Migration/population debates in britain and australia 1915-40

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The years from 1915 to 1940 imposed torment and confusion everywhere. That generalisation applied not only to social politics within both Britain and Australia, but also to relations between those two polities: Never was that relationship so extreme in its love/hate duality, and in both parties’ determination to get the most advantage from the other. All this became very clear in matters of migration policy, which even in the smoothest of times is likely to raise intractable issues of natural justice and economic outcomes. So my subject, although less technical and abstract than most pursued in this seminar, is almost as complex as any. I try to impose some pattern, not very successfully, but still with the effect of concealing just how tangled the full facts were. Malthus’s name rarely if ever appeared in contemporary usage, yet the issues often came within the ambit of his thinking. The older, less pessimistic Malthus (in his third stage, in terms of Michael Roberts’s structure) had seen migration as a possible alleviator of tension between human fertility and nature’s resources.

First attention must go to the situation in Britain, and its policy-makers’ debate as to whether migration —in general, but particularly to Australia — should be encouraged. Opinion ever varied much, but from time to time varying ideas were dominant. Through 1914 to ’17 hegemony lay with rejection of proposals for massive post-war assisted emigration, the view being that homeland Britain would need all available money and manpower to repair the havoc of conflict. Treasury and the Colonial Offices shared this opinion. So did radical voices, upholding long leftist traditions in their insistence that Everyman had natural right to enjoy a decent life in his native country, and that when governments assisted migration they did so only to undercut socio-political pressures which otherwise might force fundamental domestic change. Upholders of such argument around 1840 had seen Malthus’s endorsement of emigration as confirming his role as their foe. Now their successors argued, for example, that yeoman-type settlement within Britain was a far worthier policy than sending people overseas in that or any other quest.

The current minority counter-view came from big ‘I’ Imperialists, continuing their tradition of insisting that ever-tighter affiliation between metropolis and periphery was Britaindom’s best, perhaps only, hope of survival in a power-contesting world. The Empire’s success in war-time co-operation confirmed the truth of this view, for its upholders. Especially did they insist upon the duty of government to assist the migration of all ex-servicepeople who desired to settle within imperial bounds.

Soon after the Armistice pragmatism drove an official shift towards the Imperialist position. Europe continued in chaos; Bolshevik Russia threatened revolutionary emulation everywhere, Britain included. Fear even prevailed lest ex-servicemen turn their skills in violence to such ends - and one to make that point, so late as October 1920, was the bureaucrat in charge of migration, as he argued in favour of its assistance. In background lay that down-turn in the British economy which established chronic and substantial unemployment, fiercest in mining and old-industrial areas. Especially the Ministry of Labour came to believe that migration could relieve consequent socio-political distress and dissent, and that government should act accordingly. A sub-set of associated feeling established the problem of ‘The Superfluous Woman’. In 1919 government despatched to Australia a mission charged with exploring the possibilities of employment for female migrants, so addressing this aspect of the matter. That now, as generally in the years ahead, the assumption prevailed that any women targetted for migration assistance would be young (and so likely mothers) sharpened the demographic edge of such thinking.

In 1919 too the broadly conservative governments of these years began to fund the intra-Empire migration of ex-servicepeople and their families. This continued until 1921, to be followed the next year by the Empire Settlement Act, whereby the British government agreed to help subsidise the fares of migrants whom the Dominions agreed to accept, and also to assist developmental projects that might expand the recipient polity’s capacity to take migrants. Even after the Settlement Act, migrants had to pay a sizeable part of their fare, although that diminished during the decade, farmer-boy youths and domestic-servant girls ultimately getting full subsidy.

Contestation ever proceeded within Britain. The radical critique of emigration continued to win much popular support, often out-spelled, sometimes not. Some antagonists presented the Settlement Act as a re-vamp of convict transportation. Potential migrants never offered on the scale which the Act’s backers had envisaged. Every Employment Exchange in Britain advertised migration to Australia, and put much pressure upon the unemployed to offer, but even among them resistance was considerable. That the comparative generosity of welfare payments abetted this resistance raised issues echoing those of a century before, as to whether Poor Laws weakened both the national economy and the readiness of aid-receivers to solve their problems by resolute self-help.

Radicals and recalcitrants were not the only Britons to dispute the Settlement Act. At a far social extreme, the nabobs of Treasury also looked askance. ‘Emigration is an excellent thing for the uninhabited receiving state; it may be a good thing for the actual emigrant, but it is not so clear that it is for the emitting country ... there is no need for us to pay through the nose in order to populate Australia with our more enterprising spirits’. So spoke Otto Niemeyer, big man in Treasury, destined to play his part in the history of Australia, a place much scorned by himself and associates. ‘The Australians ... who are disposed to wave the Union Jack and put their hands in our pockets at the same time’, opined Treasury’s expert on migration matters. Such people as he much begrudged Australia getting agricultural workers and skilled artisans, believing these people to be needed at least as much by Britain. Others so felt about domestic servants.

