Nineteenth-century passenger ships were like microcosms of Victorian society – complete with institutionalised class systems.
‘Cabin class’ passengers paid the most money for their fares, received the biggest cabins, could take the most luggage, and were waited on by the ship’s staff.
‘Intermediate class’ passengers paid a little less, and slept in smaller cabins. They were not waited on hand and foot like cabin class passengers, but their meals were provided, and they had few shipboard responsibilities. (Often intermediate passengers were young, adventurous single men from ‘good families’ hoping to build new lives for themselves.)
Most passengers on immigrant ships to New Zealand were ‘steerage class’. They had often received a subsidised or free passage from an emigration company or the British Colonial Office. They did not have cabins at all, and instead they lived out the voyage in tiny, dark bunkrooms below deck. They did all their own washing and cleaning, and were allocated plenty of shipboard chores.
While cabin passengers had their meals cooked and brought to them, steerage passengers took turns to cook, and then gathered outside the galley to collect their meals. A cabin passenger once wrote disparagingly of the steerage emigrants, ‘There was never ending cooking going on, and a rush to the galley each for their own ... like so many dogs in a kennel let out to get food.’ (1)
Indeed, the emigrants’ shipboard diaries and letters reveal a lot about the attitudes that the different classes had to each other. Martha Adams, a cabin passenger travelling to Nelson in 1850 with her husband wrote, ‘I have never been myself into the steerage, as William says it is not fit for me to go, and besides it is now so filthily dirty, that it can only be wondered at, that there is not more disease on board.’ (2)
Another cabin passenger wrote, ‘ ... everybody on this ship think [sic] a great deal of themselves, and even the poorest imagine that they will be grand folk in New Zealand, it can easily be pictured what disturbances are constantly taking place among them owing to this cause. There is not I believe a single young woman on board but scouts the idea of being a servant when they land: nothing less than a piano forte and crochet seem compatible with their ideas of their own dignity; on which account, it is so difficult to get any little service performed for you, presuming you have no servant of your own.’ (3)
And Lucy Lough, a cabin passenger aboard the Egmont in 1856 made this character assassination: ‘There was a disturbance with one of the steerage girls and her father, he thrashed her for being with the Sailors in the forecastle. She is a wild girl and will not I fear be good for much by the end of the voyage.’ (4)
In their leisure time, passengers often held dances. There were usually separate events for cabin and steerage passengers, although Nelly Alexander, a steerage passenger aboard the Viola in 1863 wrote with some surprise and pleasure, ‘we dance Scotch reels, country dances, quadreels, polkas and shottishes, we all dance together cabin & steerage people & the ship officers come & look on ...’ (5). But by most accounts such occasions were the exception rather than the rule.
Passengers even had to restrict their movements to certain parts of the ship depending on their class. Cabin passengers were given free access to the poop deck – the stern area of the ship above the first class cabins. Steerage passengers were only allowed to roam various areas of the main deck. And nothing was more guaranteed to annoy a cabin passenger than a steerage passenger on the poop deck. The trespassers were often unceremoniously chased off!
(1) Jackson, Gainor W. (1991). Settlement by Sail: 19th century immigration to New
Zealand. Wellington: GP Publications. p 30.
(2) Simpson, Tony. (1997). The Immigrants: the great migration from Britain to New
Zealand 1830–1890. Auckland: Godwit Publishing. p 85.
(3) Simpson. (1997) p 88.
(4) Lough, Lucy. (1857). Diary on Board Egmont: 11 September 1856 – 8 May 1857.
Canterbury Museum. Typescript Manuscript: 248/83.
(5) Alexander, Helen. (1863). Shipboard Diary on the Viola 1863. Typescript: Cl.
Manuscript: M 102. Otago Settlers Museum
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).