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Immigrant's Voyage in Steerage, 1888

Privacy Level: Open (White)
Date: 1888 [unknown]
Location: England to the United Statesmap
Surnames/tags: Immigration_Voyage Steerage_Travel
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A Sham Immigrant's Voyage in Steerage - 1888

This is a condensed, excerpted example of a multi-page account (link below) of traveling in steerage in 1888. It covers a phase of immigration midway between the terrible conditions of the "Middle Passage" in 1840-50, when disease often ran riot in the packed ship in a forty-day crossing, and the conditions just before the great war, in 1910-13, when agents of rival British and German lines were combing Europe for passengers for their newer, faster, bigger ships with ten times greater the third-class capacity which allowed for polyglot passenger lists, whole villages boarding a single ship.

The writing is by Eliza Putnam Heaton who "was probably the first of a number of modern writers who have crossed in the for the purpose of descriptive writing."

Mrs. Heaton's story of the "Sham Immigrant's Voyage" appeared in a number of leading American newspapers, through a newspaper syndicate, on October 20 and 21, 1888.

The voyage was during September of 1888, "its hardships including an equinoctial gale, a long wait in Queenstown Harbor and another, fog-bound, off New York."

Excepted from her account:

Buying the Ticket

Steamship Company: Cunard Line. Vessel: S. S. Aurania. Health Certification: Vaccinated. J. H. Bradshaw, Surgeon.

The words look up at me from a crumpled ticket which lies on my desk. On the reverse side I read in English, German, Swedish, French and Italian:

"Keep this card to avoid detention at quarantine and on railroads in the United States."

Steamship Company: Cunard Line.Vessel: S. S. Aurania. Health Certification: Vaccinated. J. H. Bradshaw, Surgeon.

The words look up at me from a crumpled ticket which lies on my desk. On the reverse side I read in English, German, Swedish, French and Italian:

"Keep this card to avoid detention at quarantine and on railroads in the United States."

...The rain was falling with energy and decision. Around the corner, in a narrow side street, I dimly saw through the blinding downpour a dingy basement entrance lettered "Cunard Emigration Office."

Through a lumber room heaped with steamer chairs and into a low, dark office. The young man behind the counter answered my questions with a courtesy as perfect as if I were engaging the best stateroom in the saloon. On the face of my ticket I was written down as follows:

Names. Occupation. Ages. Equal to Statute. A A 1 Adults. Eliza Heaton

It was a family ticket, with room for the enumeration of other members. At the bottom I was summed up thus: "One soul equal to one statute adult."

Studying this important bit of paper I found that the Cunard Steamship Company contracted for the sum of £4 to provide me with passage to New York in the Aurania, to sail September 8. Here was an interesting paragraph :

"The following quantities at least of water and provisions to be issued daily will be supplied by the master of the ship, as required by law, viz.: To each statute adult 3 quarts of water daily, exclusive of what is necessary for cooking those articles required by the Passengers' act to be issued in a cooked state, and a weekly allowance of provisions according to the following scale-3% pounds of bread, 1% pounds of fresh bread, 1 pound of flour, 1% pounds oatmeal, 1% pounds rice, 3 pounds potatoes, 1% pounds peas, 4 ounces raisins, 2 pounds beef, 1% pounds pork, 1 pound fish, 2 ounces tea, 2 ounces coffee or cocoa, 1 pound sugar, 1 gill molasses, 1 gill vinegar, 3 ounces salt, 1 ounce mustard and pepper. -- Children under 8 receive one-half the above. The provisions will be cooked and served by the company's stewards."

Further inspection revealed the fact that I was expected to provide myself with mess utensils and bedding, and that the Master of the ship might refuse to let me sail if I appeared on examination to be "lunatic, idiot, deaf, dumb, blind, maimed or infirm, or above the age of sixty years, or a widow with children, or a woman without a husband and with children, or a person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge."

There was another clause requiring me to comply with the regulations of the port embarkation office.

"What does this mean ?" I asked, pointing it out.

"Oh, nothing. You walk by the doctor. A mere form. It's mostly for children. Some people might come on board with smallpox, you know."

