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Home > Learning > Emigration: transcript of digital story (2)

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Emigration: The voyage

One of the main difficulties that faced the emigrants in the nineteenth century was crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The voyage to America usually took 5 to 6 weeks but if the weather was bad, the journey could take twice as long. Most of the emigrants crossed in sailing ships and conditions on board such ships would be atrocious.

Very few could afford a cabin so most had to buy the cheapest tickets to travel in third class or steerage. The steerage was a very confined place, with hardly any light or fresh air and it would usually be full to the brim of people and narrow wooden beds side by side. Travellers had no privacy whatsoever, no proper place to make food or wash, or go to the bathroom and during a storm, when the hatches had to be battened down, the air would be foul. To make things worse, a great many of the travellers suffered from sea-sickness.

Due to these circumstances, diseases such as cholera, typhus and dysentery were very common and would spread quickly from one traveller to another. It's impossible to say how many died at sea but death was a common occurrence, especially among children and many of the letters sent back home are full of sad stories and grief.

From the beginning of the 1840s onwards, laws were passed to improve conditions on these ships. There was a need to ensure that travellers had more room and food and that there were also beds for the sick but despite these regulations there weren't enough officers to inspect the ships so conditions for some emigrants were as bad as ever. The situation improved from about 1860 onwards when steamships, instead of sailing ships, started to cross the Atlantic. They travelled more quickly and it would take only about 10 days to reach America.

Emigration: The voyage - Digital story | Exercise 1 | Exercise 2