Albert Potter (aka Alfred)
BORN: Marden, Kent, England, c18571
Albert's father, Robert Potter was born in the tiny village of Marden in Kent in about 1830 and his mother, Sarah Ann was born in the village of Wadhurst in neighbouring Sussex county in about 1840.2 Both were from rural labouring families. They were married on the 31st of August, 1856 in the parish church in Marden, .3
Albert was their first child, probably born in 1857 in Marden. Their first daughter, Elizabeth was also born in Marden about two years later.
Kent was known for the high level of seasonal migration among labouring families. Kentish village labourers readily moved to new homes to meet the labour demands of the county's varied crops and in search for better opportunities.4 While the Potter family moved around over the years they seemed to have restricted their movements to a small area of Kent, within 10 kilometers or so of Marden. The 1861 England Census shows the family had made their first move, to Pailey Mill near Cranbrook, only some 7 kilometers to the southwest of Marden. Here Robert was employed as a carter.
Cranbrook was famous for some 20 windmills and watermills which once stood in and around the town.5 Paley [sic] Mill was a watermill, used for milling grain, and stood beside one of the tributaries of the River Beult to the north of Cranbrook village. It is probable that Robert was employed to cart grain from local farms to the mill and then cart the flour back again. The mill no langer exists although the mill building was standing in 1974, but devoid of machinery.6 Their second daughter, Rose was born there in about 1864.
By 1867 they had moved to Chart Sutton where their third daughter, named Sarah Ann after her mother, was born. Another daughter was born two years later in 1869 and named Ruth. The 1871 Census shows them living in Devil's Den Cottge in Chart Sutton. Strangely, Ruth is not listed. Normally this would indicate the early death of a child, except that we know Ruth later sailed to New Zealand with the rest of the family. Robert's occupation was listed as an "agricultural labourer" and Albert, now aged 13, was listed as "working on farms". Elizabeth and Rose are described as "scholars", indicating they were receiving some schooling. Since Elizabeth was now 12 her schooling would soon be at an end however, and she would be expected to begin work outside the home, unless she was required to remain at home and help her mother. Also listed as living at Devil's Den was a William Potter, his wife and six children. It's possible that William was Robert's brother, although this is unclear at the time of writing.
We next hear of Albert and his family as passengers on the sailing barque Carnatic, bound for New Zealand. The family sailed from London on 28th September 1874 and arrived in Picton on 10th January 1875. As far as we know, none of them returned to England.
To understand what might have prompted this momentous decision to leave everything they knew and begin a new life in an unknown country on the other side of the world, we need to look at the social conditions in Kent during the 1870s. While we don't have the details of the family's living conditions, we do know that the living conditions of rural labourers in Kent, and elsewhere in England, had deteriorated markedly in the previous 50 years and that there was widespread dissatisfaction.
The causes of this deterioration are complex and a mixture of social and economic changes. They are well covered in Rollo Arnold's excellent study of migration to New Zealand in the 1870s, The Farthest Promised Land.
The result of the changes was the destruction of the traditional culture of English village society, and the reduction of much of the rural population to demoralised, servile wage labourers. Men had largely become day labourers, taken on as required, and turned off in large numbers in the slack times of the agricultural year, and when wet weather held up farm work. Income was therefore irregular, rising to its highest in the harvest season and falling lowest in winter, at which season villagers found it difficult to keep out of debt. Even at the best of times meat was a luxury, generally reserved for Sundays only and there is ample evidence that families went hungry at times. The quality of the labourer's cottage varied widely, but too often it was wretchedly small and badly built. In the 1850s nearly half of all cottages had only one bedroom, some had only one room. There is no reason to assume the Potters were any better off.
Yet not all submitted tamely to their fate. The most notable movement of protest was the `Swing' riots, which swept over southern and eastern England in the autumn and winter of 1830-31. The government sent troops to quell the disorders, and meted out brutal punishments, including hangings and transportation. In contrast, the 1870s saw a very different rural revolt that had more of the feeling of the Black American freedom movement of the 1960s, in the skilful use of the law courts, of the boycott, of non-violent direct mass action, and of political involvement. Kent rural labourers were at the forefront of this movement and among the first to turn their attention to unionism. Unionism was strong among the urban workers of Maidstone, the county town of Kent, and Maidstone labourers seem to have had strong links with rural labourers in the surrounding countryside. The Kent and Sussex Labourers' Union was formed in 1872 and by the end of its first year the union claimed over 8,000 members. On 14 May 1873 unionists from all parts of Kent, with their wives and children, converged on Maidstone, to celebrate their union's first birthday. The union had negotiated cheap railway fares for the day, and a reported 7,000 men marched through Maidstone, to the music of six bands, to an open air annual meeting of 12,000 to 13,000 persons.7
Since, by definition, emigrants are dissatisfied with their lot, we can be sure that Robert Potter was sympathetic to union efforts to improve the conditions of rural labourers. Chart Sutton, where the Potters were living at this time, was only a short distance to the south of Maidstone, and there is no doubt that they would have been aware of this event and may themselves have gone up to Maidstone to take part in the celebrations.
