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The Peter Robinson Emigration, 1825

May 29, 2023

Peter Robinson (Toronto Public Library)

By Guy Scott

The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 caused massive economic dislocation all over Europe, including in Ireland. Throughout the 1700s, the population of Ireland had been growing by leaps and bounds. The vast majority of Irish were tenant farmers and the amount of land was fixed. Thanks to the growth of the potato economy, Irish crofters or peasants were able to produce enough food from small garden plots to subsist. But the constant sub-dividing of these plots became a problem. The population of Ireland actually increased from less than 2 million to 8 million by 1840! Then the potato crop failed and the population collapsed to 4 million due to emigration and starvation!

But this overpopulation problem was beginning as early as 1820. Almost all the land in Ireland was owned by a few (English) landlords. The Irish peasants rented plots from this Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Due to economic fluctuations many crofters from time to time could not pay their rent which led to evictions and all the nastiness that follows. The subdividing of the already small land holdings meant the smallest setback could destroy this unloved system. In the volatile aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, this system faced a collapse. Some areas of Ireland were harder hit than others. The County of Cork in western Ireland was the scene of troubles called the Whiteboy Revolts in the early 1920s. Rebels refused to pay rents, and especially tithes to the Protestant Church. Landlords and everyone English were attacked or terrorized. A potato crop failure in 1820 a harbinger of the Great Famine of the 1840s) made a bad situation even worse. Southern Ireland was in open rebellion.

The local government authorities perceived two choices: a crackdown on the peasants or emigration. The first choice usually meant violence and deportation of the offenders to the penal colonies in Australia. Emigration was a far better choice. But the surplus Irish farmers were dirt poor and could not afford the voyage to Canada. The only way to push emigration was to pay their way to Canada. Local Irish magnates in County Cork managed to influence the British Government to try a plan of assisted immigration in 1823. Peter Robinson from Toronto was chosen to plan and lead the experimental plan.

In 1822, he led an expedition of 571 hand-picked (surplus) Irish from Cork to the Ottawa Valley at government expense. The expedition was a success and a larger plan was set up for 1825 with 30,000 pounds voted to provide for 1500 emigrants. The settlers were to be sent to the rear of the Newcastle District: the recently surveyed townships north of Rice Lake in the future counties of Victoria and Peterborough.

Peter Robinson set up his office in Cork and passed out handbills advertising the scheme. Free passage to Canada, 70 acres of free land and free provisions and farm machinery were offered to the lucky applicants. It sounded like a good deal, it was, and over 50,000 prospective settlers made application for the spots. Landlords provided names of surplus (and troublesome) tenants. Peasants made hand-written petitions for the valuable positions; and these applications were pitiful to read, citing poverty, misery, injustice and the desire to get away from a bad life in Ireland. Many of the new settlers showed up in a poor, ragged shape and had to be bathed and clothed before being allowed on the ships. From this huge bank of applicants, Robinson chose 417 families with a total of 2,108 souls. The influence of local landholders was apparent, as 8 estates combined to provide 239 of the families.

The group departed Cork in May 1825 aboard 9 British Navy ships and arrived in Canada a month later. By July, the group reached Kingston and September the group were arriving in batches at Scott’s Plains, now Peterborough. Approximately 1900 Irish flooded the little hamlet of Scott’s Plains (population 50). Additions and subtractions in transit were a follows: Died on route 145, deserted 71, left with permission 30, joined in Canada 15, and born since departure 69. Arriving late in the year was not a problem: Robinson had planned the expedition carefully. Temporary huts were built at Scott’s Plains to house the group until they could be located on their lots. Robinson hired local settlers to build shanties on site for each family at $10 per shanty. It took a mere 2 days for the experienced settler to throw up a log shanty. By December, almost all the new families were on their lots.

To survive in their new homes, each person was given 18 months’ rations as follows: each adult: 1 pound of salt pork, 1 pound of flour per day. Children 5-14 years got half that ration, while under 5 years were on quarter rations. Besides the food rations, each family received 3 bushels of seed potatoes, 1 peck of seed corn, a cow (for milk), a handsaw, a kettle, an iron pot, an auger, axes, 100 nails, 2 gimlets and 3 hoes. To actually acquire title to their lots, the new settlers had to live 5 years on their lots and clear at least 20 acres. Considering their plight in Ireland, this was paradise. In fact, one of the first Irish to reach Scott’s Plains leapt from the scow onto shore and proclaimed at the top of his lungs he had ‘arrived in Paradise!’

Not all of the new settlers were settled in one block of land. There were 415 ‘locations’ (some single men and older sons were also given grants) in the surrounding townships:

Emily 142; Ennismore 67; Douro 60; Asphodel 36; Smith 34; Ops 7; Marmora 6.

The mass migration also changed the local landscape. Ennismore township was created out of what was called the Gore of Emily Township. Scott’s Plains was renamed Peterborough in honour of Peter Robinson. And the cultural makeup of this area of Ontario was profoundly altered. The entire area grew and flourished. A next generation of Peter Robinson settlers moved north in the 1860s and settled in the Ottawa-Huron Tract; including the Kinmount area. Many families from Kinmount can trace their family trees to the Peter Robinson settlement scheme. A search of family trees even found settlers who were born in Ireland settling at Kinmount. Family names included Doherty, Allen, Hickey, Sullivan, Casey, Collins, Flaherty, Connelly, Clark and many more whose ancestors arrived in the Peter Robinson Emigration of 1825.

The whole project was a success. Poor Irish crofters with little hope at home were transformed into industrious Canadian pioneers. When the rations ran out, almost all of the families were self-sustaining and required no further assistance. Later waves of settlement followed these fore-runners as Ireland dissolved into even more chaos during the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. The Peter Robinson settlers were the lucky ones.

Oddly enough, no further such schemes of immigrations from Ireland were tried despite the success of this effort. Maybe the cost was a factor, maybe the mass emigration was not needed. Immigrants continued to pour into Ontario throughout the 1800s in large numbers, the later groups paying their own way, but still acquiring land.

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