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Since the latter part of the 18th century, there have been many emigrants from the poor rural areas in Switzerland. The remote and confined Poschiavo valley did not contain sufficient resources to support an expanding population, and so there was little option but for some to seek life elsewhere. Many went to other European countries, but from about 1830 onwards, it became possible to go far away, to America and Australia, despite the difficulties of such a journey in those days. Many Poschiavini chose to do this, and in our family, Federico Marchesi was the first to emigrate to Australia, followed by three of his brothers. The last of these - Adolfo - remained there, and you can find his descendants through this website.

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Swiss Emigrants

After the Napoleonic era, Switzerland was one of the poorest countries in Europe, especially in rural areas. As a result, many Swiss saw no alternative but to emigrate to countries including France, Spain, Russia, and during the nineteenth century, Australia, America and Great Britain.

The small and enclosed Poschiavo valley could only support a limited population and many young people had to go abroad to find work. The impact on those left at home was sometimes traumatic, for the emigrants were venturing far away from their traditional life and values. They might never see their families again, although some did return in their later years, bringing home the prosperity they had achieved. The “Spanish Houses” in Poschiavo were built by emigrants who had made their fortunes in Spain.

Some members of the Marchesi family no doubt went to various European countries and subsequently to America. We know certain Marchesi went to Australia and later to United Kingdom, and we therefore provide information about these ancestors.

Swiss emigrants most often sailed to Australia via UK, France, or Hamburg, often on British vessels, as trade with Australia was common from these ports. It is recorded that between 1854 and 1856, over 2000 young men left Ticino, Switzerland in the hope of finding gold and many Poschiavini also arrived around this time. We know that some early emigrants travelled to Hamburg, thence to Hull, and by rail to Liverpool, taking about 14 days for this journey.


The Barque "Ocean Pride" 1865, a typical vessel of the period, that would have sailed from Europe to Australia.
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The Australian Gold Rush.

The first Swiss settlers arrived in Sydney, Australia in 1833, and many more followed when gold was discovered. Most came through the Port Philip District of New South Wales, into an area occupied by Aborigines who were ruthlessly pushed off their tribal lands as new settlers took up land for farming or mining.

Settlement at Melbourne, named after the Prime Minister of England, commenced in 1835, on the shore of Port Phillip Bay. It was virtually a wild-west town with muddy streets and rough living conditions but it grew quickly, and in 1851 the area was separated from New South Wales and was declared to be a new colony named after Queen Victoria. In that year, gold was discovered near Ballarat and at Bendigo Creek, and people poured in from all over the world. The discovery of gold accelerated the abolition of convict transportation to Australia. Early diggings were often worked with crude tools such as picks and pans until the surface gold was depleted. More advanced forms of mining such as large scale dredging, hydraulic sluicing and hard rock mining then began.

Most able-bodied men were off at the gold diggings, but many others provided supplies or services to the miners, often making more money with much less risk! Victoria contributed more than one third of the world's gold output in the 1850s and in just two years the State's population had grown from 77,000 to 540,000 - 45 per cent of the Australian population. Adventurers arrived from all around the world and including many British, as well as Americans, French, Italian, German, Polish and Hungarian exiles, and Chinese. Tension in the goldfields was often high and there were clashes between the various races and also with the authorities over the licensing system and police corruption. The 1850s also saw the operation of the first railway and the first telegraphs.

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Travelling on-board the emigrant ships.

Travel from the Poschiavo valley became much easier when the railway opened in the very early years of the twentieth century. Before that, journeys were much slower and more difficult, being by horse-drawn coach or sleigh, or even mule. (See Photo Album). Thus, to emigrate to Australia or America was a major undertaking. The Suez canal did not open until 1869, and earlier voyages would have been across the Atlantic ocean via the Azores, through the “Roaring Forties” around South America, and then across the southern Pacific ocean. The strong winds in these latitudes carried the ships with greater speed but more danger.

These voyages undertaken by our ancestors during the mid to late 19th century have often been so romanticized that people today have little sense of the trials and hardships they suffered. In order to reach a port in Europe from Poschiavo, a journey by coach lasting several days would be necessary. At this time, many of the ships would be powered by steam and sail, with tonnages of 600 to 2,500 and the larger ones would carry a crew of 25 and up to 600 passengers. The voyage took about 2½ months and the vast majority of passengers had never seen a vessel of that size let alone undertaken a voyage on one. Many hoped for a better life in a new land across the sea, but the wretched conditions on board ship sometimes meant that some never reached their destination.

The ships were very cramped and much of the available space was jammed with cargo as well as a few live animals, to provide fresh meat during the voyage. Each family was allocated tiny living quarters, sometimes only divided from their neighbours by a canvas curtain. Fresh air was ducted in from above or through small portholes which, in rough weather also allowed in salt water. Imagine the lower deck about 40 x 10 metres. The bunks were about 1 metre wide and one above the other. There were bench seats, and the dinner tables were pulled up under the deck above to allow more floor space when not needed for meals. When heavy seas were running - almost every day and night - everything was rolling around.

Immigrant ship below decks.

