A Voyage in the Steerage of a Packet-Ship - 1832

The "Yorkshire," an example of a Packet Ship, popular before 1850.

The "Yorkshire," an example of a Packet Ship, popular before 1850. GGA Image ID # 1650970bcb

In company with about forty other Steerage-passengers, the writer embarked at Liverpool on the 28th of March 1832, and on the 4th of May following landed at New York. The first week after leaving Liverpool we made but little progress, being detained by contrary winds; but upon the whole it was called a favorable voyage.

The Steerage of the Vessel in which we sailed was about eighteen feet square, and seven feet high ; the descent to it, as usual, being by a ladder, and through a hole called the hatchway, which was covered over in rough weather with a kind of lid called the hatch.

All the light that found its way below was transmitted through the said hatchway, with the exception of a few rays that struggled through two pieces of thick glass fixed in the roof or deck. Around the sides of the Steerage were two tier of births, one above another like packing-cases; into which, and out of which, the passengers crept night and morning, sometimes stem and sometimes stem foremost.

From the roof hung hats and hams; bonnets, onions, and frying-pans; boots and red-herrings; and whatever else might be useful in a sea voyage; all in perpetual motion. While to the floor of the Steerage were nailed provision-boxes etc., which served the passengers for chairs and tables, as well as cupboards.

Now the reader will easily imagine that forty human beings confined to such a place as this, with the advantages of health and fair weather to boot, must be subject to some inconveniences shut from the common air and common use of their own limbs." But when headwinds and the dark days come on, alas! for the poor Steerage-passenger.

A certain author, speaking from experience, describes Cabin-passengers as prisoners, with the chance of being drowned;" but the situation of passengers in the Steerage, on some occasions, reminded us more of patients in a hospital, with neither doctor not nurse and they seemed to care but little whether they were drowned or not.

"Morning comes, but not a word is uttered, much less a joke, not a passenger stirs. Hear what a burly there is above! No hope of lighting a fire such a morning as this. By and bye, a poor fellow, enfeebled with sickness, staggers to the ladder, and if he doesn't get beaten back by a breaker, dashing down the hatchway; he guns the deck.

But, on deck everything is wet, cold, and comfortless. He finds no pity there; the waves drench him, the ship shakes him, and the sailors laugh at him if he has read Milton, he may feel disposed to soliloquize in the language attributed to the fallen Archangel
"Me miserable! which way shall I fly!"

During the day, however, some of us kept the deck from preference, consoling one another, as well as we could, with remarks on the sublimity of the scene etc. I must confess that it was rather cold comfort; and we were glad enough when night came to go down below.

On ordinary occasions, there is no lack of impediment to sleep; the rocking of the ship, the sea thundering at our wooden walls for admittance, the creaking of births, and the fear of being pitched out of them, the salt water oozing through upon our beds, the perpetual tinkling of pendent pots and kettles, the tramping of the watch above, and their hallooing at the forecastle every four hours to rouse up the snoring tare to duty on deck, etc., was enough to keep a landsman awake, until habit had rendered such sounds familiar.

But, in addition to all this, we had sometimes the bawling of children etc., etc., which might defy Morpheus himself " to steep one's senses in forgetfulness." One night, in particular, during a stiff gale, or, what we landlubbers called a storm, in spite of nails and cords, the boxes were shaken from the foremast, and tumbled about the floor as if they were bewitched; the storm howled above and around with " deafening clamors and amid the uproar of the elements might be heard, at intervals the Captain shouting through his speaking trumpet, or the oaths and curses of the bewildered seamen mingling fearfully with the tempest.

With respect to eating, if a man be "more nice than wise," he will not much relish his dinner, at first, in the Steerage of a Packet-Ship. A few days' voyage, however, rather blunts the edge of one's delicacy; and a week's seasickness imparts an appetite that despises trifles.

The pieces of rice-pudding that were sometimes devoured, when we could get room at the stove on deck, to boil it, would appear truly formidable ashore. But then the reader must bear in mind that Steerage-passengers eat prospective; for if it happens to turn out a squally day, cooking is out of the question, both for man and woman; and they content themselves as well as they can by crunching hard biscuits.

Indeed, the ship's cook himself often found it difficult to provide any thing decent for the Cabin-passengers, notwithstanding the conveniences of the galley; and many a curse did he get from his tyrant, the black steward, for spoiling the dinner.
But gloomy as the steerage-passage is in squally weather, no sooner did the clouds clear off, and the sun break through into the steerage, than all troubles were forgotten; the floor was cleaned, good humor revived, and the passengers turned out on deck like bees in Spring.

