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Chapter 2:

Steerage Passengers - Emigrants Between Decks

(By BÝrge Solem)

The "steerage", or between-deck, often shortened to "tween-deck", was originally the deck immediately below the main deck of a sailing ship. (Norw: Mellomdekk or Mellemdekk)

In the early days of emigration the ships used to convey the emigrants were originally built for carrying cargo. In reality the passengers were placed in the cargo hold. Temporary partitions were usually erected and used for the steerage accommodation. To get down to the between-deck the passengers often had to use ladders, and the passageway down between the hatches could be both narrow and steep. The manner in which the ships were equipped could vary since there were no set standards for this. It was necessary that the furnishings could be easily removed, and not cost more than absolutely necessary. As soon as the ships had set the passengers on land, the furnishings were discarded and the ship prepared for return cargo to Europe On the pictures below you can se examples on how many of the sailing ships would be equipped.

Section of an emigrant ship
Section of an English emigrant ship from 1852 (Borneuf of Liverpool)
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The origin of the expression "steerage", in the sense of describing the part of a ship allotted to those passengers who traveled at the cheapest rate seams a little unclear. Most encyclopedias and other written sources seams to agree in some sense that the expression "steerage" originates from the fact that the control strings of the rudder ran on this level of the ship. A more creative theory suggests that it comes from "steers" (cattle), and indicates that the emigrants traveled on the same decks as were used for transporting livestock. It is interesting to note that the "steerage" expression is only found in English. When searching for a corresponding expression in German, Spanish or in the Scandinavian languages, we only find an equivalent for the "between deck" expression. In German: "zwischendeck", in Spanish: "entrepuente", in Swedish: "mellandæck", in Norwegian: "mellomdekk".

Steerage conditions on sailing vessels

The ceiling height of the between-deck was usually 6 to 8 feet. The bunks, made of rough boards, were set up along both sides of the ship. The bunks were ordinarily positioned so the passengers lay in the direction of the ship, from fore to aft, but on a few ships the bunks were placed transversely or thwartships. The latter caused passengers greater discomfort in rough seas. The larger ships might also have an additional row of bunks in the middle. On these ships there was only a small corridor between the bunks. Each bunk was intended to hold from three to six persons, and these were often called family bunks. On the emigrant vessel Drafna, which sailed with emigrants in 1852, the bunks were large enough to hold five persons. The ship was not filled to capacity, however, so there were no more than three to four persons in each bunk. The passengers on that voyage felt they had ample space. The bunks were usually double-deck beds, i.e., there was one bunk on top of the other. Ads announced that on board the Bolivar, which sailed in 1852, there was enough headroom between the bunks that an adult could sit up in bed. The best place to have a bunk was amidships, because the rocking of the boat was felt less there. The bunks had straw mattresses or mattresses stuffed with straw. The emigrants had to bring their own pillows, blankets, animal hides and other necessary bedclothes. Contemporary sources report that lice and fleas thrived in this environment.

By reading voyage accounts, and contemporary newspaper reports and announcements we can get an insight to what the steerage experience was like. From a passenger traveling on the Anna Delius in 1867 we have the following description of the conditions on the between deck: "When we had boarded the ship we were shown our berths, the only place where we could stay while we were between decks. There were two berths on top of each other, and in front of them we had a little space where we could eat our food." A passenger traveling on the Atalanta in 1871 told this from his journey: "Now our place as emigrants was in the hold, on the between deck. Everyone had a chest of food, a keg of milk and one of beer, all of what was stored in the mid of the deck, held in place by ropes."

Newspaper announcement from "Den Vestlandske Tidende" March 30th 1852; announcing passenger accommodation from Grimstad to Quebec, with the ship Nordpolen, mastered by Capt. C. Olsen. It was scheduled to sail from Grimstad to Quebec with passengers and there was still available space. The steerage was 7 feet high, and it had a permanent between-deck. The ship also had cabins and a separate ward. It was fitted in the most comfortable way for the passengers and could take both cabin and steerage passengers. More information was obtained with Gardener J. J. Tørjesen at Næss ironworks, Lund and Kummelhoff in Arendal and at Sheriff Throndsen and the undersigned in Grimstad. Signed by M. S Tveten.

A newspaper announcement for the Benedicte in 1868 stated: "The ship has been classed 1st class with excellence for the last 7 years. The between deck has a height of 8 feet, the ventilation is extremely good, and it is equipped in an excellent way in all matters. It can safely be recommended as a seldom good passenger ship". In 1866 the owners of the ship Dagmar announced for passenger with the following description: "Dagmar, 349 Commercial lasts, with a high between deck, illuminated from the sides and roof, like on the steamships". On the Drafna an account from 1852 described daily life: "The between deck had to be "scraped" two times a week."

In a story in the March 1868 Skilling Magazin, "C.A." narrated a hypothetical visit to the docks where an emigrant ship prepared to embark. A part of his description gives a picture of the conditions on the between deck: "On Norwegian emigrant ships which also hauled freight, there were no separate passenger cabins". He described the scene in the between decks of his fictional emigrant ship. "We go below into the room. On both sides two tiers of bunks have been put up from stem to stern. On each bunk, which is marked with its particular number, there is a place for five.".

On the Laurvig the arrangements on board were very primitive and inadequate. On the beams between decks was laid a deck of planks with hatchways down into the hold, where all the baggage was stowed away on top of the cargo. Two rows of bunks of rough boards were built up, one above the other, the whole length of the ship from fore to aft. Between these open bunks there were often put up special berths reserved for emigrants whose demands were greater. Everything else was used in common - no separate rooms for men and women. Light was admitted through open hatchways and partly through skylights in the deck. There was canvas in the hatchways, but during storms and rough seas these often had to be covered, and if this continued for any length of time the air in the room below occupied by the emigrants often became frightfully bad.

