Family Names

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Travelling on the SS Nairnshire in 1889

There are conflicting reports concerning the SS Nairnshire’s departure from England, some Australian newspapers reported her as leaving on the 21st August 1889, another one gave the date as  26th August as the departure date. [1]

Figure 1  Annotated Map of the journey of the SS Nairnshire in 1890 from London to Freemantle, for more details, see below.
The ambiguity of dates probably reflects the chaos as they left the London shores as the 1889 dock strike began to take hold. They only just manage to escape the strike which involved which was reported as
“completely paralysed the loading of all vessels on the berth. ...The strike is assuming ranch larger proportions than was at first anticipated, and has now .spread to the carters. Several manufacturers are, I hear, expecting their men to go out to-morrow. There are at present between 40,000 and 50,000 men on strike.” [2]
Figure 2 Manifesto Poster of the South Side Central Strike Committee, 1889, for more details see below.

What must have the passengers felt as they moved through the swelling crowds of men milling around the docks? Men who were desperately looking for work, their families hungry, and a feeling that there was no future or relief in sight.

After leaving England the Nairnshire went round the Cape, to avoid the seasonal extreme heat of the Red Sea.[3] There is some confusion about the timing of different stages of the journey. The Argus reported that they had “fine weather to Las Palmas, reaching there on August 28. The voyage was resumed on August 30”and there the “snow storms and hail squalls were frequent, but there were no disastrous gales.”[4] Whereas the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the “Nairnshire left London on August 26, and called at Las Palmas on September 3. She coaled and left the same day and after experiencing strong trades and head seas she arrived at Cape town September 26 and left next day.”[5] Regardless of the timing it is clear that the first leg of the journey was quite pleasant but on the last leg they experienced bad weather.  On arrival the weather at Fremantle was “persistently boisterous.[6] In total the voyage took 43 days, 3 hours and 17 minutes from London to Fremantle.[7]


Life on Board ship during the voyage

On board were 48 were servant girls who were travelling in steerage, with enhanced “security derived from there being no other third-class passengers carried."[8] Unlike the Saloon Passengers, the girls were all under the supervision of Miss Monk, a well respected Matron. It was the task of the Matron to look after their well fare and guard their reputations during the journey.  The importance of this protection cannot be underestimated, this “questioning of their virtue had far-reaching consequences as the unvirtuous woman was lost: she could not qualify for domestic service anymore and was “damaged goods” for marriage.” [9] 

As one of the girls from another vessel describes, we were divided “into 'messes,' ... crowded together like sheep. We slept, and had our meals, and even had the hospital all in one room ... Our bunks were roughly put up in rows side by side and above each other. When we took our clothes off, we mostly threw them on our bunks because there was nowhere else to put them. Then we each had served out to us a common enamelled-tin plate and mug and a knife and fork — the whole tied up in a cloth net, It wasn't nice to eat and drink from chipped tin-ware, but then what better could poor servant girls expect. We got a hard mattress, coarse sheets, and a blue blanket ...”[x]

During the fine days, the girls were able to up on deck to sing nursery rhyme songs, dance around and reminisce over childhood fancies.  Mrs Monk would have supplied “work material, books, magazines, and materials for games and entertainments” that could be used when indoors during inclement weather or in the evenings"[11] Other accounts include descriptions of “games of all kinds being organised to beguile the hours of daylight; whilst in the evening there was a continuous round of amusements in the shape of concerts, parlour games, amateur theatricals, etc”[12]


Arrival at Freemantle

They were greeted by blustery weather when they arrived in Freemantle, but the girls must have been so relieved when we finally saw Western Australia, even if they had to remain on the vessel until the next morning after having arrived so late at 8pm in the evening of October 8, 1899.
In the 1890s the experience of girls arriving was vividly described in a local paper. “On the wharf a crowd of men stood waiting to stare at us, as if we were prize cattle. I never saw a shabbier collection of men before (that's quite, anyhow), and the remarks some of them made about us caused my ears to tingle. Then a gruff official ordered us to get into order, and off we were marched in charge of a couple of policemen, like prisoners, the crowd following to gaze at us.”[13] It must have seem very strange that the first reception as they “were escorted by the police on their first walk on Australian soil. Truly, a peculiar reception.[14]

I wonder how my Great-Grandmother Martha Sarah Ellis felt as first stepped foot on Australian soil?

