State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 68 Spring 2001


Recreating the Polite World
Shipboard Life of Nineteenth-Century Lady Travellers to Australia

IN THE La Trobe Manuscripts Collection at the State Library of Victoria there are approximately 160 shipboard diaries written by nineteenth-century travellers to Australia. Andrew Hassam estimates that there are around 800 such diaries in existence today, most of them written by first-class passengers, who represented a small minority of the travellers.1
Of the extant diaries, approximately 104 were written by women, even though the ratio of female to male immigrants was about eight to ten.2 From a selection of these accounts in the Library's collection, it is possible to document the shipboard life of lady travellers in the nineteenth century. In this paper, an initial survey of the conditions revealed in the diaries of five saloon or first-class passengers — four English women and one Scottish woman — during the period 1829–1875, my particular theme is their diet, and how their writing about food reflected their attempts to carry over the social structure of their former life into a new environment.
The earliest account is by Jane Roberts, about whom we know very little. She left London on 29 August 1829 and arrived at the Swan River Settlement in Western Australia at the end of January 1830. Later she travelled to Hobart Town, Tasmania, before returning home to England on 28 June 1830 due to ill health. From the typescript copy held in the Library, it appears that from the outset she intended to publish her account. In the printed version, issued in 1834 by Richard Bentley of London, 3 she explains that the narrative was ‘arranged’ for publication upon her return to England. She offers the result to her readers as an example of the triumph of mankind over adversity: ‘Some of my readers will, I hope, find novelty; many will, I trust, be interested; and to all I can truly and feelingly say that there is no earthly calamity which time and a will resigned to Heaven may not surmount.’4
The second of the women diarists is Susan Meade, who travelled on the barque Caledonia, leaving Gravesend on the Thames near London on 12 April and arriving in Melbourne on 10 August 1842. Susan was the eldest daughter of Henry White Meade, a solicitor from North Curry in Somersetshire, England. On her arrival in Melbourne she appears to have become governess to the children of the then Superintendent of the Port Phillip District, Charles Joseph LaTrobe. The Manuscripts Collection includes several letters from Governor LaTrobe's wife Sophie, who described herself as Susan's ‘real friend’.5 On 23 December 1847 she married the colonial artist Charles Norton, son of Frederick Norton, also from Somersetshire in England.6 After her marriage Susan lived at “Carlsbadt” on the Barwon River near Geelong, and also spent time at a family residence in Spring St, Melbourne. Susan had at least two children, a daughter born on 21 March 1849 and a son on 24 July 1850.7 A hint at the purpose of
Susan's journal of her travel from England is given in a letter from her father Henry in 1848, in which he remarks, ‘What is become of your long promised Journal? What a source of pleasure wd. this impart to your mother and myself’.8 Clearly, Susan intended to send a copy of her journal to her parents in Somersetshire, although she was apparently somewhat tardy in forwarding it to them.
Agnes Paterson left on her voyage to Melbourne on 17 December 1859 aboard the Lord Clyde, sailing down the Clyde River from Scotland into the North Channel and the Irish Sea, past Holyhead near Anglesey in Wales. A note on the State Library manuscript of her diary indicates that Agnes was born at Shotts, Lanarkshire, Scotland, on 7 March 1843, and travelled with her mother and ‘James’, who was probably her brother.9 She was 17-turning-18 at the time of the journey. There is some confusion about Agnes's correct name. She lists her mother as Mrs Gardner and appears on a passenger list for the Lord Clyde as Agnes Gardener: no explanation is given for this discrepancy. The manuscript note records that Agnes married David Cochrane Beattie at Scarsdale, Victoria, on 27 April 1866 and died in Brunswick on 15 July 1928. Agnes arrived in Melbourne on 13 April 1860.
