Social hierarchies

Britain in the 1830s was a society structured by rank, wealth and class. The life of a Lord was very different to that of a labourer or milkmaid on his estate, or that of a factory worker. Access to everything from education to political rights was determined by a person’s ‘station in life’ – the social position the person was born into – and wealth. The traditional hierarchy with the monarch at the top, followed by peers (Lords, Earls and so on), with the labouring classes at the bottom, was in the nineteenth century changing to reflect industrialisation and the rising middle class of manufacturers and merchants. Religion and gender further structured society. The prevailing belief in this period was that the social structure was God’s will, part of Divine Providence. It was observed and maintained through rigid social conventions and distinctions of speech, dress and  behaviour. That said, there was always movement between different groups, as fortunes waxed and waned. Part of the appeal of emigration was the prospect of bettering one’s ‘station in life‘.

The Wakefieldian scheme of systematic colonisation on which the Province of South Australia was based aimed to reproduce a particular social structure. The Province was established with a uniform minimum price for land, calculated as high enough to raise a fund to pay for emigration and high enough to make it affordable to emigrant labourers only after considerable time and saving – yet low enough to entice would-be landowners to come to the new province. This price for land was calculated to ensure a balance between the supply of labour and capital; landowners would have labourers, who would remain labourers and not become landowners too quickly.

Conditions and attitudes on board ship reflected the social hierarchies of the society being left behind.

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