Emigration is one of the most prevalent themes in prose and poetry written in and about Canada during the pre-Confederation period. It is the central concern of two of the early classics of Canadian non-fictional prose, Catharine Parr Traill’s The Backwoods of Canada (1836) and Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush (1852) and it provides the titles of two of the best-known long poems from early Canada, The Emigrant (1841) by Standish O’Grady and The Emigrant (1861) by Alexander McLachlan. It is also a principal or significant component of such novels as Frances Brooke’s The History of Emily Montague (1770), John Galt’s Bogle Corbet (1831), John Richardson’s Wacousta (1832), and Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s The Old Judge (1849). Almost invisible by comparison with these works, John Newton’s The Emigrant was published with a few "Other Pieces" in a slim volume dated 1846 and printed by J. Robertson in Hamilton, the city nearest to the Township of Esquesing in which Newton settled after his arrival in Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1843. One thing that makes Newton’s poem especially interesting is the fact that he also wrote a prose account of his own emigration to Canada that has been preserved in the J.J. Talman Regional Collection at the University of Western Ontario.1 Together, Newton’s poetry and prose provide unique insights into the transformation of emigrant experience into written texts and for this reason, as well as for the intrinsic interest of both the poem and the journal, The Emigrant is reprinted here with a scholarly apparatus that includes as an Appendix a transcription of his journals from August 30, 1842 to March 24, 1844.


Very little is known about Newton beyond the information that he provides in his journals and in the "Sketch of My Life"2 that he wrote in September 1842 on the ship (the Hottinguer) that took him from Liverpool to New York en route to Upper Canada. Born on December 12, 1812 in Torry, between Leeds and Bradford, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, Newton was the son of an independent and unsuccessful coal miner "who turned to drink, and finally enlisted in 1815," leaving his wife with six boys and no other means of support than her and their labour" ("Sketch").3 Despite or perhaps because of the lack of a solid early education, Newton seems to have taught himself to read "at a very early age":4 when he was about six, he recalls, he was given "a prayer-book...for repeating the catechism of the Church of England," a denomination to which he "still remain[ed] attached" at the time of his emigration to Canada.5 Because of the need to help his mother until he was old enough to work, first in a "woollen factory" for "about two years" and then "at a coal pit" until he was seventeen, he "advanced no bookish knowledge," though he did "regularly attend...a Sunday School." Between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six, he worked almost entirely in the woollen industry in Bradford with an uncle and also embarked upon a course of self-instruction that he describes at some length in a passage in "Sketch of My Life" that deserves to be quoted in full on account of its obvious relevance in tone as well as detail to The Emigrant:

I had now by great perseverance made myself pretty much master of English Grammar, Arithmetic, Bookkeeping, Algebra, Geometry and French; I knew something of Geography, Astronomy, etc. [—] in short for some years I had neglected no opportunity of acquiring information of any description, and was considered by my less learned neighbours to be a very intelligent person, and by myself to be marvellously so. Somehow, however, although I do not think I have lost any of these vast acquirements since I...have latterly been in the habit of contributing to a local newspaper...I am by no means so proud of them as I was.

Newton adds that the scholarly "acquirements" of which he was inordinately "proud" enabled him to "undertake...the teaching of a school in the neighbourhood, and...[to] secure...the entire approbation of [his] patrons." No doubt, his educational ambitions and accomplishments also played a role in his acquisition of a variety of assets and skills—expertise in "Bookbinding," experience in the "station[e]ry" business and enough books to "use as a circulating library"—that helped "as a means of support" before his emigration and, he hoped, could be "turn[ed] useful account in Canada."

