Personal hygiene

1849 sketch of men bathing on deck. Sea bathing in the tropics. Edward Snell, 1849.

The greatest challenge all emigrants faced was access to fresh water. In fine weather there was any amount of sea water available, but fresh water was strictly limited and carefully rationed. Theoretically, all ships embarked with sufficient fresh water for the lengthy voyage ahead, but both the quantity and the quality depended on many contingencies, not least the length of the journey.

The captain was responsible for managing water rationing on board and our sources show that they took this very seriously. Captain Morgan allowed all on board the Duke of York a ration of three quarts of water daily, for all their needs. This is about 3 litres. In steerage a proportion of this ration was given to the cook for food preparation and the remainder was for the use of the individual. Some passengers on later ships seem to have received an allowance for ‘washing’, but since this was only one pint (about 0.5 litres or two cups) per person daily, it was presumably intended for washing faces and hands only, and it was probably only allocated to cabin passengers.

Arrangements for passengers and crew to wash their bodies varied on different ships. Some of the larger vessels, with surgeons on board, attempted to regulate personal cleanliness along with the cleanliness of the ship, parading men and boys on deck early in the morning for enforced sea water ‘baths’.  The baths were rudimentary at best, accomplished either by emptying a bucket of sea water over each man, or by turning the fire hose on the assembled group. As some commentators have pointed out, this might have been a refreshing exercise in the tropics, but must have been far from pleasant in either northern or later in far southern waters in the range of the roaring forties!

Women presented far greater problems, since modesty forbade them bathing on deck. Sometimes a private ‘shower’ bath was constructed for them, carefully screened by canvas sheeting, but that does not seem to have been offered to any of the passengers on these ships.  More likely cabin passengers did the best they could in their cabins, while women in steerage either went without, or contrived some modicum of privacy below. Either way, quite noticeable body odour must have been the order of the day, especially in warmer weather.

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