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Shipboard: the 19th century emigrant experience

Experience the long voyage to Australia undertaken by thousands of emigrants in the second half of the 19th century.


The 19th century population explosion in the United Kingdom saw millions living in poverty or, when faced with disaster such as the Irish potato famine, even starving to death. Emigration was seen as an opportunity to seek better conditions or a new life.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Australian continent was only sparsely populated by convicts, soldiers, and pioneer settlers. In 1831, the British government established the Emigration Commission which offered assisted migration schemes to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land for those who could not otherwise have afforded it. Over one million immigrants (either assisted or unassisted) arrived in Australia from the United Kingdom during the 1800s. 


Before 1860, the British Emigration Commission selected potential assisted emigrants by a set of strict criteria. The Australian colonies sought single and married agricultural workers and, with so many male colonists, single female domestic servants were also in demand. Specific assisted emigration schemes were set up to encourage women to undertake the passage to Australia.

Voyages were long, uncomfortable and dangerous. Emigrants faced the threat of storms, sickness, fire, icebergs, and shipwrecks. For passengers in steerage, conditions were cramped and levels of hygiene poor. Bad weather meant passengers were often stuck below deck, unable to access their trunks in the hold for clean clothes or bedding.

The discovery of gold in 1851 saw a rise in full fare-paying passengers and an increasing demand for faster travel. Prior to the 1850s it was common for sailing ships to stop en route but, by the early 1850s, most ships made the trip without stopping. The voyage became faster, with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the increasing speed of ocean-going steamships, but still took six or seven weeks to reach Australia.

Passenger lists


Passenger tickets


Charting the route

During the 19th century, emigrant ships travelling to Australia sailed into the Bay of Biscay (off the coast of France) before heading south to the equator. Stopping for supplies either at Cape Town or Rio de Janeiro, sailing ships could often spend weeks in the doldrums waiting for wind. Great Circle sailing took ships south into the Roaring Forties, where travellers faced freezing conditions and the risk of icebergs, before heading back up towards the Australian coast. With the advent of steam-powered ships and the opening of the Suez Canal, the time to reach Australia decreased significantly. 

This chart was used to plot the track of ships 'Vimeira', 'Walter Hood', 'La Hogue', and 'George Marshall' in 1851, 1855, 1857, and 1868.

A general chart for the purpose of laying down a ship's track on her voyage from England to the East or West Indies or the Pacific Ocean [cartographic material] : additions to 1852 / by J. W. Norie, Hydrographer.

Made possible through a partnership with Robert John Pritchard