In the mid-1850s, thousands of hopeful and often desperate people signed up for seasickness, squalor, and hardship for the chance of a new life. Thanks to the Australian and American Gold Rushes, emigration was touted as the solution to overcrowding, ill health, and a lack of marriage prospects and money in the newspapers and town meetings of the day.
As a result there was an enormous surge in demand for passenger ships and great interest taken in them and their captains in newspapers and town meetings.
Families, singletons, men, women, the reasonably well-off, poor, occasionally even pets…but not the really rich or the visibly unhealthy. Passengers and those working their passage for a nominal fee were mainly people with enough money to pay for the fares but not enough to stay where they were and do as well as they wanted – people who wanted to better their circumstances, or in some cases, avoid obligations, entanglements, and the law. A lot of emigrants had their passages paid by charitable societies, religious institutions, the government and philanthropists. Some even stowed away, hiding in the many dark nooks and crannies on board until they were far enough from land to make an appearance without being sent home.
Fun and dancing below deck on a passenger ship
Newspapers were full of emigrant diaries and letters home detailing the more lurid aspects of their travels (http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ is an excellent paid resource). Some contained helpful advice about what foods and drinks should be taken and in what form to supplement rations provided on board (ground roasted coffee, dried meat, and preserved fruit were popular). Many advised packing light and sewing valuables into clothing to aid a safe journey both on the ship and when travelling to lodgings at their destination.
Checking for stowaways with an illicit candle
Others depicted the bucolic bliss of Australia where parrots flew through the trees, fresh fruit and gold were there for the taking, and social mobility was available to all. The grislier accounts told of how some ships carried food full of arsenic or maggots, rats crawled over passengers’ faces while they slept, and drunk captains grew violent before getting the ship completely lost, requiring passengers to take control of the vessel.
Safety regulations were lax or non-existent, and an average of three ships sank in British and Irish waters every day. Lifeboats and flotation aids were campaigned against in the media as they were considered dangerous items more likely to clutter the decks and endanger lives than to save them. When they were carried, it was in insufficient numbers for the hundreds travelling on each vessel. New ships were popular and considered less likely to fall apart in a storm. These were generally advertised as cleaner and safer than their leaky counterparts, with nourishing menus and airy berths below deck. But even so, it was a dangerous undertaking to travel overseas.
Unless they were really lucky and came unstuck in a busy shipping lane, they were on their own and unlikely to gain any assistance from other vessels or, if near land, people there, especially if their predicament was due to bad weather or striking sandbars or submerged rocks. Some carried flares and let them off as a distress signal, but this was unusual and there was no guarantee of them being seen and responded to in time to save those on board. Many ships were simply never heard from again.