Browse The Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives Home Page

A Sham Immigrant's Voyage in Steerage - 1888

Midvoyage Scenes from the Steerage

By Eliza Putnam Heaton

Prefatory Note

by John Langdon Heaton, Brooklyn, N. Y., 1919.

As a record of conditions already dead as the dodo, this faithful account of a voyage from Liverpool to New 'York in 1888 is worthy of preservation in more convenient and enduring form than that in which it first appeared.

It covers a phase of immigration midway between the horrors of the "Middle Passage" in 1840-50, when disease often ran riot in the packed ship, and passengers might be called to the pumps more than once in a forty-day crossing, and the conditions just before the great war, in 1910-13, when agents of rival British and German lines were combing Europe for passengers for their newer, fleeter, bigger craft, with their ten-times greater third-class capacity and their polyglot passenger lists, whole villages in single ships.

Mrs. Heaton was probably the first of a number of modern writers who have crossed in the for the purpose of descriptive writing. Robert Louis Stevenson is credited by the Encyclopedia Britannica with having made the trip to New York in 1879, for "lack of means."

Sidney Colvin, also, as editor, says in the "Letters" (Vol. 1, p. 279, Scribner's, 1911) : "In order from the outset to save as much as possible he made the journey in the and the emigrant train."

Colvin elaborates the reasons for economy. Pure fable ! Stevenson himself, on page 2 of "The Amateur Emigrant," says: "I was not, in truth, a passenger," and explains fully why he made the trip in the second cabin, seeking acquaintances in the and material for literary work which is an enduring possession of the language.

Mrs. Heaton's story of the "Sham Immigrant's Voyage" appeared in a number of leading American newspapers, through a newspaper syndicate, on October 20 and 21, 1888.

The voyage itself took place in September of 1888, its hardships including an equinoctial gale, a long wait in Queenstown Harbor and another, fog-bound, off New York.

I: Preface to My Journey

Steamship Company: Cunard Line.
Vessel: S. S. Aurania.
Health Certification: Vaccinated. J. H. Bradshaw, Surgeon.

The words look up at me from a crumpled ticket which lies on my desk. On the reverse side I read in English, German, Swedish, French and Italian:

"Keep this card to avoid detention at quarantine and on railroads in the United States."

This small document was my passport from under the folds of the Union Jack to the shelter of the Stars and Stripes. I have emigrated.

Unlike most immigrants, I went from New York to Liverpool for the express purpose of emigrating. The desire was on me to cast in my lot with a shipload of human freight; to experience in my own person the adventures, sad or merry, to test the treatment, good or bad, accorded those who leave home and country to lie down in the, awake in Castle Garden and be whirled westward across the plains.

An emigrant's ticket to the New World is a simple thing enough to buy. Water street, Liverpool, the headquarters of the Atlantic liners, abounds in stout, red-faced, jolly men, whom I took to be retired sea captains until they noticed my glances of inquiry about the neighborhood and rolled out at me from under the shelter of doorways with voluble offers of services. They were touters.

The rain was falling with energy and decision. Around the corner, in a narrow side street, I dimly saw through the blinding downpour a dingy basement entrance lettered "Cunard Emigration Office."

Breaking from the grip of half a dozen hands I dashed down its steps, my heart in my mouth, and stood a minute at the bottom watching the rills that trickled across the floor from my gown.

Through a lumber room heaped with steamer chairs and into a low, dark office. The young man behind the counter answered my questions with a courtesy as perfect as if I were engaging the best stateroom in the saloon. On the face of my ticket I was written down as follows:

Names. Occupation. Ages. Equal to
Eliza Heaton

It was a family ticket, with room for the enumeration of other members. At the bottom I was summed up thus: "One soul equal to one statute adult."

