Today we complain of “interminable” flight times from Britain to Australia and the “horrors” of flying with children. In the 19th century, youngsters endured months at sea in suffocating conditions and thanked God for their safe arrival after seeing others die along the way.
They weren’t unrelatable Victorian stoics, but made their own fun on the voyage, rebelled against authority and — remarkably — left us frank, articulate voices from across the class spectrum.
A study of the shipboard diaries of 13 girls and young women uncovered by an Australian researcher, evokes experiences of migration neglected in traditional histories. All the diarists, aged 10-22, left the British Isles as voluntary migrants between 1851 and 1884. Most didn’t choose to migrate but were, as Catherine Gay says, “swept up in their fate through the broader familial drive for opportunity.”
They were among 1.5 million 19th-century migrants to Australia and endured a journey of three to six months at sea. The majority of the girls were travelling with parents or other relatives, but some went alone to join family members. If men seeking better financial prospects were normally the instigators of migration, Gay, a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, points out that “girls, as daughters, granddaughters, nieces and sisters, were a key colonising contingent.”
In her paper, in the History Australia journal, Gay argues that experiences of children — especially girls — have often been overlooked by historians. She said: “Girls add another dimension and a really rich perspective to Australian history. In the case of the history of migration, they add an emotional aspect. Compared to adult diaries I’ve read, the emotions they express are heightened and a lot more raw and visible to the reader.”
Some of the emotions recorded in the diaries — very rare survivals, handed down in families and preserved in libraries’ archives — are predictable. “Major recurring themes are homesickness and loneliness and the unknowability of what’s to come in Australia,” said Gay. “That cuts across all the diaries. And all the girls were worried about the journey itself and how uncomfortable it would be and how long it would take.”
Not least was the fear of shipwreck. This was felt most keenly by Emily Braine, the youngest of the diarists, aged ten when she embarked with her extended family at Liverpool in 1854. On one occasion, when her ship, the Eagle, nearly collided with rocks off the remote island of Gough in the South Atlantic, she wrote that the event “frightened us very much when we heard of it but it was all over then”.
In reality, Gay observes that the risk was low, with 41 passenger ships lost out of an estimated 10,000 voyages to Australia during the century. Illness was a far greater threat. Fifteen-year-old Sarah Raws recorded the deaths of two infant boys “in the intermediate cabin” during her own 1854 voyage from Liverpool to Melbourne. A month later, a woman died in Sarah’s cabin. She wrote: “Her death, which was very sudden, has been a great shock to us as she was only confined to her bed one day”.
In 1852, the genteel 20-year-old Isabella Scott recorded the sudden death of a young girl. “She had caught a cold, and had been ill for a week, but nothing serious till yesterday.”
If death was no respecter of rank, overall experiences varied greatly depending on social class. Girls and young women from less privileged backgrounds inevitably endured harder physical conditions than those, like Isabella, travelling in first or second-class cabins.
Although the ship was new and hailed in the press as “unusually easy and comfortable at sea”, Isabella Adcock suffered on board the Great Victoria to Melbourne in 1864. The 22-year-old cigar maker’s daughter from Norfolk was travelling with family, but had to share a cabin with strangers, sleeping in a bed she likened to a “long narrow wooden trough”. For privacy, there was only “a short chintz curtain hung between and in front of each [bed]”.
She wrote: “I felt as if I were suffocating in the dark, narrow box. I felt as if the roof were coming down to smother me”. She described feelings of repugnance at “almost everything in the ship”.
Things were worse in steerage, with larger shared spaces and even less privacy. When Maria Steley, a 14-year-old Welsh girl, travelled on the Ariadne from Liverpool to Brisbane in 1863/4, she was separated from her family on board and housed with all the other working-class single women.
In her diary, she recorded rigid rules. “[The] young women are put Down every night at six O clock”. Moreover, they were “not Allowed to speak to the young men Nor the young men to the young women”. They were also confined to a smaller area of the ship than the men.
Similarly, 22-year-old Mary Maclean, from Scotland, described in 1865 how girls and young women were not allowed to “Sing When Below indeed We are Scarcely allowed to Speak”. She added: “thair is five Sub matrons and thay are So Watchfull We Can Scarcely move for them and of Course if any misbehour thay tell the matron”.
Mary’s mother had died when she was young and she was travelling alone from Glasgow to Sydney to join her brother, after the death of their father. She wrote in her diary that she often wondered “if thay miss one at Home”. On an especially difficult day, she described how “many of us Cryed more to Day then We have Done Since We left home”.
For some genteel girls, in relatively comfortable cabins, feelings of homesickness and monotony mingled with simmering annoyance at fellow passengers. Florence Vallance, travelling from England to Tasmania with her family in 1884, aged 17, quickly came to the conclusion that “there are very few nice people on board, if any”.
Likewise, 20-year-old Janet Ronald complained about her “very dull” fellow passengers in 1857.
Nevertheless, loneliness and cabin fever were alleviated by emerging friendships. Mary Maclean described how “a club of us” spent time together, and “one of us read aloud [while] the rest Sew or knit or Do What Ever they have to Do”.
Maria Steley found that the girls and single women “have many bits of fun more than i thought we would when we left”. She described “singing and Dancing and playing eney thing we like untill 10 O clock then we go to bed we Play four howrs after we are Loch Down”.
In Gay’s analysis, these nocturnal frolics were an act of rebellion against the strict conditions the ship’s officers sought to impose.
That does not mean that attitudes to morality were lax. Reading the diaries, Gay was struck by the frequent references to God’s infinite wisdom and care. She said: “Living in the 21st century, you can forget how central Christianity was to these girls’ lives and how important it was to their worldview and understanding of life and death, as well as their decision making and their roles within the family.”
After the nerve-fraying months at sea, it was no wonder that arrival could bring relief and gratitude. Sarah Raws, who had seen so much death on the ocean, wrote that “it would astonish you to have seen the joy it gave us all when we first saw land”.
Given the trials of the voyage, she felt it was “like coming out of Sodom into Paradise”.
On the other hand, after sighting the Australian coast in 1874, 19-year-old Ally Heathcote had feelings “of a mingled character, joy and sadness”. She felt the “link still binding me to the dear ones I had left behind me in Old England” weaken in that moment.
Illustrating the positive, cathartic role that diary-keeping could play, she described how her diary “helped to keep me employed during the passage and many times I have turned to it when my thoughts would stray over the sea, and have written the account of the day’s proceedings when otherwise I should have begun to mope”.
Diaries weren’t only self-reflective but could also be a connection to loved-ones. Some of the diaries survive because they were sent back to the Britain Isles — either in instalments on passing ships, or after arrival in Australia — to be read by friends or relatives. Maria Steley’s diary, for example, was addressed to her friend “Elenor” and probably posted to Wales after arrival in Queensland.
Gay believes that other migrant girls’ diaries must survive, unknown to scholars, in family collections and attics. “There are definitely diaries out there. And if people have any, I would love it if they want to get in contact with me.”
Most of the diaries Gay studied concluded on the girls’ arrival in Australia. After the intimate insight into their experiences at sea, the rest of their lives are mostly a blank. Gay is now researching the lives of girls and young women after migrating.
“I’m not necessarily following the girls who wrote diaries but finding traces of girls and how they settled into life in the colonies.”
The image at the top of the article is a lithograph of c.1860-70 depicting newly arrived immigrants being rowed from a ship to the shores of Sydney Harbour. Photo: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales