20 and 50 per cent from 1863 to 1892 and over half from 1893 to 1912. The transmigrants came from many parts of continental Europe, but the main flows were from Scandinavia, Germany, Russia and Poland. Liverpool played a particularly important role in the exodus of Jews from the Russian territories following the pogroms of 1881-82.8

Table 3 Estimated origins of passengers through Liverpool, 1853-1912



% Irish

Continental Transmigrant

% Transmigrant


% British


















































Source: see note 7
The Famine emigration dominates perceptions of Liverpool’s importance for Irish overseas emigration. Over a million Irish passed through in the Famine decade (1845-54) and in the 1850s more than three-quarters of the emigrant Irish made the passage to Liverpool to pick up ships going overseas. This changed after 1859 when the Cunard and Inman lines began to call at Queenstown (Cobh). Most other lines later stopped there or at Moville (Derry) for Irish passengers, and Liverpool’s hold on the Irish trade was diminished. By the 1870s and 1880s only around 20,000 Irish emigrants were passing through Liverpool each year, and the numbers dropped below 10,000 thereafter. The port’s role in the trauma of Famine emigration was a relatively short phase that has distracted attention from the bigger picture.

The British, and particularly the English and Welsh, rivalled the transmigrants as the bread and butter of Liverpool’s emigrant trade after the Famine crisis (table 3). About 4.4 million British emigrants passed through between 1853 and 1912, nearly three times the number of Irish. The emigration of British people was notably volatile, with particularly steep declines in the mid-1870s and again in the second half of the 1890s. Liverpool disproportionately lost out in the late-1890s because of depression in America and the relative growth of empire emigration to Australasia and South Africa through Southampton and London. An increasing proportion of British passengers, particularly to North America, were also transient workers seeking short-term jobs overseas.9 They passed through Liverpool continuously as a generally invisible stream.

The impact of the emigrant trade
Liverpool’s importance for emigrants was one element in its complex and dynamic nineteenth-century identity. The city’s shippers sought passengers from Britain, Ireland and all the countries of continental Europe and transported them to both imperial and foreign destinations. The balance of passengers’ origins and destinations was never stable, however, and the trade often shifted in orientation in response to changes in its world market. Although the statistics amply demonstrate Liverpool’s dominant role in the emigrant trade, assessing its impact on the city is more difficult. The first issue to be considered is the handling of emigrants as they passed through the city. Liverpool’s notorious treatment of emigrants, especially the Irish, in the mid-nineteenth century has received much attention. People arriving in Liverpool had to find accommodation, book an onward passage and provision themselves for the voyage. Passages were sold by emigrant brokers who charged a commission of 10 to 15 per cent, and the brokers spawned a network of ‘runners’ who competed to channel emigrants to them.10 Often the runners and their associates were lodging house keepers and they commonly ran stores selling shoddy and over-priced provisions to travellers. The whole system battened on the ignorance and vulnerability of travellers, particularly the Irish. Many were captured by such people, imprisoned in squalid lodgings, relieved of their money and sold passages that might be fraudulent or subject to interminable delays. Terry Coleman and others have documented the scandal of the Liverpool system.11 The aim here is to arrive at some estimate of its size.

In 1851 Sir George Stern, ‘resident at Liverpool’, estimated there were 673 registered lodging houses in Liverpool, of which he thought 286 were occupied by emigrants.12 The Irish were dominant in the trade, as they were amongst the runners, and emigrant lodgings were particularly concentrated in the slums behind Clarence Dock and near Princes Dock.13 It is difficult to say how many runners there were, but in 1851 William Tapscott, a passage broker with a dubious reputation, hazarded that ‘there are thousands of such persons.’14 Then there were the so-called dealers who specialised in exploiting emigrants. John Bramley Moore, a magistrate, gave evidence that of 900 he had convicted for short weights and cheating, between 500 and 600 were provision dealers and grocers guilty of ‘impositions on emigrants. They are a class quite apart from the respectable tradesmen of the town’.15 All these frauds brought significant funds into the Liverpool economy and particularly to parts of its Irish population. In 1851 there were 206,015 recorded emigrants, most of them Irish. On average the runners received 7½ per cent of each six pound fare totalling £92,707 15s 0d. Each emigrant might be divested of around ten shillings for accommodation and provisions by Irish compatriots, which meant another £103,007 10s entered the economy. The total of £195,715 5s amounts to about £2 6s per Irish-born resident of Liverpool at that time. Thousands of people in mid-century Liverpool could therefore make money from the informal economy of the emigrant trade, though the profits were unevenly spread.

Steamships took over most of the North Atlantic routes in the 1860s and the shipping lines took bookings directly through agents in the exporting regions. This reduced opportunities for fraud in Liverpool. Transmigrants from Europe, as well as emigrants from Britain and Ireland, increasingly had an integrated passage from their home area to Liverpool and thence overseas. Lodgings were arranged in the city and the spectre of runners suborning frightened, gullible, travellers faded away. Ship departures became more reliable and the time that had to be spent in Liverpool was reduced. Accommodation was in commercial hotels and hostels rather than the squalid lodgings of the 1850s. On census night in 1881, for example, eight premises were clearly accommodating European transmigrants and they housed a total of 402 people from the countries shown in table 4. Lodgings became larger and more organised and they provided an entrepreneurial niche for foreigners. Gore’s Directory listed fifty two commercial boarding houses in Liverpool in 1881 of which sixteen had proprietors with continental European names. They were probably engaged in the emigrant trade, though some also catered for foreign seamen. By 1910 there were ninety two such establishments, a growth that reflected the boom in transmigrant traffic in the 1900s.

Most emigrants now passed rapidly through Liverpool but some were forced into the Poor Law system. Between 1881 and 1888 812 emigrants, mostly sick, were admitted to Liverpool Workhouse. Shipping companies paid for their relief.

Table 4 European transmigrants in Liverpool, 3 April 1881

Country of birth




















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