On a certain night of every week the North Shields Railway Station presents an unusually animated appearance. Fur-capped men of stalwart build, bewildered looking women, and a host of youths and children, whose fair complexions and flaxen hair plainly bespeak their nationality, are huddled together with piles of luggage in the vicinity of the booking office – a strange crowd indeed, and one which seldom fails to attract the stare and curiosity of the ordinary wayfarer.

Over the course this year, my teaching has partly focused on the development of the United States as a global power between 1870 and 1970. One facet of that history that continues to fascinate me, in part because of very old familial connections to it, is emigration. Several years ago, as a curious sixth former, I was passed a copy of Gwyn A. Williams’ book The Welsh in their History, a collection of essays written by my history teacher’s favourite university lecturer. In it are papers on Merthyr Tydfil, Hugh Owen and the Liberal tradition in Wales, and Gwyn’s famous essay ‘Locating a Welsh Working Class: the Frontier Years’. But the one that has stuck with me the most was the simply titled ‘Imperial South Wales’, which began its life as a lecture in praise of Brinley Thomas. Although the paper seeks to demonstrate the consequences of South Wales’ rapid industrialisation in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it provides some fascinating hints at the much wider story of European migration to the new world in the same period. To take just one brief passage:

 During the 1880s, one and a quarter million people left rural Germany and over half a million quit Scandinavia; Denmark had to rebuild itself.[1]

Teaching the impact of that immigrant to students, I’ve found myself once again drawn to the North Atlantic and its history – an interest spurred further by the Swedish language classes I’ve been taking and a wider engagement with several colleagues in the ‘ancient, free and mountainous north’ (as the Swedish anthem goes in the roughness of literal translation). If the general idea of a transatlantic emigrant in the nineteenth century is that of the poor Irish escaping from the potato famine or the generally harsh condition of the west coast of the Emerald Isle, that provides but one part of the entire story. Tom Devine’s recent work on Scotland’s global diaspora has extended our understanding. And the fine work of numerous American scholars has teased out many of the other stories that can be told. One group, however, for whom the British Isles, indeed for whom the port cities and railway towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, are central, are the Scandinavian emigrants who travelled from their homes to Wisconsin and Michigan in the Mid-West or to Washington and Oregon in the Pacific North West.

Farewell to home, Gothenburg, 1905.
Farewell to home, Gothenburg, 1905.

Hang on, I hear you cry – Yorkshire and Lancashire? The greatest challenge for any emigrant is not so much the desire to go, but finding the money to be able to travel and settle in a new country. Given the significance of Liverpool and Glasgow to the transatlantic Irish emigrant’s trail, it’s not much of surprise to learn that many Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes travelled to the United States on-board ships that started their journey in the major ports of Britain’s west coast. To travel to Liverpool or Glasgow from Stockholm, Christiania (Oslo) or Copenhagen, it was necessary to land in ports on the east coast, such as Hull, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, or Leith, and travel across the country by rail. For the tens of thousands who arrived in Hull bound for Liverpool, Huddersfield was a convenient stopping off point being, then as now, half-way along the railway line.

Emigration was stirred in part by the involvement of specialised shipping companies such as the American Emigrant Company (founded 1864), which operated a service (with transfer from Scandinavia) from Liverpool to New York, and subsequently a direct sailing from Gothenburg on the west coast of Sweden. Others included the National Steam Navigation Company (founded 1863), which had originally intended to tramp the migrant trail from Liverpool to the southern states but had to alter their routes during the Civil War and land at New York City. They subsequently began direct sailings from Trondheim in northern Norway. By the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, there were several Scandinavian-owned shipping companies such as the Copenhagen-based Skandinavien-Amerika Linien and the Christinia-based Norske Amerkalinje, which drew trade away from the British ports.

Nevertheless, given the regular sight of poor Scandinavian emigrants travelling across the country in the late-nineteenth century, the British press took an active, if inconsistent, interest in the facts and figures and the ‘human interest stories’ (as we would know it today). Consider this detail laden article from the Bristol-based Western Daily Press from 1873:

 The statistics of Swedish emigration to America are somewhat curious, they show so unbroken an increase from 1861 to 1869, when a maximum was reached; immediately after which there is an equal unbrokenness of decline shown. In 1861 the number of emigrants was 2,286. […] In 1866 there were 7,296 and in 1867 a further rise brought the number up to 9,334. Then, all at once, that amount was trebled, the Swedish emigrants in 1868 being as many as 27,024. The following year showed the exodus at its highest activity, there being then 39,064. In 1870, when a better era seems to have dawned on the home-keeping Swedish workman, the number of emigrants fell to 20,003.

