The streets of Liverpool must indeed have been a truly terrifying place for the poor emigrants who arrived in such large numbers in the latter half of the 1840s. The majority of these frightened peasants fleeing Ireland in panic had never before even seen a city.
The 24.4.1847 edition of The Northern Whig described the situation as follows: “As soon as a party of emigrants arrive in Liverpool they are beset by a tribe of people, both male and female, who are known by the name of ‘mancatcher’ and ‘runner’. The business of these people is, in common parlance, to ‘fleece’ the emigrant, and to draw from his pocket, by fair means or foul, as much of his cash as he can be persuaded, inveigled or bullied into parting with”.
He goes on to explain that “these are not the only class of the man-catching fraternity, nor do they confine their operations to an exorbitant profit upon passage money. The mancatchers keep lodging houses for emigrants – wretched cellars and rooms, destitute of comfort and convenience, in which they cram them as thickly as the places can hold”.
The general pattern of events for those with sufficient funds to purchase tickets for the voyage to Canada was to plan to arrive in Liverpool as close as possible to the scheduled departure date so as to avoid squandering precious money on accommodation and food.
Those arriving on Merseyside without the necessary funds for fares had to seek work in order to raise the fare. At the peak of this period, approximately one third of aspiring emigrants managed to secure trans-Atlantic passage.
Once a medical examination by a doctor employed by the ship’s owner had been passed, the passenger’s ticket was stamped “fit to board”. As most of the passengers would never previously have made an ocean voyage, they were allowed to board the ship 24 hours in advance of sailing in order to familiarise themselves with the vessel’s layout and grow more relaxed with their new surroundings before putting to sea.
The night before sailing they were encouraged to ‘ceili’. i.e. to sing, dance and make music with whatever instruments they might have in order to relax and develop friendships with their fellow passengers so as to hopefully help each other through the arduous voyage they faced for the following six weeks or more.
There are many documented reports of these pre-departure ceilis, which were in many ways ‘wakes’ rather than celebrations as – for those who would not survive the journey – this would be one of their very last relatively stress free nights on which they might ‘celebrate’ the fact of being alive!
Before 1849, when the British Passenger Acts were amended, ships bearing passengers were legally bound to provide every passenger with 7lbs of flour, bread, biscuits, rice or oatmeal for each week of the journey which could last anything between 36 and 80 days.
This amounted to one pound of food per day per adult – just enough to keep hunger sickness at bay – any other food the passengers felt they might require they had to purchase and bring on board themselves.
There are many documented reports of instances where the ship provided no food whatsoever or when, if they did, it had all turned putrid before the ships had completed the first few weeks of their lengthy journey. On trips whose length was extended by unfavourable weather conditions, all the food often ran out or become inedible before the ships were even halfway across the Atlantic.
Of the many ‘coffin ships’ which would arrive in Canada bearing Irish emigrants during the summer of 1847, The Syria was the first to do so with dead and seriously ill passengers on board. Although no record of events on board The Syria has survived to give us precise details of that crossing, several other ‘famine ship’ diaries from Black ’47 did survive. These accounts concur in almost every grim detail and can therefore be taken as also indicative of conditions on board The Syria.
A Limerick magistrate, Stephen De Vere White, was so horrified by accounts he heard of conditions on the voyages to Canada and America that he travelled as an emigrant himself so he could “study conditions at first hand”. His account, quoted in Flight From Famine by Donald MacKay, summarised that “ ship owners and captains regularly cheated on emigrants’ rations”, that food was “generally ill selected and seldom sufficiently cooked”, that the “water supply was insufficient for washing, never mind to cater for plague victims suffering from raging thirsts and racked by dysentery”, that the “filthy beds teeming with all abominations” were never aired and often contained “the dead and the living huddled together”.
Another diary, written by Robert Whyte and published as 1847 Famine Ship Diary, is similarly critical of conditions he witnessed on other vessels held at the quarantine station at the mouth of the St. Lawrence.
Unless headed for such ocean ports as Halifax, Nova Scotia or St. Johns, Newfoundland, ships bearing Irish emigrants into Canada (which accounted for 60% of all immigration to Canada between 1823 and 1850) did so through the mouth of Canada’s principal river, the St. Lawrence. This was the main entrance through which hundreds of thousands of Irish flooded into the Ottawa Valley, the cities of Quebec, Montreal, Toronto etc., south to U.S. destinations, across Ontario or Lake Huron to Canada’s Mid West and over the Rocky Mountains through British Columbia to the Pacific coast.
The Maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick were other popular destinations for the Irish in this period. Ships intending entry via the St. Lawrence only did so in the spring and summer as the river was iced over from the end of October to mid-April.
Approximately thirty miles to the east and downriver from Quebec there is a small, then largely uninhabited island named Grosse Ile where a small quarantine station had been established in 1832. By the 1840s, the usual procedure was to quarantine only those who were seriously ill, all others were sent on to Quebec or Montreal. Dr. Douglas, the quarantine station’s superintendent – like American authorities who had begun a blockade on ships bearing sick passengers from Ireland – had been alarmed by the increase in the number of seriously ill Irish emigrants arriving.
Following reports from Ireland that conditions there had grown even worse during the severe winter of 1846/7, he pleaded with the Legislative Assembly to prepare for an unprecedented number of sick arriving when the first ships were expected in April. Douglas requested 3,000 English pounds to increase facilities, but received only 300.
That winter was also unusually severe in Canada and the quarantine station did not in fact open until May 1st and then only with three medical staff and fifty beds.
Credit: The Leaving of Liverpool, Ron Kavana, http://www.aliasronkavana.com/#!the-leaving-of-liverpool/c8rg