Maritime Tales – the emigrant ships

16 July 2007 by Stephen

statue of a fair haired man in a green coat and carry a grey top hat

James Baines statue

The idea of millions of people setting off to new lives is slightly unnerving to me, perhaps because my family has stayed put in Liverpool for 300 years.

An astonishing nine million people emigrated through Liverpool between 1830 and 1930, usually to start new lives in the USA, Canada and Australia. For most of this time Liverpool was the greatest mass emigration port in the world. Huge numbers came from Britain and Ireland but they also travelled from as far away as Scandinavia and Russia.

Until the early 1860s, most crossed the Atlantic on sailing ships. On the Australia run, sail continued to be more important than steam until the late 1870s.

Initially, emigrants were of secondary importance to cargo on sailing ships but by 1850 the majority were carried in American-owned sailing packets. The passage to the USA or Canada took about 55 days and the voyage to Australia usually lasted between 10 and 16 weeks. Most emigrants arrived safely but sometimes there were outbreaks of typhus and cholera in the overcrowded conditions.

At the Merseyside Maritime Museum visitors experience what it was like to be emigrants heading for new lives in the 1850s. They walk along a re-created Liverpool quayside with a noisy lodging house and warehouses. They board the emigrant ship and see how the vast majority of passengers travelled in steerage class. Trunks were piled up and a table was available for simple meals, with the constant roaring of the sea day and night.

Exhibits in the museum’s Emigrants to a New World gallery include a model of the Black Ball Line clipper Marco Polo, one of the most famous of the Liverpool-based ships carrying emigrants to Australia. In 1852 she made a record-breaking passage from Liverpool to Melbourne in 68 days, an amazing 50 days less than the average. However the achievement was marred by a measles epidemic which claimed the lives of 55 of her emigrants. Legend has it that upon her return to Liverpool she passed through the Canning Half Tide Dock, now part of the Maritime Museum, flying a banner proclaiming ‘The Fastest Ship in the World’.

James Baines was the founder of the Black Ball Line and a statuette (shown here) depicting him in a green frock coat and carrying a grey top hat is among exhibits. On his death in 1889 Baines was buried in Smithdown Road Cemetery, Liverpool.

Find out more in the Emigration information sheets from the Maritime Archives and Library.

  1. Kent Elliot says:

    I am tracing some relatives of mine, surname WRAGG (George,Ann and 3 children) who left from somewhere in Brittain in March 1852 on the sail ship ‘MARTIN LUTHER’ bound for Australia.

    I was wondering which port they would have sailed from and is there any other details of the voyage (route taken, date departed, number of passengers or a photo of the ship etc). Any assistance would be much appreciated please.

    Kent Elliot

  2. Karen says:

    Hi, I’ll forward your comment to our Maritime Archives department who deal with this sort of enquiry. Information about what they do and the records they hold can be found on their web pages which you can find at
    Can anyone else thinking of contacting us regarding maritime archives get in touch with Archives directly rather than posting the enquiry as a comment.

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