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The voyage out

by  John Wilson

From the Scottish port of Greenock to Dunedin in New Zealand’s South Island is close to 20,000 kilometres – as far as you could travel to start a new life. By sailing ship, the journey took months. Voyagers endured boredom, terror and misery, and with only the vast, unpredictable ocean to look at. Many of those who stepped on board owned few possessions, but they had what it took: plenty of courage and hope.

Journeys to New Zealand

The longest journey

Europeans who decide to make a new home in New Zealand embark on the longest journey of migration in human history. In the 19th century this voyage was made by ship. Not only was the passage long and comparatively expensive, it was miserable and dangerous.

The Atlantic comparison

Most who left Europe in the 19th century opted for North America – a shorter, cheaper passage across the Atlantic. In 1850 this took 10 days and cost £4. By comparison, the journey to New Zealand took from 75 to 120 days and cost at least £15. But trans-Atlantic emigrants faced worse conditions and, because the passage to New Zealand was better regulated, greater risks of death by shipwreck or illness.

Government regulations

In the 1830s the British government began stationing officers at British ports to ensure that regulations about the seaworthiness, ventilation and provisioning of emigrant ships were observed. Those promoting emigration to New Zealand had a particular reason to see that standards were maintained: on such a long voyage, bad rations and poor conditions would have led to disease and death. To prevent the passage to New Zealand becoming notorious, the New Zealand provincial and central governments insisted on even higher standards than those of the British. This spared migrants to New Zealand the worst abuses of the Atlantic crossing.

Bad press

Reports of the dreadful conditions on board, from those who had made it to the other side of the world, put many people off. In the early 1870s a Wellington immigration officer informed the agent general in London that ‘letters written home by immigrants who have been made miserable throughout the passage by causes entirely remediable, do more to retard emigration than all the costly advertisements, peripatetic lecturers, and highly paid agents do to advance it’. 1

The dividing line

Although the journey was easier for 20th-century immigrants, whether they were boarding a sailing ship at London’s East India docks or a plane at Heathrow, leaving your homeland to make a new beginning was a major life event. New Zealanders have an experience common to all recent immigrant nations: they or their ancestors left one place for another. The sense of belonging to another place has been passed down even to those who did not themselves migrate. The memory of Hawaiki may be stronger for many Māori than the memory of a European or other place of origin is for most non-Māori New Zealanders, but all share stories of a journey made by ancestors from a distant homeland.

An immigrant in 1956, approaching New Zealand by steamer, rose at the crack of dawn for a first sight of land. What appeared to be just a bank of cloud resolved itself into land with cloud above. His thoughts turned to others who had approached the same land after a long voyage, and perhaps to the name the early Polynesian navigators gave it – Aotearoa, the ‘land of the long white cloud’. This, he told himself, ‘would have been what the early canoeists would have seen’. 2

Ships and shipping companies

Between 1839 and the 1890s, several hundred sailing ships brought tens of thousands of immigrants from Europe to New Zealand. In the 1840s the ships were generally around 500 to 600 tons and carried between 100 and 250 passengers. By the 1880s they could weigh over 2,000 tons and carry up to 500 passengers.

The ships were owned by several companies. When the New Zealand Shipping Company was founded in Christchurch in 1872, the government welcomed it as competition to British firms whom they perceived as tending to place cost-saving above the wellbeing of passengers.

The route

In the late 18th century a route to transport convicts from Europe to Australia had been developed. This took ships south-west down the north Atlantic, often as far west as Brazil, then south-east to Cape Town. The ‘easting’ to Australia from Cape Town was roughly along the 39th parallel. By the 1840s ships bound for New Zealand were following a similar route across the Atlantic (though seldom reaching Brazil), then swinging wide round the Cape of Good Hope into the roaring forties – westerly winds that moved ships along at great speed.

Vessels were sailed as far south as their captains dared, in order to benefit from stronger winds, but there was a risk of violent storms and icebergs. In 1850, when the Charlotte Jane went as far south as 52˚ 36', the Lyttelton Times criticised its captain for inflicting miseries on passengers in the interests of making a fast passage.


Immigrants were subjected to a great variety of conditions en route. Storms in the English Channel or the Bay of Biscay were followed by pleasant sailing in the trade winds. In the equatorial doldrums, awnings were often raised over the decks to provide shade from the incessant sun. Storms were encountered again in the Southern Ocean or Tasman Sea, sending ships tumbling and rolling.

  1. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1873, D-11, pp. 91–92. › Back
  2. Quoted in 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 in association with Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, 1999, p. 118. › Back

Departure to landing


The journey to New Zealand began for most migrants with an overland trip to the English ports of London or Plymouth, or to Greenock docks near Glasgow. If ships were not ready to leave, passengers had to wait for up to a fortnight, often without enough money for decent board and lodging. In the 1870s, government barracks at Plymouth and Blackwall accommodated people waiting to board.

