On the Ships

Married Couples Accommodation in Steerage
For those who travelled to Australia in the nineteenth century, the journey was often long and dangerous passage through some of the world's most treacherous oceans. Most migrants making the voyage to Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century set out unaccustomed to sea travel. In calm weather a sailing ship might take as long as four months, while a well-run clipper ship with favourable winds could make the journey in a little over half this time. These ships represented the pinnacle of sailing ship technology. With their streamlined hulls and acres of sail designed to catch even the slightest breeze, clippers were built primarily for speed. The death toll among passengers squeezed into cramped and uncomfortable steerage berths on clipper ships was often very high.

Awaiting Departure
Emigrants were not allowed on board their ships until the day before, or the actual day of sailing, so this meant that most emigrants usually spent between one and ten days waiting for their ship in a Liverpool lodging house. In the mid-19th century emigrants passing through Liverpool were liable to harassment and fraud by local confidence tricksters, known as 'runners'. Runners frequently snatched the emigrants' luggage and would only return it if the emigrant paid a large fee. In the late 1840s and 1850s, lodging houses were often inhospitable, dirty and overcrowded. In 1851 the Liverpool Port Authority gave serious consideration to building a special emigrant depot close to the Irish steamer terminal at Clarence Dock, with accommodation for 4,000 people at a time. The depot was never built, but one was opened for Australian emigrants at Birkenhead in 1852 . Until the early 1860s most emigrants left Liverpool on a sailing ship. Australia took ten to seventeen weeks (66).
A passenger clipper ship completely constructed of timber in the 1850s 

Life at Sea
Life at sea was uncomfortable and often hazardous, particularly for passengers who travelled cheaply in 'steerage' (the lowest deck and below the water line). Cramped and unhygienic quarters became worse when tremendous storms were encountered in the Southern Ocean. At such times, all passengers were confined below deck for days, sick and tossed around, often in complete darkness, and fearing for their lives.(63) Hygiene was poor at the best of times and worse in bad weather. 'Batten-down the hatches' meant passengers on the lowest deck were confined without ventilation or light in conditions that were ideal for the spread of disease. The use of candles or oil lanterns was restricted and sometimes forbidden— cramped conditions with timber, straw mattresses, hemp (rope) and tar caulking, meant a fire could spread with terrifying speed. A disaster at sea or shipwreck on the coast left little hope for rescue—few sailors or passengers could swim, and there were rarely enough life-boats for the numbers on board.(64). Assisted emigrants, or 'steerage passengers', were housed in the lower decks, with only paying passengers living in the upper deck area. Married couples and children under 14 in steerage were in the centre of the lower decks, with the single women and girls in the 'after-berths', and the single males and boys in the 'fore part' of the ship. This would have meant that any eldest children were unlikely to have been with their parents during the journey, apart from seeing them on the upper deck during the day. 

Deaths at sea were tragically common. As many as one in five children, and one in 60 adults died on the voyage to Australia. For the burial, the body was sewn into a piece of canvas or placed in a rough coffin, often hastily knocked up by the ship's carpenter, and weighed down with pig iron or lead to help it sink.

Water kept in wooden barrels would become very stale after a few months. Rats and mice would fall into the open barrels and drown, and algae would grow in the barrels and make people violently ill. The link between cholera and contaminated drinking water was not discovered until 1848, but even after this, ships continued to draw water from polluted rivers in ports that they visited.

To feed the sailors and passengers, stores were kept in the hold and opened as needed by the cooks. Stores such as pickled meat (pork or beef in brine) flour, sugar and dried pulses (peas) were kept on board in wooden barrels. These barrels were usually fitted with lids, but were often kept open overnight. The stores could be raided by hungry rats and mice, leaving traces from their nocturnal visits, and the grain and flour stores were often infested with weevils. Adulterated food and water caused diseases like dysentery to be commonplace, resulting in many deaths on some voyages.Vinegar and chloride of lime were used to wash the wooden floors and decks of the ships, as fresh water was reserved for drinking and cooking. Cleaning with vinegar helped prevent the spread of disease and made the ship smell better. It also removed the vomit of people suffering from sea-sickness and other diseases (63).

Most ships provided only basic toilet and bathing facilities. Authorities complained that even these were under used and the sailors often had to wash the upper decks which passengers used as open-air toilets. Some steerage passengers had never used a privy or a water closet before. Buckets of water were used to flush contents down to the bilges [under steerage], which were emptied when the ship finally docked at port.

The toileting process became much worse in storms, or during the night, when passengers in steerage were locked in and no lights were allowed.

On better managed ships, the areas below deck were thoroughly cleaned every few days by sailors and many of the women in steerage. Bedding which was usually made of straw, attracted fleas and cockroaches. People brought up their bedding in fine weather to shake it out and air it. However, in storms and bad weather, the bedding was often soaked through and this led to outbreaks of influenza and pneumonia. In the over crowded conditions in steerage, epidemics were common. Most victims were babies and young children, who often died of complications and lack of medical care. Infected passengers often came on board, having passed undetected through pre-boarding medical checks. Tuberculosis, an infectious disease of the lungs, was one of the most dangerous diseases. The sleeping berths were disinfected as often as possible, using a mixture of vinegar and chloride of lime. But often the cracks in the wooden slats of the bunks harbored lice, cockroaches and fleas. It was not uncommon for rats or mice to be found in the beds and bedding.

"Our water barrels were rolling from side to side and our cans, teapots and cooking utensils were adding to the confusion by bouncing one after the other down the area between the bunks. Some of the young ladies [were] screaming and some tried to climb up the hatchways screaming to the officers to let them out."
— Anne Grafton migrated from England in 1858
"It is enough to pitch my insides out. It's all up to me. I am not able to stir. The doctor can give me no relief, but at that I am not surprised. He is very young, never been to sea and is just as ill as all the other people."
— William Merrifield, Lincolnshire in 1858.
"Obituary: On Thursday last, died at her residence on deck after a lingering illness, 'the cow'. The doctor has not given any official report of the complaint under which the patient suffered. We believe however, it was from general disabilities caused by the exhausting process carried on for some time, which while it made our tea more palatable, and the babies more chubby, tended to bring the generous creature to a rapid death. RIP."
— Ships newspaper, The Champion of the Seas Times, No. 11. Monday, September 24, 1855

"We were just wondering how long the storm would last and sending up a silent prayer for protection when crash went something on deck, and the water swept over the decks and down in the cabin, we gave ourselves up for lost and the people rushed out of their cabins looking terrified. Ma sat quite calm, I looked at her and could see her lips moving, she was pale as death and so was Papa, we did not know what had been the matter, some thought it was the cookhouse washed away but one of the passengers who is a Sea Captain went on deck and came and said it was only a little bit of the flimsy part of the bulwarks gone, the hatching had broken open in the second class cabin and they were almost able to bathe, as the water then had come in, they all had to get to work baling out, all hands were called up, even the waiters had to start baling water out of the saloon as there in some parts it was a foot deep, the windows were all smashed and the things were all floating, we in our cabin fared the best, as we had not much in comparison".
— Storm on a Steam Vessel, Diary: October 1874
Shipping Advertisement 1851

Practical Hints for Emigrants