Sixty days at sea

Life on board the SS Great Britain on a journey to Australia.

On 21 August 1852, when the SS Great Britain steamed out of Liverpool on her very first voyage to Australia, hundreds of people waved goodbye to their families and friends. Many of the passengers hoped for a better life on the other side of the world, and for the SS Great Britain it was the beginning of a long and successful run across the world’s oceans. Over the next 25 years the SS Great Britain carried thousands of people from England to Australia and back, and she circumnavigated the world 32 times.

When Anthony Trollope went on board the ship in 1871, the SS Great Britain was still very well known and loved in both Britain and Australia. Usually she sailed for most of the way to Australia, but she was also equipped with an efficient steam engine to be used during unfavourable winds, which allowed the ship to run to a timetable and make the journey from Liverpool to Melbourne in about sixty days.

Sixty days at sea, and hundreds of people were crammed into the cabins of the SS Great Britain. Anthony Trollope wrote in his autobiography:

When making long journeys, I have always succeeded in getting a desk put up in my cabin, and this was done ready for me in the Great Britain, so that I could go to work the day after we left Liverpool. This I did; and before I reached Melbourne I had finished a story called Lady Anna.

He does not reveal anything else about his voyage on the SS Great Britain, but there was certainly much more that happened in these 60 days. What was it like to travel on board a ship to Australia in the late 19th century? What did people do all day long for 60 days out at sea? A collection of diaries written by passengers who travelled to Australia on board the SS Great Britain between 1852 and 1876 can give us an impression of what people experienced on their journeys.

In 1852 the American consul in Liverpool, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his diary, that

there is an immense enthusiasm amongst the English people about this ship, on account of her being the largest in the world. The shores were lined with people to see her sail; and there were innumerable small steamers, crowded with people, all the way out into the ocean.

Upon arrival on board, hundreds of passengers had to find their cabins and were trying not to lose their bags or even their children in the resulting confusion and chaos. The space and quality of the accommodation passengers could expect on board the SS Great Britain was very much dependent on which class the passenger was travelling in. Rich ladies and gentlemen who could afford to travel in the first class were able to have their own cabins, or if they were travelling with a friend or partner, they could share a cabin with them. Travelling in the second class was still quite expensive, but here passengers had to share with other people. Men, who were travelling without wives or families usually shared a cabin with five other gentlemen. These cabins were so small that it was difficult for two people to stand up and get dressed at the same time. Most of the passengers were poorer emigrants who travelled in third class, also called steerage, and they included whole families who went out to Australia in hope of a better life.

When the SS Great Britain went out to Australia, she was at sea for about 60 days, and there were no opportunities to buy fresh supplies of food during the journey. Hence, all the food and water had to be loaded on board the ship in Liverpool. The storerooms were filled with tinned food, potatoes, flour, cheese, cooked meat, and vegetables. In order to provide first class passengers with fresh meat, live animals were taken on board. Hundreds of sheep, pigs and chickens were kept on board, and there was even a cow to provide fresh milk. A passenger listed the number of live animals on board ship during a voyage in 1865. There were 126 sheep, 4 lambs, 30 pigs, 2 bullocks, a cow, 510 fowl, 286 ducks, 65 geese, 32 turkeys and 6 rabbits.

On a 60-day voyage across the world’s oceans, and with the cramped conditions on board the ship it is not surprising that a few shipboard romances occurred. In the first and second class cabins there were usually only a few travelling single ladies and with the many single men going out to Australia in search for fortune, these ladies received a lot of attention.

But sometimes a romance struck up on board the SS Great Britain could also lead to an engagement. In 1853 a passenger reported in his diary the engagement of a Mr. Hutchinson and Miss Fitzgerald. They had met on board the ship and everybody thought the man had been very lucky to be accepted by the parents of the lady, since his station was not as good as the lady’s family could wish for. However, another passenger, Annie Henning, reported in her diary that the father of the lady had lost most of the family’s fortune and Miss Fitzgerald was actually travelling out to Australia to find a position as a governess. It is not known if the pair really did get married in Australia.

Anthony Trollope must have seen the same changes in the skies in 1871 and he certainly experienced the same conditions and situations so many others had on board the SS Great Britain. Even though Mr. Trollope spent a lot of time in his cabin writing Lady Anna, he probably also participated in many a shipboard party, concert or theatre presentation. Spending 60 days at sea must have been a wondrous experience and, let us hope, an exciting episode in his life.

Edited from ‘Sixty Days at Sea: Life on board the SS Great Britain on a journey to Australia’, by Joanna Thomas
First published Trollopiana 89, Spring 2011.