And so it goes on.[2] For it was not only in Bristol that the newspapers concerned themselves: in those port cities where emigrants arrived year after year in sizeable numbers, such as Newcastle and Hull, the press were especially concerned. ‘With the return of the spring the emigration mania has set in with unusual severity’, wrote the Newcastle Courant in May 1880. The article continues: ‘Crowds of these Swedish emigrants have been coming over the Tyne, and going forward by rail to Liverpool, where they have embarked for Canada and the United States’.[3] It was the same in Hull, where just a fortnight earlier some 2,000 people arrived from Gothenburg similarly bound for Liverpool.[4] They came, too, from Malmö.[5]

The scene at the port every week was busy – a hive of activity, as might be expected. Typically, the emigrants were greeted by the local consul who ensured smooth passage and could provide translation for those who could not speak English or one of the Scandinavian languages. Typically they were members of the business community. In 1882, for example, Hull had consulates for all three Scandinavian nations, each representing one or other of the North Sea shipping companies. The Norwegian and Danish consulates were located at 5 Minerva Terrace (near the Victoria Pier) at the offices of Good, Flodman and Duncan, a steam-shipping company operating between Hull and Stockholm. P. T. Flodman performed the duties of the Norwegian consul; Clements Good the office of Danish consul, Frederick Good the Danish vice-consulate. The consulate for Sweden was located, by contrast, in Grimsby and carried out by Peter Henrich Haagensen, a wood broker based at the Royal Dock Chambers. A decade later, this office had also been taken over by the Good, Flodman and Duncan Company, with Arthur Lambert Flodman carrying out the duties in place of Haagensen. Consular duties for all three nations remained with the company until at least the outbreak of the First World War.

The Norwegian Church, Cardiff.
The Norwegian Church, Cardiff.

In those years around 1910, the Swedish presence in Hull had grown to sufficient size to warrant the construction of a Swedish Church. Although it was later destroyed by the widespread destruction of the city during the Second World War, the Swedish Church was a focal point for Scandinavians travelling to Hull, just as the Norwegian Church was in Cardiff. In July 1910, the Hull Daily Mail reported on the opening ceremony:

 Yesterday the striking blue and yellow flag of Sweden flying over a building in Lee-Smith Street, on the Hedon Road, gave evidence of the fact that these desires [to provide for the spiritual needs of the Swedish sailors] has been realised, and it is pleasing to be able to record that the work is now duly inaugurated. […] Consul Flodman addressed the congregation in Swedish extending to them a welcome to their new church. He referred to the fact that Hull is visited by between 400 and 500 Swedish ships annually, the crews of which will aggregate about 10,000 men, and also the constant stream of Swedish emigrants passing through the port. […] Mr Flodman referred to the great services rendered to the cause by his colleague, Consul J. Carlbom, in Grimsby, and Pastor Lindstrom, resident Swedish pastor in Grimsby, to whose efforts so much of the success which had been attained was due.[6]

The city also had its Danish Seamen’s Church, the first of its kind in the world, founded in 1871 and situated in Osborne Street. Although the original building was destroyed in the blitz, it was rebuilt in the 1950s and remains in operation today. A potted history like this, of course, provides only the barest scratch on the surface of a fascinating history that has long been overlooked in the literature, although a small amount of scholarly literature (thanks in large part to the work of Nicholas J. Evans at Hull University) is emerging. Regardless of that, this post certainly serves as a personal nudge to travel across to Hull and Liverpool and undertake further research into the history of the Scandinavian presence in the United Kingdom, whether as emigrants, workers, or residents. Tack så mycket!


[1] Gwyn A. Williams, ‘Imperial South Wales’, in idem, The Welsh in their History (London: Croom Helm, 1982), pp. 175-6.

[2] Western Daily Press, 9 December 1873.

[3] Newcastle Courant, 7 May 1880.

[4] Sunderland Daily Echo, 20 April 1880.

[5] Newcastle Journal, 3 June 1882.

[6] Hull Daily Mail, 13 July 1910.

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