Education on board

Literacy levels amongst passengers and crew on emigrant ships of this era varied significantly. Very few of those onboard would have attended school back in Britain.

In the earlier part of the 19th century formal education was reserved for those whose parents could afford to pay school fees. Education was beyond the reach of poorer families who sent their children into the workforce to help make ends meet. Female children did not attend school and received very little education unless they were tutored at home.

Where there were a large number of children onboard an emigrant ship it was common for literate passengers to form classes to teach the basics – reading, writing and simple arithmetic. Many adult emigrants also learned to read and write during their months at sea. In ships carrying large groups of religiously motivated migrants, daily bible classes were conducted by respected passengers.

Libraries were almost unknown onboard emigrant ships in the 1830s although some books (usually of a religious nature) were occasionally provided. Those emigrants fortunate enough to own books found them a great solace. Reports of public readings from the more popular novelists appear from time to time in diaries written onboard emigrant ships.

Incidentally, the Tam O’Shanter carried a trunk of 117 books bound for the new colony of South Australia. These books, while inaccessible to emigrants and crew during the voyage, formed the beginnings of South Australia’s public library system in 1836.

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