Sanitary Conditions on Immigrant Ships - 1872

Report of the Lancet Sanitary Commission of Emigrant Ships, Part 1

In pursuance of this subject, briefly introduced last week in the pages of THE LANCET, it is well to mention that there are at present five chief lines of steamships that carry emigrants between Liverpool and the United States, named respectively the British and North American Company (or Cunard's); the Liverpool, New York, and Philadelphia Company (or Inmans’); the National, the Guion, and the White Star lines.

These companies own unitedly from fifty to sixty of the finest oceanic steamers, of from 3000 to 5000 tons each; and about six of these sails every week from the Mersey, with freights of emigrants varying in number from 300 to 1000 persons.

The Pacific and “Allan’s” Companies also carry emigrants; but as the vast bulk of those who start from our shores are carried to New York or Boston, we elected to confine our attention to the five companies above-mentioned, and had from all their representatives every facility given for the proper conduct of a complete tour of inspection.

Thus we were enabled to visit one vessel in dock, a second when just out of dock, and two others several hours before the time of departure, when all the emigrants were on board and were being officially inspected by the emigration officers.

Lastly, our inspection was most valuably supplemented by a journey to Queenstown in a fifth ship, which belonged, as we were informed, to the youngest of the five companies above-mentioned.

Goals of the Steerage Inspections

As the object of this inquiry is not immediately connected with the physical condition of emigrants on embarkation, but with accommodation given, and treatment received, we shall describe briefly

  1. General Arrangements
  2. Ventilation and Sanitary Arrangements
  3. Scales of Diet, and the Way in Which the Food Is Served

General arrangements

These vary considerably, and are not, in fact, exactly alike in the ships of any two companies. All the vessels have a chief steerage, as well as a lower or “orlop” deck, which latter is not always used.

The main steerage deck varies from 7 to 8 feet in height and is in most ships divided completely across by one or more fixed bulkheads, thus forming an aft and a fore steerage.

The married couples, with their children, and the single women, are in some cases, placed together in the aft steerage, the married people being on one side of the ship, and the single women on the other.

In some ships married people, single men, and single women are all separated from each other, a boarded division being built up across the ship; in others, no division at all exists.

The berths in shore parlance, bed-places [rows of bunks] are arranged in lots of 20 to 24 each, on two levels from deck to deck, with one or two scuttles to each of these compartments and have a passage between them averaging in width 3 feet. Each berth is at least 6 feet in length; and, among the five ships inspected, varied in width from 20 to 26 inches.

In those vessels where the single and married compartments occur indiscriminately, the walls of each are completely closed, and hinge or sliding doors are provided, so that in such cases the compartment is as exclusive as an ordinary room ashore.

But privacy is purchased at the cost of fresh air, although some small openings exist between the beams above, and also under the lower berths. In these ships where the married couples and single women are separated from the rest.

Where all three classes are separated from each other, the berths are built generally with open or trellis work; though, as we observed in one instance, this was so arranged as to exclude observation from without pretty completely.

The tables are placed fore and aft between the rows of berths, and in most cases are, when not required, fixed up above close to the beams, so as to leave the space amidships clear. In several ships, where width permitted, fixed seats were also put up fore and aft along the outside of the berths.

Water Closet and Urinal Arrangement

The system of closet and urinal arrangement varies very much. In the older ships both are sometimes fixed on the upper deck, and thus all emigrants are required to come up the ordinary ladder in order to use them.

In others they are arranged on the main deck, but in the newest ships there are distinct sets of closets for each class of persons, each set being approached by a ladder from the steerage, so as to be easily entered in all weathers by the women and children.

Lavatories, with hot, cold, and salt water laid on, and with the same sort of entrance from below, are provided in all the new ships; but many of the old vessels have none at all, so that women and children are compelled in all weathers either to wash on the upper deck or make a mess in their own quarters below.

Hospital Arrangements

The hospital arrangements are most curiously different in nearly every line of ships. In some—and those, too, of the newest class—a small compartment, containing from four to eight beds, is fitted up at the end or in the center of each division, often in the most inconvenient part of the deck, and of course in the immediate vicinity of the general body of emigrants.

In some vessels of an earlier date of build all hospitals are fixed on the upper deck, and in one case we were shown a third small compartment in the same part of the ship which was reserved for a midwifery or any other special case.

