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Emigrants in the 1800's - Life Aboard Ship

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Since the time of exploration and discovery, people native to the United Kingdom and Ireland have packed up their belongings and travelled overseas searching for a better life. Escape from religious persecution, seeking adventure and riches or for employment are just some of the reasons for travel.

Roger Kershaw states in his book Emigrants and Expats that

'since 1607 Great Britain and Ireland have sent well over 10 million emigrants to the USA, along with 4 million to Canada and 1.5 million to Australasia.'

Painting of Emigrants Leaving England

The Last England by Ford Madox Brown (1855)

The Last England by Ford Madox Brown (1855)

Though the reasons for emigration may be different, the mode of transport was the same for everyone. Emigrants full of hope, and searching for a better way of life boarded huge sailing, and later steam ships, most never to see their homes again. What was life like on these ships? At the beginning of the nineteenth century, passengers were seen as a sideline for cargo ships, as a way to increase their funds. This would have been a very cheap way to travel, but also very uncomfortable. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions were common place. Those able to pay for a better ticket travelled on the upper desks called first class, and the cheaper ticket passengers on the lower decks called steerage. Steerage generally had shared living and communal cooking arrangements. Tiny living quarters with often only a blanket or canvas curtain as a divider. In fact in the early phase of emigration the living areas would be made temporary so that on the return voyage the partitions could be removed and the area used for storing cargo. Fresh air and light would be minimal, portholes would need to be shut during bad weather to prevent water getting into living quarters, and the hatches or trap doors to steerage would often be locked during storm weather. This posed a greater risk for the emigrants as they would be trapped if a fire was to break out. Steerage passengers would sleep in bunks, often very narrow and tightly packed together. Often they were required to bring their own mattresses and blankets.

Dining tables were often temporary affairs, designed to be hung up when not in use, space was in such short supply that often passengers found themselves eating on their bunks.

Sleeping Quarters

On most ships Steerage was made up of three sections, single men, married couples and single women. One description being of a sleeping compartment about fourteen feet by twelve feet long and eight high. The space inside would be very cramped, with often only a narrow alley between the bunks for one person to walk along at any one time, with no space for passing. This would house twenty four persons, each having a berth about two feet wide. Darkness, dampness and stale air would be common place. The smell of vomit and unemptied chamber pots, restricted movement and lack of sunlight would have added to the feeling of claustrophobia. Seasickness, lack of privacy and inadequate food made for a miserable voyage.


It would take around 4 weeks to travel to North America and 10 to 14 weeks to Australia, plenty of time for passengers to fall ill. Although all passengers had to pass a physical exam upon boarding to ensure all travelers were healthy and to prevent the spread of disease, sickness was inevitable. Common illnesses at this time would have included marasmus, diarrhea, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and bronchial conditions made worse by the icy temperatures and dampness. Constant seasickness culminated in malnutrition for those who could not keep their food down and the lack of privacy lead to the spread of disease. Many passengers initially found it difficult to sleep due to the swaying of the ship during storms, the jostling of strong waves made even standing up difficult.


Before regulations were in place, there was not a large variety of food and water was not very fresh For those in steerage. Water was measured out and used sparingly. The meals would have depended to the skill of the cook and the ingredients available. On early ships food would be cooked by passengers in communal areas, which would be challenging on rough seas.

Arrival in New York

Prior to the 1850s emigrants disembarking at the dock were at the mercy of the crooks and conmen ready to exploit them. They were often robbed, conned out of their money or directed to lodgings that would overcharge them. There was no safe system in place.

Journey from Liverpool to New York took Around Four Weeks

Definition of an Emigrant

The Merriam – Webster dictionary defines an emigrant as

‘a person who leaves a country or region to live in another one’.