Still, assisted migration continued. One interesting chapter came in the appointment of an ‘Industrial Transference Board’. to ponder how to make the unemployed shift themselves, to find jobs either in Britain, or beyond. The parallels with earlier debate, especially the philosophy behind the 1834 Poor Law, became yet closer (although strangely little remarked). In an extraordinary report, the Board upbraided Australia for not taking more Britons, while (so its grossly exaggerated statistics claimed) accepting many Continental Europeans. Here sounded a most tortuous confusion. Secretary to the Industrial Transference Board , CWG Eady — a very bright bureaucrat-economist, to sit beside JM Keynes at Bretton Woods —- had himself earlier endorsed a Treasury-style case against Britain losing able people, adding that ‘it would suit this country better if Australia and Canada filled up with hard working Continentals, and thus increased their power in the home [that is, British] industrial market’.

Soon came ‘the’ Depression, and near-simultaneously accession of Labor governments in Britain under Ramsay MacDonald and Australia under James Scullin. From late 1929 Scullin curtailed assisted immigration, to almost nothing. MacDonald’s government reacted in the style of the Industrial Transference Board, seeing Scullin’s action as not just rejection, but betrayal. Very soon it became clear that Australia’s plight emulated Britain’s. Australia lost migrant-attractiveness, and many British settlers returned home, adding to ever-common stories of migrant suffering down-under. The Austral image became murky indeed.

That helped impel the next substantial shift in British attitudes to migration, itself part of an extraordinary turnabout whereby dominant opinion moved from looking askance at the extent of national population, to bemoaning its absence. How quick and sharp can attitudes to demography change!.. For present purposes, the transition was best expressed in a report of the ‘Economic Advisory Council’ which MacDonald appointed to advise on counter-Depression tactics.

The Council’s members included GDH Cole and Alexander Carr-Saunders, key demographer of the day. ‘Emigration takes the young rather than the old, the bright and ambitious’, ran the Council’s critique. It also skimmed such cream as agricultural labourers, and accentuated Britain’s demographic imbalance of females over males. This kind of argument had sounded often enough before, but, as intimated, found much greater receptivity through the 1930s. Central to the change was concern over the declining birth-rate of recent years (actually it picked up a shade from around 1933, as anxiety about depopulation grew stronger.) No-one did more than Carr-Saunders to publicise the new demographic orthodoxies, although joining him were other gurus like Robert Kuczynski and DV Glass, while from a slightly different quarter came eugenic agitation as to population quality, often expressed in this decade by leftist social reformers such as Richard Titmuss.

That this change in attitude should come as Britain’s domestic economy sharply declined, and then improved but marginally, is striking but not inexplicable. Fundamental as a prompt was the rise of the fascist powers, one of their major policies — not all that effective but still threatening — being to boost population. This was a sizeable part of the fascist/Axis menace, linking with its broader potential for aggression. The totalitarians’ call for Lebensraum was especially in point. Insofar as Britain continued in support of assisted migration to Australia through the 1930s it did so in defiance of perceived domestic benefit, but rather to support the British presence in Australia as international opinion became ever more critical of apparent under-use of that vast space by its puny population. This same kind of thinking caused the United Kingdom now to follow the kind of policy earlier supported by Eady and a few others, encouraging Australia to take Continental European migrants. There is too little recognition that this country’s relative warmness in accepting European migrants dates from the later 1930, and that a central impulse thither was Britain so advising.


Australian issues having become dominant, it obviously is time to switch focus and concentrate upon their earlier passage. One fundamental was solid, persistent antipathy to immigration, apparent throughout the whole period, minimal (even negative) though migrant numbers became in Depression’s depth. Staunchest opposition derived from trade unions, ever jealous of job-competitors. It found much voice in the yellower journals - precisely those which in the 1920s often made absurdly exaggerated claims as to the country’s economic potential. But anti-migration feeling spread almost everywhere in that Australia, even among bourgeois Anglophiles. The intelligentsia increasingly moved into the same camp. In the strength of such feeling lay Australia’s variant of the autarchic isolationism then gripping the world.

Some voices and pressures ever went contrary. Most important in this story was the stance of federal governments, only JH Scullin’s being altogether anti-migrationist. Basic in prompting other ministries to pay some heed to migration was the kind of geo-political concern already noted as having effect in the later 1930s. Whereas only then did the United Kingdom become so concerned with Realpolitik as to shape its demographic thinking, Australian leaders long had such matters in mind. WM Hughes’s hate-fear of Japan, present before the first War and yet stronger afterwards, set this pattern. (A 1920 map which formed part of the National Library’s Malthus exhibition illustrated wider currency of such attitudes.)