An important question : "Can I buy milk or fruit or broth on board ?".

"Against the rules. ...You must take everything you want with you."

The young man gave me the card of a temperance boarding house, and also a circular to the effect that my passage would be forfeited unless I presented myself and my baggage on the Prince's landing stage at 10 o'clock precisely on the day of sailing.

I picked up another stating that in the steerage of the Cunard ships every passenger above the age of twelve years was provided with a berth to himself. Single men and single women were berthed apart. Married couples and families had rooms by themselves.


Buying Provisions

The emigrants' outfitting shop where I laid in my stock of necessaries for the voyage was a strange, shabby place, with uneven flooring, dusty windows and sagging beams. It opened by a low door from a break-neck lane. Its ceiling was hung with tin ware as kitchens used to be with crook-necked squashes and ears of corn.

Piles of gaudily striped blankets were heaped in corners, mattresses were ticketed and tied up in rolls and cans of condensed milk stood on shelves. One of my retired sea captains piloted me to it -- No. 5 Back Coree -- and as he pocketed his tuppence he turned me over to the proprietor with a good-natured, "Now then, 'Ennery, fix this young 'ooman h'out with a kit."

'Ennery said not a word, but ranged on the counter before me a tin washbasin, a tin can for holding water, a tin mug, plate, knife, fork and spoon and a nondescript utensil which was, he said, for use, "in case as 'ow you might be seasick in your berth."

Taking a bit of stout twine he ran it through holes in the rims of my tableware and tied the whole into a bright and jingling bunch to carry on board ship. I paid him two shillings and ten pence for the lot and it was dear at the price.

A coarse, black blanket, marked with red and yellow, cost me twelve shillings sixpence. A Brooklyn dry goods house would sell a better one for the money. My mattress was twenty inches wide and had a small pillow fastened at one end.

Stuffed with straw it would have cost me two shillings nine-pence, but I was luxurious enough in my tastes to prefer a filling of seaweed for which I paid three shillings sixpence. I had cause to repent my extravagance later, for sand sifted through the tick ...to the detriment of my eyes and ears. Mattress and blanket 'Ennery rolled into a compact bundle marking the ticking in big black letters, "Heaton, Aurania."

"'Av ye got a towel and a bit of soap?" queried he.

Learning that I was provided, he waxed communicative, telling me that in the busy days of spring he had sold 560 outfits for a single steamer and several thousands in a week's time.


All Aboard, The Ship Sails

[M]ore than 250 of us wait[ed] on the stage for the tenders to put us on board the Aurania, which lay well down stream. I had hidden myself at the hotel in a dust cloak, and when I folded away this shield of respectability and furtively compared my short blue gown and gay shawl with the attire of my companions I felt that I made as brave an emigrant as any of them.

One man after another pushed forward and flung his boxes and trunks on board. An emigrant is supposed to have muscles equal to handling his own luggage. ...

[Next viewed by Mrs. Heaton] A hatch labeled "Emigrants," ...half stairway, half ladder; a smell of bilge water, cargo and humanity, not definable but unforgettable...

We had tumbled forward and down, sixteen feet below deck, cumbered with many bundles, into a low, dark, bare room, sixty feet long, maybe, and of irregular shape, decreasing in width forward. A mast ran up through the middle, and a hatch under the companion aft, covered with canvas and leading to the hold, considerably diminished the available space. When the wind blew the canvas bulged, bringing up mingled odors from below. Another hatch and companion forward gave access to the [the ship deck - outdoors] and with closets for stores almost blocked that end of the room. Rows of doors, starboard and port, opened into the sleeping rooms, which were separated from the main room and from one another by slight wooden partitions.

Each sleeping compartment was a rectangle perhaps fourteen feet long by twelve wide and eight high. On either side of the room two strips of canvas were stretched one above the other its entire width, leaving a narrow alley, in which a single person could move to and fro but in which two people could not pass each other, between. This gave four great bunks which were separated each into six smaller ones by movable wooden slats a few inches high put down at suitable intervals.

