Professional squatters

You learn something new every day working on the BT27 passenger list project. I now know more than I ever expected to know about the ports of Equatorial Guinea and the geography of the island of Borneo. I have also been reminded how much knowledge is culturally specific. For instance, when I wrote about Dr Barnardo’s on the Ancestors on Board website, I assumed, without thinking, that the charity was a household name across the English-speaking world: I was then e-mailed by a contact in America suggesting that an explanation might be of benefit to readers on that side of the Atlantic. Conversely, the subject I am writing about today may be familiar in Australia but was new to me, and I hope that Australian readers will bear with me for the benefit of British readers.

The attached image shows the first page of a passenger list of the Arcadia from 1890. This ship was sailing from London to Australia. Among the “ladies and children”, and the parson, the farmer and the nurse, are three passengers for Sydney who declared their occupation to be that of “squatter”. In both its early and in its contemporary meanings, squatting is associated with illegal occupation of property or land and therefore is usually pejorative. However, in Australia by the 1890s, the term “squatter” was used largely in a neutral and descriptive way. Ogilvie’s late Victorian era British Imperial Dictionary of the English Language, for example, states that “In Australia the term is… applied to one who occupies an unsettled tract of land as a sheep-farm under lease from government at a nominal rent”. Indeed, if the word carried a value judgement at all, it was positive and indicated admiration of the success and status of the occupation.

The three squatters Hass, Posner and Neame on board the Arcadia were young single men aged 29, 26 and 28. As they were sailing from Britain in 1890, presumably they had made an earlier voyage from Australia and had already establishing their landholdings in New South Wales. Although they are recorded on the passenger list as being English, it seems likely that all three were born in Australia. If so, we can only speculate as to what they may have been doing in England in the winter of 1889/1890.

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