In good weather, it was much easier for passengers to exercise on deck, but when stormy conditions prevailed, the ships were ill-equipped for emergencies. Passengers could be victims of poor food, damp conditions and illness. Deaths occurred from illnesses such as typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diarrhoea, and scarlet fever. Illnesses were exacerbated by the damp and cold conditions of the Roaring Forties or the sapping heat of the tropics. Many families consisted of six to ten children, and each ship carried men and women who were ill, homesick and nursing some of their families.

While the Captain was responsible for his ship and its crew, the Ship’s Surgeon watched over conduct, morals, behaviour, and health of passengers. He would appoint a Matron to govern the single women and two or three Constables to keep order, distribute food and other supplies.

Whilst most emigrants travelled willingly and in hope of achieving a better life, they had also torn themselves away from their country, family, and friends and were anxious about their future. It is understandable that boredom and anxiety took their toll on these long voyages, and those left at home were also worried. However, it is recorded that 54 young men emigrated from Prada near Poschiavo, leaving only 3 behind, who were able to choose their life companions from 50 young ladies!

Here are two of the ships which our ancestors travelled on:

ss Somersetshire

Tomaso Marchesi sailed on this ship. It was built at Blackwall on the Thames as the company's second auxiliary steamer for the Australian trade and launched in 1867. She was a barque, with a service speed of 9 knots, and 2342 registered tonnage. A ‘barque’ has at least 3 masts, all of which have square sails except the mizzen (aft) mast. She could carry 363 passengers, and the greatest number recorded for a voyage was 287, arriving in December 1871. Somersetshire replaced the " London", which sank after foundering in the Bay of Biscay with the loss of 230 lives on only her third voyage to Australia.

The "Somersetshire" was the first steamer in the Australian trade to be equipped with more efficient compound steam engines, and one of the first steamers to establish a regular direct service from London to Melbourne, averaging under 60 days on the run from Plymouth to Melbourne. On early voyages she worked outwards via the Cape of Good Hope, with occasional calls at Cape Town, and returned via Cape Horn. Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, return voyages were made via Suez. She was withdrawn after making a final voyage for her original owners in July 1880, although two subsequent voyages were possibly made from Liverpool under different ownership, before she was sold in 1885 for conversion into the sailing vessel “Prince Edward.”

durham.jpg (31907 bytes)

ss Durham

Salvatore Adolfo Marchesi sailed on this ship which arrived in Melbourne on 28 March 1876. She was built and registered in London in 1871 by Wigram's at Blackwall. She was an iron single screw barque, with a gross tonnage of 2,289 tons, propelled by a 300 horsepower steam engine. Her dimensions were, 286ft long and 39ft beam. Her master was Captain F. Anderson. In 1880 she did two return voyages to Lyttleton via the Cape of Good Hope from London, for Shaw Savill & Co. who later became Shaw Savill & Albion.

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Emigrants to England including Federico Marchesi.  

One of the first Poschiavini in England was Antonio Fanconi in 1850, followed by Giovanni Compagnoni, a pastrycook who had learned his art in France. Perhaps the most important however, was Hans Semadeni, who had worked in Italy and Australia. After a short time in London familiarizing himself with language and customs, he established what became a very successful pasticceria at Brighton. In the twenty years from 1868 to the 1888, more than three hundred Poschiavini came to England and Scotland. Semadeni himself had directly assisted forty of his compatriots, and so he may perhaps justifiably be regarded as the father of the emigration to England. Swiss Café’s opened in many towns along the South Coast particularly, and became very well known amongst the gentry for their fine pastries.

Federico Marchesi (1839 – 1922), was the eldest son of Giuseppe and Anna Maria Marchesi (née Gaigher). He went to Australia to seek his fortune, marrying an Australian lady Elizabeth Claxton. Three of his brothers followed him, but they all returned to Switzerland in due course, except Salvatore Adolfo (known as ‘Dolf’) who remained in Bendigo, near Melbourne, marrying Elizabeth Ann Hester.

From ships passenger lists published on the web, and also from papers found in San Carlo, we can be almost certain that the following details refer to our ancestors: -

MARTHESI FREDR arrived Melbourne, 18 May 1858 on SS SCOTTISH CHIEF. MARCHESI GIUSEPPE arrived Melbourne, 21 Jan 1861 on SS MORNING LIGHT. MARCHESE TOMASO arrived Melbourne, 21 Mar 1873 on SS SOMERSETSHIRE. MARCHISI ADOLFO arrived Melbourne, 28 Mar 1876 on SS DURHAM.

Although there are spelling mistakes, other well known names from Poschiavo including Cortesi, Beti, Dorizzi, Crameri, Lanfranchi, Giuliani, Bontognali, appear on the lists, thus indicating that groups of Poschiavini travelled together. Details such as ages don't always match on the lists but this might be because the writer did not understand the passenger correctly, the passenger wanted to look "more adult", or the handwriting was misinterpreted when the transcription and indexing were made. We are 95% sure that Federico was on the Scottish Chief, the exact dates for this voyage from Liverpool to Melbourne being 06.02.1858 - 10.05.1858. The other ships were all from British ports to Victoria, and whilst some details have been traced, further sources of information would be wlecome. We cannot trace paintings or prints of the Scottish Chief or Morning Light.

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