The Voyage of the "Strathallan"

According to Morris things got worse. ‘Sea as high as the maintop. Rain and cold. Much sickness on board. Pig fell down the main hatch.
Life on an Immigrant Ship Bound for New Zealand

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21/10 Off the French Coast

   On the 15th October assisted immigrant John Morris recorded that the ship Strathallan was in sight of the French Coast. That day the main meal for the assisted passengers was ‘preserved meat and potatoes’. Up in the paying passengers’ cabins Mrs Alabaster, ‘had to take her breakfast in bed, and could not master her tea, the preserved milk making it look like broth. After breakfast she made a strong effort and got up on deck which did much to restore her.’
    16th October. ‘Serving out stores all day.’ Every few days the provisions for meals for the assisted immigrants were distributed. As Morris records this took some time with the immigrants being divided into mess groups. Earlier in his diary Morris had noted that he was captain of number 27 mess. Each mess group took responsibility for organising their meals with the assistance of the ship’s cook. If there were at least 27 messes preparing and cooking meals, it would test the patience and organisation of the cook. Fortunately cabin passengers like the Alabasters had their meals prepared for them and served by the steward. Late in the day Morris notes that they had sighted the ‘ Isle of Wight in the evening’.
    17th October. With the distribution of stores the day before, ‘all hands making puddings’ kept immigrants occupied. ‘Ship going well’ was optimistically recorded but then ‘sea rising’ late in the day warned of approaching bad weather.
    18th October. The complete entry for the 18th in the Morris diary records; ‘Sea higher, Ship going well. Commenced serving out water. Bay of Biscay. Sick. Pitch and toss. Heavy sea all night. All in motion.’
    19th October. According to Morris things got worse. ‘Sea as high as the maintop. Rain and cold. Much sickness on board. Pig fell down the main hatch. Chaffinch followed us from Beachy Head through the Bay.’ These entries are typical of the Morris diary. Short clipped phrases with little description. Other diarists sometimes gave a more vivid picture of steerage during their first bout of rough weather. On her voyage to the other side of the world young Fanny Davis recorded her first storm. ‘The wind rose very high and now began out troubles – the ship rolled and creaked and every mentionable article in the shape of water kegs, cans, teapots, buckets, with innumerable other things pitched off the shelves and the tables onto the other side of the ship and then in a minute after, the ship would roll to the other side and all our things came back joined by all the articles from the other side of the ship with the most horrid noise as most of them are made from tin. We had to hold onto the sides of our berths to keep from joining the other articles on the floor. The people were very much frightened and when we shipped a heavy sea they would all begin to shriek that we were sinking. The scene was one that cannot be described. In the morning the people were nearly all seasick.’ Things were less of a shambles up in the Alabaster’s cabin where; ‘the wind freshened and we learnt what tossing was about’ and, ‘Annie and Emma were poorly all day but thanks to Mrs Bishop (another cabin passenger) and the Captain were made comfortable with pillows, red blankets etc.’
    The 20th and 21st brought better weather. Passengers always took an interest in what could be seen from the ship and Morris records their first sightings of ‘shoals of porpoises’ and ‘several whales around the ship’. The on board happenings included ‘another pig fell down the hatch’. On these voyages some livestock was carried to provide fresh meat for the paying cabin passengers. Assisted immigrants ate preserved and salted meats.
The Rev Alabaster notes that Mrs Bishop suggested starting a shipboard newspaper. Although he was requested to help the Reverend declined on account of ‘school duties’. He was to conduct classes for the children of the immigrants. It wasn’t unusual for a small allowance to be paid to a suitable person to provide some form of school instruction. Shipboard newspapers were often used on long voyages to provide news and light entertainment. Throughout the voyage the newspaper would be prepared every now and again and read to all of the passengers.