Remediable Faults

Such are the general arrangements of these emigrant ships; and, according to our own knowledge and belief, there are remediable faults in all. It is our decided opinion

  1. that married couples with their children, single women, and single men should each have a separate division, with separate hatchways; or if this is not practicable, that the married men should be compelled to be separated from their wives and children at night, so as to have, at all events, one division for each sex;
  2. that, either of these arrangements obtained, no indecency could be charged to the universal adoption of trellised compartments, and, as we shall show in our next article, the ventilation of the steerage must as a necessary consequence be improved in a very marked degree;
  3. that the fixed seats fore and aft, though seemingly a small matter, are a great comfort to the women and children, and should be always put up;
  4. that urinals, closets, and lavatories should always be provided for the women and children, and should be so arranged that they can be used without necessary access to the upper deck;
  5. that, as a sanitary matter, it is most important to abolish all hospitals from the steerage—until, indeed, the arrangements for these passenger ships are far more ample than at present,—and the upper deck seems to be the only proper position for them.

It appears to us that, as far as general arrangements are concerned, all these suggestions might be combined and adopted in one ship without any great amount of difficulty.

Ventilation and sanitary arrangements, Part 2

No patent or special plan of ventilation appears to be adopted in any of the Liverpool emigrant ships with which we are concerned. The outlets for foul and the inlets for fresh air comprise— ports or scuttles along the sides of the vessels (none of these ships have stern-ports).

Hatchways, varying in area very considerably; ventilators of two kinds, called respectively np-cast and down-cast; and wind sails.

The ports and scuttles aro, comparatively speaking, of little use as ventilators, for they must be always closed when the wind is fresh; and it is also to be noted that, except in the newest ships, the orlop or lowest deck is, as a matter of necessity, unprovided with them.

The hatchways are of course a chief means for the ingress and egress of air to and from the ’tween decks. One at least of these must exist over each division of the steerage, and their area, as a matter of working convenience, is in all cases as large as the size and build of the ship will allow.

The 26th section of the Passengers Act of 1855 recites that over every hatchway " there shall be erected such a booby-hatch or other substantial covering as shall, in the opinion of such emigration officer, afford the greatest amount of light and air and of protection from wet as the case will admit.”

The practical result is, that in most emigrant ships substantial coverings are provided: sometimes in the form of what are called storm- hatches—i. e., large wooden hoods over the hatchways, with binged lids; and sometimes a simple grating, covered if necessary with a tarpaulin.

It is a rule, and we believe one very fairly observed, that these hatchways are never closed at all except from stress of weather ; but as, particularly in Atlantic voyages, this circumstance must occasionally occur, other means of ventilation are necessary.

And so a varying number of fixed up-cast and down-cast ventilators are provided; and here, again, a vast variety of arrangements exists in the different ships examined.

No particular principle appears to be followed in the number or position of these ventilators. The down-casts are, at their upper ends on deck, furnished with a movable cowl, which is, or should be, trimmed strictly, and altered ns the wind changes.

The lower end is in some ships carried to within a few inches of the deck, in others about waist-high, and in others higher. The upper coverings of the up-casts are usually fixed; and the position of their lower ends us to the level of the deck, or the points at which they are situated, is very various, even in the case of ships the build of which is almost exactly alike.

The total number of these ventilators does not appear, as a role, to have any fixed relation to the size of the ship or the area of the steerage deck, hut varies from ten to twenty, with a total area of from a hundred to a hundred and fifty square feet.

Ventilation by wind sails consists, as most of our readers may know, of suspending canvas ventilators, with the upper openings head to wind, over any hatchway or other convenient communication that exists with the steerage or orlop decks. These, if properly attended to, are most useful, but want constant watching and careful trimming.

The supplementary means of ventilation comprise lateral spaces left over and below the bulkheads and the berths, which vary in vertical measurement from six to ten inches and are in most cases carried along the entire width of the deck.

We may now recapitulate our experiences as to temperature during a passage of about eighteen hours from Liverpool to Queenstown.

Temperatures in Steerage

On making a round in company with the medical officer of the ship at 10.30 p.m., with a strong head wind blowing, and the ship at full speed, our thermometer stood at 70° F, in the main steerage, at 73° F, in the main orlop (or lower) deck, and at 66° F, in the fore orlop deck, no material difference in temperature being observable in any particular parts of the deck.

At this time all the ventilators were in working order, with one exception, and that on the main orlop deck, to which we directed the attention of the officers. All was perfectly still, although there were no less than 463 steerage passengers on board; any indications of sea-sickness were so slight as to be scarcely audible or visible.

We visited the decks seriatim immediately after twelve at midnight: the same temperature as noted previously existed on all, the same ventilator was palpably out of gear, and the same quietude existed.

