'Whoever reads this lot of scribble please excuse my bad writing, for I must own that I have very often got tired of my task ...' - W. H. Tinsley, Diary of a Voyage on the ship Cardigan Castle, MLMSS 7941

Passengers travelling to Australia during the late 19th century formed entertainment committees to provide public amusements. Among the more private ways for emigrants to pass the long months at sea was the writing of a journal. These journals provide an insight into everyday life aboard an emigrant ship, while their content and style reveal conditions experienced by different classes (and sexes) on board.

To keep a journal throughout the voyage, passengers needed a supply of stationery as well as the space and time to write. Of the shipboard diaries that survive, two thirds were kept by cabin class passengers who (with the assistance of stewards) had ample free time for journal writing while the diaries of steerage passengers were more routinely filled with details of their chores and activities. Through these journals we can discover much about the development of shipboard communities and social hierarchies.

Unlike private diaries, many emigrant journals were designed for sharing with family members or friends while others are fair copies prepared with a view to publication (a bit like the modern blog). As many diarists encountered similar experiences during the voyage, 19th century emigrant journals often follow the same formula and set of themes. In this way, a journal could take on the tone of a travel guide for others who might make the same journey.

Shipboard journals vary in personality as much as their authors. Some are dry and focus on recording the ship’s log and weather observations with simple statements of daily events; while others provide great detail about traditions and conditions on board, health, illness, births and deaths, daily entertainment, fellow passengers and emotions throughout the momentous voyage.

As portrayed through these journals, the voyage to Australia included common experiences and events. Diaries were often begun in one of the UK's large emigration depots where emigrants were inspected by the ship’s Surgeon Superintendent and organised into their messes for the voyage. Once on board, emigrants describe seasickness, whether their own or their fellow passengers. As the voyage progressed, passengers record sighting islands, phosphorus water, the heat, crossing the equator, being stuck in the doldrums and, as they head south, freezing weather and icebergs, sharks, flying fish, and birds. Emigrants recount concerts, dancing, religious services, shipboard newspapers, but most often they write about food. 

> Read excerpts from the journal of Arthur Wilcox Manning
Journal of Arthur Wilcox Manning

> Read excerpts from the journal of Fanny Shorter
Journal of Fanny Shorter

> Read excerpts from Our Voyage to Australia
Our voyage to Australia


Quick Links

Made possible through a partnership with Robert John Pritchard