At London, the loaded ships were towed by steam tug to Gravesend, where cabin passengers boarded. They escaped the usual crowding, pushing and confusion on the dockside. On the day of sailing, carpenters could be still putting up partitions and bunks – temporary fittings in space used for cargo on the return voyage.

Feelings on departure

Passengers embarked knowing they were leaving their native land and often their loved ones, perhaps never to return. An 1841 emigrant recorded that no one was in a talkative humour as they took ‘a last long aching gaze’ at their native shore, but noted later that ‘the hope of the future’ drove regret away. 1 Women often recorded the pain of parting. One wrote in 1865 that she felt ‘dreary and lonely and unhappy’ and could do nothing but cry. 2 After a month at sea in 1869, a woman migrant took out ‘likenesses’ of her family, read their letters, and had a good cry. 3 But in 1858 a woman who felt inclined to join other women crying, asked herself what there was to cry about and set about tidying her bunk.

Diversions and entertainment

Boredom on the long voyage was relieved by such novel sights as dolphins, flying fish, albatrosses and whales. For cabin passengers at least, books, chess and cards helped pass the time. Quoits, a game using plaited rings of rope, was played on deck. Entertainments ranged from simple debates to the performance of plays. Concerts were popular, and newspapers were produced on several ships.

The monotony was also relieved by passing ships. People waved handkerchiefs, and letters were sometimes passed to home-bound vessels – the ships would heave to and people would row small boats back and forth. In the Southern Ocean encounters with other ships were rare.

Sights at sea

During their travels, passengers saw strange and wonderful things. In the Southern Ocean in 1843 a passenger ‘saw a sunset of such glorious beauty as to be well nigh worth coming thus far to look at’. 4 Watching flying fish ‘afforded infinite amusement’, one diarist noted. 5 On an 1881 voyage, the single women from steerage were brought up onto the poop deck (where they were not normally allowed) to view the phenomenon of phosphorescence on the waves.

Fights aboard

Close confinement often led to quarrelling and ‘cabin fever’. In one account of the Lord Auckland’s 1842 voyage, a ‘regular row’ involving sailors and emigrants, ‘all fighting together, and shouting, cursing, swearing and screaming in a general mass’, erupted when the sweetheart of a hysterical woman attacked the surgeon. 6 In another report, the ‘great national dislike between Scandinavians and Germans’ on board the Friedeberg (1873) led to endless ‘petty squabbles’. 7

Fire and shipwreck

Shipwreck or fire was a threat on every voyage. Possibly the worst disaster occurred when the Cospatrick caught fire and sank in 1874, causing the loss of 470 people. Some dramatic voyages ended happily. On 1 January 1874 the Surat ran ashore on the Catlins coast. The ship was a write-off, but all 268 passengers were rescued and taken to Dunedin by steamer. In another incident in 1878, the Piako began to burn in the Atlantic. Its passengers were transferred to a passing ship and taken to Pernambuco in Brazil, where the fire was extinguished and the ship repaired.


Anticipation mounted as voyages neared their end, and the immigrants would be on deck before daybreak to watch for the first sign of their new home. Vessels that arrived carrying disease were quarantined. At quarantine stations, passengers and bedding were disinfected. In a few sad cases, deaths in quarantine cut short the new lives for which immigrants had hoped.

  1. Alfred Fell, A colonist’s voyage to New Zealand under sail in the ‘early forties’. Christchurch: Capper Press, 1973, p. 3. › Back
  2. Tony Simpson, The immigrants: the great migration from Britain to New Zealand 1830–1890. Auckland: Godwit, 1997, p. 132. › Back
  3. The immigrants, p. 133. › Back
  4. John Hursthouse diary, 18 January 1841–43, typescript. Alexander Turnbull Library. › Back
  5. A colonist’s voyage to New Zealand under sail in the ‘early forties’, p. 31. › Back
  6. A colonist’s voyage, pp. 43–45, 64, 70. › Back
  7. Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR) 1873, D-1, pp. 3, 8. › Back

Cabin and steerage

Assisted immigrants

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.

Class distinctions

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.

The cuddy

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.

Church services

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.

Single women

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.

  1. Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR) 1873, D-1, pp. 50-51. › Back
  2. Charlotte Macdonald, A woman of good character: single women as immigrant settlers in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Historical Branch, 1990, p. 87. › Back
  3. Tony Simpson, The immigrants: the great migration from Britain to New Zealand 1830–1890. Auckland: Godwit, 1997, pp. 86–89. › Back
  4. Alfred Fell, A colonist’s voyage to New Zealand under sail in the ‘early forties’. Christchurch: Capper Press, 1973, p. 87. › Back
  5. AJHR 1873, D-1, p. 2. › Back

Life on board

Pests, smells, damp and dirt

Vermin infested the immigrant ships. The Charlotte Jane’s shipboard newspaper was called the Cockroach in honour of those troublesome pests. Smells emanated from the latrines and from animals on board. The steerage compartments were subject to flooding when waves broke over the ship. On one vessel, some emigrants were half-drowned in their beds during a storm, and on another, the beds in steerage were almost constantly wet.

