The more I learn about travel in the past, the more I am convinced that our ancestors were a much tougher lot than us. They may have had to put up with more disease and hunger but they certainly had great reserves of strength and stamina – just look how they spread across the globe.
Emigrating in the 19th century was a hard and demanding process with lots of hurdles to jump before you even went to sea.
People seeking new lives had to raise the money for the fares, plan the journey, pack up all their worldly possessions then set off into the unknown.
Once they arrived in Liverpool – probably the greatest emigrant port in world history with nine million people passing through between 1830 and 1930 – they were beset with a number of hazards.
Just arriving in the port could be a bewildering as well as exciting experience for emigrants, who came from all over northern Europe as well as Britain and Ireland. Many had never left their homes before and found the place both frightening and dangerous.
Tired and hungry from long journeys, many of the emigrants were accosted by rogues known as runners who worked for dishonest ticket sellers and lodging house owners.
Not everyone was bad and Liverpool’s economy benefitted hugely from the emigration trade. It generated business for many including shipowners, brokers’ agents, shopkeepers and lodging houses.
Emigrants could spend up to 10 days waiting to set off on a sailing ship because journeys were at the mercy of the weather. Most of them spent the time in squalid, overcrowded lodging houses. Even respectable establishments offered only boards to sleep on – and no blankets.
Insanitary accommodation was an ideal breeding ground for diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Conditions eventually improved in line with improvements to ships fuelled by competition between shipowners. By the late 19th century emigrants could stay in lodging houses owned or supervised by shipping companies.
Displays in the new emigrant gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum include this print depicting a government inspector’s office in 1850. Here passengers were checked for diseases prior to departure.
However, these were hardly rigorous examinations - as many as 3,000 people could be seen daily by just three doctors.
In the exhibition’s life-size Waterloo Road display there is a sign saying “Maurice Dalton. Emigrant Lodging House. Good Beds. 4d per night”. A weary emigrant enters the lodging house, confronted by a fierce-looking dog.
A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).