Why the Irish Came to Peterborough
In 1822, the British parliament voted in favor of financing a large, £30 000 experimental emigration plan to transport poor Irish families to Upper Canada.
Economic conditions in Ireland played a part in forming the plan. Ireland in the 1820s was in the midst of a severe depression. The value of Irish goods was low, potato crops were meager (though the Potato Famine was still decades away), and the country’s population was increasing dramatically.
Furthermore, parliament was also intent on increasing the number of settlers available to defend the border of British North America (Canada) from the United States. Men in these Irish families could help form the basis of a militia if border disputes flared up.
Religious factors also motivated Irish people to venture into the unknown and settle in the "New World". Irish penal laws severely restricted the ability of Irish Roman Catholics to practice their faith, own land, or even vote in elections.
Peter Robinson (only known image of Robinson, left), the son of Loyalists and elder brother of Upper Canada’s powerful Attorney General, John Beverley Robinson, was asked to manage this emigration scheme in 1822. At the time he was a politician living in York (later renamed Toronto).
He sailed for Britain and began forming a workable emigration plan and recruitment program. He promoted the scheme in southern Ireland (see portion of broadside, above) and some 50,000 people applied to start new lives in a strange and distant land.
The First Wave of Settlers – Bathurst District
In 1823 the first wave of Irish settlers (568 people) began the long and dangerous journey to Upper Canada with their final destination in eastern Ontario (the Lanark, Perth, Ramsay township area).
Two sailing ships - the Hebe and Stakesby carried settlers in cramped and dank quarters - although nothing like the notorious “coffin ships” that carried thousands to North America during the potato famine of the 1840s.
The ships landed at Quebec City and the passengers first boarded steamships, then barges, and then wagons for the final leg of the journey. Settlers were given free provisions, tools and farmland.
The Second Wave – Peterborough
The second wave of emigration was launched in 1825. As in 1823, thousands applied for the voyage leaving from Cork. Prospective settlers had to secure letters of recommendation outlining their qualities and usefulness as settlers. Those selected received “embarkation certificates” allowing them to board a particular ship.
This time over 1800 people made a journey, and the final destination was Peterborough, in the Newcastle District (now south central Ontario). Nine ships carried the passengers on this trip. (See image below PCMA exhibit gallery depicting sleeping quarters aboard ship).
Before the second wave of settlers was to leave for Canada, Robinson traveled to the Peterborough area himself to explore conditions, establish a safe travel route and inspect land. Peterborough at this time was a remote and rugged place with a small population. The area was to be transformed by the sudden influx of 2000 men, women and children.
Again, the ships arrived at Quebec (June 1825). Settlers were loaded onto steamships for a trip down the St Lawrence River and Lake Ontario to Cobourg. After a rough land trip to Rice Lake, the settlers made the final leg of their journey to Peterborough by barge up the Otonabee River (a 24 mile river trip).
At Peterborough, families were issued free provisions, tools, livestock and farmland. Families with proud names like: Ryan, Sullivan, Casey, Fitzpatrick, McCarthy, Hannan, Leahy, O'Brien, Foley, and Shanahan settled throughout Peterborough county, and thousands of their descendents remain in the area even to this day.
Life was hard for these people. Several died in the years immediately following the emigration. Some families were given poor farm land and had to relocate. The unforgiving Canadian winters were, of course, a challenge too.
Although life was difficult, these new Canadians helped to build a great city – just as new Canadians from India, Eastern Europe, Italy and Asia have continued to do in more recent times.
The Original Robinson Records at City Archives in Peterborough
Peter Robinson was a methodical record keeper. Fortunately, some 52 linear centimeters of his records (over 1650 pages) have survived and are part of the archival holdings at the Peterborough Centennial Museum and Archives. These original records cover both the 1823 (eastern Ontario) and 1825 (Peterborough) emigration plans. Included are: original ships lists, ship surgeon reports, Robinson's correspondence, embarkation certificates, applications and letters of recommendation for all 1825 settlers, account books listing all provisions supplied to the settlers, broadside posters advertising the emigration of 1825 and more.