Post 1850

The period after 1850 saw great improvements in the living conditions and speed of the emigration experience. Steam Ships greatly shortened the length of the journey to around 12 days, which in turn shortened the likelihood of passengers developing illnesses caused by poor sanitation and malnutrition due to sickness. Steam ships were larger and safer with less leaks. Though there was some resistance to the use of steam ships initially, particularly as it was a more expensive journey, by the 1870’s sailing ships as emigrant ships were pretty much obsolete. The British Passenger Act of 1855 and the New Passenger Act of 1849 included many regulations to improve the passage for emigrants. Restrictions were placed on the number of passengers permitted to travel based on tne size of the vessel. A list of food that must be provided to each passenger, the rights of passenger to access to the fire, water and light were all included. The housekeeping on the ship, sweeping after every meal, 3 safety lamps to be lit, the cleaning of utensils and the washing and drying of clothes not permitted below deck were all regulated. The focus was on ventilation, nutrition and hygiene.

Living Conditions

Conditions aboard ship continued to improve, the regulations ensuring better hygiene and sanitation. First class passengers experienced many luxuries, menus that survive from that time list a variety of foods and alcohol to choose from and technological advances meant better food preservation and hygiene.

Towards the end of the century ships began to be built for three types of passengers, first, second and third. Steerage became know as third class, where passengers could choose between cabins for two, four, or six persons. Many ships were designed with separate dining rooms, smoking compartments, saloons for ladies, a party room etc.

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Many steam ships were designed to include hospitals or sickbays to look after sick and bedridden passengers, and effort was made to ensure good hygiene. Steerage promenades were often included, separate to the upper class to provide access to fresh air and exercise. Passengers in steerage were often required to participate in cleaning their living area, and many captains insisted on it. It was however still difficult to maintain personal hygiene.

List of Passenger Rules Aboard SS Great Britain as as Consequence of the Passenger Act

  • Rules of 1849 for the Great Britain
    Free databases on TheShipsList, where you can find passenger lists, fleet lists, pictures, ship pictures, shipping schedules, ship descriptions, wreck data, and other information not found elsewhere.

Arrival in New York

In 1855 a Report by the Board of Emigration Commissioners for New York a decided that a centralized landing depot would provide a solution for emigrant safety. Castle Gardens, located across from the Statue of Liberty on an island off the southwest of Manhattan became America's first official immigration center. Opening on August 3rd 1855 it welcomed millions of emigrants until 1890 when Ellis Island opened.

At Castle Gardens emigrants received a medical exam and reported their names and destinations. They could purchase train tickets, exchange money, get directions and even employment opportunities. They could sleep on the floor for a few nights if they chose to while they decided their next move.

Castle Gardens

 Aerial view illustration of Manhattan, showing Castle Garden at its tip, ca. 1880

Aerial view illustration of Manhattan, showing Castle Garden at its tip, ca. 1880

There were many changes in the living conditions on board ship of working class emigrants during the 1800s. The technological advances in the use of steam power, improved knowledge in ship building and legislation to protect the rights of passengers safety and welfare all helped to improve the experience of emigrants aboard ship.

  • The History of UK Emigration
    It has been estimated that over 17 million people have emigrated from the UK since the 17th century. Several laws and improvements in technology had an impact on where and how people travelled.

© 2014 Ruthbro


Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on September 25, 2016:

Wow, this is fascinating. It makes me want to investigate the accommodations on the ships my ancestors took to get to the United States. I have found the ship's name and the passenger list and need to do more research. Thanks for the inspiration and the interesting story about life aboard ship during the 1800s.

Lynnefry on August 17, 2014:

Really interesting hub ,conditions for the early imigrants must have been really hard eight hours on the plane from the UK seems long 4 weeks must have been never ending

Ruthbro (author) from USA on August 16, 2014:

Oh no. It does sound like a very similar journey!

Old Poolman on August 16, 2014:

This may sound funny but the boat trip you describe reminds me of my two Atlantic crossings on troop ships back in the 50's. Bunks stacked from floor to ceiling, salt water showers, really bad food, and vomit everywhere.

I guess nobody bothered to tell the US Army there were better ways to travel?

This was a very interesting and well written hub.

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