Some immigrants paid for their own passages, but many had their fares paid by colonisation companies or the government. They travelled in steerage – a low-ceilinged space beneath the main deck. Those paying their own way were usually in ‘second’ or ‘intermediate’ cabins, or in a saloon cabin below the poop deck, at the stern. In 1866 the cheapest saloon fare was more than three times that of steerage. Steerage passengers generally outnumbered those in the cabins by 10 to 1.
Britain’s class distinctions continued on board. Privileged cabin passengers enjoyed more space, privacy and better food. When the Otago paused at the island of Madeira in 1879, fresh fruit was brought on board, but it was ‘all for the cabin’. Down in steerage, class resentment sometimes simmered. One reason given by the surgeon of the Christian McAusland (1872) for keeping cabin passengers off emigrant ships was that ‘an ignorant and unreasoning lot of agricultural people are made doubly discontented and dissatisfied at only viewing the cabin victuals, livestock and fresh meat etc. which they are unable to obtain’. 1
However, on many ships rigid class distinctions began to break down, anticipating New Zealand’s more fluid class structure. Some cabin passengers mingled with those in steerage. The explorer and writer Samuel Butler formed a choir on the Roman Emperor through which, he said, he was ‘glad … to form the acquaintance of many of the poorer passengers’. 2
Not all the cabin passengers approved: there were complaints about ‘the impudence of steerage’, and one remarked that ‘even the poorest imagine that they will be grand folk in New Zealand’. 3
Conditions in steerage
Writing of the conditions in steerage, one cabin passenger commented, ‘Poor creatures, it is a horrible place between decks, so many people in so small a space, I wonder how they live’. 4 Steerage passengers slept in tiers of bunks. They were provided with mattresses, but not bedding. Bunk space was cramped, and tables and forms occupied the spaces between tiers. The headroom between decks could be as little as 1.8 metres.
Steerage was divided into three compartments: single men occupied the forward area, next to the crew’s quarters; single women were aft; and married couples were in the middle. Separate hatchways gave access to each compartment.
When Michael Studholme named the first small hut on his Te Waimate sheep station in South Canterbury in 1854 he brought the nautical term ‘cuddy’ ashore. At sea, this was the saloon cabin at the stern, in which the wealthier immigrants travelled in greater comfort than those in steerage. The use of the word for a cramped but snug hut seems to be confined to New Zealand. There is also a surviving cuddy at Mt Gladstone in Marlborough.
During religious services the separation between cabin and steerage was relaxed. On the Lord Auckland (1842) the captain initially read prayers to the cabin passengers in the cuddy (the saloon cabin), while the doctor read them to the steerage passengers and crew below. Later on this voyage, all the passengers assembled on the main deck for prayers. Finally steerage passengers were admitted to the cuddy for prayers.
Eventually it became usual for cabin and steerage passengers to form a single congregation. Shipboard concerts also brought passengers of all classes together as both performers and audience.
On ships with all-male crews and single men as passengers, the character and future prospects of single female immigrants were thought to be at risk. Men were denied access to the women’s compartments, and captains were instructed to ‘prohibit familiarities’ between unmarried men and women.
When the Friedeberg sailed without a matron in 1872, a ‘serious breach of discipline’ resulted. Two men gained access to the single women’s compartment by night, but the surgeon judged it ‘more a case of frolicsome mischief’ than anything else. 5
The vulnerability of single women to the attentions of young upper-class men, who tended to look on single, lower-class women as ‘fair game’, was one argument against having cabin passengers on emigrant ships.