Sailing the British Empire : The Voyages of The Clarence, 1858-73

Health Aboard the Clarence

An engraving of passengers going to the surgeon, titled "Medical Comforts". Above the doorway reads "Surgery". 

     As indicated in "Passengers", the class in which emigrants traveled contributed to their overall health. Passengers in steerage were crowded into tight quarters which helped facilitate diseases. Many health problems, especially those in young children and elderly adults, could be attributed to the poor diet that was received in steerage. Because steerage was below the deck, ventilation was not adequate. Problems occurred with the toilets, or "water closets", when the ship encountered a particularly rough patch of sea or a storm. 
     According to Robin Haines's ​Life and Death in the Age of Sail, Assistant Colonial Surgeon William Redfern was the first major reformer of hygiene and first to call attention to the health issues on Australia- bound convict ships in 1814. His report on the subject called for a reform and this reduced mortalities on the convict ships. The policies and procedures transitioned to passenger ships, which also so a decrease in the mortality rate of 2.4 per thousand between 1838 and 1853 to 1.0 per thousand between 1854 and 1892. The 0.001 mortality rate matched that of people on land. 
     The British government attempted to address the issue of poor health in 1849. They passed the Passengers Act which required all ships to carry a surgeon.  The surgeon was one of the most important men on board. He had the power to enforce the hours a sailor could work and sleep. The surgeon also ensured that everyone bathed, washed clothes, and aired linens regularly. However, a shortage of surgeons, coupled with financial restrictions, limited the effectiveness and the care given by surgeons on board. Passengers in steerage usually felt the greatest repercussions because they were lower profile and considered less important than saloon passengers.

     The Clarence's trips to Australia of 1870-1872 were very healthy as reported in the logs. Seasickness was common among the passengers. In an diary by Robert Gow, he records that his son, John, was quarantined by the ship's doctor on account of a fear of measles. The boy did not have the disease, but the surgeon was right to worry. Between 1848-1885, measles was the fifth leading cause of deaths on board a ship as reported by surgeons. There are also two accounts of passengers and crew members suffering from delirium tremens. Suicide appeared to be a risk on any ship. On February 12th, 1872 the body of Mrs. Sunderland was found in a pool of blood in a water closet. The surgeon reported she had been dead for approximately half an hour and that self-inflicted slash of the throat was the cause of death. 

Gow, Robert Biggart. Diary and journal. N.d. MS MS 24. National Library of Australia, n.p.

Haines, Robin F. Doctors at Sea: Emigrant Voyages to Colonial Australia. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Haines, Robin F. "Introduction." Life and Death in the Age of Sail: The Passage to Australia. Sydney, NSW: UNSW, 2003. 22-74. Print
Hassam, Andrew. "Introduction." Introduction. No Privacy for Writing: Shipboard Diaries, 1852-1879. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne UP, 1995. Xiii-xv. Print.

Huggup, Ralph Gallilee. Log Book Containing a Record of the Proceedings on Board the Ship Clarence. 1871. MS M6. Caird Library National Maritime Museum, n.p.

"Medical Comforts." Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers (Melbourne, Vic. : 1867 - 1875) 24 Mar 1875: 40. Web. 12 Dec 2015 <>.

This page has paths:

This page references: