The Cotterill Report on Steerage Conditions - 1913

Steerage Passengers on the Deck of the SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria circa 1906.

Steerage Passengers on the Deck of the SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria circa 1906. Bain Collection, Library of Congress # 2014688582. GGA Image ID # 145fcd88e2

Ernest C. Cotterill Reports on the Bad State of Affairs Among the Immigrants on Some Ships and Offers Recommendations for Improvement of Conditions.

Makes Six Ocean Trips to Study Steerage Reform

November 13, 1913

By Edward Marshall

HERE are the recommendations of a man who for several years has frequently been crossing the ocean to discover what would remedy conditions which be has come to think intolerable in the steerage of steamships.

His name is Ernest C. Cotterill; he is a resident of Philadelphia, where he is in business and acts as Secretary of the Manufacturers and Traders Association. We talked the matter over at his place of business.

In his investigations of steamship steerage conditions he has been backed by Lord Northcliffe, (Alfred Harms-worth,) the famous English journalist; the celebrated English Cadbury family of cocoa fame and a group of wealthy and prominent Philadelphians, who are convinced that something should be done to better things In the great vessels which act as feeders to the melting pot of which Miss Jane Wald spoke so intelligently two weeks ago in this section of THE SUNDAY TIMES.

At the very start I must declare that no steamships will be named in this article, nor will any lines be designated, although, for some reasons, this course seems unjust.

It apparently lays all lines and ships open to suspicion. But it should be carefully explained that Mr. Cotterill had little to say in criticism of the greater lines; he had far more praise than blame to offer of the great German and English companies and ships.

His chief definite recommendation tor the betterment of conditions concerns the establishment of an additional class in steamship travel.

On the larger liners, there are now first, second, and third classes, the third being generally known as " steerage." He believes a fourth class should be established.

While that is his most important definite recommendation, the arguments which lead up to it, and this wholesale traveler's personal experiences during his quest for information, will be found to Include several other, if minor, suggestions.

Individual morals first, individual health second, the welfare of this nation third, might be believes, be safeguarded by changes in the existing regulations.

He prefaced his talk with the remark: " Those steamship companies which are most at fault will vigorously deny that the conditions which I charge exist; nevertheless, they do.

"For various reasons, I shall not enter into details of the worst things I have found. There always is a chance that by presenting what seems to him to be the worst side of a situation an individual observer may be magnifying some unusual, non-characteristic thing. I am anxious not to seem to do that.

"To secure the data for the report which I have recently completed and submitted to my principals," said he, " I have made six trips. During one of these, I traveled as a steerage passenger straight; during the other five I traveled as a first cabin passenger, but with prearranged privileges of spending in the steerage as much time as I liked, and being, to the steerage passengers, myself a steerage passenger.

" The problem of reform in steerage travel is one for which I am not yet prepared to offer a definite solution, planned to embrace all existing evils; but I have made some suggestions which I hope will be valuable.

" I am certain of the great importance to the public of reforms which will protect young and old steerage passengers from the wiles of money sharks, the swindles of traveling gamblers, and, above all, which will protect the morals of girl travelers.

" Moral conditions on the steamships are better than they once were, but it is probably true that definitely organized agencies, planned for the special purpose of preying on the ignorant, are doing more harm today than they ever did before.

" There Is real necessity for public investigation—investigation more complete and searching than is possible to an individual—and for the amelioration of certain existent evil conditions. Public-spirited people on both sides of the Atlantic, without delay, should press for such legislation as may be found to be most likely to bring about reforms.

" It seems to me obvious that such an investigation as this would be likely to bear fruit far more important than could possibly result from the average local investigation of scandalous conditions ashore. True, even a slow steamship voyage lasts but a few days, but they may be made very dangerous, very harmful days.

"We are corrupting the youth in steamship steerages and thus Infecting our whole country with a moral plague; we are tolerating in steamship steerages the operations of financial sharks, who prey unrestricted on the often ignorant, and therefore often helpless, horde who start toward us from their old homes in search of a square deal.

