Chapter 9 - Emigration to Canada 1846-1851


The Charter-Hemphill Story


Chapter 9

The Blackwall frigate Madagascar, built by Wigram and Green, at Blackwall Yard, in London and launched in 1837. Its disappearance on a voyage from Melbourne to London in 1853 was one of the great maritime mysteries of the 19th century and has probably been the subject of more speculation than any other 19th century maritime puzzle, except for the Mary Celeste.

Around 1.2 million Irish left the country between 1846-1851. Andrew Hemphill was one, surviving the famine, he arrived in Canada in 1850. Though greatly outnumbered by Catholics, the Ulster-Scots still formed a significant proportion of Irish emigrants; 40.6 percent of those leaving in 1847-1848. After the famine, the attractions of greater opportunity and prosperity abroad, rather than the destitution at home, drew people from their homeland. In Ulster, the potato harvest failures merely intensified and broadened a pattern of emigration long established. When recovery followed, the outflow continued. 

For shipowners and their captains, the emigrant trade began as a grudging afterthought, a means of making a profit on the westward run to load timber in New Brunswick and Quebec City. Emigrants, however inconvenient, were more profitable than ballast of sand or bricks.

Few emigrant ships had been built to carry passengers. Most were aging cargo vessels, three-masted barks and two-masted brigs, the workhorses of the North Atlantic, vessels of 350 tons or less with holds so shallow and wide that unless they were well loaded with ballast they rolled like a drunk in the slightest seaway. Some were ancient East Indiamen that had once carried tea or sild from the Orient under their mahogany decks, or superannuated frigates with cut-down masts, worm-eaten plankiung and ports cut into the bows to receive forty-foot baulks of timber. Now matter how leaky and decrepit these coffin ships, a cargo of timber, it was hoped, would keep them afloat long enough to get home.

Once a ship discharged its timber, loose boards were laid over the bilges as temporary flooring and rows of rough berths little bigger than dog kennels were fitted in place and covered with straw for bedding. A couple of rickety wooden privies nailed to the foredeck scuppers completed the transformation from timber drogher to emigrant ship, where hundreds of women, men and children were fated to live for at least a month and a half, and sometimes as long as three moths if contrary winds blew the ship off course. Even in fine weather with the hatches off there was little light or ventilation, but in rough weather with hatches battened the steerage was like a dungeon lit with smoky kerosene lamps and filled with a fog of sweat, spilled chamber pots, rotting scraps of food, and the vomit of seasick humanity. All around lay luggage, bags, sacks and boxes. No effort was made to segregate unmarried women from the men until the 1850s.

Allan Line Steamer Advertisement, 1888. Liverpool was one of the largest migration ports in Europe. Note the ship calling at Londonderry the next day. The competition in this trade was very great, and fares, accordingly, varied from day to day, and even from hour to hour (not unlike the airlines today), being sometimes as high as £5 per passenger in the steerage, and sometimes as low as £3 10s.(The name steerage originates from the steering tackle which ran through the space to connect the rudder to the tiller or helm.)

The evils began before a ship left port. Speculators chartered steerage space at the cheapest price they could and sent commission agents into the country to recruit as many emigrants as possible to fill the space. These men, paid by the number of emigrants they could produce, spun fanciful yarns of shipboard facilities, often claiming the vessels were twice as big as they actually were, and glibly assuring potential passengers that the voyage would be short, three weeks at most, and a kindly captain would look after their needs like a father. Passage could be engaged inclusive or exclusive of provisions, and in the latter case a master was required to furnish nothing but water and a berth. If an emigrant’s small stock of food—potatoes, oatmeal and perhaps some bacon or salt herrings—ran out on the voyage, as it usually did, there was nothing to do but buy whatever the captain had to offer at exorbitant prices. There were complaints that the captain’s cheese was so old it was fit for boot soles and sugar was sand and sawdust.

Londonderry, also called Derry by the Irish, who never accepted the name change makde by Crown loyalists in the 17th century. Date of photo is unknown.