Not so much as mentioned in Newton’s autobiographical "Sketch" but of very considerable intrinsic interest and contextual importance for The Emigrant is his personal involvement with what he calls in the Preface to the poem "the political history of the working classes in England" (27-28). Several entries in his journals from March to December 1837 register his increasing engagement with political issues: on March 8, he records that he has been gathering signatures on a petition for household suffrage and has attended a meeting in support of universal suffrage and the repeal of the Poor Law of 1834; on July 31, he describes a confrontation between Tories and Whigs in nearby Wakefield and contemplates establishing a Christian movement that would transcend party politics; and on November 6, he notes that he has become Secretary to a newly formed Working Men’s Association and mentions that he participated in a demonstration against the Poor Laws that escalated into a riot. Very likely, the catalyst for Newton’s political involvement (and, perhaps, an inspiration for the manipulative SNARL in The Emigrant) was Richard Oastler, the Yorkshire-born philanthropist who became a political activist in the early eighteen thirties after the evils of child labour were revealed to him by a Bradford worsted manufacturer named John Wood, and thereafter became the leader of a group of Tory Radicals who agitated against the factory system and the Poor Law in the West Riding of Yorkshire. On October 22, 1836, Newton records that he has heard several speeches by Oastler, and in his journal entry for July 1, 1837, he defends the reformer against the rumour that he had intended to use the Wakefield confrontation as the occasion for an uprising.6 It is more than possible that Newton’s involvement in radical politics, particularly his presence at the anti-Poor Law riot of November 1837, lay behind his departure from Bradford for a job in Mountmelick, Ireland on December 5 of that year and had a bearing on his decision to emigrate to Canada. Certainly, the references in the Irish portions of his journals (1837-1842) to the political activities of his fellow English woollen workers (June 19, 1839), to altercations with the foreman and owner of the worsted factory at which he worked as superintendent of the combers (July 27, 1839), and to the philanthropic ideas of the Welsh reformer Robert Owen (November 17, 1840), suggest a moderation rather than a disappearance of the radical tendencies that may have curtailed his career in the woollen industry in England.

As the poster reproduced below indicates, however, the reason for Newton’s eventual departure from Ireland in May 1842 was not his radical tendencies but, as the factory owner, Joseph Beale, euphemistically puts it in a testimonial quoted in "Sketches of My Life," "a falling off of trade" in the woollen industry. During the six months   after  he   was   "thrown  out of  employment"  ("Sketch"),

Fig. 1. Poster in the Newton Papers, J.J. Talman Regional Collection, D.B. Weldon Library, University of Western Ontario.

Newton fruitlessly sought work, first in France and then in London, gradually coming to the conclusion that if he were to take up an "inferior situation" either in his uncle’s factory or elsewhere he would be faced with the likelihood of being unable "to rear and provide for a family decently and respectably in England" ("Sketch").7 Fully alert to the "present state and future prospects" of a country in the grips of the appalling poverty and soaring inflation that had spawned the Chartist movement (see The Emigrant 386-411) and would not be decisively addressed until the repeal of the Corn Law in 1846, Newton resolved to emigrate to Upper Canada. Accordingly, he left his family, which consisted of his pregnant wife Mary, an Irishwoman whom he had married in 1840, and their son, James, in Dublin and set sail for New York on the Hottinguer on August 7, 1852.8 Of his prospects in Canada, he was realistic but hopeful as he crossed the Atlantic:

Of course nothing can be further from my thoughts than to be able to get anything to do [t]here of a nature similar to what I have been engaged in the principal part of my life. Here I am however, and though a situation as a clerk or the like would be more congenial to my tastes and habits, I am nevertheless ready to take anything that offers, at all likely, being convinced that in a place such as the one I have determined to adopt as my future home, industry and perseverance, will not fail in due time to secure their full deserts.

Since the events immediately preceding and following Newton’s arrival in Canada are recounted in the journals that appear as the Appendix in the present edition, they need not be rehearsed here. Nevertheless a brief outline of his movements and activities on this side of the Atlantic is useful to establish the context of The Emigrant’s composition. After reaching New York on October 14, 1842, Newton travelled by the Hudson River-Erie Canal route to Upper Canada, arriving in Toronto on October 26. Following a short period of trials and tribulations in the Toronto area, he settled in the village of Limehouse in Esquesing Township (now Halton Hills) and established himself as a schoolmaster in nearby Norval (see Fig.2). He continued in this capacity until the fall of 1843 when, around the time of the arrival of his wife, son, and, to his dismay, her  sister  and  children on  October 14,  he took on  another  school

