Crossing the Atlantic in Steerage - 1884

Immigrants on Deck of Emigrant Ship as Breakfast Bell Sounds. The Graphic, 1884.

Immigrants on Deck of Emigrant Ship as Breakfast Bell Sounds. The Graphic, 1884. Library of Congress # 2005680795. GGA Image ID # 145de9d3df

THE following racy sketch of the experiences of a steerage passenger (belonging to Montrose), in crossing the Atlantic in an Ocean Liner, will be of interest to many of our readers: —

In these days, when the excitement of emigration, which is draining our own country, England, Ireland, and many other countries on the Continent, of their best blood, is at its height, it may not be the kind of place to bring under the attention of those of your readers in whom the desire to emigrate may exist my own experiences, in common with many others, in crossing the "Herring Pond," on board a large Ocean Liner.

To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and perhaps from the few remarks that I shall make, a hint or two may be gathered which may hereafter turn out to be beneficial to some.

The season of the year in which we set out on our voyage was the summer, and having purchased from an European agent our passage ticket and the necessary requisites which fall to the lot of a steerage passenger to be possessed of—for as the many advertisements that appear in our daily and other papers plainly tell us, there is nothing found for him who chooses to avail himself of the low rates granted nowadays to third-rate passengers—in the shape of a bed, basins, flagons, platters, etc, we embarked on a large steamer lying in one of the London Docks.

The hour of sailing was advertised for about eleven o'clock in the evening on which we got on board, but it was not until three a.m. on the following morning that the vessel steamed down the river.

All through that first night in our quarters—which, by the way, was a place fitted up between decks, more resembling the stalls in a byre or stable than the sleeping apartments of men, with one or two rows of benches which served as seats and tables—there was but little sleep.

The usual noise and bustle on board consequent on a vessel making ready for sea rendered it a difficult task to woo the drowsy god. Morning at last came, and a lovely morning it was; and everything now being ready we started, preceded by a London tug.

At Gravesend, a halt was made. Here the crew and passengers had to undergo the formality of passing a Government inspector, who also went all over the vessel, for the purpose, I presume, of seeing that she was in seaworthy condition, and that there was no over-crowding.

Everybody being turned on deck, it was then that our opportunity was presented of seeing the companions—between 200 and 300—we were to "chum" for what turned out to be the next fifteen days. A motley crew they were, including English, Scotch, Irish, Danes, Norwegians, German Jews, a Frenchman, a Hungarian, a Turk, and also an Egyptian. Of course, it was only on the voyage that we learned the different nationalities to which our fellow travelers belonged.

During our stay at Gravesend we were visited by one or two bumboat men, who brought with them a goodly supply of provisions and the other requisites of emigrants already referred to, and who managed to dispose of several of their articles of merchandise.

A missionary also came on board, and distributed amongst the emigrants a number of Bibles, leaflets, and interesting story-books; and here it may not be out of place to put in a word for those who may yet emigrate.

The tediousness of a sea voyage is, I have no doubt, easily expected by anyone who cares to give the matter a thought and want of something wherewith to while away the time is very much felt.

A steerage passenger, as a rule, does not carry with him a great supply of reading matter, and he is not allowed access to any library that may be on board his ocean home; therefore, if kind friends would assist those interested in the work of supplying emigrants with wholesome and beneficial literature, by sending any spare books they may have to such distributing societies, they would confer a great boon on many, and almost, if not wholly, convert into a pleasant, what is otherwise felt to be a dull, wearisome voyage.

It was evening when we again weighed anchor and started out on our journey in dead earnest, the lights along the coast presenting a beautiful appearance, and seeming to wish us God-speed on our passage.

Nothing out of the common happened to us during the whole voyage. After the first two or three days all seemed to settle down to their position. There were one or two cases of seasickness, but these were of an exceptionally light nature.

On our vessel, as I believe there is on all emigrant vessels, there were the usual cliques. Our general conversation was composed of how long the vessel would take to go across, how many miles she had gone per day, each asking the other so far as we could, for it was of course impossible for us to talk with the foreigners, their trade or occupation, and their prospects in the land of the Far West.

There were the usual nicknames given to one or two of the passengers, one being christened " Jumbo," another " Buffalo Bill," and a third, who had the misfortune to fall out with his neighbor one morning at breakfast—and this was the only discordant note in our happy family during the whole time—about the butter, received the name of and continued to be called "Butter " to the end of the voyage.