On the Norden sailing with 403 persons in 1866 the hold had been divided by a between deck, set up of planks. On the between deck there was set up bins fitted with bunks. There was one row along each side, and one along the middle of the ship. There was a narrow passage between the bunks. A primitive toilet on each side of the deck. Over the hatch there had been built a hood with an entrance down to the passengers quarters. There was no other ventilation than this, and the only fresh air came trough this entrance. When the weather was rough the entrance had to be closed, and it became dark as in the night down in the hold.

Steerage on steamships

On the great ocean steamships the term "steerage" was used for any part of a ship allotted to those passengers who traveled at the cheapest rate, usually the lower decks in the ship. In the United States Passenger act of 1882 the definition of "steerage passengers" is quite clearly defined as:

"The expression "steerage passenger" means all passengers except cabin passengers, and persons shall not be deemed cabin passengers unless the space allotted to their exclusive use is in the proportion of at least thirty-six clear superficial feet to each passenger."

The White Star Line steamships Adriatic and Celtic were both launched in 1872. From an old promotion card we learn that the steerage passengers were carried upon the same decks as saloon, and that the steerage entrances were permanent and not through hatchways, the latter being used only for light and ventilation in addition to that obtained through the portholes. The steerage was warmed by steam. Surgeon and steerage matron were carried on each steamer.

The Adriatic could accommodate about 800 steerage passengers, and in addition she had accommodations for 50 1st class and 50 2nd class passengers. By studying the deck plan for the Adriatic and Celtic above, we can see that the steerage passengers on these ships were divided in 3 different categories and accommodated in 3 separate compartments. This was quite common, and as on the Adriatic, the front compartment was usually reserved for single men, the middle for married couples and families, while the single women were in a compartment further aft (as far away from the single men as possible). Note that there were no separate dining saloons, the meals were brought from the galley and served in the common space allotted to the passengers in each compartment where long tables were located, see the picture below

The conditions for steerage passengers improved through time, as new ships were introduced by the great lines. On the White Star line ship Arabic (1), built in 1881, the steerage accommodation was in three sections, approached by separate entrances, and provided with separate lavatories, with an ample water supply kept in constant circulation by a pulsometer pump. The single men were all quartered in the main and lower deck forward, and between them and the married people there was a saloon accommodation and engine space. The single women were still further aft, and had their quarters entirely to themselves, and as they were in charge of experienced matrons and fully qualified surgeon, they were thoroughly well cared for in every respect. A hospital replete with every requirement was provided for every section and in addition there were two on deck for infectious cases. The steerage berths were of canvas. When not in use the berths could be compactly stowed away, the space vacated becoming available for tables and seats during the day. The steerage was also provided with a pantry, from which the emigrants could be supplied with tea and coffee made on the same principal as in the saloon, and for the women who wanted to make their own there was an ample supply for teapots and hot water. The invalid and sea sick passengers were not lost sight of, beef tea, chicken broth, and arrowroot being freely provided for them. The main deck, fore and aft, formed a promenade and recreation for the steerage passengers, while the saloon passengers had a special separate deck amidships, all mixing of classes thus being avoided.

Around the turn of the century it became more common to use the term "3rd class" for the low price accommodation, some ships even had "4th class". The deck plan below shows the 3rd class or "steerage" accommodation on the Cunard Line steamships Saxonia and Ivernia built 1899. The accommodation for 3rd class passengers on these ships were almost as good as for those traveling on 2nd class, however, it was more crowded and the food was a little cheaper. These ships could carry about 1,600 steerage passengers.

Steerage deck plan of the Cunard Line steamships Saxonia and Ivernia
3rd class - Steerage deck plan showing the arrangement for 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 berth staterooms

4 berth stateromm for steerage passengers (3rd class) on the Cunard Line steamships Saxonia and Ivernia
4 berth stateroom for steerage passengers (3rd class)
2 berth stateroom for steerage (3rd class) passengers on the Cunard Line steamships Saxonia and Ivernia
2 berth stateroom for steerage passengers (3rd class)

Accommodations for 3rd class - steerage passengers on the Cunard Line steamships Saxonia and Ivernia

On these ships the meals were served in dining saloons. The steerage passengers could relax in one of the saloons or take a walk walk on one of the promenade decks when not in their staterooms. The sanitary conditions had also been much improved from earlier built ships.
Dining saloon for steerage (3rd class) passengers on the Cunard Line steamships Saxonia and Ivernia
Dining saloon for steerage (3rd class) passengers on the Cunard Line steamships Saxonia and Ivernia


The Transatlantic Crossing -

 -  Chapter 1:   Early Norwegian Emigrants
 -  Chapter 2:   Steerage Passengers - Emigrants Between Decks
 -  Chapter 3:   By sail across the ocean - daily life aboard
 -  Chapter 4:   Children of the ocean - life and death on the Atlantic
 -  Chapter 5:   Sailing ship provisions - Food and drink
 -  Chapter 6:   Sanitary conditions on board - health and sickness on emigrant ships
 -  Chapter 7:   From sail to steam
 -  Chapter 8:   The largest, the fastest and most comfortable ships - by steamship across the ocean
 -  Chapter 9:   The giant express steamers - The transatlantic crossing following 1900
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