Browse The Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives Home Page

Steerage Class - Accommodations - Cunard Steamship Line - 1879

How the poor cross the ocean. The wretched accommodations that are afforded for pay -- No attention to comfort or decency.

The luxury or a saloon passage in a well appointed transatlantic liner has often been described. The substantial comfort, the convenient arrangements, the excellent cuisine have been duly chronicled; the deference, attention, and civility shown to those who pay well have been eloquently catalogued and extolled. But the misery -- for it is nothing else -- of a steerage passage by one of these steamers nobody has yet described.

In crossing from Liverpool to Quebec early in the summer, I heard something about it, and a desire for further information led me to converse with several of the poor people on board. The account they gave of their treatment and accommodation was so surprising (considering the fact that the passage is paid for) that I resolved to test its truth by actual experience on my return to England by way of New York. How I fared on the voyage the following account will show.

A certain Wednesday in July found me in New York, on my way home. The Cunard steamer was advertised to sail that afternoon, and I had just time to make the necessary arrangements for my experimental trip. Determined to the the thing thoroughly, I left my heavy baggage with an agent to be forwarded to Liverpool, and obtained orders on Liverpool for what money I carried with me, and retained only sufficient to pay for a steerage ticket. Two dollars I kept to meet unforeseen calls.

In a shabby gray overcoat, and a well-worn traveling cap, with a small "valise" in hand, I trudged off down Broadway toward Bowling Green, where is the office of the Cunard Company. Too late to get a ticket there, I had to go to the wharf where the vessel was lying. She was to sail in three-quarters of an hour, so I had better hurry down -- the temperature being 100 degrees in the shade.

Amid the bustle and confusion there I made my way to the clerk, and, after some chaffering, obtained a steerage passage for 5 Pounds Sterling. Leaving the office, I found myself in the shed or wharf, amid the noise, hurry, and confusion attending the embarkation of some 250 passengers. There was no going on board her until the cabin passengers and their luggage had been taken in.

Meanwhile, the steerage passengers (I was told) might wait anywhere. Looking round, I noticed some 50 or 60 persons gathered at the near end of the shed. Their appearance, and more particularly their packages, unmistakably indicated steerage passengers. Beds rolled up, mattresses huddled together, blankets in bundles, tin pans, cans, and poi's strung together, knives, forks, and spoons sticking out here and there among the parcels, denoted pretty clearly my fellow travelers.

Steerage Passengers on Deck

Steerage Passengers on deck

The sight of their "impedimenta" reminded me of a fact I had quite forgotten: I was not provided with these requisites. The want was speedily supplied. In front of the wharf were any number of Irishwomen eager to dispose of such steerage necessaries. For 50 cents, I bought a mattress -- filled, I found after investigation, with wood shavings; for another 50 cents, I acquired a tin pan, a tin pot, and a tin wash-hand basin about the size of an ordinary soup plate; for a third half-dollar, I received a knife, fork, and spoon. My outfit was complete.

With the newly purchased mattress on my shoulder, valise in one hand, tin pan, can, and basin in the other, I marched back to the shed and rejoined my fellow passengers. They were of the usual type of this class of passenger, disappointed mechanics returning to England; successful working men about to visit home and friends; a jew peddler, with his massive chain and gold watch; a dozen women, two of whom I feel certain were school mistresses, and eight or nine children.

There we all stood gathered about the gangway, waiting for permission to embark. In about 20 minutes, the desired order was given. Just then I made a discovery. My mattress, I before observed, was filled with shavings; closer inspection demonstrated conclusively that it contained other things; therefore it was quietly left on the wharf. Pushed along by some one in authority, I soon found myself between decks.

In front of me was an open hatch with two ladders leading to some unknown place below. Down one of these ladders, I was half thrown, half hustled, at the risk of a broken neck, for the steps were as nearly as possible perpendicular. Valise, tin pot, pan, and basin in hand, I reached the bottom.

The Steerage Stairway

Illustration: Winding staircase down to the Tween Decks known as Steerage.

Now I was in the steerage. Words are incapable of conveying anything like a correct notion of the kind of den in which I stood among 60 fellow passengers. A glance around filled me with dismay and disgust. Two of the holders of steerage tickets gave one look at the place provided for their accommodation and incontinently walked up again. They went to the purser and paid the difference for cabin passages. If I had not left myself without money I should decidedly have followed their example.

A description of the den dignified by the name of steerage will show the regard of the steamship company for the comfort of poor travelers. Imagine a wooden cell some 36 feet or so in length, 12 feet wide at one end, but narrowing to about 5 feet at the further extremity; instead of a ceiling, a hatchway opening on to the main deck; two dirty ladders, placed almost perpendicularly, forming a staircase.

On two sides, running the length of the den, a wooden partition had been constructed of bare boards, reaching to within 10 inches of the top. At intervals in this boarding were eight doors, numbered, showing that behind these were our sleeping berths. The boards hand once upon a time -- evidently a very remote time -- been painted. The floor was strewn with sawdust. A dozen thin iron columns running up to the ceiling served to support some deals, (the use of which we soon ascertained,) and at the same time effectually impeded locomotion.

Heavy Weather in Steerage

Illustration: Steerage passengers endured much in their cell during the voyage across the Atlantic.

Ornamentally disposed in the form of a cross, beginning at the further and narrower end of the cell, were seven medium-sized beer barrels standing on end. Four of these contained empty beer bottles, two broken odds and ends, and the remaining one was filled with decomposing remnants of what had once been food. In the center of the floor was an open wooden grating, the entry, as I afterward discovered, to the steward's storeroom. This "ventilated" direct into the steerage.

That salt and cured fish were among the items carried below was therefore immediately apparent to one at least of our senses. This dirty boarded space -- not nearly so large as an ordinary room -- was the "saloon." dining room, and living room for steerage passengers; and it was certified to accommodate 150 persons.

The stench, combined with the heat, was simply intolerable. I scrambled up the nearest ladder on to the main deck -- not the upper deck be it understood -- and there, close to the hatchway, which of course was the entry into the steerage, stood three barrels, each of them half filled with kitchen refuse. These were standing directly under the rays of the sun the temperature being over 99 degrees in the shade. And there were foul stuff remained during the whole of our voyage to Liverpool, receiving daily additions from the kitchen and scullery.

Opening on to this hatchway, and without any partition whatever, were the sailors' quarters, redolent of oil and tar, soiled smocks, and unclean guernsey's. Three lavatories directly faced the passage, further up toward the center of the vessel. What wonder that the atmosphere of the steerage was unendurable.

Turning round, I was about to go up on to the deck proper, when one of the stewards ordered me below. Down I accordingly went, and found all the third class passengers were being marshaled there, preparatory to giving up their tickets and being told off to their respective berths. At the top of the ladders stood a ship's officer, gorgeous in a double gold band round his cap.

One by one we were directed to proceed up stairs. My turn came and, ticket in hand, I walked up. Grasping me by the shoulder as if I were a convict, the official stopped me and took the ticket, at the same time demanding to know my name, age, and calling. The particulars were duly noted, and were, I am certain as truthful as a good many others furnished for the information of the emigration agents in New York and LIverpool.

Again we were called below, and the allotment of sleeping places was proceeded with. In the construction and fitting of the berths I found the architect and manifested the same regard for the comfort and convenience of the passengers as in the design of the "steerage" itself.

The arrangements for separating the single men from the single women, and the married people from both of these, were extremely simple and primitive -- rather too much so, perhaps, for the far from unsophisticated century we live in. The sleeping accommodation calls, however, for detailed description.

From the Pall Mall Gazette, August 9, 1879

Return to Top of Page