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Strike!The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson$

David Lee McMullen

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780813034867

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813034867.001.0001

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On to America

On to America

(p.59) 7 On to America

David Lee McMullen

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

As economic condition worsened in Millgate, the Dawson family, like thousands of other British workers, turned their sights toward the United States and other parts of the English-speaking world, joining the massive postwar migration of working-class families leaving Scotland and England. This chapter gives a detailed account of their voyage in The SS Cedric. For instance, as a young woman, Ellen Dawson was also questioned separately by a matron to ascertain her moral character, and to make certain that she was not being lured to the United States to become a prostitute.

Keywords:   voyage, postwar migration, working class, Scotland, United States, employment opportunity

Employment opportunities in Millgate did not last long. As Patrick Dawson wrote to his son Edward in Barrhead, “trade is no better down here yet, at the same time I don't think they are as bad as they are up in Scotland.”1 The Lancashire textile industry, after its brief upturn immediately after World War I, was already collapsing. As a result, the Dawson family, like thousands of other British workers, turned their sights toward the United States and other parts of the English-speaking world, joining the massive post-war migration of working-class families leaving Scotland and England.

Dawson and her older brother David were the first to leave Britain, sailing for New York from Liverpool on April 30, 1921. Dawson was twenty and David was twenty-six. They made the nine-day voyage aboard the SS Cedric, in the cramped and crowded third-class section of the ship commonly referred to as steerage.2

Dawson's courage and determination can be found in the words of another young woman, Agnes Schilling, who migrated, at the age of fifteen, from a Scottish town southeast of Glasgow to New Jersey in 1922. As Schilling later recalled: “My whole idea was to get to the United States, and that I could work when I got here and help to bring my family eventually.…so I was very insistent.… it wasn't easy for me to convince my parents, my family, everybody, that I was capable of going over and taking care of myself, but I was determined, and no matter what obstacle came up I always found a way out of it. So I finally got my way.”3

It is not hard to imagine Dawson leading a similar campaign in an effort to motivate her family to move on to the United States. In fact, as niece Betty Dawson later remembered, Dawson “thought she was the head of the family and liked to be in control.”4 The economic reasons for going were (p.60) explained by Margaret Kirk, a Glaswegian woman the same age as Dawson, who migrated to New York in 1923. “There was loads of work while the war was on. Shipyards were booming. As soon as the war was finished, everybody was getting laid off. There was depression in the country, and everybody wanted to come to America.… that's why so many people came from Scotland, because of the depression. There was no work, so they were gasping for a job. And America sent out signals that everything was wonderful here.”5

The SS Cedric arrived in New York on May 9, 1921. Built in Belfast in 1902, the ship was owned by the White Star and Dominion Lines, and was a regular on the Liverpool to New York passage, transporting Europeans, representing nations from throughout the continent, to their new homes in the United States. The Cedric was 700 feet long, 75 feet wide, weighed 21,035 gross tons, and carried a crew of 475. It was capable of carrying a total of 2,875 passengers on the transatlantic voyage. This included 365 first-class passengers, 160 second-class passengers, and 2,350 third-class passengers.6

Dawson's journey was much like that experienced by countless European immigrants on their way to America. The voyage, even in third class, provided a basic level of comfort that many immigrants never experienced prior to boarding the ship. Third-class passengers shared cabins. Cabins were small, interior compartments without portholes. They were outfitted with wooden bunks and provided accommodations for several passengers, often strangers who were assigned to live together during the journey. Passengers were fed in large dining rooms. Dining rooms provided simple but generally nutritious meals based on the standards of the day, meals that were often far better than what many third-class passengers had eaten in their native land. Beyond this, passengers also had access to the essential amenities of life on a large ship. They were, as was the custom, segregated from the first- and second-class passengers. Third-class passengers often entertained themselves with song and dance, making new friends and building a temporary community with other travelers from throughout Europe. When the weather was good, children played on deck and adults enjoyed the beauty and tranquillity of the open ocean. When the seas were rough, seasickness was a common problem for passengers of all ages. Crew members, like most of the third-class passengers, were workers, and this common bond helped to ease the trauma of the journey, as they often went out of their way to be of assistance. Even the ship's captain visited with (p.61) third-class passengers. On many ships there appears to have been a real camaraderie among these transatlantic passengers, a bond shared by millions of immigrant workers in the United States.7 During this period, steamship lines competed for third-class passengers, who contributed significantly to the financial success of the companies.

