How lacemakers in Calais ended up Down Under

Over several decades, waves of British citizens have moved to France for a better life. But when the political winds of Europe suddenly change, they find themselves marooned with nowhere to go. Sounds familiar? Perhaps, but this was 1848, as The Connexion discovers…

11 November 2019
A statue of immigrants at the Migration Museum, Adelaide, housed in what was the Destitute Asylum, where Eugénie Goldfinch spent several months after arriving from Calais
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In the early 1800s, at the height of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, Nottingham was to lace what Bordeaux was to wine.

Thanks to John Heathcoat’s Bobbinet lacemaking machine, production was at an all-time high. There were just two problems.

At home, the Luddites were smashing the machines to protect their jobs while, abroad, the French were imposing crippling tariffs to protect their own lace industry.

So, on the principle “if you can’t beat them…”, a group of Nottingham lace manufacturers moved to the continent, taking their workers with them and smuggling in machinery.

The chosen site for this industrial bridgehead was Saint-Pierre, just south of Calais. England and France had only just declared peace after the Napoleonic Wars but resentment among the French seemed to evaporate as the English factory owners recruited local workers.

Intermarriage followed and, Paris being the world centre of fashion, business flourished. By the 1840s, the Calais region was the Dordogne of its day, home to some 3,000 British expats with their own church and an English-language newspaper, The Calais Messenger.

But in 1848 the French, having had one revolution in 1789, launched a second, albeit less bloody. After three years of poor harvests, the economy had crumbled. Banks froze, markets collapsed, factories closed and an ugly nationalism reared its head.

Foreigners were seen as job-takers or, if unemployed, a drain on the public purse. There were cries of “A bas les Anglais!”, although in Calais the locals were generally supportive of their English neighbours who were, in many cases, also relatives.

The factory-owners scuttled back to Nottingham and, left behind, their destitute workers found themselves no longer wanted in France and facing the prospect of the workhouse in England.

Into this bleak scenario stepped two men: Edward Lander, a machine-owner nominated as the lacemakers’ emergency leader, and Edward Bonham, the British consul in Calais.

The heads of 50 or so lacemaking families met in the local English church and hatched an audacious strategy: to emigrate, not just to another country but another continent.

They sent a petition to the British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, offering a deal – “We won’t return to be a burden on the British state if you can provide us with the means of free emigration to Australia.”

The combination of cheek, veiled blackmail and consul Bonham’s energetic support paid off, as the government launched a public appeal in London and Nottingham, which it agreed to match. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert set an example by chipping in £200.

The upshot was that 700 lacemakers were evacuated by steamer from Calais to the English coast, boarding ships bound for Australia. By 1848 the Great Southern Continent was seen less as a dumping ground for convicts than as a destination where those with initiative could escape from poverty.

The voyage took four months with some heading for Sydney, others to Adelaide, the capital of the new “free colony” of South Australia, founded just 12 years earlier. Those who were Adelaide-bound spent 113 days at sea. Much of that was below deck – often in raging storms – in claustrophobic quarters, with many children and crude box-bunks for beds.

However, a greater challenge came with their arrival in Australia: finding work. These were skilled machine operators, typically middle-aged with large families, not the young, strapping immigrants that Australia was crying out for. Worse, the government had made it a condition of their resettlement that they give up their traditional trade lest it undermine the lace industry in Britain.

Historian Gillian Kelly on the dockside at Port Adelaide, where lacemaking migrants landed in Australia in 1848 - Photo: Paul Kloeden

Gillian Kelly is the historian for the Australian Society of the Lacemakers of Calais, and is a descendent of a lacemaker. Sitting in Port Adelaide, where the immigrants came ashore through the mangrove swamps, she says they had to take whatever was on offer.

“Farmhands, labouring, and lots of them went into service as house servants. Among the single women, there were a great many marriages within just months of arrival. But there was also an entrepreneurial spirit.”

As an example, she cites her great-great-grandfather William, who landed in Sydney and invested in real estate when the government started selling off land in the 1860s.

“People were able to buy a plot virtually at the cost of putting improvements into it,” said Ms Kelly.

“On the 1871 census, where it said ‘occupation’, William – an English lacemaker, not from a moneyed family – was able to write ‘gentleman’.”

Edward Lander, chairman of the appeal committee, arrived at Port Adelaide with his wife Mary Ann and six children.

The last child, appropriately named Adelaide, had been born on the first day of the voyage but died of whooping cough a year later. Within six months of arrival, Edward joined the Adelaide police force. After a three-year stint, he moved to Victoria and then New South Wales, accumulating land and status.

Appointed a magistrate, he became a pillar of society. In their 80s, Edward and Mary Ann retired to Port Adelaide.

By contrast, the story of the Goldfinch family, researched by sixth-generation descendant and social historian Cheryl Williss, is probably more typical of immigrants’ experience.

Cheryl Williss in the South Australian Maritime Museum, in a re-creation of life below decks of a migrant sailing ship - Photo Paul Kloeden

English-born Richard Goldfinch had married a Calais French laceworker, Eugénie Desombre. They were in their early 20s and by the time of the 1848 evacuation, nearly a decade later, had four children.

Leaving France must have been particularly hard for Eugénie, pregnant with a fifth child and knowing she would never see her parents, relatives or friends again. Arriving in Adelaide, Richard found work, probably as a labourer, but tragedy struck two years later when their nine-year old son George drowned in a river. 

Around this time, gold was discovered in neighbouring Victoria. Richard spent the next few years going back and forth, while Eugénie kept the family together as a cleaner. Richard’s prospecting was moderately successful but not enough to prevent Eugénie, pregnant again, having to admit herself and her brood to the grimly named Destitute Asylum for several months.

Ms Williss completes the story: “Richard died at 62 of tuberculosis. Eugénie – having born eight children – was able to buy a cottage and lived on for another two decades. When she and Richard had married in 1840, she had marked the certificate with an ‘X’ because she couldn’t read or write.

“Over half a century later, on the other side of the world and now in her 70s, she signed her name to a petition that in 1894 would give the women of South Australia the right to vote – 50 years before her native France followed suit.”

For Ms Williss herself, the French connection remains a source of pride: “A person once said to me that after so many generations we’re all diluted. But I prefer another quote, from a Quaker: ‘Is it not a great blessing that we are the sum of all our ancestors?’”

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