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Full steam ahead

31 August 2009 by stepheng

Etching of a ship docked next to warehouses.

Image courtest Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

I always relish the anticipation of travelling – it is enjoyable to plan your journey and visualise what you will see and do. It is wonderful that many people can now travel relatively cheaply for pleasure. Once people stayed put and only journeyed out of absolute necessity.

In the early days of mass emigration many travellers probably thought of their approaching voyages with dread. It was often an exhausting ordeal just getting to your embarkation port and successfully boarding a ship.

Emigration was boosted by steamship development and by the 1870s most emigrants travelled this way rather than by sail. Steam power at sea – like the railways on land – made journeys quicker and also led to regular reliable timetable services. No longer did passengers have to cope with many delays mostly caused by bad weather.

In the second half of the 19th century, shipping companies such as White Star, Cunard, Allan, Inman, Guion and National ran regular services out of Liverpool. They took trade from the American sailing packet services, bringing money and business to the port. Importantly for the benefit of emigrants, they brought competition. Fares and charges were driven down as the shipping companies fought to attract business.

Publicity was often focused on First Class as the liners developed and became more luxurious. However, emigrant passengers provided the bread-and-butter profits for the shipping companies.

In the winter some rooms were now heated, unheard of in the days of wooden sailing ships where accommodation was invariably cold and wet.

On shore, appalling conditions experienced by emigrants gave cause for concern and moves were made to relieve their plight.

In the new emigrants’ gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a contemporary print of a Government-funded emigration depot (pictured). It was opened in Birkenhead in 1852 for British emigrants heading for Australia. The depot provided meals, warm shelter and safety until its closure in 1868 when general conditions for emigrants had improved.

The accommodation which the depot offered helped to increase sailings from Liverpool and shipowners competed for lucrative Government contracts. In the depot you had to behave and follow the rules.

Liverpool-based Thomas Ismay’s White Star Line (Oceanic Steam Navigation Company) become one of the major transatlantic emigration operators which later built the Titanic.

On display are several items which saw daily use on emigrant ships. There are large coffee and tea pots embossed with the famous White Star flag. A soup ladle was made for the Guion Line in 1871.

Our Maritime Archives and Library have information on firms involved in emigration. There’s more on the experiences of emigrants in our ‘Leaving from Liverpool’ feature.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).

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