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  • The Ne’er-do-well:Representing the Dysfunctional Migrant Mind, New Zealand 1850–1910
  • Jennifer Kain (bio)

In 1886 two committee members from the newly established British Emigrants’ Information Office (EIO) visited Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. Walter Hazell’s and Howard Hodgkin’s four-month tour had a particular purpose. As representatives of an office created to promote opportunities in the British colonies, they visited Australasia to report on the region’s suitability as an emigration field. Part of their remit was identifying the characteristics which denoted fit and unfit migrants. This task, Hazell and Hodgkin conceded, was challenging. And yet, while they reported it was difficult to detail all the qualities that made a colonist successful, they were adamant that one type would fail (Australasian Colonies 51–52). They described this group as the so-called ne’er-do-wells, typically young men lacking in character and sent out by their parents or clergymen to reform their ways. Conversely, the representatives of the EIO explained, the peculiar conditions of colonial life, combined with the absence of home restraints, would only “serve to hasten the ne’er-do-well’s downward path” (56). Sympathetic to the existing immigration restrictions through which the colonies declined to receive lunatics and the infectiously diseased, Hazell and Hodgkin suggested that the rejection of the ne’er-do-well was equally justified. They had found this type particularly resented in New Zealand where the recruitment drives of the 1870s had imported many of the now unemployed. Across the colonies these “ingrained bad characters” were feared for their “moral contamination,” therefore, “no matter what station in life the scapegrace may be,” they were not wanted (52–53).

This article seeks to investigate how and why the ne’er-do-well came to represent this so-called moral contamination. This approach situates the term as a label used to denote the borderline between those perceived as mad and sane. Hazell and Hodgkin were not unique in advocating the exclusion of the ne’er-do-well. Through investigating the provenance, ubiquity, and longevity of this label, it is possible to show how the ne’er-do-well became so maligned in colonial discourse about immigrants in the [End Page 75] nineteenth and early twentieth century. And yet, in a modern day context, the term has lost its connotation of a dysfunctional state of mind. The Oxford Dictionary of English offers the following non-gender specific definitions: A ne’er-do-well is a lazy and irresponsible person, and a scapegrace is mischievous or wayward (“Ne’er-do-well”; “Scapegrace”). Nineteenth-century British usage similarly reflected the behavioral or character connotations of the term ne’er-do-well, -weel, or -weal. In 1832 the Chambers Edinburgh Journal described how the Scottish term ne’er-do-weel was applied to those who never did well in life due to their unfavorable qualities (“The Ne-er Do Weel”). This variant was likewise used in northern England to describe men of rather doubtful respectability (“Wants, Wishes and Whims”). In a nineteenth-century colonial context the term ne’er-do-well, or its regional variations ne’er-do-weel, or ne’er-do-weal, was, like the migrants themselves, imported from Britain. In the Australasian regions its gendered connotation evolved into a more sinister meaning. Colonists feared that left unchecked, these apparently dysfunctional young men, who typically engaged with drinking, gambling and fraud, were a threat to the natural order of their ideal societies (Fairburn 61). By using a specific case study of a colony which prided itself on being built on the best of British—New Zealand—this article shows how moral judgments about abnormal behaviors translated into political policy making.

In order to position the ne’er-do-well as the antithesis to the immigrants sought for their sound minds and bodies, this article examines the evolving contemporary use of the term. This approach will show how, in the context of immigration, the label came to represent a dysfunctional state of mind. By analyzing the views expressed by advocates of emigration, such as journalists, clergymen, medics, and politicians, it is possible to show how the label ne’er-do-well...


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