HISTORY FEATURE: The lure of 19th century America and the mixed fortunes of those who left

HISTORY FEATURE: The lure of 19th century America and the mixed fortunes of those who left

By Gareth Dennison | 02/08/2022

HISTORY FEATURE: The lure of 19th century America and the mixed fortunes of those who left


IN THE mid-19th century, watchmaker Robert Mason decided his time in Rotherham was over — and moved to America in search of new opportunities.

His first wife had died, leaving one son, John, who inherited the College Street business.

Politically-active Robert had remarried in 1838 and had five more boys with second wife Elisabeth Poole.

In 1854, Robert and Elisabeth plumped for emigration, having decided life in America would herald more opportunities for the family.

John stayed in Rotherham and inherited the family business, which moved to High Street, while also becoming an alderman and mayor of the town.

The premises — now Holy Ghost Tattoo Collective — has a Rotherham District Civic Society blue plaque commemorating John, and the Mason’s clock still hangs proudly outside.

Over the Atlantic, Robert and the rest of the family settled in Jacksonville, Illinois, which had only been founded about a quarter of a century earlier.

His politics — rooted firmly in the radical, working-class Chartist movement — fitted nicely with his new home town.

Abraham Lincoln practised there, as did Stephen Douglas, whom Lincoln later beat in the presidential election of 1860.

If Robert made it by 1858, he might even have witnessed one of the famous political debates between the two figures.

Before the Civil War, Jacksonville was a stopping point on the Underground Railroad that moved escaped slaves from the south.

One of the first presidents of the local college was Edward Beecher, brother to Harriet Beecher Stow, the abolitionist and author of hugely influential novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Mason family from Rotherham was certainly settled in Jacksonville by 1860, by which time Robert owned property worth $800 — significantly more than most of the town’s 5,000 residents.

Robert and Elisabeth’s hopes for the family to benefit from emigrating might have wavered when son Timothy was drafted into the Union army in 1863, but fortunately he would survive the Civil War.

Robert worked as a jeweller, while remaining politically active and a strong advocate of the temperance movement promoting abstinence from alcohol.

His involvement in his new community led him to being invited to stand for state legislature, although he declined because he thought himself too old.

He died of cholera in 1879, aged 84. Eldest son John, back on Rotherham’s High Street, had not been forgotten and was an equal beneficiary in the will — and also given first choice of his father’s books.

The Masons’ move to North America from Victorian-era Rotherham was not an uncommon one.

Many took hopes, belongings, ambitions and political beliefs from here, and would often write back to the Advertiser with their thoughts on their adopted homeland.

Alf Scholey, a tailor on Effingham Street, was 75 when he travelled to Dubuque, Iowa, in 1895. He joined up with one of his children, who had made the move 15 years earlier.

Alf’s impressions of America were mixed — he was critical of the officialdom over there but impressed by the availability of constant hot water in the houses.

Back home, he had been politically active in supporting and nominating liberal candidates for municipal elections and school board committee places.

His stance was clear — he even signed off his letters to the Advertiser as “an old Radical, and probably the only Chartist that is still living.”

The experiences of emigrants varied a great deal.

Ironworker Reuben Hargate grew up on Arthur Street in Thornhill but swapped life here for Youngstown, Ohio.

After he and Wentworth-born wife Juliana Marshall decided their futures lay in the states, he supplemented his income by prize-fighting over there.

The Pittsburgh Dispatch recounted that Reuben — described as “a stocky English puddler” was summoned from his work to take part in a 16-round fight with Ed MacDonald, of Brooklyn.

He must have been unprepared because a carriage had to be sent to fetch him.

Reuben arrived with his dinner bucket, still wearing hobnail shoes and an undershirt “wet with sweat” from the mill.

The fight went the full 16 rounds, with Reuben emerging as the winner and taking the $200 stakes.

By 1861, some members of the Hirst family of Dalton Brook had moved to Ogden in Utah. There, Florence Eliza Hirst married Albert Henry Bailey, cousin of the then-vice president of the US, Adlai Stevenson. The shift in social standing was huge — from Dalton to American political royalty.

By contrast, 16-year-old Eliza Rix, of Swinton, was persuaded by William Henry Hanby, a widower in his mid-20s, to elope to St Clair, Michigan, where they got married in 1887.

They returned shortly afterwards and it appears that William Henry abandoned his young wife. In a later court case, he was required by the court to pay her 5s a week.

For those seeking land, Canada was an option.

