“We set sail probably on the second or third of May 1843 from Greenock, the port of Glasgow”– wrote William Fleming in his recollections of crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Quebec with his parents and seven siblings. William was six years old at the time. “It was a three-masted vessel,” he remembered and, “The ship had a general cargo of merchandise, the crew and passengers numbered some fifty to sixty.”
All who read William’s emigration story wish his account had been longer. What was it like to travel in steerage, what were the conditions, what did they have in provisions? We can can get a sense from a superb reproduction of an 1840s emigrant vessel, The Dunbrody, that is moored in New Ross, Co. Wexford, Ireland. Built in Quebec in 1845 the Dunbrody was a three-masted ship with a registered tonnage of 485. Lloyd’s Register tells us that it was made of oak, elm, and “hamkmatack” – tamarack. Lloyd’s assessed the ship as A1. (1) In 1849, when it sailed for New York, it carried 176 passengers.
The Flemings sailed on the Jeanie Deans out of Glasgow – a three-masted barque in May 1843. It was 319 tons – a bit smaller than the Dunwoody, built in 1841, also in Quebec, and was “sheathed with yellow metal.” According to Lloyd’s Register, the ship was made from black birch, oak, and tamarack and graded as A1. (1) The Jeanie Deans carried 65 passengers and 10 crew on that voyage. (2)
Typically (as we learn from Cian T. McMahon’s book, The Coffin Ship), emigrant ships had a forecastle deck at the front, the main deck in the middle, and the poop at the rear. The poop deck was reserved for officers and ”cabin” passengers. Below the poop deck there might be a hospital and the ship’s galley. Steerage travellers were allowed on the main deck at designated times to cook their meals on an open-fire grate. For most of the day they were confined below the main deck – or ‘tween deck” – in a long room accessed through hatches from the deck. When the seas were rough, the hatches were nailed shut to prevent flooding, but this also closed off air and heightened the misery below deck. Sleeping and living arrangements were cramped.
They laid their crude bedding on double-decked, roughly carpentered wooden shelves, which ran along the walls of steerage and were arranged into six-foot-by six-foot berths designed to be shared by four or more people. On the largest ships, tables and benches were arranged in the open space between the berths, and there were water closets at either end. .. Finally, emigrants kept only some of their personal food and clothing in sacks, carpetbags, and trunks or chest stowed near their berths. He rest of their belongings, along with the ship’s provisions. .. were stored in the hold, in the bottom of the ship, and accessed infrequently during any given voyage. (3)
Photos from the Dunbrody show the six-by-six foot bunks, that allowed 18 inches for each person. The top bunk might have been two and a half feet high, allowing three and a half feet for the lower. Ceilings were six feet high. There were tables with benches in the middle the passengers used for eating and all activities. Passengers were expected to bring their bedding with straw being preferred – easier to throw out later. There were advantages to claiming a berth in the middle of the ship near a hatchway. (4)
During a storm many or all became seasick, people tumbled from their bunks, bags, trunks, pots and slop containers were tossed everywhere. The noise of wind and screeching timbers was deafening. Ships sailed from Northern Europe in spring and summer to avoid icebergs and the worst of the North Atlantic storms. (5) The May departure did not spare the Fleming family.
Setting sail it soon become rough and stormy, all the passengers became thoroughly seasick and my father inquired of the captain about the danger: he replied, “Why should a living man complain?” Later on the foremast was broken and the boat was nearly thrown over forward. All in all, it was a pretty rough voyage. [William Fleming]
But there is no mention of anyone dying. William’s next vivid memory was of the marvel of whales and, later, fishing in calm waters off Newfoundland. There was beauty and wonder.
We saw whales spouting out water, also many porpoises. At length, about six weeks from starting, we arrived at Newfoundland and it being perfectly calm, the boat stood still and all took a hand in fishing, we caught large numbers of, I think, cod fish. After passing quarantine at Grosse Isle, we sailed on to Quebec where we stopped opposite the Island of Orleans and took on some quarters of beef from a row boat. Then leaving Quebec we made for Montreal where we arrived in the night. We were transferred , having our effects removed from the vessel to the Canal boat. [William Fleming]
Voyages must have been seared in the memories of all who reached their destination – the great relief of getting off the ship, of being on firm ground, and having fresh water and food. Fortunately, we have this short description from William Fleming’s “Story of the Emigration of the Family of Alexander Fleming and Jean Stewart from Scotland to Upper Canada.”
[Photos by Gwen Harris, September 2022]
1. Lloyd’s Register of Ships Online – https://hec.lrfoundation.org.uk/archive-library/lloyds-register-of-ships-online – Google Books has digitized versions of several years. Search within Lloyd’s for 1843 jeanie deans
2. Details at Immigrants to Canada: Vessels arriving at Quebec 1843 – https://web.archive.org/web/20160325150607/https://personal.uwaterloo.ca/marj/genealogy/ships/ships1843.html
3. The Coffin Ship: Life and death at sea during the Great Irish Famine, p. 9
4. Ibid p. 92
5. “Coffin ships: death and pestilence on the Atlantic” at Irish Genealogy Toolkit — https://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/coffin-ships.html
Resources for more about the experience
Lucille H. Campey, The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada, 1784-1855: Glengarry and Beyond, Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2008 – Campey’s research helped to desensationalize the story of “coffin ships” and the view that the desperate conditions were always the case.
Edwin C Guillet, The great migration, the Atlantic Crossing by sailing ship since 1770, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Second Edition 1963 – available online at https://ia802903.us.archive.org/0/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.507500/2015.507500.The-Great.pdf
Guillet’s accounts contributed to the overwrought view of pervasive illness and deprivation, especially the chapters VIII Daily Life in the Steerage and IX Storm and Misery.
Cian T McMahon, The Coffin Ship: Life and death at sea during the Great Irish Famine, New York: New York University Press, 2021. McMahon draws from letters and documents and government statistics about migration of the Irish from 1845 to 1855 to Australia, Canada, and the United States. Mortality rates except for the famine year of 1847 were not exceptional. McMahon uses personal accounts to describe preparation for the voyage, embarkation, life and death at sea, and arrival.