In 1852 Robert Walker, his wife and their baby left their home in Leeds and emigrated to Australia, “a strange country sixteen Thousand Miles from Home”. The letters that Robert wrote to his family in England describe the terrible journey, the dangers of life in a growing colony, and the challenges of being so far away from the world he knew.

The small family started their journey in Liverpool on 19th August 1853, arriving in Sidney “the day before Christmas Day at 3AM exactly 18 weeks from the day we sail’d”. All they owned was 35 shillings and the luggage they could carry.

seven handwritten letters from Robert Walker written 1853-1867
seven handwritten letters from Robert Walker written 1853-1867

Robert describes the crossing and the terrible conditions they endured:

…the hole which we call’d our cabin was 8 feet long and 7 feet high and 5 feet wide and into this six of us were stow’d away…
…the waves were breaking over the ship and coming down the hatchways in torrents we were up to our knees in water … mainsails were blown away and the immigrants tumbling about in all directions…

Life onboard the ship was perilous, many passengers suffered terrible sickness. Robert tells of the illness suffered by his wife and child which led to the death of the baby.

in such a night as this our poor child died, we buried him at sundown in sight of Madeira.

The couple arrived first in Melbourne; an overcrowded city largely populated by an ever-increasing number of immigrants. The gold rush of New South Wales had drawn people to the land in vast numbers, quickly making Melbourne the largest city in Australia. Robert describes the “crowds of people from all parts of the World’, thousands of whom were living in tents in a makeshift village called “Canvass Town”. He claims

Roberies and murders are of daily occurrence and crime of every sort flourishes here, and everyone appears to have a mint of money which they squander about like so much dust

Robert and his wife quickly left Melbourne, settling first in Sidney and later in Goulburn (then called Gouldburn). Robert worked as a shepherd, gold miner, and gaoler moving from one town to another in search of work and fortune. The work was hard but Australia offered a young man opportunities that he could not find elsewhere:

You may rest assured about the money for I both have money and can get it here in the Colony. But in England I had it not.

Later letters suggest that the family still felt connected to England. His daughter, Jane Hannah, was born in Goulburn in 1854 and Robert tells his brother how they speak to her of her ‘home’ in a country she will never see:


We often talk to her respecting you and home, but she cannot realise the idea of home being at the other side of the world.

Post from England takes 4 months to arrive and the desperation for news of home is clear in Robert’s letters. He begs for updates on all the family, chastising his brother for not providing enough information:

when (I left home) you say nothing about any of our brothers or sisters in your letter and you must think that I should be glad to hear respecting their welfare. you did not send me

We do not know what happened to Robert or his family. They, like thousands of immigrants, left their life in England behind and became part of a new world.

Collection details:
Robert Walker, Letters to his family in Leeds Describing Colonial Life in Australia
7 items

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