Fig. 2. "Northern Part of Esquesing" and "Southern Part of Esquesing"(combined, with detail suppressed or enhanced for clarity), from J.H. Pope, Illustrated Atlas of the County of Halton, Ont. (Toronto: Walker and Mills, 1877), pp. 8-9.

while also preparing to move in December to a hundred acre farm in Erin Township near Guelph. Early in January 1844 (and presumably as another interim measure prior to moving to his farm), he started yet another school, this one in Georgetown (see also Fig.2). The three letters on emigration that Newton published in The Leinster Express in 1843 (see Appendix) not only supplement his journals as a record of his "adjustment period"9 in Canada, but also suggest that some three years prior to the publication of The Emigrant he had come to recognize that his experience of emigration might be of some general interest and value.

Although Newton made a journal entry in the form of a brief poem on his thirty-third birthday, December 12, 1845, he either did not keep journals between January 31, 1844 and February 23, 1866 (when one of his four sons resumed the task) or those that he did keep have not survived.  This  means that  details of  his  life during

Fig. 3. "Plan of Limehouse, Esquesing Township," from J.H. Pope, Illustrated Atlas of the County of Halton, Ont. (Toronto: Walker and Mills, 1877), p. 22. Newton Street runs from the road between lots 22 and 23 and the Grand Trunk Railway.

the period immediately preceding the publication of The Emigrant, and Other Pieces in 1846 are all but non-existent, the one item of information that possibly proves the rule being the birth of his daughter Hannah in Erin Township on August 13, 1844.10 Why the Preface to the volume locates its author at "ST. ANN’S, NELSON" (see Explanatory Notes) thus remains unknown, as do the compositional location and final setting of The Emigrant.

Beginning a year after the publication of The Emigrant, and Other Pieces, however, information about Newton’s whereabouts and activities begins to accrue. In 1847, he comes into view again in Limehouse where he rapidly grew in prosperity and prominence, building a water lime mill for the production of mortar in 1850,11 founding a woollen mill called the Empire Blanket Company in 1852, and purchasing a lot to the southwest of the village in 1855. Thereafter he became the first Postmaster of Limehouse (1857), transformed his lime mill into a second woollen mill (1862), started a paint manufacturing firm (Meikle, Newton and Co.) (1872), and, sometime before 1877, was appointed Justice of the Peace. He also operated a sawmill in Limehouse and had a street in the village named after him (see Fig.3).12 He died at Limehouse of an inflammation of the kidneys on January 9, 1899 at the age of 76.13

Fig. 4. Family portrait of John Newton (seated) in the Newton Papers, J. J. Talman Regional Collection, D. B. Weldon Library, University of Western Ontario.


The story-line of The Emigrant is fairly straightforward: the narrator recounts the experiences of the protagonist John Hart preceding, during, and after his emigration to Canada. In a lop-sidedly tripartite structure that places the most emphasis on John’s self-education and political radicalism in England, the poem presents his progress not only from England to Canada, but also from Chartism to Conservatism—a shift that is precisely the reverse of the political progressions of such famous British emigrants to the United States as William Cobbett (1763-1835), whose work is explicitly mentioned in relation to John’s radicalism and autodidactism (see 149 and 286). As the narrator observes in the third segment of the poem:

In politics, I think, that [John] now leans
     To Toryism, which is a little strange
In one who was a Chartist of such fame.
     But often we our politics do change
When we a little stake get in the game.

Particularly in light of the narrator’s subsequent observation that his friend "pretends it is philosophy, / That has produced his present sober vein" (794-95), it is tempting to see John’s political conversion to Toryism as either a betrayal of the Chartist principles that he had passionately espoused and optimistically enumerated in England or as a ruse to conceal his continued commitment to radical politics while he makes his way to "the Provincial Assembly" (834) of Upper Canada. Is John Hart’s Toryism John Newton’s wry comment on his own political changeability or Newton’s attempt in the wake of the Rebellion of 1837 to ensure the poem’s original audience of its author’s political reformation?

