However, when things go horribly wrong there is always a clamour for the rules to be tightened up. If ever a tragedy highlighted the inadequacies of Victorian seafaring, it was the wreck of the Tayleur.
This elegant sailing ship was the largest merchant vessel of her day but she was wrecked on her maiden voyage with the loss of 372 lives.
Built at Warrington for owners Charles Moore & Co, she seemed destined for years of profitable service in the booming emigrant trade.
She set sail from Liverpool in January 1854 heading for Melbourne carrying 652 passengers and crew. Most of those on board the brand spanking-new vessel were families heading for new lives in Australia.
Two days later the 1,750-ton Tayleur (pictured) struck a reef off Lambay Island, five miles east of the Irish mainland. She sank within 30 minutes and many of the emigrants were among the victims although most of the 71 crew survived.
An inquiry revealed a chronicle of faults – the compasses didn’t work because of the iron hull, the rudder was too small, rigging was faulty and there were only 37 trained seamen among the crew. They thought they were travelling south across the Irish Sea when in fact the Tayleur was heading west to disaster.
There are four small items on display at Merseyside Maritime Museum that were recovered from the wreck many years later. They are a wine bottle encrusted in barnacles, a Chinese-style bowl, a tea cup made from flow blue china and – poignantly – a small metal dog collar.
The wreck of the Tayleur was just one of several emigrant ship losses during this period. On display is a cross-section plan of the Liverpool assisted emigrant ship Bourneuf of 1852, unusual for its day because the sexes were separated.
It was usual for emigrants to hire berths consisting of large wooden pallets below decks which could be curtained off for privacy. Until the 1870s most people emigrated to Australia and New Zealand by sailing ship – a journey taking between 10 and 16 weeks. There is a fascinating life-sized recreation of such an emigrant ship steerage area in the museum, complete with tables and benches and storage space for trunks containing belongings.
Conditions gradually improved through a series of Passenger Acts between 1842 and 1855.
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 p&p UK).