As with Jane Roberts, little is known of the fourth diarist, Agnes Clough. The title page of her diary reveals that she left Gravesend on August 1860 for Melbourne with her mother aboard the Calliance; that she was from Huddersfield in Yorkshire; and that she later married John Thornton of Melbourne.10 The manuscript appears to be a ‘fair copy’ of her original diary. The neatness and evenness of the handwriting is unlikely to have been the result of writing on board a swaying ship, and it does not give the impression of a diary written over several months with many individual entries. The production of ‘fair copies’ was a common practice for diarists who wished to distribute their work to other members of her family abroad while retaining the original.
The last of the women diarists is the Hon. Anna-Maria Bright whose father was Governor of the Colony of Victoria from 1866 to 1873. The Hon. Sir John Manners-Sutton, who succeeded his brother as Viscount Canterbury in 1869, mid-way through his term as Governor, had been elected to the House of Commons in England in 1839, later becoming Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick, 1854–1861, and Governor of Trinidad, 1864–1866, before arriving in Melbourne.11 His daughter, Anna-Maria, married Charles Edward Bright, merchant banker and part-owner of the shipping firm, Bright Brothers, on 25 June 1868 at St John's Church in Toorak.12 A prominent Melbourne businessman, Charles Bright held many appointments, including that of Trustee of the Melbourne Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery. When Anna-Maria's father finished his posting as Governor of Victoria in 1873, she and her husband returned to England with her parents, arriving in Southampton in April. However, by August 1875 they had decided to return to Melbourne, travelling aboard the S.S. Great Britain with their children, Alfred (6 years old), Charles (5 years old), Richard (3 years old) and Georgina (18 months old).13 They arrived back in Melbourne in late October. Anna-Maria or ‘Minnie’ was 34 years old when she travelled back to Australia in 1875, and her husband was 12 years older. Her account
of her journey is written in the form of a letter addressed to her parents and her sister Mabel. From the outset it is obvious that, rather than write several letters about her journey to different family members, she would write just one account for distribution. Anna-Maria died in 1924 and is buried in All Saints Churchyard, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, next to her husband.14
The journey to Australia and other parts of the world by ship was common during the nineteenth century, although for many immigrants it was a unique experience. By 1880 approximately 1.3 million free immigrants had sailed to Australia.15 The women whose diaries are discussed in this paper travelled in small barques or, as in the case of Anna-Maria Bright, in a steamship, on the traditional route to Australia via the West coast of Africa, past Madeira and the Canary Islands, sometimes stopping in Brazil at Bahia (Salvador) and Cape Town, through to Fremantle or to Port Phillip. The journey, as all of the women diarists recognised, was long, tedious, uncomfortable and often dangerous. Anna-Maria Bright declared that ‘It is no use deluding oneself by saying that it is not far to Australia — for it is — and tremendously far too.’16 As the wife of one of the owners of the ship she travelled in, Anna-Maria would also have experienced the best comforts available on board; her comments reflect her concern only for the length of the journey and possible illness. Susan Meade, however, was more aware of the potential hazards of her journey. Travelling on board the barque Caledonia in 1842, Susan reflected in her diary, T could not help thinking how terrified some of my friends in Old England would be could I have brought them to my side from their quiet homes on terra firma’.17 The experience of the waves breaking over the stern of the ship and flooding the cabins, the terrible pitching and rolling that caused some people to be almost continually sick, the rats

