Life on board

During the latter part of the eighteenth century many thousands of people left the UK for a life overseas. Most of them went to the new “colonies” in America and Canada. Many left of their own accord but others were forced to leave, particularly those from Scotland as a result of the Highland Clearances. 

As the nineteenth century progressed migrants ventured further afield to Australia and New Zealand. Initially Australia had been a penal colony but through time many made the journey as settlers. Those that went to New Zealand went of their own accord. Two of the early ships which sailed in 1847 were the “Philip Laing”, 459 tons which sailed from Glasgow and the “John Wickliffe”, 662 tons sailing from Gravesend. Both encountered bad weather shortly leaving port and they had to take shelter until better weather came. The “John Wickliffe” eventually sailed from Plymouth on 14th December and after a good passage arrived 100 days later in Port Chalmers close to Dunedin.

Several passengers on these early ships kept diaries and some have been preserved and are either held in archives or by descendants. A diary about the “Philip Laing’s” voyage makes frequent reference to the vessel’s speed. Her best day’s run was 216 miles with an average speed of just over 9 knots. By comparison with today this is pitifully slow but of course these were sailing vessels which had to find favourable winds in order to make good progress.

Thomas Ferens, a Durham born Methodist preacher was one of those on board the “John Wickliffe”. His diary has been preserved in an archive. He records that after several false starts due to severe gales they finally left Plymouth on 14th December and crossed the Equator a month later. The ship picked up the south east trade winds and made good progress for the following few weeks until 12th February when a severe gale and heavy seas took hold. Nevertheless despite these conditions the ship one day managed an average speed of 14 knots. Several icebergs were sighted. In order to find the trade winds the ship went as far south as 50 degrees which is almost as far south as Cape Horn. Cold stormy weather with heavy seas persisted until early March, however, after passing Stewart Island 20 miles off the southern coast of South Island, the ship made good progress and arrived in Port Chalmers on 23rd March 1848.

Those who made the hazardous journey in all likelihood had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. Many had never been to the coast before or perhaps had never ventured out of their village. A promise of a better life beckoned and thousands made the journey to the other side of the world. The prospect of three months on board vessels which were much smaller even than some of the super yachts owned by today’s oligarchs is, to us, considered unthinkable. However, to our Victorian ancestors this was the only way of getting there.

The vast majority of the emigrants would never set foot in the Mother Country ever again. They had had to say goodbye to their loved ones with little chance of seeing them in the future. Living conditions on board left a lot to be desired. The “John Wickliffe” was the store ship of the early expedition and therefore in addition to its human cargo of 97 it carried thousands of bricks and slates and all the necessary materials needed by the tradesmen who would be building the new communities.

Conditions certainly were cramped; each family was allocated tiny living quarters. Privacy, or lack of it, meant that they were only hidden from their neighbours by a simple curtain strung over a wire. Portholes provided fresh air but if the weather was bad they had to be shut to prevent water getting in. Even the hatches to the emigrants’ quarters were sometimes battened down during storms.

In true Victorian tradition the sexes were separated. Single men were in the bow section, while single women were in the stern with families in between. Single passengers were not permitted to inter mingle and certainly crew members were not allowed to fraternise with the single women. It has been recorded that at night on some ships the single womens’ accommodation was locked!

Damp conditions, lack of space and poor food meant that illness was able to spread quite easily. A health check was undertaken prior to sailing, however some passengers neglected to inform doctors of illnesses yet boarded the ships. Most ships had a qualified doctor on board who was responsible for not only the health and nutrition of everyone but also their conduct, morals and behaviour. The doctor was often given a fixed amount as payment for his services. He would also receive a bonus for each immigrant safely landed. Dr Motherwell, the surgeon on board the barque “Birman” which arrived in Wellington on 1stMarch 1842 received £84.11.8 for landing 169 adults plus a bonus of £50 and a further £1 for each of the five children born during the voyage. £1 was deducted for each death, there were twelve, so the good doctor received £127.11.8!

Living in such confined spaces meant that personal hygiene was difficult to maintain. Thomas Ferens, who was mentioned earlier, noted in his diary that “I was sick today from an unpleasant effluvia from a capsized W.C.”. Thomas was 25 when he made this journey and lived in New Zealand until his death 40 years later in 1888. Things had not improved much by 1858 when the Rev. Charles Alabaster made his journey on the “Strathallan”. “Both W.C.s in the cuddy refuse to run, the pipes being choked I suppose, and in consequence the cuddy is delicious to the nose!”. The Victorians were noted for being concerned with bowel habits. Edward Player on board the “Alfred the Great” in 1858/59 records that “I had the use of my bowels for the first time for 20 days the use of them before was on the 7th on leaving the Thames”.

By today’s standards the ships were ill equipped for emergencies and some of the surgeons were incompetent. Margaret Herring, a minister’s wife, on board the “Sir George Pollock” which arrived in Nelson in 1861, called the doctor a “noodle” saying “he told me last week quite gravely that it was possible to have mortification of the bowels for 6 weeks and live after it and that a mortified intestine would come to life again with the aid of brandy!!”.

Enough of toilet habits! The local newspapers in New Zealand dutifully carried news of the various ships arrivals. The Lyttelton Times of 24th November carried a report on the safe arrival of the barque “Indiana”. This was the ship which had brought Edward Salter and his family from Hook Norton and his family to New Zealand. This ship had been built in Quebec two years before. Her journey from Gravesend had taken 109 days which was neither the fastest or slowest. As the Suez Canal would not open for another eleven years these early journeys were made around the Cape of Good Hope and then across the southern ocean. The “Indiana’s” journey was run of the mill. However, in common with many journeys there were several births and deaths on the voyage. The newspaper listed those who arrived safely, including those born on board, as well as those who perished. Continuing the report the Lyttelton Times notes that “the class of immigrants appears rather above the average, and the list includes a number of tradesmen, particularly carpenters whose arrival will be grateful to the building trade”. Edward Salter was one of the latter. In total there were 35 carpenters and wheelwrights on board. The majority of the passengers disembarked at Lyttelton, however, some continued with the ship to Wellington.

Once the ships had discharged their cargoes of people and goods they made ready for the return voyage. However, not all was plain sailing if you pardon the pun. The Wellington Independent of 22nd December 1858 mentions a court case involving ten crew members of the “Indiana” being charged with a breach of the Merchants’ Seaman Act for “having unlawfully neglected and refused to perform their duty as articled seamen”. Eight of them were committed for 12 weeks to Wellington jail. Two were allowed to return to the ship.

A principal export of New Zealand was wool and the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle of 25th December 1858 carried an advertisement saying that the “Indiana” would be ready to take on a cargo of wool during the first week of January prior to setting sail on the return trip to London around 20th February 1859.

Today we can reach New Zealand by air in little over 24 hours with none of the hardship that the early emigrants had to endure. The vast majority of those who left these shores in the nineteenth century arrived safely to start their new lives “down under” but sadly not all did. It was, certainly, a journey into the unknown.