There were complaints of ships failing by as much as a month to meet their advertised departure dates, which meant the emigrants had to exhaust whatever savings they had put aside to start their new lives. They got no compensation, and some after waiting for weeks were forced to return home penniless. “Make your bargain for your passage with the owner of the ship or some well-known respectable broker or shipmaster,” warned those more knowledgeable.” Avoid by all means those crimps that are generally found about the docks and quays near where ships are taking in passengers. Be sure the ship is going near where you contracted for, as much deception has been practiced in this respect.”

A government committee was told that the Irish showed “great ignorance and gullibility.” Many could neither read or write and spoke no English. Dr. Joseph Skey, a medical health officer at Quebec City in the 1830s, reported:

A pauper emigrant on his arrival in this Province si generally either with nothing or with a very small sum in his pocket; entertaining the most erroneous ideas of his prospects here; expecting immediate and constant employment at ample wages; entirely ignorant of the nature of the country, and of the place where labor is most in demand, and of the best means by which to obtain employment. He has landed from the ship, and from his apathy and want of energy has loitered about the wharfs, waiting for the offer of employment; or, if he obtained employment, he calculated upon its permanency, and found himself, at the beginning of winter, when there is little or no employment for labor in this part of the country, discharged, and without any provision for the wants of a Canadian winter. In this way emigrants have often accumulated in Quebec at the end of summers, encumbered it with indigent inhabitants, and formed the most onerous burden on the charitable funds of the community

Emigrants waiting at the Government Medical Inspector’s Office in Liverpool. By the terms of the New Passenger Act passed in 1850 no passenger-ship was allowed to proceed until a medical practitioner appointed by the emigration office of the port shall have inspected the medicine-chest and passengers, and certified that the medicines, etc. were sufficient, and that the passengers were free from contagious disease. Image and text from the Illustrated London News, July 6, 1850.

Innocent of geography, people who thought they were bound for New Brunswick found themselves in Quebec City. One group arrived at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, under the impression they were in Charleston in the Carolinas. The worst confusion was to be found in Liverpool, the former headquarters of the English slave trade, which became a major point of departure for the Irish. It was cheaper to pay a few shillings to cross the Irish Sea and depart from Liverpool than to take a ship from Cork City or Dublin, though the risks and discomfort were greater. Crossing the Irish Sea by steamer, they were obliged to remain crowded on deck in all weathers or were jammed into the hold amid livestock and their seasick companions. An official who observed the arrival of a coastal steamer from Ireland wrote, “The people were positively prostrated from the inclemency of the weather, seasick all the way, drenched from sea and rain, suffering from cold at night.” He called the conditions “disgraceful, dangerous and inhuman.”

“Of all the seaports the world,” wrote Herman Melville, “Liverpool perhaps most abounds in all variety of land sharks, land rats and other vermin which make the helpless mariner their prey.” Down by the docks, Waterloo Road swarmed with “man catchers,” the touts and runners employed by speculators to fill the ships, by kidnapping if need be. When Irish emigrants were not robbed outright on the streets, they were overcharged for lodging and food. “Sometimes agents take payments from emigrants for the passage,” warned a Colonial Office circular, “and then recommend him some tavern, where he is detained from day to day under false pretenses for delay, until before the departure of the ship the whole of his money is extorted from him.” The mayor of Liverpool told the Colonial Office that the plight of emigrants was “painful to witness.” A local doctor condemned the typical “lodging cellar . . . an underground cave, in which drainage, light and ventilation were utterly unattainable, where every exhalation rolled in volumes of pestilential mist round the apology for a ceiling.” Dr. George M. Douglas, a Canadian quarantine officer based at Gaspé and later at Grosse Isle, reported, “From these places the emigrants embark on board vessels, bringing with them in their foul clothes and bedding the seeds of disease.” With twenty ships leaving Liverpool for North America every day, from docks spread over an area of three miles, emigration officers were too few to enforce the law, and the death rate on Liverpool ships was higher than those from other ports.

The Waterloo Bar was situated at 79/80 Waterloo Quay and dates from 1890 (Alas no more). It had always been a popular Quayside Venue with Employees of the nearby Shipyards. This photograph likely dates from the 1930s.

