Hygiene on board

Keeping clean was a significant challenge on board any emigrant ship in the early nineteenth century.  It was difficult enough for cabin passengers to maintain some form of order and cleanliness in the cramped accommodation allocated to them, but it was much more difficult for the emigrants crowded together in {tooltip} steerage  {end-text} The area of between-decks occupied by steerage passengers, that is, those travelling at the cheapest rate.”{end-tooltip} below decks, even in fine weather. In bad weather, when the hatches were {tooltip} battened down  {end-text} To ‘batten down the hatches’ is to secure the entrances (hatches) to the lower parts of a ship, usually as protection from bad weather. {end-tooltip} , the atmosphere quickly became fetid in the extreme.  Our modern sensibilities would find such conditions completely unacceptable, but perhaps people were more accustomed to body and other odours in the 1830s.

Maintaining reasonable standards of cleanliness on board was a constant struggle, even during fine weather.  Experience from convict ships travelling to Australia had established the importance of regular cleansing regimes, especially in the spaces below decks, and most ship captains tried to maintain regular cleaning routines when the weather permitted.  Emigrants were either encouraged, or if necessary required, to come up on deck, and rosters were appointed to swill out the {tooltip} steerage {end-text}  The area of between-decks occupied by steerage passengers, that is, those travelling at the cheapest rate. {end-tooltip} quarters and flush out {tooltip} water closets {end-text} “Early form of lavatory, the precursor to the modern flushing toilet.”{end-tooltip}.Emigrants were also required to air their bedding regularly in fine weather.  Even so, there are many complaints about the ‘stench’ emanating from below decks, generally recorded by the luckier cabin passengers travelling above.  When there was a surgeon on board, the general cleanliness of the ship was often under his supervision.  It is clear that some were more committed to their duties than others.

Of course some of these ships carried animals on board along with passenger, which meant that animal waste had to be managed as well.  Animals not only made the deck space more crowded, they undoubtedly made it more smelly too.  Whether any of this animal waste made its way below decks we cannot know for certain, but there is a fair chance that it did, especially in bad weather. It is one thing to think about sea water or rain falling through on passengers below, quite another to think about animal urine!

Read on for detailed accounts of hygiene on board:

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