Shipboard Diarists

First hand accounts of the day to day life on immigrant ships were sometimes recorded in passenger’s diaries. In the case of the Strathallan voyage two diarists the Reverend Charles Alabaster and John Thomas Morris have both recorded their observations. The Rev Alabaster a paying passenger travelled as a cabin passenger while Morris was an assisted immigrant. Unfortunately Morris used short phrases and observations with little explanation and Alabaster recorded happenings from the comfort of his cabin on the poop deck.
Other observers often provided a more colourful description of shipboard events. For example on the Lancashire Witch the third ship to sail direct to Timaru (1863) H Price recorded that one day; ‘the captain found one of the quartermasters drunk with a single girl. After a scuffle he was put in irons and locked up.’ He also records the behaviour of a young woman, presumably not the single girl already mentioned, that would have raised eyebrows. ‘Miss Welleans went completely mad and tore all her clothes off.’ These other diaries help to provide a wider view of the behaviour and the happenings on the long journey to New Zealand.

Accommodation plan for an emigrant ship. London Illustrated News
Accommodation plan for an emigrant ship. London Illustrated News

28/10 Two Shipboard Funerals   

   22nd October After only eight days into the voyage the Rev Alabaster recorded that ‘this morning a gloom has been thrown upon all by the death of one of the steerage passengers of disease of the heart and lungs contacted on shore. She leaves two little children in her husband’s care. He is anxious to place them in an orphanage but there does not appear to be one in Canterbury.’ He continues with, ‘I buried poor Mrs Barker’. Enoch Barker and his wife and children were intending to land at Timaru, but later, when the ship arrived here in January, Enoch and his children carried on to Lyttelton.
    23rd October ‘At dinner time on Saturday the Strathallan Gazette and Ocean Chronicle (the ship’s newspaper) was read aloud to the great amusement of the company’ recorded the Rev Alabaster and then Morris also records that the ‘ships newspaper read after dinner’. The newspaper was read separately to the cabin and assisted passengers.
Later in the evening, Alabaster wrote that he and his wife Annie ‘spent some time on the deck enjoying the moonlight and the waves and the emigrants on the main deck gave us some Scotch airs very tastefully – one of their number accompanying them on the concertina’. It is possible that the musician was John Morris as he later records in his diary that he was repairing his concertina. Alabaster’s reference to the emigrants on the main deck is significant as the cabin passengers had their own private area of deck for exercise and relaxation – the poop – while the emigrants were confined to the lower deck area. Separate places for separate people.
    24th October Being a Sunday passengers were ‘expected to appear in clean and decent apparel’ when religious observances were an important part of the day. ‘Sunday morning was again calm and pleasant,’ the Reverend recorded and ‘we had service at 10.30 the steerage passengers mustering in great numbers’. Then after the service his wife ‘Annie was well enough to take the afternoon Sunday School assisted by an old Methodist woman,’ and ‘in the evening we had hymn singing and I preached on the Good Samaritan’. He also notes, ‘a child died this afternoon’. The child was 11 month old William Oakley. He was the youngest child of 27 year old Norfolk labourer Robert Oakley and his wife Charlotte. They had been intending to start a new life with their three children in New Zealand.
Next day he continues; ‘directly after breakfast I read the burial service over the child’ and, ‘tired of delay I then began day school in spite of the weather. In the morning we had two classes at work in the afternoon one only. After school in the afternoon I read one of Anderson’s tales to my scholars’.
Morris notes that the ship was in ‘dull heavy weather. Continually close hauled. 27.27 lat. today’. This latitude would place the ship just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. The next day he continues; ‘Heavy sea all night, broke the cabin windows (in the poop deck accommodation) Very heavy weather; shipping a great deal of water.’
    27th October With changeable weather the ship was becalmed and ‘looking out for the Trades’. The trade winds would provide easy sailing as they headed southwards well out from the coast of North Africa. The ships didn’t necessarily follow the shortest route but would take the course that allowed them to benefit from consistent sailing winds.
    28th October The captain had allowed the carpenter to put up a shelf in the Rev Alabaster’s cabin to hold school books and then his wife assisted him with his day school instruction for the emigrant’s children. He notes that ‘an unpleasant event made me wish I had seen before starting that there was a proper water closet accommodation for ladies’. Morris is more interested in the weather and records; ‘Trades at last! First warmth of sun.’