Food and diet

Live sheep, pigs and poultry were carried and killed periodically to provide fresh meat for the cabin passengers’ table, where fresh milk was also served.

Those in steerage survived on salted and preserved meat, ship’s biscuit, flour, oatmeal and dried potatoes. The diet was coarse, monotonous, and offered poor nutrition, but it rarely ran short.

Food on the fly

Some men passed the time trying to catch fish or seabirds. They snared albatrosses by baiting hooks on long lines that trailed behind the ships. They shot or harpooned porpoises and sharks, and caught smaller fish on lines. The catches helped vary the dreary shipboard fare. Barracouta were thought to taste like mackerel.

On early voyages, shipping companies decided what to feed their passengers. From the later 1840s, the companies were required to follow ‘dietary scales’. These gave steerage passengers less flour, raisins, sugar, tea and coffee, but more salted meat, biscuit and oatmeal than those in the cabins.

Spoilage or skimping by unscrupulous ship owners could reduce the amount of food passengers actually received. Passengers on the Halcione (1872) claimed that some of the meat was ‘putrid and unfit to eat’ and that it had been thrown overboard. The surgeon conceded that one piece had been ‘slightly tainted’ but was still ‘perfectly wholesome’. 1

There were different arrangements in cabin and steerage for cooking and serving food. The crew cooked and served food for cabin passengers. The emigrants in steerage were divided into messes of about six people, and stores were handed out to each mess. On earlier voyages the emigrants cooked their own food. After 1855 food was cooked for passengers in a central galley in common pots, with the food of each mess kept separate.


Steerage passengers were each allowed 3.4 litres of fresh water a day. But water stored in barrels often deteriorated and became undrinkable in a couple of months. Both cabin and steerage passengers attempted to catch rainwater to drink or for washing.

By the 1870s most ships had condensers. Fuelled by coal, these devices distilled sea water, ensuring a liberal supply of pure drinking water. However, even ships with condensers sometimes faced problems if the machine was faulty or the captain skimped on coal.

Personal hygiene

Lack of fresh water made keeping clean difficult. Salt water was not pleasant for washing, even with special soap. In the tropics men could swim or were hosed down on deck by sailors. Women, to preserve propriety, were usually denied these opportunities to keep cool and clean.

Despite the long passage, overcrowding, and poor food and hygiene, some ships arrived without losing any passengers.

  1. Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR) 1872, D-16A, pp. 5–8. › Back

Sickness at sea

Child mortality

Those who died were generally children. In the 1860s and 1870s, one in five of the infants below the age of one died on the voyage. Births on the voyage seldom outnumbered deaths.

Children were particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases such as scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough and measles, and the shipboard diet lacked supplies of preserved milk and was overloaded with starchy foods. The surgeon of a ship on which 18 children died in 1874 declared more preserved milk and foods containing protein, such as eggs, cheese and beef tea, should be carried on ships with large numbers of children.


Poor ventilation in steerage was often blamed for the deaths of children. But when infectious diseases came on board, passengers died even on well-ventilated ships. Careless medical inspections of embarking passengers were often blamed for outbreaks of disease.

In 1873, passengers boarded the Scimitar and Mongol in Plymouth from disease-ridden barracks. The Scimitar became a ‘floating pest-house’, where measles and scarlet fever carried off 26 people.

The conditions in which emigrants boarded were also blamed for outbreaks of disease. When the Woodlark sailed in 1874, emigrants were kept huddling on deck in a dense fog, their bedding and luggage strewn about, before being allowed to go below. Twenty died on the voyage.

Hospitals and surgeons

Cramped hospitals below deck were often blamed for deaths at sea. However the Merope in 1872 had its hospital on deck, which ensured that patients in critical condition received the comfort, ventilation and quiet they needed. Incompetent surgeons failed to prevent the spread of disease. Positions as surgeons on immigrant ships to New Zealand were poorly paid, and securing a passage back to England was uncertain. Inexperienced men were sometimes appointed. Some surgeons were over-fond of drink, and a number admitted to taking opium for their own medical conditions.

Keeping the spirits up

The ‘medical comforts’ on board included sherry, spirits and stout for the sick. One surgeon complained that his supply included 240 bottles of gin for which he ‘had no use whatever, except as inducements for men to clean out the apartments’. 1 Another reported he had been abused for refusing to supply brandy for supposed diarrhoea, commenting that there were a remarkable number of stomach aches in the evening which could be cured by gin.