The Great Britain Steamer’, Australian Town and Country Journal, 31 December 1870, p. 17 News -paper Collection, State Library of Victoria.

and fleas, all combined with poor diet to make the journey less than enjoyable. As well, in the early days of travel there were very real, life-threatening dangers, with many ships wrecked off the Australian coast.
The death of passengers from disease and hunger was also common, particularly in steerage. Hygiene on board was primitive, and community lavatories were liable to overflow into sleeping-quarters in bad weather. Effluent was thrown overboard, but in stormy conditions this was not always possible.18 Under these circumstances the close confines of the ship were highly conducive to the spread of disease. Extended sickness also left passengers physically exhausted, undernourished, and particularly susceptible to ailments. Anna-Maria Bright, travelling with her children, husband, a nanny, a governess and several maids, described the continual illness of her servants, writing in one diary entry, ‘King has gone to bed sick with a sleeping draught from the Doctor which I should think wd. make her sicker tomorrow. Drusilla is ill too, coming out with either boils or erysipelas — so the establishment are not flourishing’.19 Anna-Maria also spent many hours during her trip nursing her sick nephew, Robert Tyndall Bright, who eventually succumbed to what the doctors described as typhoid fever. The diagnosis of Robert's illness was kept quiet during the journey, a decision that Anna-Maria thought very sensible as she explained later: ‘I have no doubt from what I hear that it was genuine typhoid fever Robin died of and it cannot be infectious. They told me that when the second cabin passengers heard what he had died of, many of them got quite white and it shows what a mercy it was it had all been kept so snug’.20
Other dangers included the fear of insurrection among the crew, a matter that Susan Meade believed should be decidedly dealt with by the Captain. When a sailor refused to work on board the ship in which she was travelling, he was consequently put in chains and on rations of bread and water. She declared of this incident: ‘The spirit of subordination is at all times fearful — particularly on shipboard; severe measures are therefore justifiable’.21 Agnes Paterson, a young girl travelling with her mother to Melbourne in 1859, observed that a potential deserter had attempted to jump overboard and was ‘immediately seized, put in irons, and lashed to one of the deck bolts’.22 Shipboard life was often violent. Shooting passing wildlife was a favourite pastime among the male cabin passengers, as was the baiting and killing of marine life. Agnes Paterson wrote of a particularly violent incident in which a shark was baited, caught and killed:
was awoke about 2 O.C. this morning from a sound sleep by an unusual noise overhead. One [sic] some of the male passengers going out they ascertained that our third mate (Mr Bronse) had distinguished himself by catching a shark it was about 7 feet long and was evidently a young one after its head was cut off and its entrails let out it still continued to lash the deck with its tail with great violence.23
The pitiful fate of various animals on board formed a regular topic of discussion for the diarists. Death was a part of every journey. Livestock drowned or died from

Unknown photographer. ‘Passengers playing solo whist on board R.M.S. Orizaba, 1881’. Glass negative. H82.166/89, LTGN 164, LaTrobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.

injuries incurred during bad weather. Jane Roberts recorded that during her voyage a valuable horse on board was so badly bruised from being thrown about in its wooden ‘horse house’ during a storm that it soon died of its injuries.24
Andrew Hassam argues that the harshness of the shipboard environment, often outside the everyday experience of diarists, and in particular, the uncertainty of the journey was a main impetus for their writing. In a situation that was beyond their control, Hassam explains, diarists attempted to normalise their experience by recording it in intimate detail. Turning inward to the cabin environment in which they were trapped, writers created an order than gave them some form of stability in what was in many ways an alien world.25 Out of the regularity of meal times, bathing and Sunday prayer, the diarist created a home away from home, a ‘stabilised space’; ‘outside was the unchanging blue scenery; inside was a more varied space but also a more controllable world’.26 This type of record-keeping was a way of coping with the deprivations and uncertainty they experienced. The effect of the journey can be seen in the fear with which Jane Roberts faced her return to England: ‘the prospect of the voyage before me was so truly appalling, that at times I completely sunk under the dread of it, and these feelings continued, more or less, during the whole time of our stay’.27 I would extend this idea to argue that the concentration of the women's narratives on the everyday reflected their attempts to maintain a strict social code of behaviour suitable to their position in life.
In this constructed environment, the first-class passengers expected a form of behaviour consistent with that experienced at home and ‘modeled on a polite social gathering at an English country house, protected and predictable’.28 Anna-Maria was most put out when a cabin passenger did not behave appropriately, and lamented his lack of ‘board ship manners’, by which she meant ‘wishing “good morning” etc.’29 Traditional activities of the English elite were undertaken, such as writing, sketching, dancing and sewing; and in the evening the small number of saloon passengers would gather to hear a lecture or concert. During Agnes Paterson's journey the cabin passengers even began a Salutation Society, for which each of the inhabitants of the fore-cabin were given an institutional office for the purpose of organising a series of lectures. The men continued with their more active pursuits of shooting, fishing, wrestling on the deck and playing sports such as quoits. Shipboard life was also highly regulated by Sunday services and school for the children. The necessities of life were undertaken and where possible women took a salt-water bath or washed their clothes in extra water accumulated after a downpour. While passengers controlled these activities, they had less control over the meals that they were served. In the recreation of home life, the food and drink available did not always reflect the social status of the passengers.
A typical meal for the English upper classes during this time consisted of a gastronomic extravaganza. The nineteenth-century dinner party, as it would have been experienced by many of the cabin passengers in England, consisted of ten to twelve courses, not including coffee and dessert. Daniel Pool gives an example of such a dinner:

loss of racehorses on board the steamship City of Melbourne’. Illustrated Australian News, 4 October 1876, p. 145. Illustrated newspaper file, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.

