Geographic Origins

England is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. England occupies more than half of the island of Great Britain. It is bordered by Scotland to the north, the Irish Sea, Wales and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the English Channel to the south and the North Sea to the east.

History of Immigration and Settlement

Since 1836 the majority of immigrants to South Australia have come from England.

Kangaroo Island was the first piece of land that the English attempted to settle in South Australia. It had been uninhabited for thousands of years. Explorer Matthew Flinders had commented upon the abundance of kangaroos and penguins after visiting the island in 1802 while circumnavigating Australia. This encouraged whaling and sealing vessels from as far away as North America to seek out the island. The first unofficial settlement on Kangaroo Island in the early nineteenth century comprised a mixture of escaped convicts, ships’ deserters, sealers and Aboriginal women they had kidnapped from Tasmania and mainland South Australia. This group lived in brush huts and caves. They had no contact with civilisation except when trading with passing ships. They were a lawless group who engaged in murderous conflicts.

The colony of South Australia was established during the early nineteenth century, a time of great social reform and scientific thought in the United Kingdom. In the 1830s English reformers began to develop the theory of ‘systematic colonisation’. It was believed that a scientific imperialist method would produce an ideal society. The planned colony of South Australia was to be a social experiment.

The first official party of English settlers arrived in Kingscote, Kangaroo Island, aboard the Duke of York on 27 July, 1836. By December over 300 settlers had arrived on the island. They engaged in sealing, whaling, farming and trade with passing ships.

Colonel William Light and his survey party arrived in Kingscote aboard the Cygnet and the Rapid in August 1836. Light was disappointed with the arid island. He recommended that the colony should be established on the mainland. As a result Governor Hindmarsh and the settlers aboard the Buffalo landed in Holdfast Bay (Glenelg) on 28 December, 1836. Some of the colonists who had settled on Kangaroo Island before Hindmarsh’s arrival moved to the new site, but a significant number remained on the island. Many of their descendants live there today. For further information about the early settlement of Kangaroo Island consult the South Australian Maritime Museum.

In practice the theory of systematic colonisation proved flawed. It was, however, initially responsible for a unique type of migration. Under the theory an equal number of male and female immigrants were assisted to South Australia in the same proportion of English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish peoples that existed in the British Isles. English immigrants, therefore, dominated the assisted passage program.

By 1840 South Australia boasted a population of 15,000. This continued to grow at a rapid pace, despite the suspension of emigration from 1840 until 1844. A combination of good harvests and the discovery of mineral deposits swelled South Australia’s population to 60,000 in 1850. South Australia’s fluctuating economic fortunes during the 1860s and 1870s reduced the number of assisted passages to South Australia. The English, however, remained the most numerically dominant group in the colony.

Economic conditions continued to be the main influence on the flow of English immigrants to South Australia. The depression of the early 1880s brought about the end of assisted passages, and immigration from England significantly declined. Only those English who could afford to pay for themselves immigrated to South Australia. It was nearly 25 years before the recommencement of any assisted migration programs. As a result of commonwealth government legislation, such as the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, known as the ‘White Australia Policy’, English immigrants remained the largest national group immigrating to South Australia. In 1912 a program began which encouraged female domestic servants under the age of 45 to immigrate to Australia. By 1914 approximately 700 English women had been assisted to South Australia. Around 7,280 assisted migrants arrived in South Australia between 1912 and 1914. The majority were English.

Migration to Australia virtually ceased between the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and 1921, after which juvenile migration schemes became popular with the British and Australian governments. These schemes sent young English boys to South Australia in the belief that they would grow up to be Australian men. The ‘Barwell Boys’ scheme aimed to provide poor and unemployed boys from the industrial cities of England with a more rural, and what was believed to be more moral, upbringing. Of the 1,457 ‘Barwell Boys’ who came to work on South Australian farms between 1922 and 1924, 90 per cent were from England. The other 10 per cent came from other regions in the United Kingdom. Many of the farms to which these boys were sent were in the remote South Australian outback. Unable to cope with the severe isolation, and with no form of outside support, many of these boys committed suicide. The suicide rate was 60 times greater than for boys of a comparable age in England. In 1924, to address the problems relating to post-arrival care for these children, the English charity Dr Barnardo’s Homes established its own migration scheme, known as the Big Brother Movement. This movement was similar to the Barwell Boys scheme with the important difference that it provided the boys with a ‘big brother’ or counsellor. Adelaide officials boasted that the boys would be given the opportunity to grow up in a ‘genuine British community with true British ideals’. Although the original migrants have now passed on, their descendants continue to meet annually. The group celebrated the centenary of South Australia’s British farm apprentice schemes in 2013 with an exhibition at the Migration Museum in Adelaide.

