THE show Human Cargo is a collaboration between Matthew Crampton and Jeff Warner. It is based on Crampton’s book Human Cargo: Songs & Stories of Emigration, Slavery & Transportation and aims to highlight the stories of past emigrants, slaves and transportees, at the same time as shining a light on today’s migrations.

Through the accompanying Parallel Lives project, it includes – wherever it is performed – local stories of migration in partnership with refugee and migrant support groups in the area. Matthew says: “History usually tells of the rich, the famous and the lucky. But what of ordinary people? Folksong helps give them a voice.”

Human Cargo is an evening of story and song which sees Matthew tell true tales of individuals forced into exile in the 18th and 19th Centuries. He weaves these stories through a tapestry of traditional folksong from the time performed by Jeff – one of America’s foremost interpreters of traditional music, well loved for connecting 21st Century audiences with the everyday lives of people from past centuries.

Born to one of America’s most eminent families of folksong collectors, Jeff grew up listening to the songs and stories of his father Frank Warner and the traditional singers his parents met during their collecting trips through rural America.

Matthew and Jeff will perform Human Cargo in Gosforth tonight, and will tell 19th Century tales of migration and transportation from Newcastle. “I hunt through original passenger lists from 18th and 19th Century ships to find people who’ve migrated from that very town,” says Matthew. “In parallel, I talk of people who’ve come to live there in recent decades.”

Parallels with today are clear. “Mass migration is a defining dilemma for the world,” he says. “Giving it an historic perspective can detoxify the debate. Adding local stories helps people find their own place in the story.”

Through the Parallel Lives project, Matthew has formed links with 45 different refugee and migrant support groups.

He says: “There’s an incredible array of local initiatives across Britain – individuals who get together and say, we must help refugees who arrive in our town.”

North-East migration stories

ORIGINALLY from Londonderry, Ralph Hush moved as a child with his parents and four siblings to a farm near Crookham, Northumberland. He became a shepherd. In August 1819, the Newcastle Assizes heard a complex case involving Hush. He was accused of stealing 20 ewes and 20 lambs to fill gaps in the flock he tended, for, it was pointed out, “he had made free with his master’s sheep” and needed to cover his tracks.

The complexity came from identifying which sheep belonged to whom, and several shepherds took the stand to give evidence. Hush was found guilty and sentenced to death. This was commuted to transportation for life.

The next Spring he endured a 114 day voyage to Sydney where he was sent straight to work on a farm at Wingacarribee. Meanwhile his wife Margaret and four children were left in Northumberland. She did an unusual thing. She petitioned to join her husband as a free settler. Word was sent to Australia and, amazingly, word came back from the farm at Wingacarribee, saying Hush was a good man, deserving of being reunited with his family. Margaret and the children sailed out in 1823.

Though unchained, their journey would still have been extremely uncomfortable. Ralph was freed very early from his life sentence. He later became a local magistrate. His marriage to Margaret lasted 52 years.

ROBERT MARTINSON was a junior cashier for the Northumberland and Durham Bank in Newcastle. He was also a cricketer, who played regularly for Northumberland against an All England Eleven. Aged 32, he was married with four sons, and another child on the way.

So what possessed him, in 1855, to steal £4,264 from his employers, desert his family and board a steamer in Southampton for America? We don’t know. But we do know that the law caught up with him on that ship.

He was arrested and stood trial in Newcastle in December that year, where he was sentenced to 14 years transportation and sent to Western Australia. Within six years he had a conditional pardon. The last we hear of him, Robert worked as an auditor for the Freemantle Mechanics Institute.

Human Cargo plays at Gosforth Civic Theatre tonight. Doors open 7.30pm. Tickets: £12/£8/£3. Box Office 0191 284 3700.