A delicate soup and turtle are handed round … a bill of fare placed next to every person, a turbot with lobster and Dutch sauces, carved by an able domestic on the side-board, and a portion of red mullet with Cardinal sauce are offered to every guest; cucumber and the essential cruet stands bringing up the rear. The ‘flying dishes’, as the modern cooks call the oyster or marrow pates, follow the fish. The entrees are carried round, a supreme de volaille aux truffes, a sweet-bread au jus, lamb cutlets, with asparagus, peas, a fricandeau à l'oseille… . Either venison, roast saddle of mutton, or stewed beef à la jardiniere, are then produced, the accessories being salad, beetroot, vegetables, French and English mustard. A Turkey poult, duckling, or green goose, commences the second course, peas and asparagus following in their course; plovers’ eggs in aspic jelly, a mayonaise of fowl succeeding; a macédoine of fruit, meringues à la créme, a marasquino jelly, and a chocolate cream, form the sweets. Sardines, salad, beetroot, celery, anchovies, plain butter and cheese, for those who are gothic enough to eat it. Two ices, cherry-water and pineapple cream, with the fruit of the season, furnish the dessert. Two servants or more, according to the number of the party, must attend exclusively to the wine; sherry, Madeira, and champagne, must ever be flowing during dinner.30
While this example derives from a dinner party and not the average night's fare, it serves to demonstrate the variety of foods eaten by the upper classes and the types of foods considered inappropriate such as butter and cheese. The fare provided on the journey to Australia was variously described by the diarists. Anna-Maria Bright travelling in 1875 when conditions aboard ship were considerably improved, declared that the food on board the S.S. Great Britain was ‘as good as Cunards’. However, her descriptions of the meals provided for her do not indicate that she was

‘Saloon of the Great Britain’. Australian Town and Country Journal, 31 December 1870, p. 17. Newspaper Collection, State Library of Victoria.