Hughes’s migrationism had its peak just as the first War ended. On 5 November 1918 he cabled from London to his Deputy Prime Minister at home:

If we are to hold Australia and develop its tremendous resources we must have numerous population ... Tens of thousand of men in prime of life, who would make most desirable settlers on soil and will be disinclined to remain in Britain, will be soon released from Army. If we want to get [these] men we must bestir ourselves immediately ...

Some of this zeal survived a while. Hughes persuaded the Premiers to accept a federal framework for immigration policy, and set up complementary agencies in both Melbourne and London, headed by committed migrationists. But thereby hung an indicative tale. In February 1922 the migration man in Melbourne, HS Gullett, resigned in wrath at Hughes’s failure to uphold the cause. The plaint rang true: by now Hughes cared only a little. He endorsed the Empire Settlement Act, but primarily because it got some money out of the Brits to subsidise migration, and promised more for that which he esteemed much higher, developmental public works.

In February 1923 Hughes was forced from the Prime Minister’s chair. The newcomer, suave and systematic SM Bruce, differed much from Hughes in style, but his policies took much the same path. The dominant literature presents Bruce as a lackey of metropolitan-centred imperialism, but I see this image-making as a result of many commentators being misled by Bruce, precisely as he (fairly successfully) strove to mislead metropolitan-centred opinion at the time. The greatest part of the truth is that Bruce forever angled to use the metropolis and its resources for Australia’s benefit. Thus his famous phrase of 1923, ‘Men, Money, Markets’ gave British governments a false impression then, and has been much mis-read since. Bruce very much desired British markets, via imperial preference, for Australian farm produce; money, via cheapish loans, ever had its appeal; but as for men — well, Japan remained a threat and especially because of that Australia could do with some population boost ; skilled and industrious types had their particular place; and migration could be used as a pawn in negotiations with the United Kingdom. So Bruce secured the so-called Thirty Four Million Pound Agreement, whereby — much to the anguish of Niemeyer and other Treasury boffins — Empire Settlement money could subsidise land settlement and developmental works in Australia, broadly in accord with migrant intake. Only in this ultra-pragmatic style did Bruce uphold British migration. He hoodwinked the British government, which assumed that money would be paid under the Agreement only in ratio to the degree to which assisted migration increased thereafter, but that was not said, and so Australia got some cheapish money, while taking no extra newcomers.

While Bruce cared only in these narrow terms for immigration, State governments generally ran colder still — most obviously, but not only, because the Labor party often prevailed in these domains. Despite the federal immigration structure established by Hughes, the States still had a decisive voice apropos assisted-migrant intake. To foster their co-operation under the Thirty Four Million Pound Agreement, and generally in hope of de-politicising migration, Bruce established the Development and Migration Commission. This body’s task was to define projects on which Britain’s cheap money could be spent, in confidence of cost benefit validity. As the Commission set to that task it met all sorts of hurdles. Fundamental among them ranked difficulty in finding projects that met the necessary criterion of cost-benefit. In effect the Commission found that 1920s Australia had very nearly reached its apparent limits of economic viability, and so of migrant absorption. To adapt the terms of Sir Anthony Wrigley’s paper, Australia was near becoming a ‘stationary state’.

Other opinion had been moving towards that view. One exemplar is TG Taylor who early in decade enraged boosters as he insisted that the nation should not expect or desire to maintain a population of say, a mere 20 million by 2000AD. Sometimes the impression blows that Taylor was near-unique in his pessimistic moderation, but — as Neville Cain superbly expounded near 25 years ago — - most educated opinion agreed. JB Brigden, professor of economics at the University of Tasmania, took so tough a malthusian line as to tell a royal commission on child endowment that he would oppose such welfare if he judged it likely to increase the numbers rather than the quality of Australians. On another occasion Brigden proposed that the basic reason for the fate of the Tasmanian Aboriginals lay in their putting too much strain on the island’s scant natural resources. Brigden otherwise anticipated the thought of Tim Flannery, condemning assisted immigration and developmental work precisely because they threatened to eat the future. And that voice of ‘men-money-markets’, SM Bruce, now said ‘of all the so-called economists with whom I have come in touch, I am inclined to think that Brigden has the best and most practical mind’.