There were nine separate Passenger Acts during the first half of the 19th century and while most were toothless or impossible to enforce, the first, passed in 1803, was enlightened and many years ahead of its time. Its enactment followed shocking reports of conditions on ships carrying emigrants from Scotland and Ireland in the 1790s when people were cooped up into half the space required for slave ships, or slept in the hold atop cargoes of bricks or stinking green hides. On one Irish ship, half the passengers died at sea, and thirty bodies still lay on deck when the vessel made port like a ghost ship in a tale of maritime horror.

The Passenger Act of 1803, which stipulated no more than one adult for every two registered tons of vessel, required emergency rations in case the emigrant’s own supply ran out, a medicine chest and on ships carrying more than fifty passengers, a doctor. Since there were still few emigrants—barely 1,000 from Ireland in 1803—the act was ignored. Had there been the will and administrative machinery to enforce it, the 1803 act might have saved a misery and many thousands of lives. Whereas slavers had a vested interest in getting their human cargoes from Africa to American plantations in working condition, Irish emigrants were regarded as “free agents” and were left to fend for themselves once their fares were collected. In 1815 the Governor of Newfoundland protested the “loss of life and misery which has been sometimes produced by the manner in which, shocking to humanity, passengers have been brought from Ireland.”

The embarkation, Waterloo Docks, Liverpool.The scene in the Waterloo Dock, at Liverpool, where all the American sailing packets were stationed, was at all times a very busy one; but, on the morning of departure of a large ship, with a full complement of emigrants, it was particularly exciting and interesting. The passengers had undergone inspection, and many of them had taken up their quarters on board for twenty-four hours previously as they were entitled to under the new act. ” Image and text from the Illustrated London News, July 6, 1850.

The I803 law was replaced with a watered-down version in 1817 which in two respects was worse than no law at all since it implicityly legalized overcrowding and starvation at sea. It condoned overcrowding by permitting one adult (or three children) for every ton and a half of registered tonnage, whereas an American act passed in 1819 allowed no more than two passengers for every five tons. It condoned starvation by permitting ships’ masters to carry no emergency rations if passengers agreed to bring their own food.

American law required ships flying the Stars and Strips to carry 100 pounds of breadstuffs, 100 pounds of salt meat and 60 gallons of water per passenger; there were heavy fines if a ship carried more passengers than the law allowed. This drove up the cost of passage to the States and had the effect of diverting, for years to come, the flow of Irish emigration from the States to the British colonies. People found it cheaper to go to Quebec City or New Brunswick and travel south from there, and in some years two-thirds of all emigrants to the British colonies followed this route.

The Search for Stowaways. The practice of “stowing away,” or hiding about a vessel until after the passage tickets have been collected, in order to procure, by fraudulent means, a free passage across the Atlantic, was stated to be very common to ships leaving London and Liverpool for the United States. The “stowaways” were sometimes brought on board concealed in trunks or chests, with air-holes to prevent suffocation. Sometimes they were brought in barrels, packed up to their chins in salt, or biscuits, or other provisions, to imminent hazard of their lives. At other times they took the chance of hiding about the ship, under bedding, amid the confused luggage of the other passengers, and in all sorts of dark nooks and corners between decks . . . Image and text from the Illustrated London News, July 6, 1850./figcaption>

In 1823 the British tried to emulate the Americans and tightened regulations, which provoked the shipowners’ lobby to complain that stricter laws would discourage emigration completely or drive emigrants onto American ships. Attacking a regulation requiring ships to carry food rations, A Dublin shipowner told the Colonial Office: “The emigrants from this country, being mostly poor Catholics, are not accustomed to beef and biscuit and do not like it. In fact they are not able to purchase it if they did.” Appearing before the emigration committee in 1826 the Anglo-Irish Attorney General of Nova Scotia, argued against the comforts of the 1823 act: “The Irish emigrant, before he comes out, knows not what it is to lie on a bed. If you put him in a bed and give him pork and flour, you make the man sick; but when a man comes to Newfoundland he gets no more than his breath and length upon the deck of a ship, and he had no provisions but a few herrings, and he comes out at healthy man and he has no doctor.”

In an era of free enterprise, the government dropped passenger regulations completely in 1827. The results were disastrous. A Cork City Quaker campaigning for humane conditions, told the Colonial Office he saw overcrowding that “nothing in the annals of the slave trade could equal.” A naval officer who had been active in suppression of the slave trade had seen emigrant ships at St. John, Newfoundland, “that beggared all descriptions of the state of captured African slave ships.”

