“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.Continue reading