There were many adverts in the Advertiser for travel — especially to Manitoba.

In 1888, Rev Welbury T Mitton, of Clifton Bank off Wellgate, wrote to the press acting as cheerleader for emigration there.

In the coming years, he was to hold senior clerical positions in Manitoba — and clearly had wanted to ensure he had a congregation over there. He wrote again to the Tiser a year later, praising the opportunities on offer.

His words might have influenced Vincent Mann, of Clifton Lane, who opted to travel to Manitoba but soon decided that it was not “the elysium that is painted.”

It was minus 35 deg F when he was writing home — and it had been 110 deg F in the summer.

Life on the prairies was lonely, he said, although the cities were more lively.

It was clearly not for him. Within a few years he was settled in Chicago, married and working as a waiter.

Further east, in Ontario, George Whitehead was government clerk in the weather bureau — and he  concurred with Vincent about the extremes of weather.

George was the stepson of pub landlord John Evans, who had gone to Canada with wife Bertha Hallam, from Holmes.

There were few letters from North America from women, but Harriet Shore, from Canklow, reflected on her brief time spent out there with husband John Gladders in the 1890s.

With reference to the Klondike goldrush, she observed that the onset of winter had left many gold diggers in a perilous position.

She described the journey in which men would head for the goldfields with two years’ food supply and a $500 outfit, making the 1,000-mile journey on foot from Skagway, Alaska.

Harriet said the adverts portraying the goldfields were misleading — particularly those form railway companies. She, her husband and Canadian daughter returned to Rotherham.

Local historian Peter Feek, who researched the examples above, said the process of seeking a better life elsewhere was never easy or comfortable — and nor is the reaction when migrants arrive.

He added: “People leave their homelands for a variety of reasons — persecution, disasters, or just seeking a better life.

“The Brexit vote, with its underlying racism, was fuelled in substantial part by the impact, real and perceived, of people arriving in Britain to seek this better life.

“The USA is a country made up of immigrants and in travelling there the Rotherham men and women had an immediate advantage.

“They were ‘invisible immigrants’, for being white and speaking English, they were not immediately recognisable as being different from the majority of the existing population.

“However, like most immigrants, their journey followed a similar pattern whereby they clustered together in networks for mutual support.

“This had been apparent with the Irish in Masbrough in the 1860s and with the Roma community in Eastwood today.”

A group of Sheffield cutlers who supported the Chartist movement fled to America in the 1840s and settled in Waterbury, Connecticut.

One was James Roberts, who had arrived in 1849. Writing home, he praised the benefits of his new life — despite complaining about the poor quality of spectacles available in America! He offered to help friends to emigrate.

He and one friend, John Loxley, kept their Yorkshire heritage — notably evident one Shrove Tuesday when they organised a cricket match.

James lived on Sheffield Street and the town had about 1,000 inhabitants, about half of whom came from Sheffield. It was, at that time, a South Yorkshire ghetto in America.

Mr Feek said: “Of course, all these Rotherham correspondents were ‘invisible immigrants’ and certainly fared better than those ethnic groups who were ‘visible’.

“The Chinese, who worked and died constructing the Central Pacific Railroad, soon found themselves facing laws designed to prohibit further immigration.

“What seemed to link many of these Advertiser correspondents were the beliefs formed in a liberal and radical Rotherham of the day.

“Today, former residents can be found in Silicon Valley and other areas where they have achieved economic success not readily available in our town.

“One tradition, however is still alive. The open-minded state of mind that was common in our Victorian emigrants is still evident in Florida today where Peter Barnett, former Rotherham resident, Centralians footballer and St Peter’s cricketer made a significant contribution to the Florida campaign to elect Barack Obama.”

Emigrants’ stories show how they took skills and ambitions from Rotherham to the US, leaving behind politicians here like Lord Ranolph Churchill, who were warning of the threat of Irish labourers coming to England and competing for jobs and wages.

“His motive was to frustrate the campaign of those who wished Ireland to be self-governing,” said Mr Feek. “Fear has always been a political strategy.

“In the last decade one notable populist politician took a page from Churchill’s playbook, however this time it was not the Irish, but thousands of Turks who he was claimed wanted to come here and were a threat to British livelihoods and culture.

“Unlike Rotherham’s ‘invisible immigrants’, newcomers have lacked the acceptance granted to our town’s immigrants in North America.

“The lessons of history continue to repeat themselves and continued to be ignored by those seeking political advantage.”



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