The depression of the 1930s and the Second World War further stifled immigration to South Australia. After 1947 the South Australian and federal governments launched large-scale immigration programs centred on such slogans as ‘populate or perish’. Under these assisted passage schemes, it cost an English adult migrant just £10 for their passage to Australia and £5 for children. The scheme required migrants to remain in Australia for a minimum of two years. If they left before this time, they had to repay their fare. This scheme lasted for over 30 years. Compared with other bilateral assisted migration agreements, the agreement with English authorities was by far the most generous and comprehensive. This represented a desire by Australian officials to attract what they considered to be the most ‘suitable’ immigrants. 

In 1955 the Premier of South Australia, Sir Thomas Playford, stated that the English were our ‘kith and kin’. In order to maintain the flow of English migrants to Australia, the federal government initiated the ‘Bring out a Briton’ campaign. This program was designed to encourage Australians to sponsor a relative or friend to emigrate. During 1958 the restrictions governing suitable British migrants were relaxed. English migrants no longer needed either a trade or an Australian sponsor. To encourage family migration, children under the age of 19 could emigrate free of charge with support from the Australian federal government.

Many English immigrants were not prepared for the rudimentary reception facilities provided by the South Australian government. ‘Cabin homes’ in Salisbury North were home to immigrants who had found employment with local industrial employers, the largest being the Weapons Research Establishment. The homes had very limited facilities. There were no shops, sewerage, sealed roads, mail delivery, street lighting or rubbish removal for several years. Due to the lack of suitable housing, many newly arrived English immigrants had to spend time in one of the several hostels situated around the Adelaide suburbs. This was an uncomfortable time for many, as the hostels were crowded and often lacked privacy. The Rosewater Hostel consisted of old woolsheds that had been divided into small rooms using chicken wire and tar paper.  On the other hand, some migrants adjusted well to their new conditions, grateful to embrace a new life and the opportunities that their adopted land could give them.

To meet the growing demands for suitable housing, the South Australian Housing Trust (S.A.H.T.) built a new city to the north of Adelaide. The Premier, Sir Thomas Playford, gave the city the name Elizabeth, in honour of the ruling English monarch, Elizabeth II. The government intended to create a British atmosphere, and thereby attract British migrants. The first house was occupied in November 1955 by an English family. The S.A.H.T. also ran a house purchase scheme for British migrants under which they were guaranteed a choice of houses within seven days of arrival, providing they had a minimum of £1,000 in savings. English migrants received favourable treatment and attempts were made to make them feel welcome. This included the continuation of the ‘royal’ theme at Elizabeth with place and street names such as Prince Charles Walk and Windsor Green.

Elizabeth had been designed not only as a residential area, but also as a place of employment. The largest employer of the new English migrants was General Motors Holden.

Whyalla, the hub of South Australia’s steel and ship building industry, also received a small number of English migrants.

Although the peak periods for English migration to South Australia are the 1960s and 1970s there was a resurgence of English migration to Australia in the 2000s.  In April 2016 England withdrew from the European Union (BREXIT). What effect this will have on future English migration to South Australia remains to be seen. 

Community Activities

The culture of South Australia has been profoundly influenced by its English immigrants. Its systems of government, law and religion were modelled on their English counterparts. English sports and recreational pursuits were widespread. English immigrants brought with them ideas about social divisions based upon wealth and occupation, the treatment of native peoples and the role of women. The conveyance of this English cultural baggage to South Australia could be likened to the shipping out of their goods and chattels.

During the period 1836 to 1850 South Australia was directly administered by representatives of the British government and colonial office. With the formation of an independent colonial government in 1856, a reformed English Westminster system was adopted and continues to the present day as the state parliament.