One particularly interesting note with respect to Dawson's crossing aboard the Cedric was the birth of two babies, both daughters of Eastern European women. The babies were named Ettel Cedrica Ruvinski and Julia Cedrica Baloq. Their shared middle names reflects their special places in the history of transatlantic migration.8

Arriving in New York, the first- and second-class passengers disembarked immediately. Third-class passengers, such as Dawson and David, were taken by barge or ferry to Ellis Island, where they were processed by U.S. immigration officials. Ellis Island was the primary point of entry for aliens coming to the United States, and of the 805,228 who came to the United States in 1921, 560,971 went through Ellis Island. Processing was not a pleasant experience; in fact, as the man who was commissioner of Ellis Island when Dawson and her brother arrived observed, it was done in a “miserable place.”9

At Ellis Island, immigrants were organized in groups of thirty, that being the maximum number of individuals that could be listed on a single manifest sheet—and a tag, with their name and manifest number, was pinned to their coat. Filing off onto the island, immigrants were greeted by interpreters, who grouped them according to the language they spoke and guided them into the reception building. There were twenty-nine individuals in Dawson's group, all English speakers. Dawson's tag was numbered “73” for her manifest group and “4” for her position in the group. Her brother was one place ahead of her in the line.

Looking at Dawson's group, one finds there were ten domestic servants, seven laborers, three housewives, three tailors, three textile workers, one dressmaker, one teacher, and one student. David and Dawson were the only Scots. There were twenty-one individuals born in Ireland, four in Wales, and two in England. The high number of Irish-born individuals is representative of the second- and third-class passengers aboard the Cedric. A review of the Cedric's manifest from that voyage indicates that there were more than 1,250 immigrants from the British Isles, including more than 940 from Ireland, more than 230 from England, more than 50 from Scotland, and approximately 20 from Wales. The next-highest group was from (p.62) eastern Europe, with more than 300 passengers. The leading countries were Romania with more than 160, Poland with more than 70, and Czechoslovakia with more than 50. Fourteen other countries were represented among the passengers, but none with significant numbers. The large number of Irish-born immigrants reflects the depth of Britain's economic problems and its effect on the country's most disadvantaged workers. Some historians have offered other explanations for migration—adventure, meeting family members, escape from persecution—but when these explanations are examined more closely, economic opportunity almost always remains at least part of the individual motivation. This was certainly the case with the Dawson family.

Three places ahead of Dawson in group 73 was a twenty-one-year-old woman from Rochdale, Mary Doherty, who had been born in Ireland and was traveling alone to meet her mother in Baltimore. It seems reasonable to speculate that Mary and Dawson may have built a friendship on the voyage, even sharing a cabin. Certainly they must have reassured each other as they moved through the U.S. immigration processing procedures, especially during the times when Dawson was separated from her brother. The hours, and sometimes days, spent at Ellis Island were, as many immigrants later noted, “very scary.”10

Inside the giant hall of Ellis Island, its walls of white tile scrubbed clean, new arrivals were divided by gender. They were forced to disrobe and shower while their clothing was fumigated. They were then given a blanket and sent on for medical examinations in which doctors and nurses checked each immigrant's scalp, throat, hands, and neck, looking for infectious diseases. Medical staff members also observed how the immigrants walked with their luggage. Did they limp? Were they weak? Were they easily winded? Finally, their eyes were checked. This was often the worst part of the examination. Doctors might use a buttonhook, hairpin, or a finger to open the new arrival's eyes. They were looking for trachoma, an eye disease that was common in southeastern Europe, but rare in North America. Emigrants who had trachoma were not allowed to enter the United States.11

