Forgotten tales

stories of my family

To Australia by sail in the 1850s

In 1973, when I was 12, we sailed from England to Australia on a migrant ship, the Ellinis, of Chandris Lines. We were not migrants, rather returning Australians, but there were many migrants travelling with us. We departed Southampton and sailed south to Cape Town, across the roaring forties to Perth, and then around the bottom of Australia to Melbourne and Sydney. The voyage took a little over four weeks and we travelled mostly in relative comfort, despite an extremely rough 10 day crossing of the Indian Ocean. We had a six birth cabin divided into two rooms. Our luggage was stored in the hold. We ate meals in the dining room. There was ample space to wander on the promenade and aft decks, and there was plenty to entertain us. We had cause to complain, of course, as travellers always do, when the weather got rough and the desalination plant broke down and our drinking water became brackish. But I remember the voyage with nostalgia. It was an exciting journey for a 12 year old boy.

The Ellinis arrives in Sydney 1978.

The Ellinis arrives in Sydney 1978.

A number of our ancestors made the voyage to Australia in the 1800s when sailing ships were still the main form of transport. The Fischer family left Hamburg in 1854 and Johann Holtorf in 1856. Others left from various ports in England in the 1870s, but by then steam was taking over. By the time my grandfather, George Simmonds, left England in 1923 ships were beginning to resemble the passenger liners that we travelled on in my childhood, between Fiji and Australia, and later between Australia and England.


Migrant ship (the Artemisia) mid nineteenth century

The conditions on board sailing ships in the 1850s were harsh. Most passengers travelled in a part of the ship called “steerage” between the upper deck and the cargo hold. Since these ships were built for cargo and not passengers this ‘tween decks area was not designed for accommodation, but was converted for the purpose. However, unlike our experience on the Ellinis, passengers did not have their own cabin, but were all crowded into one large room that acted as dormitory, dining room and common room. Until 1852 men and women were all accommodated together, but later men were accommodated separately from the women and children.

When the sea was stormy and rough the hatches were battened down and passengers could not get up into the open. Toilets were usually on the upper deck, about one for every hundred passengers. In rough conditions they coul not easily be accesses and a bucket in steerage had to suffice. These could easily be overturned; the smell could be overpowering, from vomit and human waste. Rats were common. Sea water seeped in through hatches so it was damp below deck. It was also dark because there were no windows and dim lanterns hanging from the deck beams provided the only light. Ventilation was poor.

On the voyage to Australia these conditions needed to be endured not for four weeks but for four months. Bunks were stacked on top of one another, each person had an area measuring about 0.5 x 2 metres. There were no tables or chairs, and the aisles were crowded with migrants luggage. Though German ships provided meals for their steerage passengers (unlike British ships on the transatlantic route), preservation of food was difficult and meals were boring and monotonous. The menu consisted of salt meat and salt bacon, herrings, sauerkraut, potatoes, beans and peas, in various combinations. Passengers had to collect their food from the galley and take it back to steerage to eat.

Between decks at mealtime

With such horrendous conditions it is no surprise that sickness was rife. As Maggie Blanck says on her very informative website, “because of the close quarters in which they lived, passengers often suffered from illnesses like trench mouth, body ulcers, and lice. Conditions were frightful. Immigrant ships were recognized by the smell…” Of course illness and premature death were common on land too on those days, so the expectations of travelers was not high, but the hardness of those four months cannot be underestimated, even if people were tougher than they are now. So much for the romance of sail.

Our Fischer family’s voyage was documented by the ship’s doctor, Ernst Middendorf. Here is an excerpt by him describing the conditions. He, of course, shared a cabin with the captain and first mate, and did not share his accommodation with the passengers, of whom he clearly had a fairly low opinion. I try to imagine gottfried and Viktoria Fischer and their four children in the midst of all this:

In the steerage everything ran its regular course from one day to the other, i.e. morning, grumbling over the coffee; noon, over the under-cooked beans or too-small portions of meat; and evening, over the stinking tea water; besieging of the galley, cursing of the cooks, reciprocal bickering and envy if ever anybody got something from the cabin, and if these people just happened to have peace among themselves, then complaining about the ship’s command and myself. In addition, filth and vermin, the stink and clamour of children, and complete indolence in the face of every gentle admonishment about cleanliness -they only stirred themselves if forced to.
AAZ no.75 24 Sep 1855, p.298

Life on board was not all misery, of course, as Dr Middendorf reminds us in his description of a warm evening in the vicinity of Tenerife: “the wind was mild and cooling, like a German June evening. We had our first southern night. The moon broke through the light cloud and threw a silver spotlight on the gently moving water. Our people danced noisily to the music of a flute…” Another picture from Maggie Land Blanck’s website, captures life in steerage on board another emigrant ship, the Indus, sailing from London to Brisbane. The picture is from an emigrant magazine, and in the middle of the crowd there is “a tall thin sinewy Irishman… dancing a jig to the tune of a violin.” Even in harsh conditions people make their own entertainment. A description of this scene by the artist follows.

Passengers entertain themselves

Passengers entertain themselves

Forward between decks were the quarters of the bachelor emigrants. Here a tall thin sinewy Irishman was dancing a jig to the tune of a violin, the scraping of which combined, with the mewing of a litter of black kittens, and the laughter of the audience, to make a Babel of discordant sounds. The berths in this department were placed in a double row, with a zinc pail, and at times a looking-glass at the head of each. (The Graphic, June 29, 1872)


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One thought on “To Australia by sail in the 1850s

  1. Mary Mancuso on said:

    thank you for this account. very informative.

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