" That this and other Governments, as well as the progressive influence at work within the shipping trade Itself, have done much to ameliorate the physical discomforts of steamship travel cannot be denied.

" Food is comparatively good; quarters are comparatively comfortable, medical inspection now guards us to a remarkable degree against the importation of contagious and infectious diseases -- are very hopeful signs.

Evils Still Exists

"The recent announcement of the most progressive German line that the single men's and single women's quarters on their boats are now entirely isolated speaks well for that line, and is an evidence of praiseworthy progress, but this voluntary improvement on the part of that and other individual lines does not protect us against uncorrected evils upon other less progressive lines which dump upon our shores by thousands the corrupted product of their heedless practices.

" The public has done almost nothing to cleanse ocean travel of Its moral evils. What has been done has come automatically within the companies and ships themselves, through the Increase In the size of vessels, the shortening of the voyage, and a general improvement along efficiency lines, in steamship management.

" All these influences are impersonal, and. It is unsafe to leave entirely to them anything of such paramount Importance as Is Included in this matter of the voyage of newcomers from their old to their new homes.

" The sea has always been neglected as an arena of reform. Reasonable protection of the workingman upon the sea—the sailor—came long after much had been done for workingmen on land. The Captain is still the king of every ship, and his word is its supreme law today as in the days of old.

" And, while this may be necessary, an evil has grown out of it, for conditions have changed greatly.

"The duties of a modern steamship's Captain are incredibly complicated. He must be far more than an old-time sailor—he must be a scientist. And, in a way, he must also be a social leader in the cabins.

"Welfare Captain" Needed.

"It is asking far too much of him to demand that he shall also be a sociologist Men capable of such a threefold combination must, of necessity, be rare. There is a need for what might be called a welfare Captain, or Captain of the ship's police, upon the large immigrant ships now plying the Atlantic.

" Two points have especially impressed me In the course of my Investigations. One is the necessity for some provision upon transatlantic ships for the protection of girl travelers. On some ships conditions remain utterly lax; on nearly all is shown a lack of proper management.

" The second point is the necessity—and this is very great—for the establishment of a fourth class, especially upon crowded, westbound voyages.

" Let us first consider this second necessity as being less unpleasant to discuss

" With conditions as they used to be three classes were enough. The first class then was what the second class is now; the second class was what the third is now. But the first has gone away above old standards in both luxury and price; the second has risen correspondingly. The cost of ocean traveling has risen 50 percent in fifteen years.

" This leaves a large number, even of Americans, native and naturalized, who are by no means poverty-stricken, but who must travel in the third class or steerage quarters even when they are eastward bound.

" It leaves a much larger number of fine, self-respecting foreigners traveling in our direction and compelled to herd. en route, with a new class of travelers—the very low, uncouth, unmannered, practically uncivilized.

"Today we find in the steerage quarters of our ocean steamships, especially in those westward bound, very numerous travelers of a class to whom the impulse of emigration never reached In the old days.

" The 'submerged tenth' of the European slums, to whose depths the news of the promised land at first did not percolate, is in these days coming to us in a multitude: the long oppressed and socially undeveloped Far. Eastern European and Far Western Asiatic peoples are now trending with a great impetus in our direction; especially (because of intolerable home conditions) is this true of the semi-barbarous natives of the Balkan States.

" The unfortunate effect of even seven days of close association with these people is notable, primarily upon the young of the far better class, which the freedom of our country long has tempted and happily still entices.

"While they are traveling to the United States, children of comparatively careful European homes are compelled to the companionship of semi-savages, are forced to the common table to watch such spectacles of gluttony and animalism, are subjected in the sleeping quarters and even on the open decks to revelations such as fortunately forever remain undreamed of by the average native-born American.

" To immigrants in general class, and, as I have said, especially to young Immigrants, the journey to America by some ships must be either an intolerable or a very dangerous experience.