South Australia also closely mirrored England in religion, although unlike England, South Australia ended state-supported religion in 1851. The Church of England was dominant among the ‘leading colonists’, as the wealthier South Australians liked to call themselves, but a large range of other denominations were also present. The most successful was Methodism, which initially relied on self-educated small farmers to act as preachers rather than depending upon professional clergy. The nineteenth century practice of recruiting clergy, whether Church of England or Methodist, from churches in England also helped reinforce customs and pieties. This provided one more way immigrants were able to maintain a sense of cultural affiliation with England.

Prominent colonists of South Australia sought to reproduce many aspects of English society. They took part in leisure pursuits such as horse-racing, hunting, sailing, rowing and membership of the exclusive Adelaide and Queen Adelaide Clubs. Sons of the wealthy elite were educated at English public schools or at Saint Peters or Prince Alfred Colleges before attending either Oxford or Cambridge. Daughters attended dame schools and then travelled to England or France to fashionable schools for young ladies. Vice-regal connections were also highly sought after. This group looked to England as ‘home’, and among them English culture had a special significance that continued into the twentieth century.

Cultural Traditions

The majority of English immigrants, in contrast to the group of prominent colonists, had their own leisure pursuits and pastimes. Religious observance was strong, but so was entertainment, which was provided by the nineteenth century public house or hotel. The public house was often the only large scale indoor entertainment area available. From these establishments colonists participated in English games such as archery, one-stump cricket (the predecessor of modern day cricket), quoits, skittles, boxing, wrestling, gambling and even horse racing around the adjoining streets. The maintenance of cultural traditions was reinforced by the almost continual arrival of new migrants, but while England was home, the traditions of English society were weaker among middling classes than for leading colonists, who used tradition and culture as a form of social elevation.

After the arrival of the official settlement party, South Australians began developing their own identity and sense of loyalty. Between 1883 and 1912 there was no assisted migration and, with very few new arrivals, South Australian culture was able to develop, although English newspapers, visiting theatre companies and sporting teams, and visits home by immigrants, ensured the continuation of strong English links. New English immigrants between 1912 and 1947 were relatively small in number and consequently had little impact upon South Australian culture. South Australia’s ‘Englishness’, however, was still important for many people. This clinging to tradition is apparent in the make-up of the South Australian Soccer Association of the 1920s, for instance, which had clubs with English names such as The Lancasters, Northumberland, Durham and the Hindmarsh British Footballers Club.

Post-second-world-war English immigrants founded organisations that fostered a common cultural identity and experience. These organisations included the British Workmen’s Club and the Royal Overseas League. New soccer clubs were established and competed with many new European clubs also established at this time. Hotels such as ‘The Red Lion’ and ‘The Rose and Crown’ at Elizabeth continued to be the focus of cultural life for many English South Australians. The striking feature of ‘The Rose and Crown’ was the rich red carpet with gold roses and crowns, specially woven in England and symbolic of the maintenance of cultural traditions.

Organisations and Media

  • British Working Men’s Club
  • Royal Commonwealth Society (S.A. Branch)
  • The Royal Overseas League


The 1981 census recorded 124,739 English-born people in South Australia.

The 1986 census recorded 119,445 English-born South Australians. However, 555,172 people claimed English descent. The majority of these were born in South Australia, although large numbers of people of English descent have arrived from New Zealand, Hong Kong, Canada, Europe and South Africa.

The 1991 census recorded 117,932 English-born South Australians. 180,798 South Australians said that their mothers were born in England, and 185,726 that their fathers were.

The 1996 census recorded 111,049 English-born South Australians. The census made no mention of the second generation.

According to the 2001 census there were 103,271 English-born South Australians, while 560,505 people said that they were of English descent. A further 114 people said that they were born in the United Kingdom, and 1,219 that they were of British descent.

The 2006 census recorded 101,496 English-born South Australians, while 541,474 people said that they were of English descent.

The 2011 census recorded 102,682 English-born South Australians, while 608,343 people said that they were of English descent.

The 2016 census recorded 97,392 English-born South Australians, 71 people said that they were from the Isle of Man, while 639,355 people said that they were of English descent.

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