Sleeping accommodations were thus provided for twenty-four adults, each being allotted a berth about two feet wide. A porthole admitted light and, when it was not windy or foggy or night time, air. The floors of the sleeping rooms and of the main room were scrubbed scrupulously clean and the paint had been renewed within two or three months' time. Certain of the compartments were assigned to women crossing the ocean by themselves, others to single men and others -- "private" rooms containing twelve couples each -- to married folks and families.

"Tek a top wan, tek a top wan, why doant ye?"

I was flinging my mattress and blanket into a lower berth close by the door. The voice had a friendly sound. An elderly woman with a pleasant, shrewd face was addressing me.

"Tek a top wan. Then sick folks can't spew down on ye."

My new acquaintance looked me over. I awaited the result of her inspection with some anxiety.

"Ah'm reet glad there's some decent folk in 'ere." ' The compliment went to my heart.

...[On the ship deck] I peeped over the shoulder of a passenger who was sketching and discovered that we had an artist among us. A pretty child prattled to me of the gulls and the fishermen.

"I'm intermediate," she said. "Are you?"

I confessed that I was . Her manner changed.

"Mamma says she can't bear the smell."

Dining Aboard

At noon a bell rang us to dinner. Movable tables stretching the entire length of the had been let down from the ceiling, with boards resting on iron supports for seats. The formalities of cloth and napkins were dispensed with. There were no dishes, each emigrant bringing out his tin plate and mug. The seating capacity of the tables sufficed for about half the passengers, late corners standing about in corners or sitting on the edges of their berths. When we had been forty-eight hours at sea there was more than room enough at table for those of us who continued to feel an interest in food.

"Soup here? Who's for soup? Any more soup?"

The soup was contained in tin buckets, and these the stewards -- there were two principal ones, a sandy blond and a swarthy dark man -- carried up and down the length of the tables, filling our mugs, sometimes by the simple process of dipping them in.

The soup was nondescript and not palatable. I never discovered its ingredients, though I suspected rice and was fairly certain of pepper. It was varied on subsequent days by pea soup, which was well cooked and decidedly a luxury. The soup was not accompanied by bread and was followed by beef and potatoes. The meat was already cut in slices and lay in an immense iron pan swimming in grease on the canvas which covered the aft hatch.

We stepped forward with our plates and slice after slice was forked upon them. Big tin pans were heaped with potatoes boiled in their jackets, and to these we helped ourselves, picking up with our fingers and appropriating as many as we thought we could get outside of.

The beef was coarse and tasteless, but fresh and probably more nourishing fare than some of those who ate... It was a heroic task for me to masticat[chew] it. In quantity is was practically unlimited. This was true of nearly every article of food served during the voyage. The rule was, eat as much as you can hold. For my own part I subsisted largely on potatoes which, save on one or two luckless days when they had "bones" in their middles, went, with a pinch of salt, very well.

passengers wash their own dishes. Dinner over we gathered our tin ware together and climbed on deck. By the direction of the sailors we scraped our potato skins and other debris over the ship's side. The galley cook filled a tub with hot water on the lee deck close by the rail. About this' we stood in circles six deep waiting for a chance to rinse our platters.

When my turn arrived the water was cold and diversified with archipelagoes of potato and meat. I splashed in bravely, clinking my mug against a fleet of other mugs, but my life thenceforward had a new object. To be first at the tub, to wash my dishes while the water was clean, became the aspiration of my existence. Unfortunately, everybody else in the aspired in the same direction. This is a world of competition, and however hastily I swallowed my meal, however nimbly I scrambled up the companion, I found a band of devotees bending before the tub.

One day, I saw a stoker grimed with coal dust washing face and hands in the dishwater before the galley cook turned it over to the emigrants. [After this] I offered a tip. It was accepted. It bought me a small private supply of hot water once or twice a day for the rest of the voyage, and I washed my dishes in my own tin basin amid a group of admiring spectators.

It sometimes happened that I thus became the sensation of the deck. I had not aspired to be the aristocrat [and so] to soften the effect of my exclusiveness I bestowed second wash and third wash-on the first applicants for those privileges. On greasy days fourth wash was gratefully accepted.

Source: https://www.gjenvick.com/Steerage/1888-ShamImmigrantsVoyage/index.html





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