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How they travelled


Steerage and cabin class

Ships often had three classes of passenger accommodation - First, Second and Third Class - of descending quality. Passengers had access to different dining facilities, and cheaper tickets may mean no access a swimming pool, when there was one. Emigrants were sometimes given accommodation below Third Class quality, called steerage, and some emigrant ships were designed for carrying large numbers of poor people as cheaply as possible. Later developments saw these class choices lessen, with Cabin Class a better-sounding alternative for those emigrants who couldn`t afford First Class.

Travelling steerage

Even in steam ships, the emigrant`s voyage was no luxury cruise. If they could not afford a cabin, they had to travel steerage. This was in a large space, rather like a dormitory, called steerage because it was in the stern of the ship, near the steering gear. Conditions were cramped, food was poor and the atmosphere often bad, especially during rough weather when access to the upper deck was restricted. The only consolation was that steam ships were faster and safer than sailing ships. There was less time spent feeling seasick, and much less chance of a shipwreck.

Millions crossed the Atlantic from Britain and the rest of Europe this way. Indeed, British companies such as Cunard and White Star had such a good reputation that emigrants would choose to travel from Eastern Europe to Great Britain to sail on one of these companies` ships.

Cabin class

For the more recent emigrants, conditions at sea have been far superior to those during the days of sail. Steam and later motor ships made the voyage shorter and more predictable. Refrigerators meant food in good condition could be served throughout the voyage. Sea water could be treated so that it became fresh and drinkable.

To carry the growing number of emigrants, several wartime troopships were converted. In some, such as the Captain Cook, there were still large dormitories for the men and for the women who were travelling alone. However, families were allocated cabins. New ships were built with better and better accommodation for emigrants. For instance, P&O`s Canberra of 1961 was designed to carry a number of emigrants amongst its complement of over 2,200 passengers. She was almost the last emigrant ship, as emigration was soon switched to the airlines. 

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