Image Credits

Figure 1  Annotated Map of the journey of the SS Nairnshire in 1890 from London to Freemantle. – This map is made up of the following graphical elements
1.       "World Map Template - Steampunk/Victorian Style". Accessed February 3 2016. http://floppybootstomp.deviantart.com/art/World-Map-Template-Steampunk-Victorian-Style-295299981 . Orange travel line added by Sandra Williamson;
2.       Photographer unknown, S.S. NAIRNSHIRE, ca. 1900, digital image,  David Little collection of steamships, SLV.(This work is out of copyright);
3.       Photographer unknown, Studio portrait of a young lady thought to be Martha Sarah Ellis possibly taken circa 1888 (before she leaves England for Australia), digital image,  Jim Bennett's Private Photo  Collection currently held by Dorothy Bennett

Figure 2 Artist unknown, Manifesto Poster of the South Side Central Strike Committee, issued during the London Dock Strike of 1889, Scanned from Rodney Mace, British Trade Union Posters: An Illustrated History [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:South_Side_Central_Strike_Committee.jpg#, Accessed 11 February 2017]

Source Citations

  1.   Anon, 'SHIPPING.', The Inquirer and Commercial News, 25 September 1889, p. 6, Col.1. , [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66089423, viewed 10 Feb 2017]; Anon, 'ENGLISH SHIPPING NEWS.', The Daily News, 24 September 1889, p. 2, Col.5, [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84575862, viewed 10 Feb 2017]
  2.   Anon, 'SHIPPING.', The Inquirer and Commercial News, 25 September 1889, p. 6, Col.1. , [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66089423, viewed 10 Feb 2017]
  3.   Anon, 'ENGLISH SHIPPING NEWS.', The Daily News, 24 September 1889, p. 2, Col.5, [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84575862, viewed 10 Feb 2017]
  4.   Anon, 'SHIPPING REPORTS. THE S.S NAIRNSHIRE', The Argus, 29 October 1889, p. 9, Col.8. , [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article8565779, viewed 10 Feb 2017]
  5.   Anon, 'THE S.S NAIRNSHIRE.', The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 November 1890, p. 8, Col.2, [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13799437, viewed 10 Feb 2017]
  6.   Anon, 'THE S.S NAIRNSHIRE.', The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 November 1890, p. 8, Col.1, [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13799437, viewed 10 Feb 2017]
  7.   Anon, 'THE S.S NAIRNSHIRE.', The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 November 1890, p. 8, Col.2, [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13799437, viewed 10 Feb 2017]
  8.   Anon, 'Notes from London.', Kalgoorlie Western Argus, 14 December 1899, p. 12. , [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32203258, viewed 11 Feb 2017]
  9.   Coralie Canot. The Undesirable Spinster: The Organised Emigration of British Single Women, 1851-1914. Literature. 2013, p.34
  10.   Anon, 'THE GOLDEN WEST.', The Inquirer and Commercial News, 29 May 1896, p. 12, Col.6.[http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66532077, viewed 11 Feb 2017]
  11.   Anon, 'Notes from London.', Kalgoorlie Western Argus, 14 December 1899, p. 12. , [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32203258, viewed 11 Feb 2017]
  12. Anon, 'THE LADIES' COLUMN. SEEKING NEW HOMES.', Western Mai, 2 February 1901, p. 54, Col.2.[http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article33199584, viewed 11 Feb 2017]
  13.   Anon, 'THE GOLDEN WEST.', The Inquirer and Commercial News, 29 May 1896, p. 12. [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66532077, viewed 11 Feb 2017]
  14.   Anon, 'NEWS AND NOTES.', The West Australian, 27 May 1896, p. 4, Col.8, [http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3090945, viewed 11 Feb 2017]

Further Reading


More information about the Ship SS Nairnshire

Edit History

Originally posted on the 02/02/2016
Edited and updated 03/02/2016 & 4/2/2016
Edited and revised on the 11/02/2017

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