The rules and regulations of the Passengers’ Act, posted in my last, were all very well in theory, as long as the ship went along smoothly. But when sailing ships met storms, as they invariably did, the daily routine of scrubbing and cleaning went by the board. During one voyage of the Hydaspes to New Zealand in 1869 even the surgeon, Dr. Alexander Fox, was felled by seasickness for several days and the steerage class emigrants, battened down below deck, had to fend for themselves.
Mrs Fox recorded in her journal that, when the clipper was running before a gale –
“The seas were breaking over the ship and about 7.30 p.m. in came a great splash of water which rolled all round the saloon …. The water was so high in our cabin that it came over my goloshes.” Another wave lifted the skylight and more water poured in from above.
“…we had not been long in bed when there was a bang and a burst and a great wave of water came rushing down the saloon and into our cabins and everywhere. The frame of one of the stern windows gave way and the iron shutter bent right in….. Sails and huge beams of wood were quickly brought in and the great leak was patched up…. The same squall that brought in the water carried away the main lower topsail. The three men at the wheel were swept away along the deck. Amid the roar of the wind and the seas and the flapping of the torn sail as loud as cannon shots, we could hear the captain shouting: ‘Cut away! Go on! Make haste!’, which was not at all consoling.”
In the morning, Mrs. Fox was told “how the Irish girls had been praying all night, while others cried. Some of the poor emigrants suffer much from the cold.”
Emigrants were still being transported by sailing ship as late as 1885. Maggie Campbell, writing as ‘Hopeful’ in her book ‘Taken In’, left this memory of the barque Merope when, after seven weeks at sea, the ocean ran “mountains high and the saloon rocked about.” The table rose bodily and the bench seat where the second officer and a passenger were sitting “was quite uprooted, and they were both carried against the wall with a bang, but not hurt.”
“I was terribly frightened, and expected the same fate to happen to our side every moment; the waves came booming down the deck stairs, and it was impossible to keep dinner things on the table such was the lurching of the ship; at times it was horrible, and we felt as if we should be hurled we did not know where. It was impossible to read, or write, or work, and we could only cling to the benches.
In the cabins it was fearful; it was a business to get into bed or undress, or do anything. We were banged here, banged there, and I passed a terrible night, not sleeping a wink, being oppressed with various ills besides the dreadful lurching and swinging of the ship. I had a violent toothache, and – and – a flea! Little terror! to take advantage of one’s painful position in that way – when to light a candle was impossible, so that there was no relief to be found either for tooth or flea. In my despair I vowed no more sea voyages for me except to return to Old England.”
‘Taken In’, by “Hopeful”. W.H. Allen & Co, 1887. Republished by Capper Press, Christchurch, 1974.
Excerpts from Mrs. Fox’s dairy taken from ‘Shaw Savill Line, One hundred years of trading’, Sydney D Waters. Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd. 1961.