Kōrero: The voyage out

Whārangi 7. 20th-century steamers

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

In the 30 years following the Second World War, new immigrants, many on assisted passages, flooded in to New Zealand. Their fares were paid by a New Zealand government anxious to increase the country’s population. The first post-war assisted immigrants arrived on a commercial steamer in August 1947. Shortly afterwards, the New Zealand government contracted the Atlantis, refitted to carry 900 passengers. When the Atlantis was scrapped in 1952, the government chartered the Captain Hobson and the Captain Cook. Once these two ships were taken off the route, immigrants travelled on scheduled shipping line vessels.

A single class

The government-chartered ships and Shaw Savill’s Northern Star and Southern Cross were single-class ships. A passenger on the Atlantis in 1951 was also delighted to have the freedom to explore the entire ship. But even on ships with no class distinctions, some found a stigma attached to being on an assisted passage.

Conditions on board

Coming by steamer could be a trial. In 1944 some Polish orphans made the first part of their trip on a converted cattle transporter. And the Goya, which brought displaced people to New Zealand after the Second World War, was a cargo vessel. In an eight-berth cabin on the Atlantis, the bunks were close together and conditions were spartan. Because the cabins were single-sex, some families were split up during the voyage.

Immediately after the Second World War, while food was still being rationed in Britain, immigrants welcomed the unlimited food on board ship. Passengers on the Atlantis may have missed fresh milk, but were served four-course lunches, and ham and eggs, as well as porridge, for breakfast.

‘Crossing the line’

On sailing ships and later on steamships, the crew would often involve the passengers in fun and games, sometimes bordering on foolhardy, when they crossed the equator. In 1864, sailors marked the event by hosing everybody down. And over 100 years later, the crew had passengers peering over side of a steamship looking for the buoys that supposedly marked the line.

Feelings on leaving and arriving

Twentieth-century migrants, like those in the 19th century, left their homeland both excited at new beginnings and sad to be leaving family and friends. They also experienced relief at a safe arrival. A lad in 1951 was overheard saying, ‘We have come all this way and didn’t even sink once.’ 1


After the Second World War most steamships sailed to New Zealand through one of the canals. Passengers on ships using the Suez Canal generally had time ashore at Aden, Colombo and Fremantle. The ships that went through the Panama Canal often stopped at Pitcairn Island. Some vessels continued to use the old route around the Cape of Good Hope.

And your destination is …

In the 1950s, the government posted liaison officers on board the steamers to give the immigrants information and advice about their new home. Films about New Zealand were shown. In 1951 one passenger decided after seeing a documentary about New Zealand that ‘it was very lovely’. But another migrant in that year remembered that after about three weeks or so, people began to say, ‘Oh God, I hope they’re not mustering sheep in the Southern Alps again tonight’. 2

Immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s embarked at Tilbury (London), Southampton or Glasgow. Migrants from Europe embarked at Italian or Dutch ports. If a ship was going only as far as Australia, migrants completed their journey to New Zealand by flying boat or on a trans-Tasman liner.

Passing the time

To relieve the tedium of long days at sea, there were concerts, debates and choirs, and games of deck quoits. The usual strolling about, chatting, playing cards and eating filled in time. Gambling at bingo and tombola was popular.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Mae Palmer, At the bows looking forward: the voyage to New Zealand by the Palmer family in 1951, on board the SS Atlantis, as described by Mae Palmer in letters to her parents in Paisley, Scotland, (no publisher, no date). › Back
  2. Megan Hutching, Long journey for sevenpence: an oral history of assisted immigration to New Zealand from the United Kingdom, 1947–1975. Wellington: Victoria University Press/Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1999, p. 113. › Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

John Wilson, 'The voyage out - 20th-century steamers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/the-voyage-out/page-7 (accessed 24 July 2024)

He kōrero nā John Wilson, i tāngia i te 8 Feb 2005