Studying this important bit of paper I found that the Cunard Steamship Company contracted for the sum of £4 to provide me with passage to New York in the Aurania, to sail September 8. Here was an interesting paragraph :

"The following quantities at least of water and provisions to be issued daily will be supplied by the master of the ship, as required by law, viz.: To each statute adult 3 quarts of water daily, exclusive of what is necessary for cooking those articles required by the Passengers' act to be issued in a cooked state, and a weekly allowance of provisions according to the following scale-3% pounds of bread, 1% pounds of fresh bread, 1 pound of flour, 1% pounds oatmeal, 1% pounds rice, 3 pounds potatoes, 1% pounds peas, 4 ounces raisins, 2 pounds beef, 1% pounds pork, 1 pound fish, 2 ounces tea, 2 ounces coffee or cocoa, 1 pound sugar, 1 gill molasses, 1 gill vinegar, 3 ounces salt, 1 ounce mustard and pepper. -- Children under 8 receive one-half the above. The provisions will be cooked and served by the company's stewards."

Further inspection revealed the fact that I was expected to provide myself with mess utensils and bedding, and that the Master of the ship might refuse to let me sail if I appeared on examination to be "lunatic, idiot, deaf, dumb, blind, maimed or infirm, or above the age of sixty years, or a widow with children, or a woman without a husband and with children, or a person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge."

There was another clause requiring me to comply with the regulations of the port embarkation office.

"What does this mean ?" I asked, pointing it out.

"Oh, nothing. You walk by the doctor. A mere form. It's mostly for children. Some people might come on board with smallpox, you know."

An important question : "Can I buy milk or fruit or broth on board ?"

"Against the rules. Nothing is sold in the . You must take everything you want with you."

The young man gave me the card of a temperance boarding house, and also a circular to the effect that my passage would be forfeited unless I presented myself and my baggage on the Prince's landing stage at 10 o'clock precisely on the day of sailing.

I picked up another stating that in the s of the Cunard ships every passenger above the age of twelve years was provided with a berth to himself. Single men and single women were berthed apart. Married couples and families had rooms by them selves.

The emigrants' outfitting shop where I laid in my stock of necessaries for the voyage was a strange, shabby place, with uneven flooring, dusty windows and sagging beams. It opened by a low door from a break-neck lane. Its ceiling was hung with tin ware as kitchens used to be with crook-necked squashes and ears of corn.

Piles of gaudily striped blankets were heaped in corners, mattresses were ticketed and tied up in rolls and cans of condensed milk stood on shelves. One of my retired sea captains piloted me to it -- No. 5 Back Coree -- and as he pocketed his tuppence he turned me over to the proprietor with a good-natured, "Now then, 'Ennery, fix this young 'ooman h'out with a kit."

'Ennery said not a word, but ranged on the counter before me a tin washbasin, a tin can for holding water, a tin mug, plate, knife, fork and spoon and a nondescript utensil which was, he said, for use, "in case as 'ow you might be seasick in your berth."

Taking a bit of stout twine he ran it through holes in the rims of my tableware and tied the whole into a bright and jingling bunch to carry on board ship. I paid him two shillings and ten pence for the lot and it was dear at the price.

A coarse, black blanket, luridly marked with red and yellow, cost me twelve shillings sixpence. A Brooklyn dry goods house would sell a better one for the money. My mattress was twenty inches wide and had a small pillow fastened at one end.

Stuffed with straw it would have cost me two shillings nine-pence, but I was luxurious enough in my tastes to prefer a filling of seaweed for which I paid three shillings sixpence. I had cause to repent my extravagance later, for sand sifted through the tick confirm-. ally, to the detriment of my eyes and ears. Mattress and blanket 'Ennery rolled into a compact bundle marking the ticking in big black letters, "Heaton, Aurania."

"'Av ye got a towel and a bit of soap?" queried he.

Learning that I was provided, he waxed communicative, telling me that in the busy days of spring he had sold 560 outfits for a single steamer and several thousands in a week's time.

Return to Top of Page

Steerage Definition, Conditions, and the Immigrant Journey
GG Archives

Copyright © 2000- Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives. All rights reserved. See Terms of Use.