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Maritime Tales – steaming away

23 July 2007 by stepheng

The closing days of Liverpool as an emigration port were witnessed by me, Stephen Guy, as a teenager watching the Empress liners embarking from the Pier Head decorated with bunting and streamers.

Liverpool was probably the most important mass emigration port in world history in terms of numbers of people carried. Between 1830 and 1930 more than nine million emigrants from all over Europe sailed from the port to seek new lives.

During the Victorian age sail gave way to steam including ships involved in the emigrant trade.  By 1870 almost all emigrants to the United States and Canada went by steamship. Liverpool-based steamship lines such as Cunard, Inman, Guion, White Star, National and Allan dominated the carriage of emigrants to North America.

black and white illustration of a basic cabin with three sets of bunk beds

Image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

On the Australian run, steam did not overtake sail until the late 1870s. There were a few steamships taking emigrants to Australia from the 1850s. However, they had sails and only used steam for part of the voyage. 

Between 1860 and 1900 conditions improved on the emigrant ships. The 1855 Passenger Act had introduced cooked meals for all emigrants and a doctor on larger ships.

Exhibits at the Merseyside Maritime Museum include a model of the Inman Line steamship City of Paris built in 1866 for the Liverpool to New York run. In 1852, Liverpool-based William Inman had introduced the first transatlantic steamer service for emigrants. On display is a Swedish emigrant’s Guion Line ticket from about 1890. The emigrant travelled by sea to Hull, then by rail to Liverpool before joining a ship to New York.

By the early 1900s steamships were bigger and faster. There is a fine detailed model of the Cunard Line’s Saxonia built in 1900 specifically for the emigrant trade without a cheap steerage section.  All the passengers on Saxonia were accommodated in cabins, including 1,600 emigrants in third class.  She operated on the Liverpool to New York and Liverpool to Boston routes before being transferred to the Mediterranean to carry emigrants from southern and eastern Europe to America.

A new generation of super liners came into service during the Edwardian age. Ships like the Mauretania and the ill-fated Titanic and Lusitania had elegant, luxurious first class accommodation but they also carried many emigrants in third class.

The First World War brought a temporary end to emigration. From the 1920s emigration was limited by newly-imposed entry restrictions to the US and Canada.

More information on Liverpool emigration and emigration to Australia on our main website.  There is also an interactive following the fate of a family emigrating to Australia through Liverpool – Leaving from Liverpool.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

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