Some stand about the stove, cooking, or wait their turn at the fire. Others take a walk round the jolly-boat, which I may call the ship's farmyard, and talk to the cow, or sheep, or pigs, or poultry in their several tongues; or, they sit upon the water-barrels amusing themselves with a book, or, by the aid of tobacco fumes, wonder what sort of a world it is they are bound for, and build castles in the air. Here they pace the deck, or mount the rigging, or haul in with the seamen, for exercise;, and there they gather about a fellow-passenger, who helps them pass away time by a tune on the flute or the fiddle.

Nor are there wanting on board occasional bursts of merriment. A frolic of the wind would jerk a shower of salt water in the face of some fair dame on quarter-deck, proving satisfactorily to the Steerage-passengers at least, if not to the drenched lady herself, that there is no respect of persons with the winds and the waves.

Or a sudden lurch of the vessel dashes the batter over a poor fellow frying pancakes, or turns over another's dinner on the steerage floor, after all the trouble of cooking, and in spite of the well-known caution, "Hold on !''

It is true, indeed, we had not so many things to take care of as the Cabin-passengers, if the following animated description of a cabin-dinner be correct. "The only thing which forced a smile upon me during the first week of the passage, was the achievement of dinner.
In rough weather it is as much as one person can do to keep his place at the table at all ; and to guard the dishes, bottles, and castors from a general slide in the direction of the lurch, requires a slight and coolness reserved only for a sailor.

"Prenez garde," shouts the Captain as the sea strikes, and in the twinkling of an eye everything is seized and held up to wait for the other lurch in attitudes which it would puzzle the pencil of Johnson to exaggerate. With his plate of soup in one hand, and the larboard end of the tureen in the other, the claret bottle between his teeth, and the crook of his elbow caught round the mounting corner of the table, the Captain, maintains his seat upon the transom, and with a look of the most grave concern, keeps a wary eye on the shifting level of his vermicelli; the old weather-beaten mate, with the alacrity of a juggler, makes a long leg back to the cabin panels at the same moment, and with his breast against the table, takes his own plate and the castors and one or two of the smaller dishes under his charge; and the steward if he can. keep his legs, looks out for the vegetables, or if he falls, makes as wide a lap as possible to intercept the volant articles in their descent"

The monotony of our voyage, too, was sometimes broken by the appearance of an iceberg, or a herd of black fish, porpoises etc. Or the Captain would speak a passing sail, or pay a visit to a neighboring vessel, becalmed like ourselves.

The ocean, likewise, in its roughest moods was grand, often splendid, and always beautiful about the sides of the ship on a cloudy night; the luminous phosphoric sheet produced by the friction of the vessel cutting through the waves being in appearance not unlike the milky way in the heavens, bespangled, as it is, with stars, that sparkle and blaze along the side of the ship, and sail brilliantly away upon the dark blue of the ocean.

The first thing, says one, in his directions to a Steerage-passenger, is to be provided with the means necessary to pay the passage, and to get all your money in hand- Go and see the ship yourself. The taking of your passage must be a plain matter of business; the bargain made, the money paid, (about five pounds a head) and the transaction recorded in a written memorandum.

Say others, you must provide your own bedding, see your biscuits and have them good, bring plenty of flour and fresh eggs, potatoes, butter, sugar, tea, coffee, oatmeal, patent groats, rice, salt, pepper, vinegar, port-wine, if you can get it, and a few simple medicines.
In addition to the preceding directions, I should recommend the Steerage-passenger to take his passage in one of the regular Line of Packets, as it will afford him the best security he can get, not only for sailing at the appointed time, but also for a safe and expeditious voyage : and if he has any regard for health and comfort in the steerage, by all possible means, and especially by a good example, let him promote cleanliness among the passengers.

The following verse which a celebrated traveler says carried him all over the world, I should strongly recommend to the consideration of Steerage-passengers generally.

I'll not willingly offend.
Nor be easily offended;
What's amiss I'll strive to mend,
And endure what can't be mended.

For want of such a disposition I have known some very much displeased because they might not go to the water-barrels, lashed round the jolly-boat, and pump for themselves just when they pleased, but must be at the beck and call of the mate, obliged, perhaps, to take up their tin can early in the morning, while the sailors are swilling the decks, to receive their pint and a half for the day.

And others I have seen, who verily thought they had got rid of all distinctions of rank and England together, exceedingly mortified to find a chalked line drawn across the ship by the mainmast, over which no Steerage-passengers might pass either on the starboard or larboard side of the vessel. In one instance, I was told, that the Steerage-passengers were so mortified by this same chalked line, that they drew another within a few inches on their own side of the Vessel, insisting that no Cabin-passenger should cross it; and being sixty or eighty able bodied men they carried their point.

