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On board an Immigrant Ship

What would life be like on board an immigrant ship headed for a new life in New Zealand in 1850?

There were 2 classes of accommodation on board: steerage and cabin

Assisted immigrants

Some immigrants paid for their own passages, but many had their fares paid by companies or the government.
They travelled in steerage. This was a space with a low ceiling below the main deck.

Those paying their own way were usually in ‘second’ or ‘intermediate’ cabins, or in a saloon cabin, at the stern.
In 1866 the cheapest cabin fare was more than three times that of steerage. Steerage passengers generally outnumbered those in the cabins by 10 to 1.

Class distinctions

Class distinction was common in Britain. This continued aboard the ships.
Privileged cabin passengers enjoyed more space, privacy and better food. When some ships stopped at the island of Madeira fresh fruit was brought on board, but it was all for the cabin passengers. People in steerage, were not happy about this. However, on many ships class distinctions began to break down, because this was not the way things happened in New Zealand. Some cabin passengers mingled with those in steerage. But not all the cabin passengers approved of this.

Conditions in steerage

The conditions in steerage were bad. It was a horrible place between decks, and there were so many people in such small a space.
Steerage passengers slept in tiers of bunks. They were provided with mattresses, but no bedding. Bunk space was cramped, and tables and forms occupied the spaces between the bunks. There were no portholes, it was too dark to read and the air was very stuffy. A family of six would sleep in a space that measured 1.8 by 2.4 metres.

Onboard an Immigrant Ship

A lithograph of steerage passengers between decks on board an immigrant ship. The London Illustrated News. 17 August 1850.
Canterbury Museum 1949.136.2

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