Guest Post: The Christmas Southampton Saved the Minho’s 91 Emigrants

Imagine 91 destitute emigrants travelling over 5,000 miles by sea and arriving at Southampton close to Christmas?

That’s exactly what happened 142 years ago when a group of Russian Mennonites arrived in the port on December 9, 1879 after a 20 day journey from Brazil on the 2,500 ton Royal Mail Steam Packet Co ship Minho – and found only kindness and charity from people in the town.

It’s one of Southampton’s least known life and death migrant stories but it touched so many hearts across Great Britain at the time. Attempts to help them return to Russia went to the very top of the British Government including Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury.

Minho’s 91 Volga Germans had been part of the first “Great Mennonite Trek” out of southern Russia in the 1870s. The were opposed to military service and were struggling due to the dwindling grain trade. It was reported they’d left Russia the year before.

The group comprised of 15 German speaking families, all farm labourers. They came from St Marea Couparne, Samara province in Russia and had been lured to Brazil with false promises of good land and fortunes to be made in the Province of Parana.

When they arrived in Southampton with Russian passports hoping to return Samara, where they still had friends and relatives, the Russian Government refused to take responsibility for them.

Minho (formerly Leopold II)

Minho (formerly Leopold II)

On December 12, the Southampton Poor Law Guardians, Southampton Corporation and local MP Sir Frederick Perkins acted swiftly and took the matter to Sir John Lambert at the Local Government Board Offices in Whitehall. On the same day one of the women in the group had given birth to a child and another was “hourly expecting confinement”.

The next day Home Secretary Sir Richard Cross gave permission for the Russians to be temporarily housed in the borough’s disused gaol in Ascupart Street, which had closed the year before. Southampton’s ratepayers had to pay for their keep.

“The rooms formerly occupied by the Gaol’s Governor, the Chaplain and other officers etc have been brought into use, and in passing through the several apartments, each having a large fire burning and lighted with an oil lamp, (the gas fittings cast having been all removed when the Gaol was dismantled) the poor creatures, who were grouped together about a dozen or 15 in each room, look as thankful and as comfortable as possible.

“At night the men sleep in apartments on one side of the corridor, and the women and children on the other. Proper officers are assigned to look after them and the discipline of the workhouse is in all respects carried out,” reported the Hampshire Advertiser.

On Monday December 15 – a service of song was held in the Gaol’s Chapel at which some of the Board of Guardians were present. “It commenced with a short prayer in German, read by Mr Messerli (the interpreter) and then followed a song which appeared to be a thanksgiving to the authorities for the kindness shown to them. Various German melodies were very well rendered, with much heartiness, one of the emigrants accompanying on the clarinet and keeping the rest together, in time and tune. The emigrants seemed delighted with this diversion.”

Plan of the gaol on Ascupart Street, from Southampton City Council's 1870 map of Southampton:

Plan of the gaol on Ascupart Street, from Southampton City Council’s 1870 map of Southampton:

On Christmas day the group were fed by the Poor Law Guardians who gave them some extra fuel for fires. “The Russian emigrants, at their quarters of the old Gaol, were not forgotten. They received a liberal and comforting supply of Irish stew and plum pudding, followed by oranges and tobacco and snuff, the latter being the gift of Messrs Anstie of Devizes, through the medium of Mr S Line of Bernard Street, Southampton.”

On New Year’s Eve it was reported a woman in the group had died at the Southampton Workhouse Infirmary of consumption and another man was seriously ill there. The father of the woman who died said through an interpreter they could find no words to express appreciation of the treatment they had received. They had often heard of the kindness of the English, but never thought it so great.

The Mennonites held a “Lutheran” service on Christmas 12th Night – January 6 1880 – and one of the visitors to the old gaol that day was the brilliant 38-year-old London artist John Jellicoe of the Illustrated London News and the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. He wrote an article for the latter “A Visit to Southampton Gaol” in which described the Russian emigrants feeding at the makeshift refectory and spoke of a mother “listening from a small iron bedstead to the earliest plaints of a healthy baby, born only a few days previously.”

Twelfth Night inside the former gaol at Southampton. Sketch by John Jellicoe. Image from, © Illustrated London News Group.

Twelfth Night inside the former gaol at Southampton. Sketch by John Jellicoe. Image from, © Illustrated London News Group.

He also told how two young boys playing hide and seek in the old gaol “two had unfortunately hidden within the door of the now disused “black hole”, the others in perfect ignorance of their whereabouts incautiously shut it, and the poor little mortals were consequently left for some hours in the darkness, it being impossible to hear their cries due to the thickness of the walls.”

Jellicoe helped buy tobacco for the men and knick-knacks for the women and children. But his wonderful pictures today still speak louder than his words and help tell another small chapter in Southampton’s long history of helping migrants and travellers in distress.

The Mennonites sailed to Hamburg in mid-February 1880. According to John Jellicoe they still had £100 they could put towards the cost of the ship and rail tickets to the Russian frontier and the rest was paid by the Southampton authorities. From the frontier the Mennonites headed back to the Samara province in Russia they came from.

This guest post was written by Lee Desty – @LeeDesty

The emigrants inside the former gaol at Southampton. Sketches by John Jellicoe. Image from, © Illustrated London News Group.

The emigrants inside the former gaol at Southampton. Sketches by John Jellicoe. Image from, © Illustrated London News Group.

Information sourced from contemporary newspapers in the archive on