In parallel with these events were the attempts by the New Zealand Government to recruit families for settlement in New Zealand. The emigration drive was often untidy, improvised and disunited and the results were generally dissapointing in the early 1870s when the rural unions were having success in improving wages and conditions. However, as the intractable attitude of many farmers and landowners became more evident, unions became increasingly interested in promoting emigration. A powerful inducement was the New Zealand Government's agreement in 1873 to offer free passage to suitable emmigrants. The promotion of emigration had an element of Utopianism about it, encouraging people to seek the promised land in New Zealand if it was not to be gained in England. Such ideas were reinforced by the many stories, published in the union newspapaers, from successful settlers who talked about plentiful work, high rates of pay, short working days and meat on the table every day.8 Many had come to own their own farms, an impossible dream for a farm labourer in England. There were also other reassuring factors. The first was the idea that emigrants were going to a familiar "Anglo" world and would remain attached to English society and familiar institutions and laws. There already existed strong ties between Kent and New Zealand as a consequence of earlier migrations. Secondly, the size and speed of ships had increased dramatically, and although the mass transfer of people to the other side of the world was never easy, families could expect to get there in reasonably good health.9 This was especially so with the advent of assisted passages, since the New Zealand Government insisted on competent ship's doctors, adequate rations and accomodation, and regular inspections.
The Potter family probably assembled in Maidstone with other intending migrants from Kent. There they listened to farewall speeches from well-wishers and union leaders before taking the train to London. The farewell of an earlier group had a party atmosphere: "At nine o'clock ... the emigrants assembled at the Corn Exchange, and headed by a band and a large union flag, marched down High Street to the railway station, where they were farewelled by a large crowd."10
Once in London, they then made their way by train to the dock area of Blackwall. There they stayed at the Emigration Depot untill the loading of the Carnatic was complete. The Emigration Depot was formerly a hotel, bought by the New Zealand government to accomodate (free of charge) emigrants untill their ship was ready. After a delay of a few days, the Carnatic was moved to the East India Dock basin and the group moved aboard. James Nicholls in his dairy of the voyage describes the event: "It was a sight to see us all, about 300 in number, with bags & baggage, moving along, men , women & children, to embark on the ship. We went on & was directed where to go."11 Early the next morning James Nicholls writes that he was woken up by men and women singing. When he went up on deck he found the ship was being towed down the Thames river by a tugboat, under a bright moon that lit up the country. In contrast to this calm beginning, it took eight days of beating into a head wind before they cleared the English Channel, no doubt a most uncomfortable experience for the passengers on board.
On Sunday evening, 10th January 1875, 104 days since leaving London, the Carnatic anchored off the wharf at Picton. James Nicholls' first impression of his new home was highly favourable, and we can assume that the Potter family had similar thoughts: "...this morning I was up at 7am, on Deck looking at Picton, which was a far superior place to whatever I had anticipated seeing in New Zealand, for having never read or noticed any account of the country before coming out, all I had in my head was Mud Shantys. I soon learned however that this was but a poor town compared with others as Christchurch, Nelson, or Dunedin, but this was quite enough to give me a more favourable idea of the country, for the buildings looked quite clean & homely".
- 1861 England Census
- Rollo Arnold, The farthest promised land : English villagers, New Zealand immigrants of the 1870s, Wellington, N.Z. : Victoria University Press , 1981. This is also available as an online e-book. p183.
- Excerpt from Watermills and Windmills of Cranbrook by C. R. R. Pile, June 1954
- The River Beult
- Rollo Arnold, The farthest promised land,
- James Belich, Replenishing the Earth. The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo World, 1783-1939. Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Rollo Arnold, The farthest promised land. p69.
- Joyce Neill (ed.). Plum Duff and Cake. The Journal of James Nichols 1874-5. An Account of his Voyage to Picton New Zealand on the Ship Carnatic & Some of his New Zealand Experiences in the Colony. Pegasus Press, 1975. p43.