Local tour guide Godfrey Collyer takes a look at the when almost a hundred Russians occupied an old Southampton prison.

In the early 18th Century half a million Germans emigrated to Russia where they became Russian citizens but retained their German language.

Times became difficult 150 years later and they sought new lives elsewhere.

Some were persuaded to emigrate to Brazil with the promise of good land near Parana but the land was poor and infested with white ants which destroyed their crops. Many of them became impoverished and decided to return to Russia.

Arrival in Southampton


On December 9, 1879, the steamer Minho arrived in Southampton from Rio de Janeiro with 91 starving Russian settlers aboard. They wanted to continue to Antwerp but had no money and so had to leave the ship.

They consisted of 15 Lutheran families all of whom were farm labourers and being of German extraction they spoke only German. Through an interpreter they were able to explain that they wanted to return to Russia.



The immediate problem for the Southampton Board of Guardians was to house and feed them. They were temporarily accommodated in the town hall while negotiations were started with the Russians to accept them but the Russian Ambassador refused to help considering them to be Brazilian nationals. Neither would the German government accept them.

At the same time representations were made to British government ministers for financial aid and permission to use the former prison in Ascupart Street, which had closed a year earlier, for temporary accommodation.

A sub-committee of the Board of Guardians was appointed to oversee the care of the Russians and this included the Port Sanitary Officer as well as Mr Lungley who had extensive experience of making arrangements for people migrating to Australia.

The Russians moved into the old prison on December 11, and were accommodated in the rooms formerly occupied by the Governor, Chaplain and other officers.

Oil lamps were provided as the gas fittings had been removed and warm fires were lit in the quarters. At night the men slept on one side of the corridor and the women and children on the other.

One very sick woman was moved to the workhouse in St Mary Street where she subsequently died.

Food and regime


The regime and the food provided was identical to that of the workhouse but this did not extend to providing cutlery as one visitor explained having witnessed the poor souls having to eat their meal of potatoes and gravy with bare hands.

The same visitor witnessed the children being taught from a primer, the floors being cleaned by the women and the men employed in useful work.

While the families were free to move around the prison, they were not allowed to leave its confines.

A detective D F Hunt and Mr Messerli, a translator, were placed in overall charge of the families. Being Lutherans they celebrated Christmas Day on the January 6, when Mr Messerli led them in worship and singing accompanied by a young girl on a clarinet.

Meanwhile, negotiations had been going on at government level with Russia and Germany to have the families repatriated and it was agreed that they could sail to Hamburg aboard the Gannet leaving London on February 1, and travel overland to Russia by train.



On the morning of their departure the families had composed a detailed letter of thanks to the people of Southampton for their kindness and especially mentioned the kindness shown by Mr Lungley, Mr and Mrs Messerli and Detective Hunt.

With everyone assembled the women were presented with new scarves, the children with warm blankets and the men a supply of tobacco. With food for the journey also provided they walked to the railway terminus for the 11.20am London train.

They were accompanied all the way to the Russian Border by Mr Lungley and Mr Messerli.

Mr Lungley was told by the Chairman of the Local Government board that the clerk to the Board of Guardians should present an account of the costs incurred and that this would be repaid. The cost of the Russians' repatriation and hospitality in Southampton was in excess of £500.

By Godfrey Collyer, tour guide with SeeSouthampton.co.uk