Births and Death at Sea 

   With the voyage to New Zealand taking about three months births and deaths were usually recorded on most voyages. During the voyage of the Strathallan two adults and six children died. When the Lancashire Witch brought assisted immigrants to Timaru in 1863 seven adults and 23 children died during the voyage. On the Strathallan two children were born. As was often the custom the children born on the Strathallan were burdened with the ship’s name.
    William Jewell on the Echunga which arrived in Timaru in 1862 described the birth of his first child. ‘About 9 I was sitting on the hatchway and heard a child cry Mrs Fox ran up and told me it was mine I did not believe her. Afterwards Mrs Blackmore came out and said it was a boy I felt all at once as if I was relieved of heavy load. I gave all a drink that was around and could have given all I had away when I found she (his wife Grace) was safe.’
If a passenger died the funeral was usually conducted the same day. Wrapped and weighted in a canvas cover the body was held on a plank over the side of the ship. A minister of religion or the captain conducted a brief funeral service and the plank was tipped as relatives and friends watched. The ship sailed on.
    William Jewell’s Echunga diary also described a shipboard funeral. ‘This morning 6 oclock the child was sewn in a piece of canvas cannon ball at the feet it was dropped from the board into the sea doctor read the burial service.’ On the same ship a few days after a burial at sea a shark was caught by the sailors and eaten by the emigrants. The sailors didn’t tell the emigrants that; ‘In the large shark yesterday that was caught was found a child’s leg.

   Arthur Price left us with this record of death and burial on the Lancashire Witch in 1863.
A two and a half year old girl was very ill and Price recorded her last moments.
‘Seeing the mother crying I went to the cabin door, and there was the poor little thing gasping for breath, and making a queer noise in her throat. The mother could not bear it and had to be lead onto the deck. The father said to me she is dying. I said I hope not. Yes he said. Its eyes were set then, and I went in and for the first time in my life saw the breath depart from one.’
The next day he ‘rose this morning at half past five as they buried the little one at six before many was up. I went to the hospital and helped the sailmaker sew the little thing up. We placed two large pieces of chain at the feet to make it sink. Lissy and myself went on deck and it was a most splendid morning, the sun just rising. They layed the corpse on a board and covered it with the Union Jack, two sailors carried it to the side of the deck, and rested its feet upon the side. The father and mother and eldest daughter followed and stood behind crying. The schoolmaster read the burial service and when he came to the part – we commit this body to the deep, they raised the head and the body slipped off into the sea with a sudden splash and sank immediately. The cry of the mother at the moment the body fell was dreadful. The father standing behind the mother and daughter with his arms around them both, all crying. It was indeed a pityful sight.’