Arguing against a subversive reading of The Emigrant is the poems’ emphasis from start to finish on a pattern of falling and rising in John’s life that replicates the movement in Christian history from the Fall of Adam and Eve to the atoning sacrifice of Christ. John is instructed in the ways of radical thinking by a Chartist named Snarl who "wily as a serpent" takes advantage of his poverty and ignorance to transform him from "An honest, quiet, and industrious man" into an orator capable of attracting "A host of followers" (118, 244, 256). As predicted by earlier references to several of Old Testament texts and classical characters that speak of betrayal, violence, deception, and hypocrisy in the pursuit and exercise of power, John starts to revel in his ability to "Wield at will the minds of those whom he / Has looked upon as equals, and, perhaps, / Superiors" and begins to display the habits of thought associated by the narrator with the use of "influence / To selfish ends" (357-62), not least a tendency to blame and criticize others that "soothe[s] his pride and self-esteem" and proves much "more congenial...than would / Have been a slight dissection of his own Best speech" (267, 290-92). After a reversal of fortune that his Chartist "associates" astutely use to fan the fires of his radicalism, he becomes a vocal advocate of insurrection in the name of liberty, leads a "glorious popl’ar demonstration to instruct, or the Queen, / And her Advisers teach to rule the Nation" (320, 468-93), and then finds himself abandoned by his "applauders" and "supporters" to face arrest, trial, and imprisonment for sedition (468-93). Now alone like Eve after the Fall and, despite all, still given to a self-centredness that recalls Milton’s depiction of the fallen mind in Paradise Lost, John embarks on a ship appropriately (if obviously) named the "Liberty" for "The distant shores of freedom and the free" (504-10).

As John is shipbound for the United States in the second segment of the poem, the narrator uses the products of his protagonist’s newfound gifts as a poet to illustrate the way in which "His politics [are] fast changing to philosophy" (512). First, a poem written "On a blank leaf of [William] Pinnock’s Guide to Knowledge" (514), a series of instructional booklets in the tradition of William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802), indicates his acceptance of the view that the pursuit of "Knowledge" can lead to the achievement of spiritual awareness and peace (517-28). Then, a poem written shortly after his departure from England reveals his selfless empathy for the "bereaved child" that he is leaving behind (529-52). When the "Liberty" "Arrive[s] on the banks of Newfoundland" (533), however, John slips back towards his old ways with a "ditty" about the social stratifications on the ship that is designed to "amuse himself" (555-88) but earns the lavish praise of his fellow passengers and, as a result, causes him to "forget" that it was his "Love of approbation" that "Had lured him on too far in by-gone days" (589-607). The result is another poem, this time a celebration of anticipated freedom in the United States, that leads to a further turn of Fortune’s Wheel for John: elated by the praise accorded to the poem, he offers to sing it to a popular tune, receives some money for doing so, finds that "part of his existence" thus "Depend[s] on what others ha[ve] to give," and, when the "Liberty" reaches New York, discovers that he is "instantly...left alone, / To tune his pipes and modulate his tone" (608-53). Yet in the excitement of arrival and disembarkation, John is as "Oblivious to his...reverse" as he is of the need, in the narrator’s words, to "atone for falling into sin" (703, 687), and he leaves the ship bent on trying to turn his resuscitated "dreams" of freedom, equality, and "love universal" "into reality" (704, 626). Given the logic of the narrative, the outcome is predictable: when John sees that "where men are left alone to seek / Their wrath and power as to them seems right, / The strong and wicked must oppress the weak / And liberty and love give way to might," his "empty dreams" give way not only to "stern reality," but also to a new appreciation of Britain’s "greatness" and "fostering might" (716-19, 711, 723-25).