Besides looking after the health of the immigrants, surgeons had to keep order below decks. To help them, they appointed matrons, who looked after the moral welfare of the single women, and constables, who maintained discipline among the single men, helped distribute rations, and organised the male steerage passengers for shipboard duties.

Surgeons were also expected to appoint schoolmasters to teach the children. Attempts to conduct lessons met with limited success, usually because no suitable place for a classroom could be found, especially during the long haul through the Southern Ocean.

  1. Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR) 1873, D-1, p. 8. › Back

Early steamers

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.

20th-century steamers

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.

  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

Air travel

The first immigrants to fly all the way from Europe to New Zealand arrived in the early 1950s; the last to make this journey by ship came in the late 1970s. In 1966 Auckland’s international airport at Mangere opened and the newly formed Air New Zealand acquired three DC8 jet aircraft for a trans-Pacific service.

Among the first to travel from Europe by plane were a group of Dutch people, most of whom were women joining their husbands or fiancés. They travelled on the Royal Dutch Airlines entry in the 1953 London to Christchurch air race. The Flying Dutchman took 50 hours, with several refuelling stops en route.

The 1960s onwards

In the early 1960s the flight time from Europe was still measured in days, not hours. In 1960 a group of 87 European immigrants took eight days to reach Auckland, with stops at Damascus, Karachi, Singapore, Darwin and Brisbane. A three-day flight in 1961 saw the journey broken at Istanbul, Bombay, Singapore and Darwin.

After the 1960s most migrants flew to New Zealand. Those who came as refugees often had more difficult journeys. The ‘boat people’ fleeing Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s set out by sea, but usually reached New Zealand by air. And although Pacific Islanders were sometimes referred to colloquially as ‘fresh off the boat’, nearly all arrived by air.

A changed experience

Faster and cheaper air travel by jet dramatically changed the experience of making the longest migration journey in history. Return visits were not unheard of in the era of steam and sail, but air travel made the break with the past seem less permanent. It also made it possible for people to holiday in New Zealand before making the decision to emigrate.

All the same, moving to the other side of the world was still a huge step, accompanied by feelings of adventure and uncertainty. A Swiss immigrant in 1995 remembered thinking, ‘there goes Europe. It wasn’t fear. More a sort of uncomfortable feeling. Somehow we were heading for the unknown.’ 1

A German couple who migrated in 1995 after three previous visits, thought their journey of more than 30 hours by taxi, train and plane an ordeal. An immigrant who had spent more than 100 days cooped up on a sailing ship, with water rationed and indifferent food, enduring seasickness, insufferable heat in the tropics and storms on the cold Southern Ocean, would no doubt have gladly traded places.

  1. Helen Baumer, One-way ticket to New Zealand: Swiss immigration after the Second World War. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2003, p. 98. › Back

Personal accounts: 1840–1899

Stories from the community

Then there was pitching and tossing, metal pipes and tin cans going topsy turvey, till one might have thought that some monstrous whale was crushing the ribs of the iron ship between its jaws. – Diary of immigrant William McCaw, 1880

In the 19th century, migrants to New Zealand endured dreadful conditions for several months on sailing ships, daily facing the possibility of death by malnutrition and disease, fire, storm, shipwreck and even mutiny.

We asked people around the country to send us stories in their own words of the journey their ancestors made, to begin a new life in New Zealand. Here is a selection.

Personal accounts: 1900–1959

Stories from the community

The women and children were separated from the men in different holds down in the depths of the ship. Everyone slept in bunks three high and 250 people in each hold. There were no facilities for babies and toddlers at all and every mother had to do her best to make sure her children did not fall out of their beds or even into the sea. – Louise Hansen-Leemans, of her journey in 1950.

The advent of steamships and the newly created Panama Canal reduced travel time and improved the quality of life on board. And, after the Second World War, air travel evolved as an even quicker means of transport. Nonetheless, making the journey during this period could still be gruelling.

We asked people around the country to send us stories in their own words of the journey they or their relatives made, to begin a new life in New Zealand. Here is a selection.

Personal accounts: 1960–today

Stories from the community

The huge plane did nothing to calm my husband’s nerves, but we were together and it was only 11 hours to Los Angeles. We hardly spoke and kept looking out over Greenland, amazed at our planet, and wondered what on earth we were all doing. – Elaine Cartlidge, who emigrated in 2002

Since 1960 people have travelled to New Zealand mainly by air, and a journey which once took several months has been reduced to a matter of hours. But the reasons for emigrating largely remain the same. Whether they are forced to flee their home countries as refugees, or are simply choosing to explore New Zealand’s opportunities, all immigrants stake a gamble on their future.

We asked people around the country to send us stories in their own words of the journey they or their relatives made, to begin a new life in New Zealand. Here is a selection.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: John Wilson, 'The voyage out', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

He kōrero nā John Wilson, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005