At 8.20 a.m. the next morning, when the wind was somewhat more on the beam, and having observed that the cowl beads of the ventilators had been trimmed accordingly, we went below to the steerage for the third time, when the occupants were in the midst of breakfast, and no upward movement had commenced on the part of anyone.

The temperature of the deck in which the married couples and children were located was 61° F., and on the lower deck it was 67° F. All were then up and busy at their morning meal, and, although we shall speak of food in our next article, we may say parenthetically, that nothing appeared to have affected the appetite unfavorably.

The same ventilator still refused to do duty, and it is well- to record in this place that the builder of the vessel, who on this occasion chanced to be on board (overlooking a process for lighting the ship with gas), pleaded guilty to having diverted the current of air of this particular ventilator from the lower steerage deck into the gas-room, which latter is an off-shoot of the engine-room.

Sanitary Arrangements

The sanitary arrangements, apart from those described in our first report, may be very briefly told. It is not considered diplomatic in these ships, whether the weather be fine or stormy, to insist upon any general elimination of passengers from the steerage deck before breakfast is fairly over; so that, as a rule, the space below is not clear much before ten o’clock in the morning.

It is then the duty of the under-stewards and helpers to sweep the 'tween decks thoroughly, to see that the berths are clean, and afterwards to scatter about some sort of deodorizing powder, carbolic acid being most generally used.

The ports or scuttles are opened if wind and weather permit, and the men, women, and children are as far ns possible kept on the upper deck till dinner time, which occurs between twelve and one o’clock midday.

The medical officer of the ship and the purser make a general round of the ship after the morning clearance is over, and from past as well as recent experiences we believe that this morning tour of inspection is diurnally and systematically performed.

In summarizing the above record and remarking critically thereupon, it is plainly manifest that the designers and builders of ships are still very much at sea as to any simple and efficient scheme of ventilation.

No uniform plan exists, it being as we believe a main point in the mind of the designer not to spoil the appearance of the spar deck by the exhibition of too many ventilator-heads or cowls.

Hatchways in steamships are usually down-casts. Wind sails, when used, must of course act in the same manner, but we have repeatedly found them, even in the tropics, twisted and throttled below, probably by some interested person berthed near them.

In spite of much that has been written on the subject, including the ingenious inductions and statistical particulars compiled by Dr. William H. Pearse, of Devonport (who, by the way, refers exclusively to sailing ships), we are very much disposed to believe and maintain that in a steamship moving through the water at an average speed of from eight to ten knots an hour, foul air has a tendency to collect in the after part of the steerage, where, if stern-ports existed, it would find a ready exit.

The whole subject of the ventilation of ships is at present involved in obscurity, because the matter has not been sufficiently or systematically studied, and because the plane hitherto proposed are far too complicated for general adoption.

But, as it appears to us, there are several conditions that should, and do not, universally obtain on all these Liverpool steamships

  1. that plenty of fixed up-cast ventilation should be provided at the forward end of the fore steerage, and at the after end of the aft steerage
  2. that more down-cast ventilation should, as a rule, be provided at the fore end of the fore steerage, particularly on the lower deck
  3. that the lower ends of all ventilators, whether up-casts or down-casts, should in all cases be brought to within a foot or eighteen inches of the floor of the deck, to prevent excessive draughts, or mischievous meddling
  4. that no ventilator of any kind provided for use on an emigrant deck should be diverted from its original purpose before another of equal caliber is provided.

Until the general résumé of these articles appears, we prefer to postpone special criticism on the temperatures above recorded, and at present leave it to our readers to consider whether, according to their own knowledge and belief, the condition of things between decks on this occasion may or may not be correctly described as more "stuffy” than the bedrooms of many of our upper and middle classes, the occupants of which enjoy a large amount of cubic space and a liberal supply of light.

Review of Steerage Conditions

Those of our readers who have looked over the Exports on Emigrant Ships in the last three numbers of The Lancet may possibly have come to the conclusion that, if the condition of things set forth in those reports really obtains, very little reformation is needed.

But this is not so. It is our duty to show that many minor and some radical changes are required in the entire system of the emigration business as carried on at Liverpool.

And first as to the arrangements made for the accommodation of emigrants afloat. It appears to us that some definite system of berthing, such as is already adopted in some ships, should be officially planned, and adhered to unvaryingly.

And, without entering into details, it is plain that if the women and children were berthed together, or the married people and single women put into separate compartments, ventilation would be greatly aided, and that with very little sacrifice to what is called decency, by building the berths with a minimum of bulkhead work—as open, indeed, as those on board the Serapis and other Anglo-Indian troopships.