Equally predictable, if only because of the poem’s place of publication, is John’s decision not to return to England but, rather, to "wend...his way" to Canada (728). As he crosses what is probably Lake Ontario to Upper Canada, the narrative of his spiritual and social development is again, as in the previous segment, advanced through quotation of his poems, in this case "a selection from his scrap-book" that corresponds in general rather than specific ways to the education of Adam and Eve by Michael after the Fall in Paradise Lost and the guidance of Christian by Faithful in the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress. After a brief account of "strolling forth with Nature to commune...And try his jarring thoughts to put in tune" that causes him to appreciate "ever-bounteous Nature" and to regret human ingratitude "to that / Almighty Being, which o’er-rules the world" (766-68, 733, 736-37), John describes a "scene" that he claims to have "witnessed" (762): a rattle-snake, attempting to strike a man whom it has paralysed with fear, bites instead his wife, who, despite the danger, "clings" to "her partner" (747); the man, awakening "as from a troubled dream" and seeing what has happened, kills the snake and then attempts to save his wife, first by bathing the wound and then through prayer, but all to no avail: the wife dies (749-61). From a simplistic perspective, this tragic conclusion seems to undercut John’s perception of an "all-bounteous Native" ruled over by an "Almighty Being" but, of course, the Christian view, properly understood, is more complex: God is all powerful and all knowing, but humans have free will and events are not pre-determined. A Christian must have faith that, appearances sometimes to the contrary, human history and the natural world are fulfilling the providential design that began with the Creation and will end in the Last Judgement. In the meantime, the world is post-incarnational as well as post-lapsarian: the woman who sacrifices her life to save her husband from the "charm" of the rattle-snake is both Christ-like and mortal, and he, in turn, is perceived by John to be both "A son of Mother Eve" and a type of Mary and Jesus in his capacity to "bruise...the serpent’s head" with his "heel" (773, 757) in accordance with the tradition arising from Genesis 3.15 (see Explanatory Notes). Just how fully John has come to know and understand the world from a Christian perspective is made clear by the two quotations from Alexander Pope that are embedded in the conclusion of The Emigrant: "A little learning is a dang’rous Thing...shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain, / And drinking largely sobers us again" (An Essay on Criticism 215-18) and "spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite, / One truth is clear, Whatever IS, IS RIGHT" (An Essay on Man 1:293-94). Little wonder that, at the end of the poem, John Hart has become a Tory with hopes of becoming a "Member of the Provincial Assembly" or that towards the end of his life John Newton was an admirer and, briefly, a correspondent of Sir John A. Macdonald. At least one other John—John Strachan—would have heartily approved.

The First Edition and the Present Text

Although draft versions and fair copies of some portions of The Emigrant appear in Newton’s journals and among his papers (see Explanatory Notes to lines 514, 533-52, and 559-87), no manuscript of the poem appears to have survived. The present text is thus based on The Emigrant, and Other Pieces, which was printed by J. Robertson in Hamilton, Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1846.

In the copy of The Emigrant, and Other Pieces in the Baldwin Room of the Toronto Reference Library, two of the "Songs" that make up the "Other Pieces" are emended in what appears to be Newton’s handwriting. If this is the case, the absence of any such emendations in The Emigrant suggests that Newton was satisfied with the poem as printed. The emendations in the present text are thus predictably few, and it is worth mentioning that two of them—"Goliath" for "Goliah" (73) and "innuendo" for "inuendo" (229)—are corrections of what the Oxford English Dictionary describes as common errors.

All changes to the first edition in the present text are recorded in the list of Editorial Emendations that follows the poem.

