Wednesday, 4 July 2012

A tale of two immigrants

On May 30 1866, Thomas Harlin, M.A. (a Fellow of St Peter's College Cambridge) arrived in Moreton Bay on his way to take up the position of Mathematics Master at the Ipswich Grammar School (which had been established as the first secondary school in the Colony in 1863).

Unfortunately, he had not enjoyed his voyage from England aboard the Southern Ocean. In a letter to the editor of The Brisbane Courier published on Wednesday 6 June 1866, he described fellow passengers as "the scum and refuse of the town populations of Great Britain".

This character assessment by such a distinguished English gentleman is of interest to me because among the "lower classes" conveyed by the Southern Ocean under the auspices of the Queensland Government Immigration Agency were our 3xgreat grandparents Philemon and Selva COLEY and their son Philemon Lewis COLEY (our 2xgreat grandfather).

Mr Harlin's letter was a long one as he had much to say on the character of the purported "railway artisans" who had been afforded free passage. He opined that "some ... are convicted thieves, and ... several of the rest are morally certain to swell the gaol charges of Queensland within twelve months of their landing".

It is not surprising that some in the Colony took exception to the views of Harlin and responded in (what we might now describe as) a robustly Australian way. Undeterred, the man (who, within a few years, would become the foundation Headmaster of the Brisbane Grammar School) contributed another lengthy letter on Thursday 7 June advising the Queensland government on how it ought to manage its migration program which included purported verbatim transcripts of conversations that occurred during the voyage.

On 8 June 1866, the Courier carried a letter signed an old resident of brisbane which included "I went to the depot to see and judge for myself as to the quality of the immigrants by the Southern Ocean. I have conversed with them, and believe them to be, almost without exception, a steady, hard-working class of people, and not as 'T. H.' describes them 'the scum of London.' For the future, I should advise 'T. H.' to mind his own business, and not trouble himself about people who, although they may have not had, perhaps, such a good education, and be able to put M.A., etc., at the end of their names, are quite as good as himself."

Despite his apparent lack of academic distinction, I find much to admire in the opinion of that "old resident", both with respect to our COLEY ancestors and their apparent accuser.

Both Philemon Coley and Thomas Harlin travelled from Brisbane to Ipswich to take up employment soon after arriving. Given the schoolmaster's views of his fellow passengers, it is unlikely that their paths crossed again. Nevertheless, it would be wonderful to know the opinion of the ship canal labourer concerning the Cantab Fellow; if indeed, Philemon deemed him worthy of a single thought.

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