being served anything like the kind of meals she would have been used to as a member of the English aristocracy. This is seen in her delight upon being served ‘Hot Pot’, a kind of Irish stew for which she gives the recipe. Probably Anna-Maria was writing about the quality of her food rather than its complexity. From the testimony of the other women diarists, the shipboard meals appear to have been simple affairs, including meat, vegetables, pies, preserves, tarts, soup, bouli, biscuits, cheese, fish and the ubiquitous plum duff.
Susan Meade began her journal with the comment that ‘none must go to sea but those who can eat anything, made of anything, out of anything, anywhere, amidst all sorts of noise, confusion and filth’, but as her account continues it is clear that she was very happy with the meals she received. Several of the women describe eating fresh fruit and vegetables obtained from ports like Bahia and Cape Town or from passing ships.31 Agnes Clough writes that she was able to obtain a supply of vegetables, milk, butter, salt beef and pork from a nearby island passed during her voyage.32 Susan Meade bought many fruits when the ship in which she was travelling stopped at Bahia. Walking into the local markets she bought oranges, coconuts, bananas and limes.33 The ships in which the women diarists travelled also carried their own supply of fresh meat in the form of their animal cargo.
This supply of food differentiated the cabin passengers from those travelling in steerage as the large stock of hens, sheep, pigs, cows, geese and goats carried on the decks of emigrant ships was intended for the saloon table, and while the steerage passengers would have to live with the smell and excrement of the livestock, it was the cabin passengers Who were served with fresh meat, eggs and milk.34
Susan Meade, however, did at least notice the noise of the animals on board the ship, characterising her experience as like being on a farmyard with the crowing of roosters, the bleating of sheep and the grunting of pigs.35 Goats were also a popular animal to take on a voyage as they were small, more able to adjust to shipboard life, ate virtually anything, and could supply milk.36
The tea available was often terrible, and in one case, that of Anna-Maria Bright, tea was replaced with an alcoholic alternative. Anna-Maria found herself resorting to liquor on a number of occasions during her journey, as she explained,
We have afternoon tea now at 3.0 o'clock. It is very nice socially but ‘drinkably’ it is simply disgusting and I wd. sooner I think drink hot black draught. We have just now got a drinking party. I have three women whom I am liquoring up.37
At other times Anna-Maria found herself guzzling champagne and eating peppermints when the stresses of the day came too much for her. After a bad choir practice she and a Mrs Ferguson retreated into Anna-Maria's cabin to have a ‘feast of peppermints’.38 Confectionery was one item of food that was readily available on board ships and was often given to children.
Much of the women's diaries is taken up with descriptions of meal times and other domestic activities, creating a narrative of the ordinary. In reality, maintaining the appearance of respectability and the continuity of these events was often difficult to achieve. The pitching and rolling of the ship made eating very trying at times, and several of the women diarists described incidents where their meal ended up in someone else's lap. In 1860 Agnes Clough travelled from London to Melbourne. She vividly described the difficulties of eating aboard ship:
…it required all our vigilance at meal times to prevent the contents of our plates falling either into our laps or across the table to our opposite neighbours. As it was, Mama got a leg of mutton onto her plate, & Mrs Browne's pudding came rolling over the table to Eliza Jane.39
Susan Meade experienced similar problems and noted the waste of food that often resulted from such incidents, writing, ‘another disaster with our grub today a sudden lurch sent our pea soup from the table in a twinkling and wasted every drop of it’.40 In extreme weather the buffeting of passengers was a real problem that caused many injuries. One morning Susan recorded that she was so tossed about while dressing that she thought she had broken both her shin bones when slammed against the edge of her bed. Lucky escapes from injury were common on board ship for passengers and crew. The main method employed for avoiding the consequences of rough seas was to be strapped into a chair, an experience recounted by several of the women diarists. At one point in Susan Meade's journal the reader discovers that she has been strapped to her seat for days.41 Agnes Clough was tied to her chair while playing the piano in a Sunday service. Despite the turbulent weather the service went ahead, although Agnes notes only a small number of the crew were able to attend.42 No doubt meals were also eaten in in this position.
The other common result of bad weather was flooding. While the situation was dire for steerage passengers, the inhabitants of the cabin berths were also subject to inundation. The windows or port holes in cabins were sometimes breached by water causing flooding into the room, drenching everything within. At other times huge waves would break over the deck of the ship, submerging the quarters beneath. Agnes Paterson described one storm during which she was ‘reduced to a most pitiful condition, the water broke into our berths together with some oil from the paint locker which wet our clothes and washed our provisions and trunks about our berths’.43 Food supplies were often spoiled when the galley was flooded and prepared meals ruined. As one of the diarists recorded, ‘such a large sea came over the main deck that it washed down one of the sheep cotes, cleared the galley out & a large plate of toast which had been made for tea was swimming about the deck in a most ridiculous manner’.44 The creation of a calm and predictable life on board ship, so often the goal of cabin passengers, was regularly interrupted by such events despite brave attempts to ignore them.
Pest control was another issue that would have been difficult to address and had the potential to destroy food supplies. Although none of the women discuss pests in relation to the storage of food, two of the women showed a general concern for the problem of rats on board. Recounting a lengthy conversation with a fellow passenger, Susan Meade noted the destructive capacity of the rodents of which, she writes: ‘…there were many on board. ‘Mr S.’ told her that a plank had been taken out of the last ship in which he had sailed that showed the rats had scratched through to the ‘thickness of sixpence’.’45 Perhaps more concerning was a story recounted by Anna-Maria Bright, in which a governess in her employ encountered one of the creatures first hand. ‘Broxie’ had reached out in the middle of the night after hearing nibbling noises, only to find that she ‘had got hold of a rat’.46 Fleas were also the cause of many sleepless nights.
In conclusion, the diaries of Jane Roberts, Susan Meade, Agnes Paterson, Agnes Clough and Anna-Maria Bright reveal a focus on the everyday that perhaps assisted them to adjust to the extremes of shipboard life. The diaries were certainly not cathartic in any sense that we would understand the term today. Rarely do the women reveal their fears about the journey except in reflections once they have reached land. Rather they concentrate on their attempts to re-construct the social codes that underpinned life in England and were under threat during the voyage. Clearly cabin passengers were attempting to recreate behavioural norms and social distinctions despite the difficulties of their circumstances. In this way, the diarists’ accounts of ordinary events such as meal times and Sunday prayer stand against the destructive stories of flood and sickness as touchstones of a former life creating a parallel narrative that balanced and ‘normalised’ their experience.
Frances Thiele


Andrew Hassam, No Privacy for Writing: Ship board Diaries 1852–1879, Melbourne, 1995, p. xvi.


