Toilet facilities

Managing human waste on board ships was extremely important for the health of all on board. Regulations increasingly governed aspects of ship board life, but in 1836 they were yet to apply to all emigrant vessels, especially those chartered privately. Nevertheless, most captains were aware of the dangers of infectious and debilitating diseases like dysentery (diarrhoea), or far worse, {tooltip} cholera{end-text} A severe, infectious disease of the intestine, often fatal. Symptoms included vomiting and diarrhorea.{end-tooltip} or {tooltip} typhoid fever  {end-text} Infectious fever, causing great irritation of the intestines and high fever. Often fatal. {end-tooltip} , and attempted to ensure that some standards were maintained.

That said, facilities were few and basic.  None were provided for men and boys, who were expected to relieve themselves over the side into the sea. Traditionally men used the ‘heads’ or lee side of the ship with the crew, generally in the bow of the ship. If they didn’t know which side was the lee side at the start of the voyage, it was said that they learned very quickly! Sometimes a water closet, a primitive, enclosed, early form of toilet, was provided for the women and smaller children in steerage. This either emptied directly into the sea, or was flushed out with sea water, which was either pumped or bucketed into it by male emigrants rostered for the purpose. We have been unable to confirm whether a water closet was provided on any of these ships.

No-one seems to have recorded what happened during bad storms when it was too dangerous to perch on the bows, or when the water closet could not be emptied and flushed, but there were frequent complaints later about the stench from water closets below decks. Nor is it clear whether female cabin passengers used the steerage ‘facility’, although it seems unlikely. We can only assume that they used the chamber pots they were used to using on land, and relied on any of their servants on board to dispose of the contents at intervals – weather permitting!

It does not take much imagination to think about the accumulated odours on board, particularly in the close quarters below decks. The start of the voyage may have been particularly bad, because many passengers and even crew members were sea-sick, often for some weeks. On both the John Pirie and the Duke of York, the extended bad weather probably meant that sickness prevailed for most of the first six weeks.  We know that it was bad enough for both the cook and another crew member on the John Pirie to be incapacitated. Many of the passengers were also unable to leave their beds. If we remember that [tooltip color=”grey” text=”The area of between-decks occupied by steerage passengers, that is, those travelling at the cheapest rate.”] steerage [/tooltip] passengers also took all their meals in the same space, we might wonder that anyone managed to eat at all.

Diarrhoea was also a common complaint on board ships, especially amongst children.  It may have reflected hygiene problems, but equally might have resulted from the abrupt change in diet, especially the heavy consumption of [tooltip color=”grey” text=”Salt provisions were the salt pork and salt beef which together with bread, rice, flour and peas were the items that could be preserved for long periods and formed the basis of the diet of all seafarers.”] salted meats [/tooltip] , and the questionable quality of the drinking water. Diarrhoea in young children is debilitating and life threatening even today: in 1836 there was very little anxious parents could do.  If they had access to arrowroot, or the captain was prepared to make some available, this might have helped, but there was nothing else to be done. Above all the fear was contagion, but in the cramped conditions in [tooltip color=”grey” text=”The area of between-decks occupied by steerage passengers, that is, those travelling at the cheapest rate.”] steerage [/tooltip] , there was no prospect at this time of isolating the sick.

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