Story: The voyage out

Page 6. Early steamers

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Emigrants to North America regularly travelled by steamer from the late 1830s. By 1875, steamships were carrying mail and passengers on all international routes, except to Australia and New Zealand. The long distances between coaling stations on the voyage gave sail a competitive edge over steam until the 1880s. Some immigrants continued to come by sailing ship until the 1890s.

In the 1850s and 1860s, steamers which also had sails brought small numbers of immigrants to New Zealand. They came most of the way under sail. In the mid-1860s mail steamers began crossing the Pacific. These carried passengers, but not immigrants. The first full-powered steamship to bring immigrants, the Mongol, arrived in Port Chalmers in February 1874, 51 days out of Plymouth. The Scimitar, a sailing ship which left Plymouth at the same time, took 70 days.

The Stad Haarlem

In 1879 the New Zealand Shipping Company and the Shaw Savill shipping line, under pressure from the New Zealand government, chartered a large steamship to bring immigrants. The Stad Haarlem sailed from Plymouth with close to 700 people on board. With coaling stops at St Vincent and Cape Town, it reached New Zealand in 59 days.

Although the shipping companies lost money on the voyage of the Stad Haarlem, in 1880 Shaw Savill chartered two further steamers to bring out immigrants.

Steamers take over

In 1883 the New Zealand government awarded a contract for a monthly mail service between Britain and New Zealand to the New Zealand Shipping Company and Shaw Savill. The Shipping Company promptly ordered five 15-knot steamers of more than 4,000 tons each. The steamers also carried masts and sails for use when the winds were favourable, to save on coal. Before this, the company chartered two steamers with sails, the British King and the British Queen, for the New Zealand run. Shaw Savill also acquired steamers for the route.

By the early 1890s steamers were carrying most immigrants to New Zealand. Between 200 and 300 people travelled in third class (the term ‘steerage’ fell out of use) on passages of about 40 days.

Journey by steamer was more comfortable than by sailing ship. Third-class passengers still had to provide their own bedding and mess utensils, and their diet was still based on porridge and preserved and salted meat, but they also enjoyed fresh bread and roast meat. Meals were cooked and served by stewards. The cabins were lit by electricity and heated by steam.

Steamer routes

The Suez Canal opened in 1869, linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, but did not immediately become a common route to New Zealand. Sail-assisted steamships and then full steamers followed the traditional sailing ship route round the Cape of Good Hope, stopping to take on coal at Tenerife, Cape Town and Hobart.

The 1914 opening of the Panama Canal, which connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, offered an alternative route. New Zealand Shipping Company vessels started using the canal that year, and Shaw Savill ships two years later.

Voyages in the 1920s

When assisted immigration resumed in the 1920s, technological changes made voyages to New Zealand even faster and more comfortable. Steamships were converted from coal to oil, then diesel replaced steam engines. The first passenger motor ship on the New Zealand run, the Rangitiki, sailed in 1929. Such large, well-appointed vessels carried some 600 passengers in three classes, usually with equal numbers in each class – a change from the days of sail when large numbers travelled in steerage and only a handful in the cabins. The culmination of these changes came with the building of the Dominion Monarch in 1937–39. But immigrants did not come to New Zealand on this handsome ship until after the Second World War.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'The voyage out - Early steamers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 April 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 Feb 2005