Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Leaving Felsham: an emigrant family’s journey to Australia 1849-50

On the 1st day of February, 1850, the emigrant ship, “Agincourt” arrived at Adelaide in southern Australia. On board were the Felsham farm labourer family – the Seamans – consisting of Peter Seaman, his wife Hannah, and their nine children. Their 13,000 miles sea voyage from England to Australia had taken 116 days.

The ship’s passenger list recorded the family thus:

SEAMAN Peter B 42

SEAMAN Hannah 41

SEAMAN Luke 15

SEAMAN Rachel 14

SEAMAN Eliza 13

SEAMAN Mary 11

SEAMAN David 10

SEAMAN Phillip 7


SEAMAN Rebecca 1

SEAMAN Peter infant

Why did this large family, with three children under the age of five, leave Felsham and undertake a long and arduous sea voyage across the world? How did they cope with the vicissitudes of life in “steerage class” on a sailing ship in the mid 19th century? What happened to the family after they walked down the ship’s gangplank to set up a new life in the young colony of Southern Australia?

The answer to these questions is that we do not really know. We can only make inspired guesses based on the little documentary evidence that we have about the family in the form of tithe map apportionments, parish records, census returns and some basic Australian family archives. But we can build up a picture of what may have happened to the family using newspaper reports and evidence such as diaries and letters written by other emigrants to Australia making the journey at about the same time.

I have written a fictional account of the family’s journey in the form of three imaginary letters written by the eldest daughter, the 14 year old Rachel Seaman. It is imagined that Rachel addressed the letters to her old schoolmistress who it is assumed would read them out to her pupils. It is also imagined that the first letter was written from near the port of Gravesend on the River Thames in north Kent prior to embarkation; that a second letter was written on board the Agincourt and sent back to England via a homeward-bound ship; and that a third letter was written some years later when the family were settled in their new home.


Deptford Emigration Depot, London 5th October 1849

Dear Mrs Frost

I am writing to you and all the children from the Emigrant Depot at Deptford by the river Thames. Tomorrow we get on the train again for the short journey to Gravesend where we board our ship in readiness to sail for Australia the day after that on the best tide.

Soon after we left Felsham on Boggis’s cart three days ago, it started to pelt down with rain and we were glad of our new coats. Because the cart was packed full, Dad and Luke had to walk behind and they got very muddy. Despite the extra weight the horses got us to the new Stowmarket railway station at 6 o’clock, just as it was getting light, and in good time to catch the steam train to London. We helped the porters heave our trunks onto one of the open carriages and we sat down beside them trying to keep dry. And then we were off.

The journey was really noisy and so frightening that the young ones began cry. Not only were we careering along so much faster than the carrier’s cart, but every time we looked up we got a smut in the eye from the smoky chimney of the engine. When we got in the tunnel the other side of Ipswich station it was really spooky and dark and I could see water dripping down the sides of the wall.

When we arrived near London Bridge we had to change trains and get on the London to Greenwich railway. I had never seen so many people in my life before. And so much hustle and bustle - you would not believe it. At last we arrived at our destination, the Depot in Deptford where all the emigrants are assembled before boarding ship. There were over two hundred people all crowded together. We were given some dry bread and some bitter coffee, boiling hot. I am sure I am not the only one who lost the skin off the roof of the mouth. But everyone was very kind and civil to us and we were very grateful for a nice lie down after our long journey from Felsham.

In the morning, after more coffee and lots of bread and butter, I helped to scrub down the mess tables. Everything is organised as if we were already on board ship. I overheard someone say that it is help us get acclimatised to the long sea voyage ahead. We have messes and berths and we are organised into gangs to do the cooking and cleaning. The children are learning fast and they now use the water closets without any fuss and climb into the berths as agile as little monkeys.

