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II. My Journey in Steerage Begins - 1888

» A Sham Immigrant's Voyage to New York in 1888 »

I doubt if it is a usual thing for an emigrant to eat the best breakfast-which the Northwestern Hotel at Liverpool can furnish and drive thence to the landing stage in a hackney coach after receiving the farewells of red-coated porters.

Rose Heilbron's Emigrant House circa 1908

Rose Heilbron's Emigrant House - Cunard Passenger Agency - Great George's Sq. Liverpool - circa 1908

I had haunted the emigrants' boarding houses faithfully, never bringing myself to the point of spending a night in one, but .eating meals of various nationalities and different degrees of badness until I had satisfied myself that at this season of year, at least, few bona fide voyagers reach Liverpool until within a few hours of sailing, leaving me at perfect liberty to seek mine ease in mine inn. I had not the moral courage to stop the coach at the outfitting shop to pick up my kit, which had been left to be called for, but walked back after it when I had been set down in state.

The Aurania as Transport Ship No. 20

The Aurania as Transport Ship No. 20.

There were rather more than 250 of us waiting on the stage for the tenders to put us on board the Aurania, which lay well down stream. I had hidden myself at the hotel in a dust cloak, and when I folded away this shield of respectability and furtively compared my short blue gown and gay shawl with the attire of my companions I felt that I made as brave an emigrant as any of them.

The Landing Stage and Riverside Railway Station at Liverpool

The Landing Stage and Riverside Railway Station at Liverpool with a Cunard Liner tying alongside.

One man after another pushed forward and flung his boxes and trunks on board. An emigrant is supposed to have muscles equal to handling his own luggage. The sun shone out warmly -- it was the second day without rainfall I had seen in England -- and there was not a tear shed on the Skirmisher, not a sign' of regret at leaving old England, though the sound of sobbing reached us from friends still waving their adieus on shore as the wheels revolved and the muddy Mersey water began to show between.

A hatch labeled "Emigrants," a breakneck companion, half stairway, half ladder; a smell of bilge water, cargo and humanity, not definable but unforgettable -- the .

We had tumbled forward and down, sixteen feet below deck, cumbered with many bundles, into a low, dark, bare room, sixty feet long, maybe, and of irregular shape, decreasing in width forward. A mast ran up through the middle, and a hatch under the companion aft, covered with canvas and leading to the hold, considerably diminished the available space. When the wind blew the canvas bulged, bringing up mingled odors from below. Another hatch and companion forward gave access to the fo'ksle and with closets for stores almost blocked that end of the room. Rows of doors, starboard and port, opened into the sleeping rooms, which were separated from the main room and from one another by slight wooden partitions.

Each sleeping compartment was a rectangle perhaps fourteen feet long by twelve wide and eight high. On either side of the room two strips of canvas were stretched one above the other its entire width, leaving a narrow alley, in which a single person could move to and fro but in which two people could not pass each other, between. This gave four great bunks which were separated each into six smaller ones by movable wooden slats a few inches high put down at suitable intervals.

Sleeping accommodations were thus provided for twenty-four adults, each being allotted a berth about two feet wide. A porthole admitted light and, when it was not windy or foggy or night time, air. The floors of the sleeping rooms and of the main room were scrubbed scrupulously clean and the paint had been renewed within two or three months' time. Certain of the compartments were assigned to women crossing the ocean by themselves, others to single men and others -- "private" rooms containing twelve couples each -- to married folks and families.

"Tek a top wan, tek a top wan, why doant ye?"

I was flinging my mattress and blanket into a lower berth close by the door. The voice had a friendly sound. An elderly woman with a pleasant, shrewd face was addressing me.

"Tek a top wan. Then sick folks can't spew down on ye."

I tossed my kit into an upper berth without loss of time.

My new acquaintance looked me over. I awaited the result of her inspection with some anxiety.