Aliens who failed these initial medical checks had their clothing marked with chalk and were held in a detention area until they could be given a closer examination. Chalk marks were usually single letters: B indicated a problem with the individual's back, E indicated a concern about their eyes, H meant heart, and Sc was scalp. Women marked with Pg were thought to be pregnant. An X indicated mental retardation and a K inside a circle (p.63) marked the recipient as insane. Immigrants who passed their medical screening, as Ellen Dawson and David Dawson did, were allowed to move forward to the next section of processing.12

In the Registry, information provided by immigrants was checked against the ship's records. Because of rumors that circulated among arriving immigrants about the type of questions asked, this was often one of the most feared parts of the processing. In truth, only a small number of individuals were detained at this point. Here, the two young Dawsons affirmed that they were neither polygamists nor anarchists; that they did not believe in the overthrow of the government of the United States; that they had not been in prison or the poorhouse; and that they had not been previously deported from the United States. These questions were part of a standard list of questions that were asked of millions of immigrants, and were the result of a series of immigration laws intended to limit the number of individuals entering the United States and exclude certain groups considered to be undesirable. These laws began in 1875 with the Page Act, which sought to prevent prostitutes and certain classes of criminals from entering the country. In 1885, the Foran Act prevented employers from hiring workers from abroad (contract workers). In 1891 the exclusionary list was expanded to include “all idiots, insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become a public charge, persons who had been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, [and] polygamists.” And, in 1903, anarchists and persons advocating the overthrow of the American government were added.13

As a young woman, Dawson was also questioned separately by a matron to ascertain her moral character, and to make certain that she was not being lured to the United States to become a prostitute.14 As one immigrant to the United States later recalled, “America was very fussy about who they let in to the country.… No woman could come to America in these days unless she had a sister claiming her or a brother claiming her, but he had to show that he was her brother…because they were afraid of prostitution or whatever it would be, but no girl could come in here without somebody claiming her.”15 On the manifest of the SS Cedric, a handwritten note clearly indicates that Dawson was David's sister. David's daughter, Betty Dawson, recalled her father telling her, “Someone had to meet them [young women and children] so they weren't taken into the white slave traffic.”16

Looking at Ellen Dawson and David Dawson's answers to the final questions on the immigration list highlights the uncertainty with which they (p.64) approached their future in the United States. Unlike the other members of the Dawson family who followed, Dawson and her brother were the only ones who said that they did not intend to become U.S. citizens and that they were uncertain when they might return to Britain. At Ellis Island, someone wrote “six years” above the typed response of “uncertain.” This uncertainty was probably because they did not know what they would find in America, and having recently moved from Scotland to England, only to find the promise of economic opportunity wither before their eyes, they must have had doubts about what the future would bring.

Once they finished with the Registry questions, which normally took about forty-five minutes, and were approved for admission to the United States, they were directed to the currency exchange, where they changed their British currency into dollars.17 Then, with their “Admitted” tickets in hand, Dawson and David moved on to Ellis Island's last room. It was at this moment that the brother and sister, the first contingent of the Dawson family to arrive in America, must have shared a sense of joy and relief at having completed the processing ordeal, mixed with a feeling of anxiety and fear about the new country that opened before them. The final room was called the “Kissing Post,” because it was where new arrivals were finally welcomed by family and friends. This was the point where the two Dawsons knew they had been accepted into the United States, and it was here that they met their cousin, Margaret Curley, the individual who served as their American sponsor.18 Margaret's husband John had emigrated to the United States in 1914 from Paisley.19 The Curleys also sponsored several members of the Halford family.