But such a disposition as this on-board ship is as unreasonable as it is useless. After all they can do to make a Cabin-passenger comfortable, he is subject to sickness, confinement etc. equally with the rest, and surely he pays enough (thirty-five pounds) for the few conveniences which the cabin affords, and a slice of tough mutton etc., when he has the appetite to enjoy it.

If a man has any fear of God before his eyes, he will be more annoyed by the obscenity and profaneness on board, than by anything else. It is common enough for the captain to give his orders with a curse, and for the sailor to growl out a curse in reply; and if the mates, stewards, cook, cabin-boy, crew, and some of the passengers be profane, which is sometimes the case, a ship is little better thon a floating hell; and one scarcely knows which is more astonishing, the daring impiety of men amid the dangers of the seas, or the forbearance of a holy God.

Our captain, however, was not given to cursing, nor to speaking either. He minded his own business, and his stem forbidding aspect told other people to mind theirs; so that if a passenger asked him one question about the latitude, longitude etc. he seldom ventured another.

He was a sober man, however, always on the lookout, and very likely civil enough ashore. Indeed I don't know that he denied the Steerage-passengers anything reasonable: he allowed them even to perform worship in the steerage every sabbath-day, as there happened to be a minister on board. It is certain that he didn't honor us with his company; and to speak the truth, the accommodations of the steerage were not very inviting.

The preacher stood in the hatchway holding his bible in one hand; with the other he grasped a round of the ladder, to keep himself steady. The congregation, too, did not present a very orthodox appearance : some were ill in bed, others leaned over or lay along the provision boxes, and a few sat upright like rational beings; two or three rough sailors might be seen occasionally grinning down the hatchway ; and altogether, many a worse excuse is made every Sabbath for neglecting Divine worship than might be found in the steerage of a Packet-Ship.

But whatever accidental or designed diversions there may be on board ship, it is a dull mid tedious kind of life : and glad enough were all on board to see the Light-house of Neversink, on the night of Thursday the 3rd of May; and I question if the renowned Greeks cried the sea! the sea ! with more enthusiasm than some of us shouted land! land!

The next morning we found ourselves sailing pleasantly up the bay of New York with Sandy Hook on one side of us and Long Island on the other. At five o'clock the pilot came on board. At six the news-boat arrived. About ten the doctor reviewed us, and. being all well, at five o'clock in the afternoon, we landed in the New World.

The Steerage-passengers then separating, many of them forever, made the test of their way to boarding houses, and feasted upon a fresh meal with a relish peculiar to people whose staff of life for five weeks has been dry biscuits. Very good accommodations may be obtained at private boarding houses, and also at some respectable hotels, at the rate of a dollar per day.

The next day we removed our boxes etc. from the ship to the warehouse and with respect to the Customs, a person who has landed at both ports cannot but observe the difference between New York and Liverpool.

For example, I had about three hundred weight of books, and before I landed them at New York, the Custom-house Officer came on board and glanced over the boxes with just as much regard to one's feelings and convenience as the' law allows, (and now if the passenger will take the trouble of getting a permit from the British Consul at New York he may save himself the vexation of opening his luggage at all;) but at Liverpool, I was put to the trouble and expense of conveying them from the ship to the custom house, a distance of half a mile perhaps; and then, after waiting all day in the custom-house yard, to save the officers the trouble of looking over all my books, I was allowed the privilege of making declaration before the proper authorities that the books were all English; for which privilege I had to pay eighteen-pence.

New York has become so familiar to the people of England through the medium of journals &c. that I shall not detain the reader a moment by describing it. At the suggestion of some subscribers, however, who contemplate emigration, I will take this opportunity of inserting a table of American coins, premising that the value of foreign specie, as the English sovereign, the French five-franc-piece &c. is reckoned by the dollar.


  • The eagle, value 10 dollars.
  • The half eagle value 5 dollars.
  • The quarter eagle value 2 dollars.


  • The dollar, value 100 cents
  • The half dollar, value 50 cents
  • The quarter dollar, value 25 cents
  • The shilling, value 12 ½ cents

The sixpence.

The ten-cent piece.

The five-cent piece.


  • The cent, value 100th of a dollar.
  • The half cent, value 200th of a dollar.

Having converted our sovereigns into hard dollars, or bills current in the Western States, at the rate of four dollars and eighty cents to the sovereign, (more than we could get at some Exchange offices, and not so much perhaps as we might have got at others) the writer, with the family in whose company he was travelling, went on board a Steam-boat bound for Albany, on Wednesday, the 9th of May.

D. Griffiths, Jr., Excerpt from Chapter I of Two Years' Residence in the New Settlements of Ohio, North America: with Directions to Emigrants, London: Westley and Davis et al, 1835, pp. 9-22.

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