Notes to the Introduction


  1. Newton’s journals fall into three distinct categories by date of composition: (1) those written in England, Ireland, and France between January 1, 1836 and June 13, 1842 (Journals 1-7). (2) those written between August 30, 1842 and March 24, 1844 during and immediately following his emigration to Canada (Journals 8-12); and (3) those written between February 23, 1866 and August 4, 1878 when he was a well-established farmer and businessman in Canada (Journal 13-22). For obvious reasons, only the journals in category 2 are printed in the present edition. Numbers were assigned to Newton’s journals by J.H. Hassard, whose "The Newton Diaries: Historical Research Project" in the Newton Papers has been of enormous help as a guide to their contents. [back]

  2. "Sketch of My Life" is sewn after Journal 5 into the aggregation of Newton’s notebooks and papers that Hassard has labelled Book II. It is followed by a draft of the song to the "Liberty" in The Emigrant (ll. 563-87) that is entitled "The Hottinguer—a Jingle" and dated October 5, 1842 on the Hottinguer. The "Marine Journal" for October 15 and November 19, 1842 in the New York Daily Tribune record the arrival and departure of the Hottinguer. [back]

  3. Newton’s mother died after a short illness on February 7, 1836, when he was 23 years old. [back]

  4. After he began keeping a journal in January 1836 and almost certainly earlier, Newton attended the Bryerly Chapel in Bradford and was active in the Dudley Hall Literary Association in the same city (Journal 1). [back]

  5. In view of the religious elements in The Emigrant, it is notable that in his journal entry for December 16, 1836 (Journal 2) Newton records a desire to be a preacher. It is also notable that in his journal entry for February 19, 1837 (Journal 3), Newton wrestles with the religious implications of his literary ambitions: "I think I am ambitious, not for power, nor for money, nor for glory (in the valiant sense of the word), but for literary fame and, after having reflected soberly on my ambitious propensities, I cannot see that it would be criminal in me to indulge in them a little." [back]

  6. Against identifying SNARL with Oastler as the fact that Oastler was neither the Chartist nor the violent revolutionary that SNARL shows himself to be (see The Emigrant 210-13 and 222-25). An account of Oastler’s political position and activities in the 1830s can be found in Cecil Driver’s Tory Radical: the Life of Richard Oastler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), particularly pp. 360-63 (the Wakefield demonstration) pp. 398-401 (his attitude to Chartism), and pp.433-34 (his Christian beliefs). [back]

  7. Journal 7 (May 6- June 13, 1842) is devoted to Newton’s trip to France and letters dated June 23 and 25 and July 1 record his attempts to find employment in London. See also Journal 9. [back]

  8. Newton’s marriage license records that he was married to Mary Jones on June 7, 1840. In his journal entry for March 7, 1839 (Journal 5), Newton mentions that he has an Irish girlfriend and in his entry for July 24 1840 (Journal 6) he describes his wife as an "Irish girl." That "Fare thee well my little dearie!" in The Emigrant (II. 533-53)) was written with Newton’s son James (born on December 26, 1840) in mind is indicated not only by the name "Jamie" in its final line but also by drafts of it under the title "Farewell to Sing on Leaving Ireland for America" in the October 1842 portion of Journal 8 (see Appendix) and in Book II of the Newton papers. The child that Newton’s wife was carrying when he emigrated died on November 28, 1842 (see Journal 9). [back]

  9. Hassard, p. 65. [back]

  10. This information comes from Newton’s great, great granddaughter, Jean Somerville of Acton, Ontario. [back]

  11. Jean Ruddell states that Newton’s mill "ground all the water lime in the construction of the G[rand] T[ruck] R[ailway] [CNR] main line," which was built through Limehouse in 1856, and gives a brief description of the processes involved. [back]

  12. This information about Newton’s life from 1847 until his death has been compiled from several primary and secondary sources, principally The Province of Ontario Gazetteer and Directory (Toronto: Robertson and Cook, 1869. 263), Lovell’s Business and Professional Directory for the Province of Ontario for 1882 (Montreal: John Lovell and Son, 1882. 154, 686), and, especially, J.J. Pope’s Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Halton, Ont. (Toronto: Walker and Miles, 1877. 55, 71). Jean Ruddell’s The Historical Village of Limehouse (Georgetown, ON: Historical Society of Esquesing, 1992.) was also helpful, as were various items among the Newton Papers in the J.J. Talman Regional Collection at the University of Western Ontario. [back]

  13. Notices of Newton’s death appear in The Acton Free Press and The Canadian Champion (Milton) on January 7, 1889. [back]