A goodly number of our former pupils have wended their way to the Antipodes for new lives. Going from the UK to Australia or New Zealand is a well-established global passage. Indeed, the vast majority of websites concentrate on the emigration routes from UK. But this post is actually looking at the reverse trend, so to speak. At least eight of our former pupils between 1857 and 1905 were born in Australia and made their way to UK as very young children.
Today’s transoceanic travel is comparatively a piece of cake. Nineteenth century sailing to and from Australia was gambling with one’s life a lot of the time. To those of us used to rolling up at an airport and boarding a flight; sitting back and relaxing, even if for a goodly time, being fed regularly, using on board conveniences; then landing, through customs and out to perhaps a holiday or a new life, or to visit relatives not seen for a few years, it is quite eye-popping discovering what travel was like for some of our earlier pupils.
For a start off, “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.” https://museumsvictoria.com.au/longform/journeys-to-australia/ Compared with that, almost 24 hours cooped up in cattle-class is a doddle! The sailing equivalent of cattle-class – steerage – was below the water line but the Southern ocean storms they might encounter were not their only problems. “Hygiene was poor at the best of times and worse in bad weather” (ibid) so in stormy weather, the order ‘batten down the hatches’ went out. And this meant that the steerage passengers were locked in without ventilation or light for the duration of the storm. Candles or oil lanterns were forbidden because of the danger of fire:
“… cramped conditions with timber, straw mattresses, hemp (rope) and tar caulking, meant a fire could spread with terrifying speed” (ibid)
Fire at sea is the mariner’s worst nightmare and, as few could swim and there were nowhere near enough lifeboats, a shipwreck left little chance of rescue. The conditions in steerage during a storm, with many people crammed together, no toilet facilities and the inevitable seasickness, must have been horrifying and doesn’t bear thinking about it. So perhaps we won’t. Think about it, I mean. Oh no – too late, the image is there …
Vinegar and chloride of lime were used to wash the decks of the ships, as fresh water was reserved for drinking and cooking. The vinegar helped prevent the spread of disease, although the understanding of why was not yet there, and, if nothing else, it made the ship smell better. Relatively.
On better managed ships, the areas below deck were thoroughly cleaned every few days by sailors and the women in steerage. Most ships provided only basic toilet and bathing facilities.
The illustration indicates all too clearly the lack of privacy and may not have been available to ladies at all! Bathing was not normally a regular occurrence as the connection between personal hygiene and disease was little understood at the time. Most made do with a clean-up with a damp cloth under a blanket.
Straw bedding attracted fleas and cockroaches so people laid out their bedding in fine weather to air it. During storms, though, the bedding could get – and stay – soaking wet and this added to the problems with outbreaks of influenza and pneumonia.
Facilities for washing clothes were very restricted so many passengers wore the same clothes throughout the voyage. This, added to the stink emanating from the bilges below steerage, and given the increase in heat in the tropics, probably meant that the ship’s imminent arrival in port was announced by the wind rather than by any sightings from land!
The first steam ships made the journey to Australia in 1852 but these early steamers also had sails as their engines were inefficient and there were no coal depots mid-ocean for re-fuelling and actually few coaling ports en route.
The introduction of more efficient compound steam engines and iron, rather than wooden, hulls, enabled a voyage to be completed entirely under steam power. This was from the 1860s onwards but it was not until the 1880s that they became the transport of choice for emigrants. Because these ships did not have to rely on wind power and could travel at a constant speed, and the motive power could also provide electric lighting, refrigeration and ventilation, they could provide more comfort for passengers.
‘Grand saloons were able to be provided for first class passengers, and small cabins instead of sleeping berths were provided in steerage class.’ (ibid)
So accommodation such as above began to give way to smaller cabins for significantly fewer people! A diary of a journey made in 1874, read across the grain, shows how accommodation had improved.
the hatching had broken open in the second class cabin and they … all had to get to work baling … water out of the saloon (Diary of Ally Heathcote, England to Melbourne, Victoria, Onboard ‘SS Northumberland’, 1874) https://museumsvictoria.com.au/longform/journeys-to-australia/ [my emphasis]
London to Perth is just a smidgen over 9000 miles with Sydney another 1500 miles further on. So that’s 10.5 thousand miles for things to go wrong. Great storms, gigantic icebergs, danger of shipwreck were some external factors but death from dysentery or typhus from the insanitary conditions and mediocre medical treatment at best added to the dangers.
“Deaths at sea were tragically common. As many as one in five children, and one in 60 adults died on the voyage to Australia” (ibid)
Conditions improved as the ships got larger. The Orient, launched in 1879, was the largest steamship built for the Australia route. It offered comforts unheard of for the period, including a promenade deck, refrigeration, and later, electric lighting.
Amongst other things was an ice-making plant. Horses were stabled on the rear deck and pigs, sheep and cows were in cages. These were not intended for a new life in another country because they were converted into pork, lamb and beef for diners in first-class!
‘The first-class saloon was fitted out with ornate brass furniture and elaborate wooden carvings, whilst the music saloon boasted a grand piano and an organ amidst profusely growing ferns and dracaenas.’ (ibid)
In 1884, she was retired to the Falkland Islands and used as a warehouse and coal hulk before being scuttled in 1937. But as those who have visited Bristol will know, this was not her end. In 1970, Sir Jack Arnold Hayward, OBE paid for the vessel to be raised, towed back to the United Kingdom, and returned to the Bristol dry dock where she had been built. And where she can be visited to gain an idea of what life on board might have been.
And none of this takes into account something that hasn’t changed – even today. The decision to leave one country for a new life far away brings the emotional issue of having to say goodbye to home and loved ones.
‘… people were very conscious of the fact that they would probably never see their friends and relatives again.’ (https://museumsvictoria.com.au/longform/journeys-to-australia/)
All in all, it was not a voyage undertaken lightly. Nonetheless, eight of our pupils did undertake it, some more than once.
Elizabeth Minnie Lumley b 1857; Florence Hopkins, 1868; May Vockins 1884; Florence Webb 1886; Amy Margaret d’Arcy Sugden, 1894; Marjorie Gimblette, 1899 and Annie & Ethel Hewer in 1903 & 1905 respectively were all born in Australia and became pupils in London.
Just to offer some balance, Emma Amelia Humphreys (1829) and Margaret Humphries (1836), both former pupils, went to Australia before any of the above were born. Emma and Margaret, despite the different spellings, do appear to be sisters! They would definitely have travelled by sailing ship because their emigration occurred before steam ships were in use. The individual stories of these travellers must await another day.
All aboard who’s going aboard, please!