The ‘Poor Palatines’ – political ramifications of eighteenth century migration

Migration has rarely been politically uncontroversial, as Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses…

The current migrant crisis may be on a wider scale than has been seen for a number of years, but as a phenomenon it is far from unique. In the first decade of the 18th century England became the focus of a mass migration of people from the Palatinate (and other German states). The question of how best to deal with these ‘poor Palatines’ became a matter of determined party rivalry.

The first of those seeking refuge was a small band (some 41 in number) led by a Lutheran minister, Joshua Kochertal, who arrived in England in April 1708 en route to a new life in America. Their passage across the Atlantic was facilitated by charitable donations and they settled ultimately in New York and New Jersey, forming one of the earliest German communities there. The success of this modest exodus inspired Kochertal to return to Germany to encourage more to follow suit. As a result of both his efforts and those of other agents (many of them English), large numbers of people resolved to quit the Rhineland in search of a better life. The British Apollo of 8-13 July 1709 reported the arrival of ‘2,000 more of the Poor Palatines’ who had made their way in eight vessels from Holland. These added to an earlier party of over 4,000 who had arrived the previous month. Shortly after this, a newsletter carried the information that a letter had been sent to the Elector Palatine requesting that he would put a stop to the exodus, not least because it was thought there were as many Catholics as Protestants among the migrants. Despite this, over the next two years perhaps as many as 13,000 left various German states seeking resettlement either in England or the American colonies.

Unsurprisingly, this migration was not universally welcomed. The reasons stated by those against welcoming the refugees were mixed but at least one factor was the perception that these were economic migrants rather than fellow Protestants seeking sanctuary from religious persecution. While the Rhineland had suffered significantly during past warfare (it had been invaded by Louis XIV as recently as 1707) it was not at this point a focus for particular religious dispute between the sects. As part of the Treaty of Westphalia the state was tolerant of Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists, and even though the current ruling Elector was Catholic, even the most important church in Heidelberg, the Heiliggeistkirche (church of the Holy Spirit) was used by both Catholics and Protestants.

If there was no driving need to leave the Palatinate on account of direct persecution, economic necessity and the brutal realities of life in a frontier state were significant motivations. A report in the Daily Courant of 8 Aug. 1709 stated baldly:

They have not left their native land because their Prince’s government is more intolerable than others… No, ‘tis because their country is so unhappily situate, that it has felt the invenom’d Rage of the Enemy, and been expos’d to the Calamities of war, more than any other.’

As well as war there was hunger. The winter of 1708 had been particularly harsh and poor harvests led to the price of bread being driven up. Unfortunately for the Palatines, the same had been true in England, leaving their hoped for sanctuary ill-equipped to deal with large numbers of immigrants at that point. Quite as important was suspicion about the Palatines’ potential usefulness. Whereas significant numbers of earlier Huguenot migrants had been skilled workers, whose value to the English economy was apparent, the majority of the Palatines were agricultural labourers, and many of them employed in viticulture for which there was not much call in England. To make matters worse, when the Palatines arrived there was no infrastructure in place to receive them. In spite of the establishment of a royal commission to oversee charitable aid, and high profile support from members of the Junto (particularly Lords Sunderland, Wharton, Somers and Halifax), many were consigned to temporary camps – with a large one being established on Blackheath – and thence into empty warehouses. Discussion on possible purchase of waste land or vacant estates where new towns might be established to house the newcomers came too late in the day and the result was growing resentment between local populations and the refugees.

The solution was to pass the problem on elsewhere. The Post Boy of 2-4 Aug. 1709 carried an advertisement that John Marshall, deputy master of the rolls for County Tipperary, intended to offer places to 1,000 Palatines. In the event, some 3,000 of the migrants were packed off to Ireland. Others found passage to the American colonies. However, by 1712 (by which time a new administration was in power) many of the remaining migrants decided to return to Germany rather than risk the dangers of a trans-Atlantic crossing and in preference to remaining in England where they were left begging on the streets. The same year, the 1709 Naturalization Act, which had been hurried through to facilitate the settlement of these new guests, was revoked.

Why had the Palatine migration largely failed, where that of the Huguenots had been so much more successful? Partly it was due to the economic factors outlined above, but perhaps more important was its identification with the Whig ministry – and a particular faction within it – which quickly unravelled once that had been overturned and a new administration with a more Tory focus installed in its place. Lord Lovelace, governor of New York, had been closely involved with Kochertal, and made a point of providing assistance for the new colonists. He had expended over £200 of his own money on them – a sizeable amount for a peer as impoverished as he was – but died not long after taking up his post. Lord Wharton, as lord lieutenant of Ireland had made similar efforts, lauding the Palatines as ‘an industrious, laborious sort of people’ who would be a great asset to the kingdom, but by 1710 he was out of a job and in no position to assist.

The extent to which the new ministry viewed the whole episode with distaste was made clear both by the revocation of the Naturalization Act and by efforts in 1711 to declare those involved in bringing the Palatines over ‘enemies to the government in church and state’. Despite this, what was most remarkable was the comparative indifference to the phenomenon aside from those communities who found the migrants encamped on their doorsteps. Parishes were criticized for being slow in taking the Palatines off the hands of the crown commissioners. A few towns such as Liverpool and Perth agreed to take in some settlers and others found new homes in other parts of rural Lancashire but the majority of corporations refused to take any. And this in spite of an encouraging publication of 1710, The State of the Palatines for Fifty Years Past, which sought to emphasize the advantages to be gained by offering them a home:

In the whole they appear to be an innocent, laborious, peaceable, healthy and ingenious people; and may be rather reckon’d a blessing than a burden to any nation…


For further reading, see:

  • H.T. Dickinson, ‘The poor Palatines and the parties’, English Historical Review lxxxii (1967)
  • Philip Otterness, Becoming German: the 1709 Palatine migration to New York, (Cornell, 2004)

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