" A voyage in the steerage of many a ship is now seven days or more in an unspeakable slum, in a den wherein are herded human beasts. And this enforced visit to the alum is not made as a sightseer, but as an integral part of the vile group, a resident In the slum, for the association of life In a steamship steerage Is necessarily exceedingly close.

" This undoubtedly does great harm. It means that potentially good material for citizenship in the United States, even among the mature, may very well suffer the shattering of such ideals as may have hitherto existed and prompted emigration; it means that youngsters, on the way to the United States, become imbued before they land with the idea that in America the uncouth, the vulgar, the obscene will be the usual, become convinced of their way to us that, once upon our shores, liberty will mean license.

Such disillusionment of foreigners, mistaken though it may be, is not good for the United States. That the more decent and developed traveler, even though he or she be traveling in a steerage, should be compelled to such associations, is deplorable.

"The establishment of a fourth class might save this situation. This could certainly be done on the larger boats; and even on the liners operated by the more progressive German and English lines there is much immigration which would be glad to take advantage of the cheaper rates at which such travel would be offered, while on these boats especially is much travel which, if such a class existed, would be saved, by entrance into that above it, from seven days of horrifying and harmful intimacy with the barbaric.

" Setting entirely aside from the unfortunate moral effect of a week spent in company with the human animals who form a significant proportion of some steerage crowds, and considering the ethical impact alone, it must still be admitted that America inevitably suffers through conditions as they are.

"It must be remembered that it is the worst and not the best who make the atmosphere on shipboard. Among them will be found the more aggressive travelers. Their own unworthiness Is sure to make them inconsiderate of others' comfort, and this will make them dominant.

" They should be isolated. If a difference in price is made—and perhaps a slight increase in the third-class rate might be used as an offset to the slight decrease in the fourth-class rate—they would isolate themselves.

There Should Be Reforms

"It would be contrary to the spirit of American institutions or, at least, it would be contrary to the law at present on our statute books, to exclude from entrance to this country the uncouth, the ill-mannered, even the practically uncivilized- It is contrary, however, to the interests of good citizenship to force the nest among our third-class Immigration to a week of association with the large number of undeveloped human beings who would naturally gravitate, in traveling. to the fourth class, 11 one existed.

" During one of my voyages upon a certain high-class ship of one of the best an experiment was tried. At my request, the Captain, the chief steward, and the doctor were present at steerage meals.

" The result was that for that voyage at least something was done. Those steerage passengers who actually ate with their hands were placed at separate tables, where their savagery in feeding neither offended nor influenced for evil those passengers who had advanced beyond that point in their development.

"If nothing else were done, this, at least, should be arranged at every steerage table. Those who feed like animals should be herded by themselves. In my report, I have classified these people as ' eaters with their hands.' They are common among the Poles, Russians, Hungarians, and, as I have said, among the natives of the Balkan States.

" In the course of my six trips, it became apparent to me that the frequently decried impression that we are definitely and intentionally made the dumping ground for immoral characters from practically every part of Europe must be continually confirmed. It Is a fact which certainly is susceptible of proof that at least many and probably almost all English cities devote certain sums to the deportation of undesirables, many being impelled In our direction.

" The funds thus used are very largely furnished by private charity; city charities, more or less. unofficially contribute to them; they are veiled under the guise of funds to ' assist stranded emigrants,' rather than admitted to be funds to be devoted to making possible the deportation of the undesirable.

" Undoubtedly we are getting a considerable quantity of very definitely bad citizenship material from precisely such sources, although this will be vigorously denied. We are getting Immoral persons and criminals of both sexes in this way; in this way, we are continually receiving probable paupers.

"Landing with a sum of money satisfactory to our laws, the fact that. throughout the period of their sojourn elsewhere, they have proved themselves incapable of self-support is wholly unknown to us, and, by our present methods, undiscoverable.

" But were an American official at hand on shipboard to observe suspicious travelers and try to learn the truth about them, It usually would be revealed.

"In speaking of shipboard conditions, it is impossible to avoid mention of the peril of recent years discussed so widely as the white slave problem.