Lavatories should be provided for the women and children on board all ships, and should, as also the closets and urinals, be accessible, under cover, from the steerage deck.

No hospital of any kind should exist on the steerage deck, as such a plan is fruitful of all sorts of sanitary mischief. And a steerage stewardess, well up to her work, ought to accompany every vessel, whoso business it should be as much to keep the single women in order as to assist the married women and children.

The ventilation question is difficult of solution, and those who have studied the matter know that in this as in other things it is easy to preach and hard to practice.

It seems to us, however, that in most ships too little attention is paid to the necessity of providing plenty of down-cast ventilation forward and of up-cast ventilation aft on the steerage-deck.

In tho absence of any definite system, the points where fixed ventilators are most required can be ascertained by experiment without difficulty during the first voyage, and no ship-building considerations as to sacrificing symmetry or the like should be allowed to interfere with their construction.

It is especially necessary, too, that all down-cast ventilators should be brought to within about eighteen inches of the steerage deck, and that both up-casts and down-casts should be examined periodically night and day by a person told off specially for the duty.

The whole subject of ship-ventilation requires, however, far more attention than it has hitherto received, for the arrangements now in vogue on board our smartest ironclads and other Queen’s ships are still very imperfect; and it would be well if Dr. MacDonald, who has been recently appointed Professor of Naval Hygiene at Netley, were associated with the Constructor’s Department at the Admiralty to advise on so important a question.

We have very little to recapitulate on the question of diet. There is enough, and indeed much more than enough, for the waste is enormous, and, as we think, utterly inexcusable.

Most of those who go across the Atlantic in the steerage feed better there, both as to quantity and quality, than they ever did before, and better too than, for some time at all events, they will do again; and, ns we remarked before, clumsy cooking is a “ privilege” that, like grumbling, your genuine Briton has not yet laid aside.

All cargo should be on board before emigrants embark, and it is surprising that the Emigration Commissioners have not insisted upon this rule long ago.

It is, however, hardly to be anticipated that the reforms above mentioned will be inaugurated and adhered to properly and completely unless some radical change is made in the system of official supervision.

The work of the Emigration Commissioners will, at the beginning of next year, be transferred by Act of Parliament to the Board of Trade, and indeed steps have been already taken to give effect to the decision.

Hence an opportune moment occurs for commencing changes of administration. We take it that the chief desideratum is an increase in the duties, powers, and responsibilities of emigration medical officers. At present their work is absolutely limited to a hasty and perforce unsatisfactory inspection of the emigrants just before sailing, and of the medicines provided for their use.

They know nothing officially about ventilation, hospitals or sick bays, closets or urinals, food or medical comforts; for all these matters come exclusively under the cognizance of the emigration officer (a naval man), no reference being made to the medical inspector in the capacity of " sanitary authority.”

It is reported that this plan was adopted, and so continues, to facilitate work, or, as shipowners would phrase it, "quick dispatch.” But we much doubt the wisdom of the proceeding.

The emigration officers at Liverpool and elsewhere are particularly smart and concise in the execution of their duty and appear to know the nautical items of it exceedingly well.

But it requires no sophistry to show that many important sanitary matters that directly affect health should be placed under the inspectorial control of the medical officer.

It does not appear that they are at present either overworked or overpaid at Liverpool, although the Board of Trade have already advertised for a third inspector.

But these inspectors should be called upon to examine all intending emigrants before embarkation (this opinion was enunciated in The Lancet some months ago), and afterwards make a general inspection afloat.

They should also be responsible, in conjunction with the lay officer, for the ventilation, hospital, closet, and lavatory arrangements, and for the quality of the rations and medical comforts provided; for these are all medical and sanitary questions, and directly affect the health as well as the comfort of emigrants at sea.

We are bound, and indeed very glad, to record our strong sense of the active and intelligent way in which the present system is worked, both by the Government officials and by the shipowners; and we tender to both many acknowledgments for much courtesy.

The result, however, of this tour of inspection and of former practical experience afloat has strongly impressed us with the belief that, on the part of the shipowners, the changes above indicated (all of which, it must be recollected, exist in some one line of ships) are imperatively needed ; and that, on the part of the Government, the medical officer should be far more utilized, and saddled with a far greater amount of responsibility.

“Report of the Lancet Sanitary Commission of Emigrant Ships “in The Lancet: A Journal of British and Foreign Medicine, Physiology, Surgery, Chemistry, Public Health, and News, James Croft: London, Vol. II, 12 October 1872: 530 and Part 2, 19 October 1872:564-565. Review in 2 November 1872: 644+

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