Eliza and Mary are learning straw plaiting and basket weaving, while David and Philip are being taught how to make ropes and tie knots. They reckon these will be handy skills to know when we get to Australia. I spend a lot of time playing with little Emma while Mum has her hands full looking after baby Peter. Dad and Luke have been chatting with some of the other emigrants. They have met another Suffolk family travelling on our boat – the father is a gardener and they have a daughter called Ellen who is fifteen years old and has also done some domestic work just like me. They have also met up with some emigrants from Scotland – the way they talk is really funny – and they have been hearing stories about what it was like on the coastal journey by steamer from Dundee to Deptford. Lots of people were terribly seasick.

Dad has been telling people about how he first started thinking of emigrating. It was over eight years ago when he heard someone talking in the Bells public house about an advert they had seen in the Bury and Norwich Post. It told of free passage to Australia for married agricultural labourers and how they were crying out for workers and giving good wages. It was some years later that the Reverend Anderson spoke of emigration from his pulpit one Sunday and Dad went to speak to him about applying to the Colonial Commissioners. Life was very hard at the time and Dad had been out of work for over three months.

Neither he nor Mum can read very well and they find writing very difficult but Luke and me helped them fill in the application form that the rector gave him. Mr Anderson also wrote a testimonial to go with the application to say that Dad was very hard-working and that the whole family were well regarded in the village. By the way, we still look hard at that map you gave us showing the new colonies in Australia. We can’t wait to get on board ship but I’m very worried about getting seasick.

We have to go for a medical inspection now. We will have to show our birth certificates and also the certificate proving that we have all had the smallpox inoculation. The scar on my left arm still itches occasionally. I just hope we stay healthy and get to Adelaide without any major mishaps. Mum worries about the little ones catching something nasty from all the other emigrants. She is always talking about the Felsham children who got measles or whooping cough or scarlet fever and nearly died. She is a real worrier, is Mum.

Thank goodness for the Penny Post. I am going to post this letter in the Depot post box and you might get it from the Felsham shop before school starts on Monday.

Your ever-loving friend and past pupil,

Rachel Seaman

Somewhere in the south Atlantic, 11 January 1850

Dear Mrs Frost

Writing in haste - passing homeward bound ship has signalled that it would be happy to accept letters addressed for England. The captain and some of the cabin passengers are going to be rowed across soon for luncheon as the sea is quite calm. So I have quickly found pen and ink and excuse my scribble.

Well, where do I start? There is so much to tell. We left Gravesend on the 7th October at high tide and headed down the Channel to Plymouth where we picked up more emigrants. We left Plymouth loaded to the gunnels (please notice that I have picked up some sea-faring words) with labouring families from Ireland and the West Country. We did not clear land until well after the 20th October because the winds were so contrary. Many were seasick especially poor mother and my new friend Ellen Smith. They both spent days and nights retching into buckets and neither could keep any food down.

Life in steerage takes some getting used to. Below the main deck there are two rows of bunks one above the other which run all round the sides of the ship. The young unmarried men have to sleep in the fore-hatch area. Luke has to join them at night because he is fifteen, but fortunately I have been allowed to stay with Mum and Dad and the children in the married quarters in the main hatch. This is so I can help with the little ones. All the single women have berths in the after-hatch and this is where Ellen has her quarters. It is all a bit crowded and noisy but it is not much different from when we lived in that little cottage on Upper Green near the Smithy which we had to share with the Pilbrow family. We are lucky because our bunks are near the hatchway so we get some light and fresh air.

All the boxes have been stowed away down below in the hold. The sailors bring them up about once a week, weather permitting, to give them an airing. That is also the time we can grab some clean clothes.

We are allowed to have full run of the ship except for the Poop Deck which is reserved for the officers and the ten cabin passengers. On the first few days I took my brothers and sisters on deck as Mum was unwell and we listened to the sailors singing sea shanties and watched them scrubbing the decks and climbing the ratlines. We don’t wash much but Dad and the boys have saltwater showers on the deck. Mum and me and the girls, we sponge ourselves down with a basin whenever possible.

