I had never given much thought to what the immigrants actually did on board ship. My mental image was of passengers squeezed into row after row of bunks complaining about food, drink and conditions. In fact, passengers were expected to spend most of their time on deck. According to Rights of Passage, about two thirds of the total time was spent on deck. Everyone had duties to perform. Cooking, cleaning below and above decks, washing dishes and clothes, bathing – all the normal activities of life took place on board ship. Given a ship’s physical constraints, these things could fill up a day quite easily.
The government run ships, mainly on the England to Brisbane route had school for children aged three to fourteen. A teacher was provided and 90% attendance was reported. Class sizes ranged from ten to sixty. As many a parent would recognise, school would have been a great help in keeping the children busy and out of mischief.
Some of the German ships used teachers for English-language instruction. The school and the library had books available for borrowing. Some ships had newspapers while others organised debates and discussions.
Entertainment was allowed providing it was “innocent” and had “no demoralising tendency” but was “calculated to improve the moral tone and promote happiness.” Boring though this sounds, this encompassed concerts, theatricals, bands, choirs, games and even cricket. According to Woolcock other leisure activities included “story-telling or gossiping, writing, mending, fishing, watching the changing moods of the sea or the sailors at work.”
In spite of the uplifting tone of the above, other entertainments were gambling, thefts, intemperance and fighting. One passenger referred to being so bored that he “spent the evening nocking about the ship in search of some fun.” One can only imagine what bored young men got up to, and you can understand why the government preferred migrants to travel in family groups. Other less salubrious entertainment for single men was finding ways into the single women’s compartment. According to reports, no reliable way was found to separate the single young men and women, let alone the single women and the sailors.
Geoffrey Blainey called the trip to Australia the “only long holiday” that many of them would have. Some enjoyed the trip, others were bored and sick. Like many things, it must have depended on personal attitude as well as the crew attitudes. The Surgeon largely ran the non-sailing part of the ship so the individual surgeon, his competence and attitude would all have determined how pleasant the shipboard experience was.
Whatever the individual experience, it was a huge relief to finally arrive in Australia. This wasn’t a three month holiday cruise, but three months hard travelling in constrained conditions. People must have dreamt about standing on land, eating fresh food, bathing freely and privately, deciding things for themselves or even just seeing new faces.