If you enjoy local history, heritage, or generally intriguing snippets of information, make sure to keep an eye on our digital collection. New additions appear regularly. One of the latest is the Log on board the S.S. Somersetshire, 1869, by W. C. Walker.
Mr Walker left Plymouth on 1 July and arrived in Melbourne on 30 August 1869. His diary is an amusing compendium of vignettes of daily life aboard ship. Days pass by lounging on deck under the awning, playing whist in the evenings, and attending concerts and dances. For the sport-inclined there’s the excitement of guessing how many knots the Somersetshire has done the previous day and maybe winning the sweep.
Of course there are the usual irritations of sharing facilities. As Walker notes, “nothing is sacred on board ship – all is common property” (p. 14). In the bathroom a notice appears requesting that bathers limit themselves to 8 minutes apiece – a time limit that was apparently strictly monitored.
I particularly enjoyed Walker’s descriptions of his fellow passengers:
Miss Weston as the elder of the 2 deserves the first place & for other reasons as well. I can’t tell you her age – all I know is that she is young enough to think her youth requires her to dye her hair. (p. 27)
And with apologies to all readers lucky enough to have Irish ancestry or red hair:
Mr Moynan… remarkable in appearance from possessing the reddest hair & whiskers I ever saw, but apparently and I think luckily wanting in the immense assurance & self-appreciation generally associated with such flaming embellishments especially when the owner is an Irishman. His eyes without speculation of a neutral fishy hue, so neutral as to be hardly called hue or colour at all; and probably to this accident this sanguine temperament generally accompanying red hair has been so subdued as to be conspicuous by its absence. (p. 6)
All in all, the trip could almost appear to be one of pleasure. As Walker himself writes in the final pages of his log:
if you don’t see that it was a jolly one, the fault lies in my way of telling the story”. (p. 164)
Yet there are clues that not everybody is as lucky as Mr Walker. In Plymouth the Somersetshire “passed close under another ship on the point of starting for Australia, the ‘Royal Dane’… crowded with emigrants & waiting for a fair wind, & less fortunate than the ‘Somersetshire’ in having only wind & sails to trust to” (p. 5). Most shocking to me was the passing remark that about a week into the voyage, 6 stowaways gave themselves up, including a boy about 11, who was given to the boatswain to “slave for him” (p. 55). I can’t help but wonder which category of traveller my Scottish ancestors who settled in Southland belonged to.
- If you are keen to explore how your European ancestors arrived in New Zealand, have a look at the Shipping and Passenger Information in our Family History Guide.
- Read more shipboard diaries in our digital collection.