The Depression minimised immigration, and destroyed first Bruce as Prime Minister (October 1929), then Scullin (December 1931). Neither of those two (nor Brigden) ever became a father. Their successor Lyons did so a dozen times, making appropriate that in the later 1930s Australian policy should become relatively genial as to immigration. More forthright in the matter than the Prime Minister were his aides RG Menzies and Earle Page, the pair invoking 20 or even 30 millions as a foreseeable population and endorsing those British suggestions that Australia seek immigrants from Continental Europe. In May 1936 the Lyons government abandoned restrictions imposed in 1930 on southern European entry — which nevertheless had generally continued, if modestly, in contrast to British exodus. Later, migration agreements were made with the Netherlands, Scandinavian countries, and Switzerland. Now too the Empire Settlement Act revived, prompting the sole (if sparse) assisted immigration of the time.

What moved Menzies, Page, and Lyons? Sharpening geo-political threats, enhanced by British pressure; broader worries as to depopulation, usually following British models; the eternal charisma of ‘development’: these have to be the answers.

All the while much questioning of migration proceeded. Otto Niemeyer, in course of his disparaging inspection of the Australian economy in 1930 declared of the natives that ‘they wouldn’t take migrants, they were over-populated already’. Many Australians indeed did incline that way, expressing themselves in trade unionist, isolationist, and academic accents. Especially the more radical intelligentsia joined this chorus, as became most interestingly apparent at an Institute of Political Science conference, January 1937. One theme to merge was that Australia should tell the world how limited were its resources, so as to negate international jealousy of so few people occupying so much space. Conversely there prevailed much criticism of notions of expansive development. Dr HC Coombs led this charge, remarking that the likelihood of most future growth being in tertiary services ‘might therefore make it advantageous to Australia, and the rest of the world, if there was a reversal of the stream of migration into Australia, and a net balance of people returned to Europe’.

Somewhat similar ideas influenced WD Forsyth, most notable of Australia’s demographic commentators at this time. Having graduated from Ernest Scott’s History Department in Melbourne, Forsyth studied at the London School of Economics under Alexander Carr-Saunders - he who forecast British depopulation, and consequent dangers. (Forsyth’s papers at the National Library of Australia tell a pertinent joke: Carr-Saunders’s recent big book was entitled World Population, which his students dubbed World Copulation ... by Pa Saunders) Returning to Australia in 1938 Forsyth prepared (although not publishing until 1942) a most interesting and revealing monograph, The Myth of Wide Open Spaces. Like Brigden, Coombs, and other such commentators, Forsyth (as his title denoted) wished to discount facile optimism as to Australia’s potential. Yet he followed Carr-Saunders in recognising social and geo-political dangers in under-population. Very conscious of Britons’ aversion to Austral migration at this time, Forsyth recognised as ‘The “New” Immigration in Australia’ that southern European influx noted above. Limitation threatened there too, however - with the new arrivals adopting a ‘small family’ pattern, while not very many of their home-country peers were likely to follow to Australia. This scenario had its problems, Forsyth suggested, but it cohered with a general stasis in demography, migration, and economic affairs. ‘We have left the age of expansion behind us and are entering the age of adjustment’.

That intelligent men like Carr-Saunders, Coombs, and Forsyth could be so belied by future events raises interesting questions as to the sense and legitimacy of prophetic utterance. One could even dare raise that issue with regard to Malthus himself. Yet is not all social science, demography very much included, predicated upon the need for, and therefore legitimacy of prophecy?
Michael Roe

University of Tasmania

22 October 1998
 This paper draws throughout from the author’s Australia, Britain, and Migration, 1915-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 1995). It is cited only where Roe guesses that interested readers would welcome immediate certainty as to the source of data.
 A. Beever, ‘From a Place of “Horrible Destitution”, to a Paradise of the Working Class: The Transformation of British Working Class Attitudes to Australia, 1841-1851’, Labour History, number 40 (1981), pages 1-15.
 Roe, Migration 1915-40, page 19.
 Roe, Migration 1915-40, page 59. There too is the following quoted remark (by L. Cuthbertson).
 CL Mowat, Britain Between The Wars 1918-1940 (Methuen, 1955), pages 517-21 give splendid and concise analysis.
 ‘The Economists and Australian Population Strategy in the Twenties’, Australian Journal of Politics and History’, volume 20 (1974), pages 346-59.
 Roe, ‘“The Best and Most Practical Mind”: JB Brigden ... 1921-30’, Journal of Australian Studies, number 30 (1991), pages 72-84.
 Roe, Migration 1915-40, page 148.
 WGK Duncan & CV Janes (editors), The Future of Immigration into Australia and New Zealand (Angus & Robertson, 1937), page 44.
 The Myth of Open Spaces. Australian, British and World Trends of Population and Migration (Melbourne University Press, 1942), page ix.

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