Roll-call occupied a considerable space of time. . . . The passengers—those in the state cabin excepted—being all assembled up on the quarter-deck, the clerk of the passenger-broker, accompanied by the ship’s surgeon, and aided in the preservation of order by the crew, proceeded to call for tickets . . . A double purpose was answered by the Roll-call—the verification of the passenger-list, and the medical inspection of the emigrants, on behalf of the captain and owners. The previous inspection on the part to the Governor was for the purpose of preventing the risk of contagious disease on board. The inspection on the part to owners is for a different object. The ship had to pay a poll-tax of one dollar and a-half per passenger to the State of New York; and if any of the poor emigrants were helpless and deformed persons, the owners were fined in the sum of seventy-five dollars for bringing them, and were compelled to enter in a bond to they city that they would not become a burden upon the public.

Image and text fromthe Illustrated London News, July 6, 1850.

When the brig James from Waterford arrived at Halifax with sixty cases of “ship fever,” a lethal combination of typhus and dysentery, an official blamed it on “scanty nourishment during the voyage and the crowded and filthy state of the ship and want of medical assistance.” A Waterford man writing from Halifax said Irish emigrants had arrived on the Bolivar, Cumberland and Cherub suffering great misery, “partly from the hardships suffered on the voyage and partly from contagion.” Eight hundred people caught typhus and many died: “Whole families have been consigned to an untimely grave, some lost parents, others children.”

The brig William Henry arrived in St. John with 250 passengers in “dreadful state” from lack of food and water. The brig Eleanor brought so much sickness to Chatham, New Brunswick, that the frightened town officials turned some old sheds on Middle Island into an isolation hospital and buried victims at night so as not to alarm the town.

“It is notorious,” declared the Secretary of New Brunswick Agricultural and Emigrant Society, “that many of the poor emigrants were deluded from their homes by false but specious statements of brokers and shipmasters whose sole object is prosecuting the inhuman traffic appears to be that of collecting as many large cargoes as possible of their unsuspecting fellow subjects; and as the passage money is paid in advance, it is of little consequence to them in pecuniary point of view whether the helpless victims of their cupidity perish on the voyage or live to spread disease and death among the people on whose shores they may be landed.”

Imigrant ship leaving Belfast, 1852.

If anything proved the need for state intervention, it was the disastrous migration of 1827; an alarmed government, whose civil servants had tinkered so ineptly with human lives, sought help from a man who knew the emigrant trade firsthand. This was Alexander Buchanan, member fo a family of Londonderry shipowners, whose brother, James, Consul General of New York, had dispatched thousands of Irish emigrants to Upper Canada a decade earlier. Buchanan had come to Canada as an emigrant himself, establishing a farm and mill at Sorel on the St. Lawrence and acting from time to time as a consultant in the Colonial Office.

Buchanan’s proposals were neither radical nor impossible to administer, but bore little relation  to the act the government produced in 1828 and which governed emigration for the next seven years. Instead of a limitation of two passengers for every three tons as he suggested, the ratio was increased to three for every four tons, which worked out to no more than two square feet of space for every adult passenger. The emergency ration he proposed was cut by one-third, which he found inadequate for maintaining health, and he complained people were not given food they were used to. “If you give an Irish peasant beef and biscuits and salt pork and coffee,” he said, “they will be all over scurvy before they get to North America.” His proposal the passengers and food be inspected at the point of departure was ignored.

Between decks in steerage in an imigration vessel

The new attempts at regulating emigrant traffic, even if the laws had been faithfully enforced, were inadequate to control the migration of 41,000 people to British North America in 1831, twice the number of the previous year. Ships unfit for Atlantic crossings were pressed into service without inspection. “The ships selected for this purpose were old vessels especially taken up for the occasion and never used again.” Said the Secretary for Ireland. “They were crammed with human beings, badly provided with necessaries, and the consequences were disease and death. The persons who carried on this system were left to play the game over and over again with fresh victims.”

Image and text from the Illustrated London News, July 6, 1850.