" As things at present stand, promoters of this traffic are practically free to do their worst on ships which carry, in a year, an immense aggregate of passengers. On many vessels, moral supervision is either lax or altogether wanting. On one ship I watched the maneuvers of two men who indeed belonged to this despicable class.

" Their method was to get acquainted with young girls by helping them if they were ill; by entertaining them if they were left lonely and unattended, through the fact that they were traveling alone, or because of the neglect of those who rightly should have watched over them.

"Such neglect is common, even on the part of parents, and may be accounted for In several ways. The attention of the parents may be monopolized by the needs of younger members of their families, often Infants; they may have no knowledge of the perils threatening their daughters, and therefore be wholly off their guard; they usually are such sufferers from seasickness that they are unable to give attention to their girls.

" The girls. Ignorant, unsuspecting, filled by the very fact of emigration—an epochal matter to most of them—with an excitation which amounts to an intoxication and puts them off their guard. Unprovided with any harmless amusement to occupy the long, tedious days of the voyage, greet with gratitude the attractive and attentive male stranger.

Dangers for Girls

" I have seen two steerage passenger girls quarrel with violent jealousy over the attention of a man whom they had met for the first time on shipboard. and who, we morally sure, but could not prove, was cleverly working toward the downfall of them both.

" Such men, undoubtedly agents of vice promoters and I am told, frequently spending most of their time at sea, are found on most of the less-guarded immigrant ships. They are usually young, good-looking after their own fashion, well dressed and well supplied with money. They understand their vicious trade in its last detail. They are sympathetically helpful to the sick girl; they are entertaining to the girl who is thrown on her own resources for amusement.

"I do not doubt that on the boats of some of the smaller lines, which. although they may be reckoned as 'small' lines yet bring us many thousands of immigrants, the petty officers of the vessels and more especially the steerage stewards are In league with these agents of the dive.

" Nor is this vicious work wholly In the hands of men. I am informed by Petty officers and stewards who, while they feel the certainty are unable to prove their assertions, that unscrupulous women travel regularly, girl bunting, in steerages of certain vessels.

" The unguarded condition of ships' desks at night, the non-separation of the sexes, or their imperfect separation due to a lack of sufficient stairways or passages, which makes it necessary, for example, for the unmarried men, on certain occasions, to traverse the quarters presumably reserved for the unmarried women, contribute on many vessels to a deplorable state of affairs.

"Usually one lonely seaman is assigned at night to watch a large section of the steerage deck. Were such a man ever so conscientious he could not properly perform the task to which he is allotted; if he is not meticulous, but, instead, is open to the bribes of the unscrupulous, infinite evil may result in the space of an ocean voyage.

" On more than one vessel upon which I have traveled men wore permitted to wonder where they listed, even to pass through the unmarried women's quarters at any hour of day or night.

"In Summertime. upon certain vessels in which effective ventilating appliances have not been installed, men and women, boys and girls, throng the unlighted decks at night, with results which cannot be described.

"Nor is the steerage free from gamblers' operations or the presence of other swindlers—boarding-house runners, even land sharks. The public is familiar with stories of card sharpers in the first cabin smoking rooms of the great liners; the stories of the gamblers who start their 'little games' down in the steerage do not get into print. But there are many swindlers of the sort, and they often find 'rich pickings' among thrifty immigrants.

"In the first and second class travelers are provided with libraries, deck games, rooms for card playing, smoking, etc., but for the steerage passenger, no entertainment whatsoever is furnished. The card party In the little cabin In which the traveler who promotes the game occupies a berth is, therefore, a welcome episode for the bored emigrant " Ilse of the tiny steerage cabins for such purposes is practically unrestricted on some of the minor lines, and frequently occurs on more than one of the greater ships.

" If a steerage passenger asked an officer's permission to have such a card party in his room he probably would be refused; if he proceeds without consulting any officer the chances are against official interference.

