With the abolition of purchased army commissions in 1871, and stricter standards in the professions, less able second sons had a difficult time finding a suitable place in British society.
The Empire became an outlet. Remittance men – single men – are legend in Canada.
The stereotype is upper class, supported by initial capital and periodic fund transfers from the UK. Often of dissolute or drunken character, they were sent and paid to stay away after one or more disgraces at home. The hope was they would kill themselves in quiet obscurity or work out their own regeneration and find a purpose to their life.
Contemporary cartoons of these silver spoon migrants parodied them.
Clarence, the younger son, says “BAH JOVE! FATHAW. I’M GOING TO CANADA TO SHOOT INDIANS, MAKE MY FAWTUNE AND ALL THAT SORT OF THING DON’T CHER KNOW”
His father replies “HOORA – HEM – I MEAN I DON’T WANT TO HURRY YOU, Y, Y’KNOW, BUT THERE’S A STEAMER LEAVING TODAY – HOW MUUCH DO YOU WANT”
One description was “supercilious and vain, mollycoddled and naive, incompetent and intemperate”
On the positive side they were said to be “happy-go-lucky, honest, cheerful, well mannered.”
No one person fits all the epithets, and humour is born of exaggeration.
You will find these men in passenger lists, although only by name and occupation “gentleman” – no age required for cabin passengers. In Canada they’re in the census, sometimes land grant and civil registration records.
Colourful enough characters appear in local histories, perhaps with a measure of embellishment.
As told in “The range men : the story of the ranchers and Indians of Alberta by L. V. Kelly”, in High River, Alberta, a remittance man went through one hundred thousand dollars in a few years and finally came down to driving a cart.
He had been sent out to try his hand at ranching which he did over the bar of the hotel—writing hopeful letters home of mounting success, a splendid ranch, grand cattle and a life of brilliant promise.
One day this man received word that his father was coming to spend a few days with him on the “ranch” What was he to do?
He devised the scheme of renting a ranch, stock, cattle, everything, for the week of the visit and “employing” the owner as hired man.
Everyone in High River knew of the arrangement but joined in deceiving the old gentleman. Their remittance man was a big spender when he had money and why kill the goose that laid golden eggs?
The father arrived, saw the rolling plains, neat fences, snug buildings, goodly stock, and was so pleased that when he left for home at the end of a week he tipped the “hired man” and gave his promising offspring another ten thousand dollars.
The end of the story is that he married, inherited a fortune from an aunt and returned to England, where he became a respected and sober member of some high-class community.
Truth or fabrication?
John D Reid is an Ottawa-based family historian, a British emigrant, who enjoys discovering the lives of those who preceded him. He blogs daily at anglo-celtic-connections.blogspot.ca/
John will be speaking at the Secret Lives Conference on “Silver Spoon and Short Straw Migrants to Canada”