Ibid, p. xvii.


Jane Roberts,‘ Two Years at Sea’ Being The Narrative of a Voyage to the Swan River and Van Diemen's Land During the Years 1829–30-31’, MS 12583, La Trobe Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.


Jane Roberts, Two Years at Sea: Being The Narrative of a Voyage to the Swan River and Van Dieman's Land, During the Years 1829, 30, 31, London: 1834, pp. 395–96.


Sophie LaTrobe to Susan Meade, 26 April 1848, MS 11382, La Trobe Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.


Port Phillip Herald, 28 December 1847.


Port Phillip Gazette, 26 March 1849; Melbourne Morning Herald, 25 July 1850; Argus, 25 July 1850.


H.W. Meade to Susan Norton (nee Meade), 1 August 1848, MS 11382, La Trobe Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.


Agnes Paterson, ‘Scroll Log Book & Diary of Miss Agnes Paterson Voyage to Melbourne 1859–1860’, MS 9492, La Trobe Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.


Agnes Clough, ‘Diary of a Voyage From London to Melbourne in 1860 Written on board the Ship “Calliance”. Capt Browne’, MS 9512, La Trobe Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.


Jennifer Turnbull, ‘Viscount Canterbury’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, III (1851-1890), pp. 350–51.


Ibid, pp. 232–33.


Anna-Maria Georgiana Bright, ‘Letter Written On Board the S.S. Great Britain From the Hon. Anna-Maria Georgiana Bright to her Parents, the Viscount and Viscountess Canterbury beginning August 27th 1875 and Finishing at “Beleura” on November 1st 1875’, MS 12973, p. 30, La Trobe Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.




Hassam, No Privacy, p. xvi.


Bright, ‘Letter Written’, p. 11.


Susan Meade, ‘Journal of a Voyage to Australia Felix in the Bark “Caledonia” Completed in One Hundred and Nineteen Days Sailed the 12th April Landed the 10th August 1842’, MS 11382, p. 18, La Trobe Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.


Hassam, No Privacy, p. xix.


Bright, ‘Letter Written’, p. 9.


Ibid, p. 29.


Meade, ‘Journal of a Voyage’, p. 17.


Paterson, ‘Scroll Log Book’, p. 3.


Ibid, p. 3.


Roberts, ‘Two Years at Sea’, p. 6.


Andrew Hassam, Sailing to Australia (Melbourne, 1995), pp. 136–38.


Ibid, p. 135.


Roberts, ‘Two Years at Sea’, p. 36.


Hassam, No Privacy, p. xvii.


Bright, ‘Letter Written’, p. 12.


London at Dinner, quoted in Daniel Pool, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist: The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England, New York, 1993, p. 75.


Clough, ‘Diary of a Voyage’, f. 3 recto.


Ibid, p. 31.


Meade, ‘Journal of a Voyage’, p. 8.


Hassam, No Privacy, p. xviii.


Meade, ‘Journal of a Voyage’, p. 1.


Roberts, ‘Two Years at Sea’, p. 23.


Bright, ‘Letter Written’, p. 27.


Ibid, p. 13.


Clough, ‘Diary of a Voyage’, f f. 34 recto-verso.


Meade, ‘Journal of a Voyage’, p. 6.


Ibid, p. 13.


Clough, ‘Diary of a Voyage’, ff. 30 recto-verso.


Paterson, ‘Scroll Log Book’, p. 1.


Clough, ‘Diary of a Voyage’, ff. 43 recto-verso.


Meade, ‘Journal of a Voyage’, p. 10.


Bright, ‘Letter Written’ p. 6.