Willingdon and Emigration to South Australia

Top: Parish church of St Mary-The-Virgin, Willingdon

Centre: Chalk Farm Hotel, Willingdon

Below: South Downs from Meadows Road

In a previous post titled English Origins in the 18th Century and posted on 5 July 2011, we read that John Mewett ( born 1778) married Elizabeth Woollar of Willingdon in 1803. Their children were: Samuel (1803), Elam (1805), Maria (1807), Harriett (1810), Sophia (1812), Naomi (1813), Lucy (1816), Moses (1819), Ruth (1821), Barbara (1824).

Samuel was married to Martha Balcomb in September 1828, in the Willingdon parish church of St Mary-The-Virgin where Samuel’s parents, his grandparents and great-grandparents had been married. The children born to Samuel and Martha in Willingdon were: Robert (1829), Susanna (1831), Charlotte (1833), Jesse (1835), Harriett (1837).

The baptism entries listed Samuel’s occupation as “labourer”, seemingly a general term to include agricultural labourer. Samuel gave his occupation as “shepherd” when he formally applied for a free passage to South Australia in June 1838. Shepherds were in demand in the two-year-old colony of South Australia. The family was soon on the high seas in the 300 ton barque Platina.

The reasons for a young man’s decision to leave the country of his birth are not hard to find. Emigration to Australia in the early 19th century was more of an escape from the grim reality of English rural life than a dream of riches and wealth in the colonies. It was an unhappy time for farm labourers. Enclosure of the old open fields made farming more efficient, but the cottagers lost their small allotments and the valuable rights of pasturing a cow or pig on the common. They became mere wage labourers, debarred by law from seeking work outside their home parish and by the savage game laws from replenishing their larder with an occasional rabbit or bird. With a daily wage of 1s.6d (15 cents) they faced starvation. In 1830 a general agrarian uprising threatened the whole of the south-east of England.


The Platina had been built at Sunderland in 1830 and had been used as a convict ship in 1837 to transport 116 female convicts from London to Hobart. The voyage had taken 172 days, the slowest time for a convict ship in that year.

The Mewett family sailed from London aboard the Platina on September 25, 1838, three months after Samuel had applied for the free passage. The voyage to South Australia took 137 days, but the conditions for the emigrants were little better than they had been for the female convicts in 1837. The emigrants’ deck would have been a public dormitory with double bunks above for the married couples and a double bunk below for their children, a curtain being the only means of privacy. A bench down the middle of the deck was the migrants’ common table. Drinking water was usually polluted, and toilet facilities would have been inadequate, to say the least. The communal coughing, the crying of sick or hungry children, the groaning and retching of the ill, the arguing and yelling, all this would have made the voyage a living hell for all.

Harriett’s first birthday and Jesse’s third birthday occurred on board the Platina. One cannot imagine the birthdays were happy in the traditional way.


The Platina arrived at Port Adelaide on February 9, 1839, with 12  paying passengers and 15 children, and 70 emigrants and their children, and general cargo. Nine deaths had occurred during the voyage, including the three children of one couple who were passengers. The newspaper, Southern Australian, carried reports in the edition dated February 13, 1839, that complaints were made by the emigrants of their treatment during the voyage.

The South Australian Gazette and the Southern Australian later carried an advertisement in the form of a letter from the Platina’s surgeon (medical officer), James Weston M.D., who defended himself against any inference that the nine deaths had occurred through lack of medical attention. Forming part of the advertisement was another letter addressed to Mr Weston and signed by 34 emigrants, attesting to his “unwearied attention” and his “ceaseless activity and unabating zeal in that period of distress when the Lord was pleased through the instrumentality of the diarrhoea to make such fearful havoc among our small number”.

The eighth signature to this letter was that of Samuel Mewett and the ninth was the X of Mrs Mewett. In the Gazette Samuel’s signature was published as Samuel Meadett.

The Mewett family, having survived the ordeal of the voyage, settled temporarily in the environs of the District of Adelaide. The colony had been established just three years at that time; it is not hard to envisage the improvised nature of accommodation available to immigrants on their arrival at Port Adelaide.

Four more children were born to Samuel and Martha in South Australia: Elizabeth (1840), Thomas (1842), Ruth (1845), John (1852).

“This is Port Adelaide! Port Misery would be a better name; for nothing in any other part of the world can surpass it in every thing that is wretched and inconvenient.”

– almewett

Published in: on July 24, 2011 at 8:04 am  Leave a Comment  

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