4/11 Pleasant Sailing

   29th October The journey of the Strathallan continued with John Morris recording that the 29th was; ‘Favourable. Sun warmer, light wind.’ Next day there was ‘similar weather’. With pleasant sailing the passengers were encouraged to spend as much of the day as possible on the deck area allotted to them. At times informal games and competitions were organised by the emigrants.
The first fine Sunday was on the 31st November. ‘Sun warm; sea smooth; wind fair.’ The emigrants had dinner and tea on the forecastle and Morris noted that it was a ‘very pleasant day altogether’. Although he does not mention it, regulations fixed by the Canterbury Provincial Government required that each Sunday the immigrants were to muster in tidy dress for inspection. The Captain would inspect them ‘to see if they were clean’. Then while they were on deck he would inspect the ‘tween decks ‘to see that it was properly clean and well ventilated’. He was then required to record details and remarks in the ship’s log. After inspection the Captain was to read ‘Divine Service’ or this could also be carried out by the Surgeon or the Schoolmaster. It was not ‘absolutely required’ that immigrants attend the service but they were requested to do so except in the case of illness. A Surgeon was carried on each ship to attend to the health needs of the passengers and in the case of the Strathallan the Reverend Alabaster conducted both the religious services and acted as schoolmaster.
    1st November Another fine day. Morris records that he ‘wrote for the minister.’ This is the only time John Morris mentions the Reverend Alabaster in his diary, but like a number of Morris’s short phrases it fails to tell us exactly what he was doing. His next entry is quite clear. ‘Steward and boy fought.’ With the cramped living conditions disagreements were often the cause of fights. During November Morris recorded four fights, one of which resulted in a crew member being sent to prison.
    2nd November With continuing fine weather the passengers spent most of the day on deck and saw their first ‘flying fish’. Others noticed a waterspout. Later in the day there was a ‘concert on deck in the evening’. Making their own entertainment helped fill the day and if the weather was fine they would gather on the deck to sing or dance.
A number of diarists have reported on evenings when the immigrants sang songs associated with their homelands. It was a time of mixed emotions for they were about to start a new life in New Zealand. They would bring with them many things they valued, some of which would become part of the heritage of their new home.
    4th November The Reverend Alabaster did not have daily diary entries. Perhaps his time was taken up with teaching and preaching duties but he does note on the 4th that ‘today we ought to be crossing the line (the equator) but owing to the light winds are barely if at all within the tropics.’ John Morris also recorded the lack of progress due to ‘light winds’. The trade winds usually provided pleasant sailing conditions and in 1860 on the immigrant ship the Roman Emperor the writer and soon to be pastoralist Samuel Butler eloquently recorded ‘there is no wind more agreeable than the NE trades. The sun keeps the air deliciously warm, the breeze deliciously fresh. The vessel sits bolt upright, steering a SSW course, with the wind nearly aft: she glides along with scarcely any perceptible motion’. The pleasant sailing weather of the week would continue as the trade winds slowly carried the Strathallan towards the equator.

The Sailors

  Sailors on ships of those times worked in difficult conditions and were perhaps noted for their roughness. William Smaill aged eight when he was a passenger on the Strathallan’s first voyage to New Zealand later recorded that the language of the bos’un on the ship ‘might be described as a profanity pump – it ran in such an easy stream.’
    On the voyage to Timaru Captain W R Williamson was in charge but crew members are only mentioned briefly by Morris and without their full names. The Surgeon is referred to as the ‘Doctor’. The 1st Mate is mentioned a couple of times when he caught a shark and threatened to put a sailor in irons. The 2nd and 3rd mates aren’t recorded. The Boatswain also goes unnamed. The crew included Pickles who was sent to prison, Sailor Jack who had fisticuffs with the boatswain, Sailor Jim who was also fighting, Old Jimmy who attacked the ‘black cook’, Little Jimmy, Spainish Joe, Cameron, Long, as well as one of the Stewards who was also involved in fighting, and the cook only known as the ‘black cook’. Also on the ship was a carpenter. Two crew members unmentioned in the diaries were Caleb Pipson and Francis Black. They deserted the ship when it arrived here. Caleb lived in Waimate for a short period then moved to Makarora. Francis Black lived in Timaru.
    Despite the conditions of work there may have been more enjoyable times for sailors on a few of the immigrant ship voyages. William Seagar the Deputy Immigration Officer at Lyttelton reported on the arrival of the Cameo in 1859. He recorded, (at length and in detail) the immoral behaviour that had occurred continuously on the voyage between the sailors and a number of the young woman immigrants. While it would not be appropriate to include further details of the report here, it is worth recording that, among other things, he suggested besides ensuring that the women were securely locked in their quarters at night that, ‘ a supply of knitting and crochet materials should be provided.’ Later diaries do note the provision of needlework materials and instruction for young women but what effect it had has not been recorded.


Immigrants in steerage accommodation. Illustrated London News

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