The mess tables are long wooden benches down the centre of the main hatchway. They have raised edges so that plates don’t roll off in rough seas. The food is very generous. In fact, we have never eaten so well. We eat three times a day and there is plenty of salt beef and pork. We get bread, ship’s biscuits (very hard), rice sometimes and lots of potatoes. We get rations of sugar, lime juice (to prevent the scurvy), tea, coffee, butter, cheese, raisins, suet, pickles and even mustard. The water is usually quite fresh tasting considering it is kept in oak barrels. Sometimes, we get rainwater to drink when the sailors spread sail-cloths during rain showers.

On calm days we take long walks around the decks. Dad, in particular, loves doing this because it allows him to get out from under Mum’s feet and gives him the chance to talk to the other Dads. He comes back with so many extraordinary stories about life in other parts of the United Kingdom. In some counties it seems that wages for agricultural labourers is worse than in Suffolk.

To while away the time we play chequers, backgammon and cards. On deck we play shovel-board, where we slide flat wooden discs along the deck into nine numbered squares. Sometimes, we watch the sailors “heaving the log” and counting the knots, which is what they do to find out how fast we are travelling. We love to look out for other boats and sometimes we spot whales and dolphins. Near Madeira lots of small birds flew into the rigging and one day a hawk was caught up there.

After the Captain, the Surgeon is the most important person on board. He appointed one of the emigrants, a shoemaker back in England, to be a schoolmaster and to hold lessons on deck for the boys and girls. I was asked to help with teaching the girls and I showed them how to read their letters and do some sewing. At the end of the voyage the schoolmaster might get a £5 gratuity for all his work. I wonder if he will give me a shilling or two?

By the time it got to November it was getting very hot as we were near the equator and sometimes Dad and the boys went to sleep on deck. Mum wouldn’t let us girls do that so we had to stay below decks and “steam” in our nightclothes! We crossed the Line on the 26thNovember and we had all sorts of fun and games to celebrate the occasion. The sailors even fired one of the cannons. When one of the sailors, dressed as Neptune, started being a bit rude with his trident and the single men started cheering, Dad told us all to go below decks. But later on, while we were collecting our food from the galley, Luke told me all about what had happened. I won’t go into details except to say that it involved shaving one of the young sailors who had never crossed the Line before.

Two babies were born in early December and there was a christening service held by Captain Cumberland. The babies were given ‘Agincourt as second Christian names after the name of the ship. After some stormy weather Christmas arrived at last. We were told that we were still 5,000 miles from Adelaide. There was a lovely Church Service held on deck and we all sung our hymns with great gusto –you would have been proud of us. Then we had the New Year festivities on the 31st and we all stayed up till after 12 o’clock, even Mum with baby Peter in her arms. There was a fair breeze and the moon shone brightly on the white heaving sails. I stayed on deck all night and Ellen and I saw the dawn come up. Then, magically, an albatross with its broad wings outstretched glided by, and after doing a brief inspection of the ship flew off and quickly disappeared from view.

Sadly, on the 7th January we had our first death on board. Baby Agincourt Maslin died in the night. He was buried in the way they do it on board ship. The funeral took place in the evening just before sunset. The little body was wrapped in a piece of sail and placed on the grating by the side of the ship, and at the words, “We therefore commit this body to the deep,” slid off into the sea and was instantly lost to sight. The memory of that tiny sail-wrapped body sliding into the troubled waters will never leave me. Sea life is very difficult for the little ones. I am so glad baby brother, Peter, now 6 months old, is doing well and gaining weight. It must have something to do with the fact that Mum, since she has gained her sea-legs, is eating well on the generous ship rations, and is getting quite fat, as Dad has rudely pointed out.

Must hurry as the row boat is about to leave for the homeward bound ship and I must hand this letter to the bosun. It will probably be months before you receive it. Miss you all dreadfully.

Your ever-loving friend and past pupil,

Rachel Seaman

Morpett Vale, Adelaide, South Australia, 1st March 1853

Dear Mrs Frost

I am so sorry not to have written to you sooner. I hope this letter finds you all in good health, as it leaves us at present, thank God for it. I have fond memories of the little school room behind the churchyard especially when during cold dark winter days you piled logs into the old stove and we all sang hymns in front of the flickering flames of the fire.