Thus, on a mild and sunny day, with the temperature in the upper fifties,20 the sister and brother, three thousand miles from their native Scotland, walked onto the ferry and headed for their first home in the United States—207 Randolph Street in Passaic, New Jersey, in the heart of one of America's major textile centers. They had paid for their passage, they had fifty dollars between them, and they had a place to stay. Quickly, Dawson found work on the night shift in a local textile mill, probably at the Botany Mill.21

Three months later, on August 7, 1921, Dawson's twenty-four-year-old brother, Michael Hurle Dawson, became the third member of the family to arrive in the United States. He had made the crossing with two other men from Barrhead, aboard the SS Columbia from Glasgow. Thomas Dougall, a pastry baker, age twenty-three, left his wife at 374 Main Street, a few doors (p.65) down from Dawson's brother Edward. After arriving, he went to Brooklyn, New York, in search of work. The other man was Thomas Robertson,22 a forty-one-year-old iron moulder who lived at 5 Bellefield Street. Given his occupation, Robertson probably worked with Patrick in the Shanks' Foundry. He left his wife in Scotland, searching for employment in Kearney, New Jersey, a few miles south of Passaic.23 Michael Hurle was met by his brother, David, and taken to Passaic.

Although only one member of the Dawson family sailed from Glasgow, the entire family rightfully belongs to the enormous wave of Scottish emigrants who crossed the Atlantic during the early 1920s. According to Marjory Harper, “Between 1921 and 1923 about 100,000 emigrants, primarily from Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire, sailed from the Clyde, most to North America. The United States was fairly well represented, with thirty-four sailings in 1921 [including the one that carried Michael Hurle Dawson] and thirty-seven in 1922, compared with twenty-seven sailings to Canada in 1921 and forty-five the following year. 1923 saw more emigrant departures from Scotland than any other year in the decade.”24

One reason for the decline in emigrants after 1923 was the United States' establishment of an immigration quota system. In 1921 the U.S. Congress passed a law limiting immigrants to 3 percent of people of each nationality already living in the United States. This was based on the 1910 Census. The quota system targeted immigrants from regions outside northern Europe, particularly eastern and southern Europe, Asia, and Africa. As a result, total immigration into the United States dropped from 805,228 in 1921 to 309,556 in 1922. The impact of the new system on Scottish immigrants is debatable. Harper noted that “Scotland had filled its quota [for July 1, 1922, to June 30, 1923] by April 1923 [and] bookings from the Clyde to the United States were suspended until 1 July, when there was an immediate upsurge in activity, with 4,000 leaving in one weekend.”25 Other historians, however, point to the fact that the British quotas went unfilled in the later part of the 1920s.26 The reality may have been that assisted passages and other incentives pulled the majority of Scottish emigrants to Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and the fear of not being allowed into the United States because of the quota system may have caused many Scots to select other destinations. However, the Scottish quota, because of several hundred years of Scottish migration to the United States, was one of the largest.

Meanwhile, back in Millgate, the economic conditions worsened. Patrick's (p.66) health began to decline, the working members of the family had their work hours reduced to half time, and Mary lost more than a month's work when the iron door to the cellar fell on her hand. The family received good reports from America, as Patrick told his son Edward in a letter dated November 7, 1921. Referring to himself as “father,” Patrick wrote that “They are fairly enjoying the country. They say that it is the place to live in comfort if we were all together and that won't be long if father's helth [sic] would improve.…we are fed up some of our family in one place and us in [another], for we have had plenty of that, but it can't be helped it is our luck and we have got to put up with it. Surely thing [sic] will come to our liking soon.”27

Unfortunately, Patrick did not make the journey. He died on June 19, 1922, at 31 Hey's Building in Millgate. He was fifty-three and was working as a wooden box maker. The cause of his death was listed by Dr. J. F. O'Brien as stomach cancer, a disease that can be directly attributed to his work in the Shank's Foundry in Barrhead.28

Death struck twice that summer, because on August 23, 1922, barely two months after Annie lost her husband Patrick, she lost her mother, Ellen Halford, the last of Dawson's grandparents. Ellen Halford died at her home in Newton Place, Nitshill, where she had lived for more than thirty years. She was seventy-seven years old and the cause of death was listed as heart disease.29