Many ships reaching Quebec City in the summer of 1831 carried more passengers than permitted by law, but their only penalty was to be listed as offenders in the newpapers. Ships like the Ulster had 500 people crowded in a space big enough for half that number. “ I had great trouble,” said Buchanan, “with captains and their passengers in disputed cases; and unless some satisfactory plan can be adopted, I anticipate a great increase in existing abuses.”

Disease, overcrowding, dirt, lack of food and clean water, these were common complaints year after year. One man wrote that he found himself “shut up in a dark hold without a ray of light and almost no air.” Another compared the smell to the “stink of a dung heap.” A man who ran one of the few honest lodging houses in Liverpool, told a government committee that conditions on the ships are “worse than can be imagined . . . It was like a regular dungeon. When we opened the hatchways under which the people were, the steam came up, and the smell was like the smell of pigs. The few beds they had were in dreadful state,; for straw, when once wet with water, soon decays; besides which, they used the between decks for all sorts of filthy purposes.”

People refused to use the flimsy toilets nailed to the bows because the little huts were too dirty and dangerous. “It was mere humbug to call them water closets,” said a witness. “The first sea that comes washed them down, or an ill-disposed man can knock them down with one blow, and the whole is left open.” Doors burst open in rough weather exposing the squatting inmate to the view of the forecastle crew, and people took to relieving themselves in the darkness of the hold, for there were never enough chamber pots, and often none at all.

“Life in steerage between decks in an emigrant ship.” Image from the Illustrated London News, July 6, 1850.

The Times of London described the cramped steerage—no more than twenty-five feet wide and fifty or sixty feet long on the brigs—as a “noisome dungeon, airless and lightless, in which several hundred persons of both sexes and all ages are stowed away on shelves two feet one inch above the other, three feet wide and sic feet long, still reeking from the inevitable stench left by the emigrants on the last voyage.”

A passenger on the Thomas Elson, which carried 500 passengers from Londonderry to Quebec City, said there were tiers of berths on both sides and a row down the center which left hardly any passage way, and that was filled with luggage and barrels. “The passengers were thus obliged to eat in their berths. In one were a man, his wife, his sister, and five children, in another were six full grown young women, while that above contained five men, and the next eight men.” He said the only thing that made the voyage barely tolerable was the good weather, which permitted the hatches to remain open , providing some light and air.

The equally large emigration of 1832 was turned into a shambles by the cholera epidemic. Some 20 percent of the emigrants from Limerick, 500 people, died at sea. Ships at Liverpool were badly infected with cholera and when the Brutus sailed from that port inspection had, as usual, been sketchy and she was nine days into her voyage when cholera was detected. “The ravages of the pestilence then rapidly increased, the deaths becoming numerous in proportion to the cases,” reported the Times on June 15. “The greatest number of deaths was twenty-four in one day. The captain had no intention of returning to port, until the disease began to attack the crew. He then saw that to continue the voyage was to risk the lives of himself and the survivors, as well as the property entrusted to his care. Under these circumstances, his vessel a lazarhouse, and men, women and children dying about him, he resolved to put back to Liverpool.” By the time he reached Liverpool the death toll was eighty-three.

Dancing between decks. The scenes that occured between decks on the day before sailing of a packet, and during the time that a ship may have been unavoidably detained in dock, were not generally of a character to impress the spectator with the idea of any great or overwhelming grief on the part of the emigrants at leaving the old country. On the contrary, all was bustle, excitement, and merriment. The scene represented by the Artist, of a party of emigrants, male and female, dancing between decks—to the music of the violin—played for their amusement, by some of their fellow-passengers, was not a rare one . . . Image and text from the Illustrated London News, July 6, 1850

One cause of shipwreck was drunkenness. When the Lancaster was caught in the ice off Newfoundland in 1833, a passenger claimed that the master was so drunk he had to be restrained while more sober officers worked the ship free. Navigation error was the reason for the wreck of the Hebe. It hit a ledge off Cape Ray, Newfoundland, but all were rescued, which one passenger found miraculous given the quality of the crew, “a set of the most vile, abandoned wretches I have ever met with.”

