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.


With a sea voyage to Australia taking up to four months, 19th century emigrants formed committees to organise shipboard entertainment and amusements. One such activity was the production of a ship newspaper. Following in the fashion of satirical journals of the day, and with their main purpose being to entertain, these shipboard newspapers were full of jokes, witty poems, and puns.

‘ is desirable to observe that very small things cause great interest in the monotony of a long sea voyage’ The Massilia Gazette, Q910.42/M

Travelling on the ship Parramatta, John Maffey writes extensively in his ‘Diary from London to Sydney’ about his time as editor of The Petrel Papers. He describes a meeting presided over by the Captain which resulted in the formation of the newspaper committee (comprising an editor, sub-editor, illustrators and printers) although Massey claims they offered him no assistance at all.

Newspaper content often varied from paper to paper (and edition to edition) and frequently included illustrations, caricatures, passenger lists, poetry, prose, letters to the editor, riddles, local news, announcements, shipboard sport results, accounts of births and deaths, reviews of entertainments as well as details and advice about the ship’s destination. They provide a rich resource for discovering details of life on board a 19th century emigrant ship.

Ship newspapers can also expose shipboard class distinctions – the Zealandia Free Press started as a rival to the Zealandia Look-Out which was not allowed to circulate amongst steerage passengers. While the Southern Cross newspaper produced different editions of differing qualities for passengers in first, second, and intermediate class cabins.

During some voyages, passengers paid a subscription towards the reprinting of their shipboard newspaper on arrival in port. These reprinted newspapers provided a well-documented souvenir of the journey to Australia for circulation amongst family and friends. Much of what is known today of life on board 19th century emigrant ships is due to the survival of these reprinted editions of shipboard newspapers.

Zealandia Free Press, nos. 1-8, 5 May-July 10, 1884

The Massilia Gazette

The original Massilia Gazette was produced on a 'Hammond' typewriter during the voyage to Australia by Edward Noyes, editor, and J. Barton Faithfull, sub-editor, reporter and bookbinder.

Illustrations in pen, brush and pencil were contributed by Miss B.L.M. Pollock, Mr Faithfull and Mr Padwick. Photographs of Gibraltar and Port Said were purchased on shore, with additional photographs taken by Mr Bowden during the voyage.

After the voyage, the Massilia Gazette was reprinted in Sydney ‘at the request and expense’ of a large number of passengers.


Zealandia Free Press

'On board ship where one meets, day after day, the same dresses, the same sky and sea, and are confined within the same narrow walls of a floating township - one needs amusements ...'- Zealandia Free Press, A 1681

Look-Out was the first newspaper published on board the Zealandia in response to the need for amusement. However, the editors did not want the paper circulated amongst the steerage passengers or crew.

This fostered resentment amongst a number of the passengers and an opposition newspaper, the Zealandia Free Press, was brought out which later replaced the Look-Out. With J.R. Gunn as editor and W. Welch as sub-editor and printer, the Zealandia Free Press included sketches, stories, poetry, riddles and weather reports as well as details of daily life often from the point-of-view of steerage passengers.


Petrel Papers

The Petrel Papers was a weekly shipboard newspaper produced on board the Parramatta during a voyage from London to Sydney (1882 -1883).

Written and edited by John Maffey, the Petrel Papers was 'published' by being 'read aloud at the Saloon table during dessert' each Saturday. The manuscript newspaper was then circulated amongst the ship's passengers and crew. Though Maffey was supposed to have a committee of three to assist him with compiling the newspaper, he claimed he received neither assistance nor contributions. As his personal correspondence suffered as a result of the newspaper taking up most of his spare time, this copy of the newspaper was sent home for circulation to his family and friends.


Read the Petrel Papers, 1882-1883, via the Library's online catalogue
Read John Maffey's Diary from London to Sydney, 1882-1883, via the Library's online catalogue 

Illustrated Iberian

'This paper is not intended to touch matters and topics foreign to our voyage, but rather to cement the good feeling that every one seems desirous of cultivating' - Illustrated Iberian, 910.42/2

The Illustrated Iberian was published at sea on the S.S. Iberia and reprinted in Sydney. Issued weekly, the newspaper included the ship's log and the editor’s witty accounts as well as sporting results, poetry and prose, fashion, correspondence and sketches of scenery and passengers. Heavy on puns, the Illustrated Iberian included numerous plays on the word 'Iberian' including the drawing of an ‘eye-berian’ on the masthead and naming the editor, 'I, Berryun, Esq.'

Illustrated by Edmond le Bihan, A.H. Wall and A. Wall, the newpaper included caricatures, sketches and stories such as the comic 'Adventures of Mr Jones' which depicted Mr Jones coming aboard, losing his chair, going on shore, and experiencing the many trials and tribulations endured by passengers on the voyage to Australia.

> Read the Illustrated Iberian via the Library's online catalogue

The Illustrated Iberian.

Made possible through a partnership with Robert John Pritchard