With her husband and parents dead, and three of her children already in the United States, Annie Dawson sailed from Liverpool on October 14, 1922, aboard the SS Baltic. Traveling with her were the five youngest children, daughters Anna and Grace, and sons Richard, Joseph, and John.30 David Dawson met Annie and the younger children at Ellis Island, served as their official sponsor, and took them to their first home in the United States, 207 Randolph Street in Passaic. Although there is no official record, it is hard to imagine that, after a separation of more than eighteen months, Dawson did not accompany David to meet the family.

Dawson's two oldest siblings did not make the journey. Edward, her oldest brother, remained in Barrhead with his wife, Margaret. Mary, Dawson's oldest sister, entered a convent in England. According to Mary's niece, the order was either the Sisters of the Poor or the Sisters of Mercy. In later years, Mary moved to the United States and worked as a housekeeper for a priest,31 and Edward and Margaret also joined the family in America in the early 1960s.32


(1.) Patrick Dawson, letter.

(2.) SS Cedric Manifest, May 9, 1921.

(3.) Agnes Schilling, Ellis Island Oral History Project, interview EI-172.

(4.) Betty Dawson, interview.

(5.) Margaret Kirk, Ellis Island Oral History Project, interview EI-440; Harper, 144.

(7.) Coan, 112. Coan's book includes an extensive collection of immigrant interviews. Although these interviews are presented as the actual interviews, Coan finally admits on page xxv that the interviews have been edited—highly edited from my perspective—and that the names of the individuals have been changed to protect the person's privacy. A comparison of the original interview of Agnes Schilling, whom Coan identifies as Marge Glasgow, indicates that the Coan interviews are factually correct, if not actual transcripts. For this reason, I have used his book for the purpose of general information only. I have been very careful not to quote directly from his interviews or use the fictitious names referenced in his book. I think Coan's book is a meaningful contribution for the general reader, though scholars must use it carefully.

(8.) SS Cedric Manifest, May 9, 1921.

(9.) Pamela Reeves, 74, 108, 134.

(10.) SS Cedric Manifest, May 9, 1921; Schilling, Ellis Island Oral History Project, EI-172.

(11.) Tifft, no page numbers; Pamela Reeves, 59; Coan, 42.

(12.) Pamela Reeves, 59.

(13.) Gabaccia, Immigration and American Diversity, 123.

(14.) Tifft.

(15.) McCarthy, “Personal Accounts”; Kirk, Ellis Island Oral History Project, EI-440.

(p.203) (16.) Betty Dawson, interview.

(17.) Ellis Island records indicate that the pair had a total of at least ten pounds, or fifty dollars, in their possession.

(18.) SS Cedric Manifest, May 9, 1921.

(19.) SS Caledonia Manifest, June 22, 1914. The date of Margaret's crossing in unknown.

(20.) New York Times, May 9, 1921.

(21.) Patrick Dawson, letter.

(22.) Whereas the connection between Michael Hurle Dawson and Thomas Dougall seems clear—similar ages, having been neighbors in Barrhead, and being in line together at Ellis Island—the connection with Thomas Robertson is not as clear. Robertson lived in a different part of Barrhead, was older, and was several positions away in the Ellis Island line. Even if the men were not friends before the voyage, it seems highly likely that they met during the journey. It is also possible, being older, that Robertson looked out for the two younger men during the trip.

(23.) SS Columbia Manifest, August 7, 1921.

(24.) Harper, 29.

(26.) McCarthy, “Personal Accounts.”

(27.) Patrick Dawson, letter.

(28.) Whitworth Urban Sanitary Authority, June 30, 1922.

(29.) General Register of Scotland: Deaths 1922.

(30.) SS Baltic Manifest, October 22, 1922.

(31.) Betty Dawson, letter, March 31, 2004.

(32.) Marie Chack, e-mail, May 22, 2003.