The James, the same ill-fated brig that brought typhus to Halifax in 1827, sailed from Limerick on April 8, 1834, with 267 people bound for Quebec City and Upper Canada. Halfway through her voyage, the James was crippled by a storm that ripped out the mainsail, carried away the topmast and broke two booms. Leaking and disabled in a westerly gale off the Newfoundland Banks, the James began to sink. Dr. Henry Downes, one of the few survivors, set down an account in his journal:

On Sunday, the 25th, at six a.m., they set about pumping the ship, but were not long engaged before the pumps were found to be choked with the passengers potatoes, which, from the rotten description of the bags in which they were kept, went adrift about the hold, filling the pump wells and preventing the possibility of working the pumps, which were hoisted on deck and a great quantity of potatoes brought away with them.

Finding the water to increase to an alarming extent, and a gale from the N.W. springing up, with a heavy sea, the ship straining very much, we had recourse to the expedient of baling her out for the fore hatch with buckets; but the water casks, which were floating about there, excited the apprehension of the people, and one passenger, Henry Morgan, getting three of fingers broken between two of them, the attempt was abandoned.

About four o’clock p.m. she shipped a sea which carried away the bulwarks, and was soon after struck by a second still heavier, with the force of which she listed, canting her ballast, and never returned to an erect position. The water having reached the between-decks, and no chance of saving her presenting itself, the Captain, at five o’clock, ordered the longboat and skiff to be lowered, as a sail tacking to the southward make its appearance. The passengers crowded into the skiff while she was in the longboat, and by this means made it difficult to lower the latter, which when drawn from the after-chock came against the stanchions; after which they did not seem inclined to take further trouble with her. At half past six we lowered the jollyboat, in which eleven of us were picked up by the Margaret of Newcastle, Capt. Wake, to whose kindness and humanity since we are indebted to our preservation.

Before abandoning ship, the captain urged passengers to disentangle the skiff from the longboat so they could both be launched, “but their answer was, the sea is so rough we are sure to be drowned and may as well die on board as in boats.” The rescue vessel tacked up and down through heavy seas all night but found no trace of her boats, or 256 passengers.

Scene between decks. Published in the Illustrated London News, July 6, 1850.

The Aberdeen from Belfast sank in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with the loss of 315. Some of these tragedies, such as the wreck of the Lady of the Lake, which hit an iceberg with the loss of all but fifteen of her 250 people, had ballads sung about them;

Our ship was split asunder
As you may understand
And left our bodies floating
On the Banks of Newfoundland

Lying in his bunk one night, Henry Johnson from County Antrim was “awakened by cries and shouts of ‘the ship’s lost, the ship’s sinking!’ I started up and such a sight: men, women and children rushing to the upper deck. Some praying, crossing themselves, others with faces as white as a corpse. On deck they were gathered like sheep in a pen, crying to the captain to save them.” The ship was a timber drogher and one of the bow ports cut to receive tree-length timber had sprung open, admitting streams of seawater that threatened to sink the vessel.

Johnson was one of forty Protestants in a passenger list of 500, mostly Catholics. He complained that the Catholics would not man the pumps. “They would do nothing but sprinkle holy water, cry, pray, and all sorts of tom foolery instead of giving a hand.” When the man in the next berth died of dysentery at the height of the storm, the ship was pitching so badly that his wife, daughters and the corpse were all thrown on Johnson in a heap. “The corpse, boxes, barrels, women and children all in one mess were knocked from side to side for about fifteen minutes.” Johnson had brought a ham with him but it went rotten and the voyage took so long, eight weeks, that he was obliged to subsist on five pounds of biscuits and two pounds of salt meat doled out each week by the mate. Pigs wouldn’t eat such biscuits, he said. “So for the remainder of the passage I got a right good starving.”

Waterloo Quay, Liverpool. Irish migrants began arriving by the hundreds of thousands as a result of the Great Famine.

To people from inland parishes who had never seen the ocean, the storms were fearful. A middle aged Catholic woman, Annie Griffin, wrote that she fully expected “to die of fear.” An Ulsterman recalled the “yell of water” in his ears and another wrote: “As we sat listening to the moans of the sick and the dying, the whistling of the wind among the creaking rigging, and the melee of rats which chased each other from hole to hole, and falling out, sometimes raised a tremendous squeaking—while to crown the picture, wave after wave broke like thunder at our ear, shaking the vessel from stem to stern.”

