The Conway

In Bound for the Ends of the Earth we discovered when James and Charlotte and family left Girvan. We can only guess at this point how they managed the trip with six children, the youngest James, not even one month old.

The next step in their journey down here was shipboard life on the Conway, of the Black Ball Line. The ship sailed from Liverpool on July 12, 1855, landing in Hobart October 14, 1855. It set out with 443 passengers, including 124 children under 14. Of those, 10 children died on board. However, this was a far better managed trip than the one of 1854, when its Captain was replaced by William Duguid.

Let’s not forget that Mary McCoid, aged 2½ yrs, died on August 23, 1855 of Marasmus – a severe form of protein-energy malnutrition that results when a person does not consume enough protein and calories’ .( It’s not difficult to imagine why she died. What is surprising is that her younger brother James, just one month old when they left Liverpool, survived to prosper in Swifts Creek.

The majority of emigrants to Australia were from the poorer classes and travelled steerage. This was arranged like a communal dormitory with bunk beds down the sides of the ship and a long table down the middle.  Most left from Liverpool and so a special Emigration Depot was built on the Birkenhead side of the Mersey, which at least ensured meals, shelter and safety because Liverpool could be a confronting, even a dangerous experience.

Let’s look at what shipboard life was like.

In stormy weather conditions were ‘very dismal below with the hatches battened and a dismal lamp burning, just enough to make darkness visible, it is rare work taking meals, when we are obliged to hold on with one hand, and with the other take care of our plates or cups while the things are walking off the table in all directions‘. Russell 177

Food for steerage passengers  was set by law.  The weekly provisions for an adult in steerage was:

  • 3 ½ lbs Bread or Biscuit, 2lbs 10oz lbs flour, 1lb 9oz oatmeal
  • ½ lb rice, 3 pts peas, 1½ lbs potatoes
  • 6oz salt beef, 1½lb salt pork, 1½lb tinned meat, 6oz suet;
  • 2oz tea, 12oz sugar, 2oz Salt, ½oz mustard, ¼pepper, 1 gill Vinegar, 6oz lime juice (in the Tropics), 6oz treacle, 8oz raisins, 4oz butter
  • 21 quarts of water

From the notes of  emigrants: ‘emigrant passengers were expected to prepare their own dishes from the foodstuffs supplied to them, and then take them to the cook for boiling or baking’.  Certain days were set for boiling food, others for baking. One passenger warned that ‘joints of meat, which are often very tough and very salty, should be well washed and soaked before boiling‘. Another advised ‘that a piece of wood, on which is cut the number of the mess, should be attached by a string to distinguish it by‘.

But ‘Preserved Potato are very easily got ready for the table, simply to pour hot water on them, in the proportion of one pint to half a pint of potatoes and then stirring them up with a piece of butter, having of course put a little salt to them, otherwise they have a slight sour taste‘. Russell 82 – 86

[Scotland, camping 1980 and seared on the memory: Instant Mashed Potato, mixed with a tin of tuna, heated in a billy over a one-burner gas stove?]

But water, or lack of it, was critical..’this is the place to learn a person the value of water and for the last few days we have been obliged to go without the rice and preserved potatoes for want of water.’

Diaries from married women were non-existent – they were presumably too busy cleaning, cooking and looking after their family. Boredom was often the problem for others.

‘Many ships carried livestock – cattle for beef and milk, sheep, pigs goats and chickens – for slaughtering and butchering on board, especially to feed the first-class passengers, although steerage passengers at time share in the bounty of fresh meat. This possibly compensated them for their close proximity to the odour of live animals and, when water washed into their quarters, the animals’ excrement as well’. Russell. 86

All emigrant ships carried provisions for the colony. The Hobarton Mercury listed the Conway’s cargo: rosin, coal, tar, pitch,  pig iron, whiting, tools, shot,  salt, soap, butter,  hams and bacon, ale and rum.  (Monday 15 October 1855) page 2.

The Conway was ‘broken up’ in 1875, and there is no picture of it. This model of the Marco Polo in the Liverpool Immigration Museum is also a Clipper, built the same year and belonging to the Black Ball Line. This is steerage accommodation, recreated for the Museum.

Don Fox says: ‘Clipper ships were square-rigged sailing ships, designed for speed, with long, narrow hulls and a large sail area. …(which) compromised on bulk cargo capacity.  Clippers were built mostly in American and British shipyards, between about 1843 and about 1870…  Demand for the rapid delivery of tea from China initiated the clipper era in the 1840s and further stimulus … by the Californian gold rush, 1848 …and the Australian gold rush beginning in 1851’. With the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, steam ships could compete successfully with sail.

Sources: Trevor Hoorn from Western Australia recorded the trip his gr-grandparents made in it in 1854, described as an infamous trip, when cholera and other disease broke out;  Russell’s book is based on personal diaries, and some passengers, like our ancestors, travelled ‘steerage’ where conditions were somewhat uncomfortable; the most informative source is a blog, by Don Fox, whose gr-gr-grandfather was second mate on the Conway when it came out to Hobart in 1855.

Hoorn, Trevor. (2004) The Clipper ship Conway 1854. Self-published. There’s a copy in the National Library.
Russell, Roslyn. (2016) High Seas and High Teas. Voyaging to Australia. Canberra: NLA.
Fox, Don (2019) A Biography of the Clipper Ship “Conway” (1851 – 1875) 

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