From Ireland to Hamilton: Irish Famine migrants in the archives
Ireland Park Foundation’s researcher, Dr. Laura Smith, has found a number of archival newspaper clippings, photos and letters relating to the Irish Famine migrants journeys to Hamilton from Toronto. Please read below for a brief overview of the history of Irish Famine migrants in Hamilton.
From Ireland to Hamilton
At the “head of the lake,” Hamilton, Canada West was the final port of call for Irish Famine immigrants who had survived the Atlantic crossing, the quarantine at Grosse Ile, and the passage along the ports of Lake Ontario. As in Toronto and other ports, the immigrants were received by a government-appointed emigrant agent, housed in sheds, and treated in a rudimentary and temporary Emigrant Hospital. With a population of about 7000 in 1847, the arrival of upwards of 20,000 or more Irish Famine immigrants was a significant challenge for the nascent city. Hamilton had been incorporated only the year before. It had no civic hospital and only limited social welfare and funerary infrastructure. The Ladies’ Benevolent Society the main charitable organization had a policy against helping those already receiving government support. Consequently it refused to assist the Irish who were receiving government aid in the sheds.
The emigrant agent worked to transport immigrants out of the city to the townships beyond the city where it was expected immigrants would find agricultural work. The success of this endeavour is questionable as reports in November 1847 raised the alarm that “thousands” of Irish immigrants were returning to the city from the rural areas with no clear means of support or housing as winter set in.
Hamilton’s reception of the Irish Famine migration is notable for the way in which deceased migrants were treated. Regrettably records are incomplete but it is clear that only a minority of deceased Irish were buried in local church cemeteries. Instead the majority was buried on Burlington Heights at an isolated burial ground. The space had most recently served as the city’s cholera cemetery. Previously it had been a military cemetery during the British occupation of the Heights during the War of 1812. Unfortunately no records exist for this unconsecrated mass grave, but local historians in the early twentieth century suggested as many as 400 Irish may have been interred at the site.