In 1834 sixteen vessels were lost. The bark Astrea was wrecked off Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, the brig Edward foundered on an iceberg and the ship Fidelity sank, the death toll on these three being 700. The Rob Roy from Belfast hit a reef and lost seventy-seven people. News of this spate of disasters reduced the flow of emigrants in 1835 to 10,000, or a third of the previous year’s total. An Ulster woman wrote, “All could not induce me to go. If it was any place I could travel by land, I would not mind it so much, but I feel a kind of terror of the sea.”

An emergency meeting in Quebec blamed the “common avarice” of ship owners. “The desire for gain prevailing over every other consideration,” said A.C. Buchanan, “has led many captains, owners and agents of worthless vessels, more particularly in the seaport towns of Ireland, into a most horrible traffic in human life, that should be immediately arrested by the urgent voice of humanity and the strong voice of power. In an endeavor to make a profitable voyage by the embarkation of the greatest number of passengers, no expedience for deception appears to them too shameful.”

Supported by emigration officers in Liverpool and Ireland, Buchanan was successful in introducing improvements into the 1835 Passenger Act. Emigrants were to receive slightly more space, though still not as much as in American ships, and lists of emigrants were to be sent ahead by fast mail packets to be checked against arrivals to detect overcrowding by emigrants slipped aboard in the last confused moments before a ship sailed. “These may be seen arriving in flushed and panting detachments,” said one witness. “It so often happens that the gangway had been removed upon their arrival, in which case their only chance is to wait until the ship has reached the dock gate, in which case their boxes, bales, barrels and bundles are actually pitched into the ship and men and women and children have to scramble up into the rigging amid screaming, swearing and shouting perfectly alarming to listen to, while frequently a box or barrel falls overboard and sometimes a man or a woman, but is speedily picked up by men in a small boat which follows for that purpose?”

The law was inadequate and enforcement was sketchy. The Kingston and the Celia arrived Quebec City in 1836 with passengers suffering from lack of water, and the clumsily fitted berths on another ship collapsed, killing several children. But conditions were improving, which Buchanan said “may be attributed in a great measure to the appointment of emigration agents in the principal ports of the United Kingdom.”

Since most of the horror stories stemmed from particular years of famine or epidemic, in normal years the bulk of the emigrants, as letters and diaries suggest, found the voyage more comfortable and tedious than horrendous. Seasickness was a serious matter because it was debilitating and dehumanizing in the cramped confines of the airless steerage, but once past that, some emigrants even enjoyed the novel journey. Younger men and women recalled fiddles and singing and dancing on deck, and the shanties of sailors as they set the sails to the wind.

Waterloo Railroad Station, Liverpool

“The hold was full of people, mighty snug and decent,” wrote Bridget Lacy, a young Catholic servant from Wicklow bound for Upper Canada. “Most of them Protestants, that found home growing too hot for them; and that they had better save their four bones, and their little earnings, before it was too late; and sure enough, I believe they’re right. There are mighty good people among them, and mighty pretty girls, that when they aren’t sick, sing psalms in the evening, very beautiful.”

Bridget’s only fear was the “whillaloo” of a storm that lashed the ship with a cracking of masts and ropes. “We were all knocked of a heap, and then if you were to hear all around you, as I did, groaning, and raching, and willy wombing, and calling for water, nobody to bring them a cup, and wishing themselves at the bottom of the sea; in troth you would have pitied a dog.” During the voyage a child was born, a girl choked to death on a potato and an old woman died, ”and the captain, long life to him, put the old woman in a coffin, saying that sherks would have a mouthful of sawdust before they got at her bones.”

Much has been written about bucko mates and bullying captains, but there were also masters who displayed kindness. When Edward Talbot came over on the Brunswick in 1818, he had a great praise for the captain. “From the moment of our embarkation at Cork to the night of our departure from his ship, his attention, not only tot the cabin passengers but also to the humblest individual in the steerage, evinced a disposition highly creditable to himself and honorable to his profession. He was to all a friend, an attendant, and a physician and constantly solicitous to our health and welfare.”