Life inAustralia since we landed at Port Adelaide on the 1st February 1850 has been so incredibly full and busy we have had hardly a thought for our old existence in Felsham. The day the good ship Agincourt sailed into the harbour was a time of great joy. We had been impatient to arrive from New Year’s Day onwards. Every day we checked the direction of the wind, noted the number of miles we had accomplished and the distance yet to be travelled. We were getting increasingly tired of our dry, salted rations and the lack of fresh food.

We experienced such pleasure when, on our arrival, the Emigration Agents boarded the ship bringing with them supplies of fresh produce: green peas, lettuces, spring onions. All so wonderful. We were not allowed to disembark immediately. We had to wait until we were allocated a home and jobs ashore. In the meantime, we gorged ourselves on all the lovely greens. The Agents questioned us about our voyage and whether we had been treated correctly and whether everything had been done according to the regulations. Dad was complimentary about the running of the ship but he did mention some of the coarse language spoken by the sailors as being unacceptable in the hearing all God-fearing folk. I was congratulated on helping with the schooling of the girls and given a gratuity of 10 shillings by Dr Gregory, the ship’s Surgeon-Superintendent.

After seven day waiting on board ship we were eventually allowed ashore. It was marvellous to have solid land under our feet after three months being tossed around the oceans. The only thing that annoyed us was that we were plagued by mosquitoes which breed in the nearby swamps. Fortunately, we were soon on our way to Morphett Vale, a hamlet about ten miles south of Adelaide where Dad and Luke had been promised a job. They started work in a gentleman’s garden for 10 shillings a day and I entered service in a good house on the very first day of our arrival for the princely wage of £15 a year.

After a few months, a farmer came down out of the bush and hired Dad and Luke –both of them for 5 shillings a day but with all rations thrown in. That consisted of 40 lbs of flour, 40 lbs of meat (beef or mutton), 1lb of tea and 4lbs of sugar. The house the farmer provided for us, and which was big enough for the whole family, was rent free and we didn’t have to pay for any of the firewood that we used for cooking. After the hay harvest, the master was so pleased with the way Dad and Luke had done the mowing that he gave Dad a cow and a calf on top of the wages which he increased to twelve shillings a day for Dad and ten shillings for Luke. My brothers, David and Phillip also worked around the farm doing odd jobs and carrying out errands. Meanwhile Eliza helped the farmers’ wife and Mary did her best to support Mother with the little ones.

When I went home on my afternoon off, I would spend many an hour sitting in the new kitchen garden gazing at all the lovely vegetables that my family had sown. They grow so much more easily than those we struggled to nurture on the clayey soil of the Felsham allotments. And here there are no Felsham Charity rules and regulations to annoy Dad especially that requirement to attend Church every Sunday. In fact there is no Church in our hamlet though there are plans to build one soon.

All the gardens are wonderful here. You can grow peas all year round and cucumbers about nine months out of a year. You may grow two crops of potatoes and turnips a year; the onions and cabbages are the best that I ever saw. There are grapes, oranges and figs, almonds and peaches in abundance, all growing in open gardens.

Some things are dearer here. Things like pins and needles for sewing are expensive. Dad also complains about the price of tools such as hammers and hatchets, and kitchenware such as pots and kettles. Clothing is a little dearer than at home but now that I earn about 12 shillings a week as a general servant I don’t find it difficult to buy a pretty dress for myself.

Last year Dad and Luke bought about twenty acres of land with the money they had saved up. Land is about £1 an acre here. They will soon have a nice little farm with horses, cattle and pigs. Dad can’t believe how lucky we are. He is always going on about this free country of Australia where he doesn’t have to pay any tithes, taxes, nor rates of any kind.

Please tell all the people of Felsham about our good fortune. If any of them want to come out here, send me a letter and we will meet them at the port. We could help them find a house till they could get one for themselves.

And I nearly forgot to say. I have a new baby brother. Elisha Seaman was born on Valentine’s Day earlier this year. And he is thriving in this wonderful new country of ours.

I remain your ever-loving friend

Rachel Seaman