In the course of our journey we had several entertainments, consisting of singing and dancing, members of each nationality contributing to the enjoyment of the varied audience.

These entertainments were held at night on the saloon deck, and it so happened that the nights were rainy, which the chief officer told me was the usual luck of their concert nights in general.

Games at draughts and cards, the necessaries for which being among the passengers, helped to pass away the time, which, altogether, did not hang so heavily on our hands as we had expected.

And now I will refer to the victuals on which we had to subsist in the course of our journey. This was one of the worst of the discomforts we had to put up with. There was no scarcity, neither was there want of variety of food, but what we did get was hardly edible.

We could not, of course, expect the best fare in the steerage department of the vessel; but, in my humble opinion, it ought to be imperative on the owners of these ocean liners to furnish food of a better quality than is generally provided to steerage passengers.

Our diets were three in number. Our breakfast on some days consisted of coffee, of its kind, being a decoction of some sort, sweetened with molasses, and a roll, the crusts of which were burned quite black, and the heart could have with impunity been used as a substitute for putty; at other times of porridge (the utmost care had to be exercised to keep all from running off the plates) with molasses to take the place of milk.

Our dinner on some occasions was comprised of soup, salt beef (we only tasted anything like fresh meat once), and salt pork, with potatoes, which apparently had gone through a riddling process, and the smallest selected, and these, too, not of a very first-rate quality!

Once or twice we got salt fish and potatoes, and on Sunday there was added, as a luxury, the indomitable " duff," as tough as gutta-percha, and which might have served to sole one's shoes.

Our tea, at all times, was a sort of lotion, tasting very different from the beverage with which our elderly matrons at home regale themselves of an afternoon, along with the before-mentioned roll.

Once or twice I remember we were surprised at hearing the steward call out at tea-time, "Who says fish?" A chorus of voices from parties who expected a treat at once shouted, "Here!" but, to their astonishment and disgust, they were supplied with raw herrings from the brine.

Our Scandinavian friends and others of the foreigners apparently seemed to relish the herrings, for we beheld some of them putting several fish out of sight in that condition.

The size and quality of the potatoes was the subject of a deputation to the captain, which had the effect of producing a larger potato, but the quality still remained much as usual. It is a great matter to get friends with the cook.

This friendship is often acquired by a tip or two, or doing little odd jobs for him, such as potato cleaning and the like. For these services, some scraps set aside from the first and second cabins are generally the reward. But why should this be necessary?

As I have stated before, some rule should be enforced to compel owners to provide good and substantial food even for steerage passengers.

Another discomfort which we experienced, and I have done. Our foreign friends were none of the cleanest, and ere we arrived at our journey's end we found that they had handed over to us a few of their companions in travel, in the shape of "Jerusalem travelers," who were married, and carried along with them their wives and large families.

I believe, in many cases, these foreign people never even washed their faces. Surely the doctors of vessels should see that this sort of thing is not allowed to exist on board.

Human nature will get inured to almost every discomfort, and by the time our voyage was over we all seemed to be contented; indeed, the parting on the arrival of the vessel at its destination, New York, was almost similar to that experienced by one when leaving a place where some happy days have been spent.

The same formality of passing before the United States port doctor, on the arrival in Hudson Bay, has to be gone through. All on board passed without remark.

I may here mention that on the voyage, about halfway over, our passage tickets were collected, and every passenger was subjected to the scrutiny of the ship's doctor, to see whether or not all were vaccinated.

Those who were so received a certificate, signed by the doctor, others who were not had, I presume, to go through the process of vaccination; but the sight of such an operation was not granted to me.

I think it right to add that at the hands of the captain, officers, and men we received the utmost courtesy; indeed, it was at the instance of the captain that the entertainments I have previously mentioned were got up; and, before parting, a memorandum was presented to him, signed by all the English-speaking emigrants, as a mark of their gratitude for his kind treatment.

A friend and I visited the vessel before she again started homewards and saw the quarters which on the outward journey had been the apartments of so many human beings turned into a sheepfold.

Such are some of the experiences in crossing the broad Atlantic as a steerage passenger, and I hope they may be interesting if not serviceable to others whose restive spirit may induce their wandering steps to roam in a like direction.

"Maritime Notes: In the Steerage, Crossing the Atlantic," in The Shipwrecked Mariner: Quarterly Maritime Magazine, Vol. XXXI, No. CXXIII, July 1884, p. 189-192

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