Find your ancestors in Transatlantic Migration from North America to Britain & Ireland 1858-1870

Historical Background

The political situation in Ireland during the second half of the nineteenth century was unstable, as evidenced by the increasing number of militant Irish nationalist groups. The Dublin Castle government lived in fear of a Fenian rising, and this threat came not only from within Ireland but from overseas - in particular America, where there was a high proportion of Irish immigrants, and support for the Fenian cause.

At the same time, increasing numbers of Irish people were returning from North America to Britain and Ireland for a number of reasons, such as difficulty in finding employment in America, and increasing hostility towards Irish immigrants. The government were concerned that some of these returning migrants could be Fenians who were involved in planning an uprising. They believed that a potential uprising could be prevented if they were able to monitor who exactly was travelling from North America to Britain and Ireland.

The Passenger Act of 1852 (amended to The Passenger Act of 1855) introduced the regulation of the carriage of passengers by sea. Article 100 required passenger lists to be submitted to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland whenever a vessel had arrived in the United Kingdom from a port outside Europe. The importance of this article was reiterated in 1858 when letters were sent to all ports in Britain and Ireland requiring them to submit passenger lists from vessels arriving from North America to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland immediately. Each port translated the letters into Port Orders, with the first passenger list to be sent to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland being that of the ‘Edinburgh’ which arrived in Glasgow, Scotland on November 25th 1858. Over 800 of the passenger lists sent to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland have survived and are now housed in the National Archives of Ireland.

In 1867 there was a failed attempt at a Fenian insurrection in Ireland, and the threat was soon considered over. By 1870, the provision of reports of the names of passengers from America was no longer considered necessary, and the decision was made to discontinue them.

The passenger lists as a source

The ship’s passenger lists for 1858 - 1870 are now housed in the National Archives of Ireland. The lists for 1858-1867 are located in three boxes of the Chief Secretary's Office Unregistered Papers, while those of 1868-1870 are held within the Chief Secretary's Office Registered Papers (CSORP). They are not held together, but are instead to be found among a number of different types of document that have been organised in chronological order.

The 800 lists held by the National Archives of Ireland span the period from December 1858 to June 1870 and are the only surviving passenger lists held by this repository. They are a significant source because they represent the earliest and largest number of passenger lists that exist for vessels departing from North America to Great Britain and Ireland; the passenger lists in the Public Record Office at Kew, London only commence in 1878.

It should be noted that papers submitted between 1858 and April 1860 are fairly representative of the ships and passengers arriving from North America. After May 1860, however, the lists from Liverpool, London, Queenstown (now Cobh, Co. Cork) and Londonderry (Derry) are not included. They were received by the Chief Secretary's Office as evidenced by their indexes but the lists themselves are not included in the CSORP boxes. It is likely that the lists were sent to the Inspector General of Police, hence they are not in the National Archives of Ireland’s collection. From 1861 onwards the majority of the passenger lists relate to vessels arriving in Southampton and Glasgow.

Information included in the index

The index extracts from the passenger lists details of all the ships, their voyages, and their passengers. Below is a breakdown of the information included:

  • Voyage
  • Name of ship
  • Date of sailing
  • Name of master
  • Type of ship
  • Total number of passengers
  • Breakdown of passengers by nationality, marital status, gender and class
  • Details of the voyage: departure port, via port, date via port, destination and arrival date
  • Passenger
  • Name
  • Occupation
  • Nationality
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Marital status
  • Class
  • Sail date
  • Ship name
  • Destination

Statistics relating to those travelling from North America to Britain and Ireland

More than 2/3 of passengers were male

12,662 passengers were married, of which 6,796 were male and 5,866 female

3,878 were children, of which 1,978 were male and 1,645 female. A further 814 passengers were classed as infants, 338 of these being male and 401 female

60% of passengers were Irish, Scottish or English – with these nationalities being fairly evenly represented, with the caveat that later reports focus only on people travelling to Glasgow and Southampton

At least 50% of passengers were in steerage class (though this figure is likely to be higher as many records do not state which class a person travelled in)

While a high proportion of passengers had trades (such as shoemakers, tailors, merchants or miners) the most frequently cited occupation was that of labourer.

A requirement of the act was that passengers who were born and died at sea had to be included in the lists. The lists mention 34 passengers who died at sea and 8 infants who were born at sea.

Male Passengers 29,162 68%
Female Passengers 12,974 30%
Unknown 559 1%
English 8,184 19%
Scottish 9,122 21%
Irish 8,352 20%
American 440 1%
Other 4,774 11%
None Listed 11,823 28%
1st Class Passengers 7,931 19%
2nd Class Passengers 477 1%
Steerage Passengers 21,471 50%
No Classification 12,861 30%
Selected Occupations
Labourers 4,214
Farmers 2,085
Merchants 1,509
Mechanics 1,286
Miners 858
Carpenters 326
Shoemakers 195
Tailors 193
Joiners 176
Masons 178
Bakers 116
No Occupation 14,762


This project was compiled by James P. Maher. Thanks are given to Gregory O'Connor, Archivist, of the National Archives of Ireland for the opportunity to do this project and assistance in describing Papers and giving access to the Police Reports. Thanks to Capt. Hughes, who in 1940, created an Index to Passenger Lists, 1858-1867. Also thanks to Mary Jane Brown for her assistance in proofing, sorting records and support.