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Immigrant shipping: Advent of steam power

Late 19th century

From the 1860s onwards the emigrant ships began to be bigger and the passage time to shorten. This alone was a blessing for the passengers; and a larger ship allowed an increase in the amount for space for passenger exercise. Advances in technology in water distillation and ventilation made below decks accommodation in the 1870s more comfortable. Steamships were serving on the England/Australia run from the mid 1870s, and the P&O, and Orient Lines were using the Suez Canal. While this reduced the total voyage by less than 1000 miles, and took the passengers through the torrid heat of the Canal, it also provided the opportunity for a little more 'sight-seeing'. Not all of the steamships used the Canal however, and continued to come around the Cape of Good Hope. However sailing ships continued to operate as well throughout the late 19th century: sometimes the same company operated both steam and sail.

Diet had also improved: refrigeration had enabled this, plus with larger ships there was room for more livestock. With more space above and below decks, shorter voyages, and improved food the emigrants had an easier experience than those who had migrated during the 1830s-1850s, and the death toll, particularly among children had also reduced somewhat. In part this was as a result of better medical oversight of the passengers; the children were inspected regularly to check that all was well, and there was more deck space for them to play on. The vast majority of passengers throughout this period continued to travel in steerage, or third class as it was now known. Privacy was improved, with berths partitioned with a sliding door and curtain. The central table could be raised between meals to provide more room. Bathing facilities had improved as well.

Early 20th century

Technological advances continued to improve the emigrant's lot: sailing ships were now seldom used for this service. Triple and quadruple expansion engines were driving twin or even triple screws and a steady rate of 15 knots or more was maintained. Mess or dining halls with multiple sittings had long since replaced the communal galley and the hazardous carriage of the meal down the hatchways. Tourist activity at the various coaling ports was encouraged; children's parties aboard ship were regular events. So were the medical inspections at the beginning of the voyage, and again as the ships reached Australia, where all the passengers were examined by the medical inspector who boarded at the first Australian port-of-call.

Food was plentiful and reasonably varied, again thanks to refrigeration and also to the fresh fruit and vegetables available at Mediterranean coaling ports and in Port Said and Colombo. The voyage took about six weeks, a far cry from the sometimes six months of the 1830s. Even third class passengers had access to music rooms, and smoking room, in addition to spacious decks.

Following World War I, there were further advances in technology - the majority of ships were now oil-fuelled, and with double-reduction geared turbines driving twin screws, the ships were not only more powerful, more stable, they were also roomier and cleaner than ever. Huge refrigerators made fresh food readily available. Accommodation was spartan, but clean and roomy. Some things didn't change though - some passengers still endured seasickness, and the heat in the tropics and particularly in the Suez Canal was torrid.

Advice to emigrants
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Aerial view of Outer Harbor
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Australis last assisted passage ship to Australia
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Cabin interior
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City of Adelaide clipper
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Emigrant ship sailing 1849
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Emigrant ships' arrival
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Emigrant ships departing August 1838
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Emigration Square
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Encouragement for German emigrants
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Encouragement for German emigrants
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Immigrant ship Star of India
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