"Ah'm reet glad there's some decent folk in 'ere." ' The compliment went to my heart.

It was a long day spent in completing the last preparations for the voyage, in receiving tenders loaded with baggage and stores, and in waiting for the cabin passengers who would come on board in the afternoon. We lounged on the fo'ksle head and looked off at the picturesque red and black sails dotting the Mersey. I peeped over the shoulder of a passenger who was sketching and discovered that we had an artist among us. A pretty child prattled to me of the gulls and the fishermen.

"I'm intermediate," she said. "Are you?"

I confessed that I was . Her manner changed.

"? Mamma says she can't abear the smell."

Mamma called her away very soon.

Third-Class Dining Room on the Cunard Ultonia circa 1902

Third-Class Dining Room on the Cunard Ultonia circa 1902

At noon a bell rang us to dinner. Movable tables stretching the entire length of the had been let down from the ceiling, with boards resting on iron supports for seats. The formalities of cloth and napkins were dispensed with. There were no dishes, each emigrant bringing out his tin plate and mug. The seating capacity of the tables sufficed for about half the passengers, late corners standing about in corners or sitting on the edges of their berths. When we had been forty-eight hours at sea there was more than room enough at table for those of us who continued to feel an interest in food.

"Soup here? Who's for soup? Any more soup?"

The soup was contained in tin buckets, and these the stewards -- there were two principal ones, a sandy blond and a swarthy dark man -- carried up and down the length of the tables, filling our mugs, sometimes by the simple process of dipping them in.

The soup was nondescript and not palatable. I never discovered its ingredients, though I suspected rice and was fairly certain of pepper. It was varied on subsequent days by pea soup, which was well cooked and decidedly a luxury. The soup was not accompanied by bread and was followed by beef and potatoes. The meat was already cut in slices and lay in an immense iron pan swimming in grease on the canvas which covered the aft hatch.

We stepped forward with our plates and slice after slice was forked upon them. Big tin pans were heaped with potatoes boiled in their jackets, and to these we helped ourselves, picking up with our fingers and appropriating as many as we thought we could get outside of.

The beef was coarse and tasteless, but fresh and probably more nourishing fare than some of those who ate it, whose wages in the old country would hardly admit of animal food at all, were used to. It was a heroic task for me to masticate it, but I bore it no malice. In quantity is was practically unlimited. This was true of nearly every article of food served during the voyage. The rule was, eat as much as you can hold. For my own part I subsisted largely on potatoes which, save on one or two luckless days when they had "bones" in their middles, went, with a pinch of salt, very well.

passengers wash their own dishes. Dinner over we gathered our tin ware together and climbed on deck. By the direction of the sailors we scraped our potato skins and other debris over the ship's side. The galley cook filled a tub with hot water on the lee deck close by the rail. About this' we stood in circles six deep waiting for a chance to rinse our platters.

When my turn arrived the water was cold and diversified with archipelagoes of potato and meat. I splashed in bravely, clinking my mug against a fleet of other mugs, but my life thenceforward had a new object. To be first at the tub, to wash my dishes while the water was clean, became the aspiration of my existence. Unfortunately, everybody else in the aspired in the same direction. This is a world of competition, and however hastily I swallowed my meal, however nimbly I scrambled up the companion, I found a band of devotees bending before the tub.

One day, also, I saw a stoker grimed with coal dust washing face and hands in the dish water before the galley cook turned it over to the emigrants. I experimented with dry wipes, a first wipe with paper, a second with towel. On the third day I offered a tip. It was accepted. It bought me a small private supply of hot water once or twice a day for the rest of the voyage, and I washed my dishes in my own tin basin amid a group of admiring spectators. It sometimes happened that I thus became the sensation of the deck. I had not aspired to be the aristocrat of the , and to soften the effect of my exclusiveness I bestowed second wash and third wash-on the first applicants for those privileges. On greasy days fourth wash was gratefully accepted.

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