" Such card parties, because of their very private, their semi-secret nature, are most undesirable. They may result in substantial losses to the swindler; he may merely use them as means of learning who among the steerage passengers is well supplied with money, the knowledge being utilized as a guide to future operations after both have landed. In either case, the immigrant may suffer very heavily. The chance of this would be very largely decreased if some public place for card playing were provided in the steerage.

"Upon the vessels of some companies—upon those of one of the principal German lines, especially—a real effort has been made to guard against such mulcting of the steerage traveler. But until a recreation room is furnished in the steerage for each sec even the best meaning companies can scarcely stop this evil.

" They are confronted by a ship's population speaking so many languages, crowded into such amazingly close quarters, that the officer must place much dependence for information as to the behavior of Individuals upon stewards or their assistants. These men are not highly paid, and are amenable to tips; they are sometimes callous and not swayed by a sense of duty.

" Nowhere else, perhaps, is the potentiality of a tip so terrible. In the steerage of an ocean steamship, it may bring blindness to a steward's eyes when his blindness means the ruin of a woman's life or the loss of a man's little fortune on which he and his family are depending on their start in the new world.

" I believe that if some recreation room were furnished for steamship steerage passengers, such evils would thereby be notably decreased.

"There is probably less drunkenness in the steerage of the average ocean liner than there is In Its first cabin. No frequent ocean traveler by the first class has failed to see in the smoking room sights which filled him with regret.

" But the first cabin passenger, presumably, is better able to afford his gaming losses, better qualified to cope with card sharps.

" And girls and women of the first class are not subjected to the sight or influence of gambling, nor sufferers from the license of such men as promote It. I am, however, less cognizant of gambling evils in the steerage than I shall be before my investigation is completed.

" Sanitary conditions on the newer ships are good; upon the larger ships, again particularly of the German lines, they are very good, indeed.

"On some of the older, smaller vessels of the minor lines devoted principally or wholly to steerage traffic, rats, roaches, and other vermin abound.

" Conditions likely to unfavorably affect physical health are generally good, for the ships' doctors are held accountable for the condition of each passenger, and those who are refused admission by our immigration authorities because of diseases or physical infirmities may be deported from the United States at the expense of the steamship companies upon whose vessels they arrive. The presence of contagious disease on board ship, too, results in quarantine, and that means an immense loss to the companies. Therefore, the safeguards against it are elaborate.

" I have not made the southern trip; that Is, the journey on any of the ships which bring us immigrants from the Mediterranean ports, and therefore I am not personally familiar with the worst which happens upon immigrant ships or with the worst filth conditions.

" Here, recapitulated, are the remedies which I believe to be essential to the moral health of the vast hordes Incoming to America. Once let them be applied to anything approaching the minute care shown concerning physical health and great evils will be extensively eradicated in this country.

Segregation Is Advised.

" A separation of the unmarried sexes, which is really a segregation, is essential. This might entail some rebuilding of steamship interiors, the construction of some new stairways, and give rise to some bulkhead complications, but it would work a greater good than anyone unfamiliar with conditions as they are can accurately imagine.

"Careful and continual supervision of all steerage quarters and passengers, a surveillance amounting to an unremitting night-and-day police vigilance, is a definite necessity. This would entail additional expense upon the operating companies, but it would not be large.

" Some provision should be made for the amusement of the steerage passengers; at least something should be provided to occupy the minds of the young folk among them healthily.

" At least as careful a search for and supervision over professional gamblers and swindlers should be common to the steerage as is now exercised over men of like class but different degree who sail in the first cabins of our ocean liners.

" Last but by no means least, a demand exists for the establishment of an additional—a fourth—class in ocean travel, for some arrangement whereby those who have progressed in cleanliness, in public decency, in moral development beyond the crudely brutish state peculiar to thousands of westbound Atlantic travelers may be separated from them and relieved of the horror and contamination of intimately sharing traveling quarters with them."

Return to Top of Page

Steerage (Between Decks)
Passenger Accommodations
GG Archives

Steerage Accommodations and Conditions

Related Steerage Special Collections

Ocean Travel Topics A-Z

Search Our Ship Passenger Lists