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Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 49, September 2005

This is a general description of a voyage on the ships used to bring the immigrants to New Zealand in the 1840 - 1860 period, and in particular, those of the Special Waikato Immigration Scheme.

A plan for the care of the migrants was worked out in advance and was followed for all of the ships employed. In broad terms, the plan established followed the pattern adopted by the earlier New Zealand Company. A well qualified surgeon was appointed to each vessel. He, in fact, became the Immigration Scheme's "agent on board" and was responsible for the discipline of the passengers. A victualling scale covered a basic diet that provided around 15 lbs weight of food, and around 20 quarts of water, for each person, per week. Included in the food would be 3½ lbs salt meat and 5 lbs biscuit weekly.

The British government required the Navy to superintend the shipping arrangements and they laid down elaborate routines for cleaning quarters and for the occupation and health of the passengers. The ship was required to carry provisions for six months and the surgeon had, under his charge, a quantity of special stores to be used to supplement the diet of sick passengers.

There is on record a description of the layout of a ship that brought out 266 passengers to Nelson, which provides a picture of the conditions under which these people made the voyage, of around three months, to New Zealand.

At the stern, twenty single women were accommodated in ten berths. Some space was occupied by the "female hospital". Twenty single men slept in the bows in the space corresponding to the crew's quarters in the forecastle on the deck above; although the "male hospital" gave onto this space, it appears in the plan as though these young men had the most spacious accommodation.

The berths in the midships area were occupied by the married couples and their children. These were two tier. In some ships boarded partitions separated off each berth which would be open only at the end, in others the demarcation between berths was simply a board about a foot high. In either case families and their children had to dress and undress in the public area in front of their berths before clambering into a space usually six feet by six feet with about three feet headroom. Some changed like contortionists behind curtains screening the berths.

In some ships young boys slung hammocks in the free space in front of their parents' berths, thus easing the congestion a little. The long low room, rarely more than six feet from floor to ceiling, was not only a dormitory; a long table down the centre was a dining table for the passengers. The few cabin passengers were apt to complain that sound travelled between the cabins and so reduced their privacy. In the lower deck, however, the emigrants were regaled with both sight and sound of each other's most intimate affairs.

The passengers found that they did not have as much time on their hands during the voyage as they first thought. The time needed to carry out routine duties of hygiene and victualling filled out much of each day. Passengers were usually divided into messes of six persons. Each mess was required to draw stores for the group each morning and sometimes the queues were long.

A member of the mess was required to go to the galley to cook the morning porridge and again queue for space at the galley stove, before collecting hot water for tea. The midday dinner was cooked in communal pots with the meat for each mess being identified by an attached metal tag. A tag was also attached to the net of dried potatoes that also went into the pot. The midday meal was the main meal of the day and a dessert of rice pudding or "plum duff" was also cooked in the galley. The food would be taken back to the long tables in the lower deck dormitory. The evening meal was a simple one. It usually consisted of the "hard tack" biscuit and butter together with anything saved from the midday meal, and hot tea.

Other tasks took up more time of the passengers. Once a week the boards that made up the berths were pulled out and scrubbed and the whole of the floor of the lower deck would have to be scrubbed regularly.

Each day the surgeon would muster all passengers on deck for a health check and those requiring attention would go to a "sick parade" at the hospital quarters. He was expected to carry out a closer inspection of all passengers three times a week to ensure the cleanliness of the person. Washing facilities were limited and usually confined to cold sea water. It is recorded that the men had sea water pumped over them in the bows very early in the morning. Perhaps it was the ladies turn late in the night.

In those days there was great faith placed in the wearing of flannel as a precaution against colds and for general well being. One instruction said that "flannel should be worn during the whole voyage as conductive to health, even in the tropics".

The journey could take up to four months without calling at any port between leaving Britain and arriving in New Zealand.