John Anderson of Balinree, Ulster, who sailed on the brig Symmetry from Belfast to Quebec, said, “We had as good a captain as ever sailed the sea. He was never seen intoxicated.” He did, however, get into difficulties in the ice, and his ship ahd to be pumped day and night all the way to Quebec. ”For two days and nights we had to walk the deck with oars and other pieces of timber to defend the vessel,” said Anderson. “We had to let down logs of timber with chains and ropes around the vessel to keep her from being wrecked in the ice.”

Samuel Craigy, who sailed from Belfast on the Rienze, found the captain a “pleasant men, as was the first mate, a little agreeable fellow and a good dancer.” The emigrants had brought two flutes, two accordions, a bugle, fiddle and fife. The ate salt beef and potatoes boiled in saltwater, and goat provided milk for the children. Sometimes people ate better than they had done at home, but cooking was a problem on the little brick hearth on deck. Craigy, whose humor ran to slapstick, described “amusing cooking scenes” when the vessel rolled an tumbled. “Some were thrown headlong from the fires up against the bulwarks, scattering their saucepan with contents about the deck. One man spilled his dinner three times in succession coming up the ladder with a saucepan full of gruel, and alighted between the shoulders of a proud skipjack young man besmearing his clothes, alol of which was a source of merriment to the rest of the passengers.”

Victoria Dock; slthough the structure was in place in the year 1850, it was opened in 1855 on a previously uninhabited area of the Plaistow Marshes on the River Thames, 8.7 miles from London Bridge. It was granted the prefix "Royal" in 1880.

Craigy made the trip in August when days that the sea was “as smooth as a fish pond” alternated with storms when the waves were “uphill on all sides.” There was cholera aboard but it was diagnosed as dysentery, and lives might have been saved, Craigy believed, had there been a doctor. There were several deaths, the bodies being stitched into shrouds of canvas with an iron weight at the foot before being slid into the sea. Describing the sea burial of an old man, Craigy wrote: “The night is setting in dark and stormy with heavy rain. Sea running very high and the ship steering NE with scarcely a stitch of canvas unfurled. The funeral tonight was a very frightful and solemn scene. After a hurried prayer was read over the body below, it was with some difficulty hauled up on deck, the ship at the time pitching very much; and as we committed ti to the deep, the foam-crested billows boomed by, flashing like illuminated winding sheets in the flickering lamp light, which rendered more fearfully dense the pitchy darkness. There is no doubt the body was devoured by sharks.”

Shipwrecks, though fewer than in the 1830s, were still common enough to cause alarm. In 1841, the 300-ton brig Minstrel bound from Limerick to Quebec struck a reef and only eight of her 141 passengers survived. A third of the victims were children. There had been no previous legislation to cover shipwreck, but the Passenger Act of 1841 required ships, for the first time, to carry lifeboats for steerage passengers. Though it did not address all abuses, it was the best law, at least on paper since that of 1803, and decreed there should only be tow tiers of bunks and ceilings should be six feet from the floor so that adults could stand upright. Each passenger was to have ten square feet of space between decks. Water was to be carried in clean containers so it would remain drinkable throughout the voyage. Though most emigrants were expected to bring their own rations as an insurance against starvation, each passenger we by law to be given seven pounds of breadstuffs or potatoes each week. There was to be no sale of liquor, on pain of fine of £100. Brokers and agents were licensed, and emigrants were to be reimbursed one shilling a day if the vessel did not sail on the promised date. There was not requirement to carry a doctor, however, and there would be no regulation until the late 1840s to ban unseaworthy vessels or eliminate the cramming unmarried young women and men into the same space. The 1842 act, though adequate in normal years, was the legislation in force during the chaotic years of the Great Famine when 20,000 died during the voyage or soon after.

It was not until fast, dependable steamships replaced sailing ships, and dishonest speculators were pushed out of business, that abuses began to disappear in the second half of the 19th century. In 1853, the annual report of the government’s Colonial and Land Emigration Commissioners was still concerned with abuse. “We would recommend,” it said, “that free emigrants should be treated at least as well as convicts in transport ships.”

Primary Sources:

  • MacKay, Donald. Flight From Famine: The Coming of the Irish to Canada.Natural Heritage Books, a member of Dundurn Group, Toronto, origianlly published by McClelland and Stewart, 1990, Kindle Ed.
  • The Illustrated London News. July 6, 1850. The Illustrated London News. July 6, 1850.