“SINGLE FEMALE MIGRANT” The Forgotten Story of 100,000 Victorian BRITISH Women Part II – A Perilous Voyage

Bon Voyage

What was life like on board ship for a Single Female Migrant like Sarah Marshall, who set sail to Australia with one-way tickets? Again, the ship’s passenger list provides lots of clues.

On the morning of 1st November 1886, Sarah Marshall stepped on board the steamship, the SS Duke of Sutherland, at Gravesend on the Thames Estuary, having taken the train from the newly-opened Immigrants’ Home in Blackwell, London.  Sarah would have been required to arrive at the Home, which was basically a lodging house run along the same lines as a ship, two or three days prior to embarkation, in order to be issued with her kit for the journey, have her luggage inspected, and to undergo further rigorous checks regarding her suitability.

How daunting this must have been for any passenger, let alone a young woman travelling alone from the colliery villages of County Durham. Sarah Marshall, however, was no ordinary woman.

A Steam Ship with sails, the SS Orient 1927
The SS Orient, 1927 – this is how the Duke would’ve looked in full sail. These ships could shift! (Painting by Charles Dickinson Gregory)

How did she feel as she walked up the gangway, dragging her few possessions behind her? Hesitant? Nervous? Excited about what lay ahead tempered with relief at finally escaping her old existence? Or fear, bordering on terror, that she was making the biggest mistake of her life? I suspect a combination of all.

As a remittance passenger, funded by the Queensland government, Sarah’s “ship’s kit” would have been paid for. The kit, issued to all but first-class passengers, included essentials for the voyage such as a bedding roll, sheets, water bottle, a dish for washing in, a plate, a mug, cutlery and large amounts of soap. 

Passengers were allowed twenty cubic feet of luggage. This sounds a lot but in reality, amounted to no more than a couple of small trunks. Sarah was allowed to keep with her only one item of luggage containing items and spare clothing necessary for the journey, as space in the berths between decks was extremely limited. The rest of her possessions were placed in the hold until arrival at her final destination.

In addition to luggage checks, Sarah had to submit to further medical examinations by two doctors, one of whom was the ship’s surgeon, Dr Poland. The Surgeon Administrator, as well as being the ship’s doctor, was second only to the captain and was responsible for all administrative matters on board ship, as well as the health and welfare of the passengers. Unusually, Dr Poland’s wife was also travelling, which suggests that perhaps they were not intending to make the return journey.

Dr Poland was assisted in his enormous task by Mrs Turnbull, the matron. The role of matron was a very wide one, covering everything from attending to the medical needs of the single female passengers to organising entertainments and concerts for the children on board. Her principle goal, however, was to prevent any “fraternisation” between the men on board (including the crew) and the single ladies. The crew were completely forbidden from communicating with the passengers – any attempt to do so could result in instant dismissal.

The Age of Steam

The SS Duke of Sutherland was unlike anything Sarah would have seen before, and would have dwarfed the colliers’ merchant vessels and fishing boats which docked at Seaham Harbour, her home town. The Duke had been built by Duncan & Co in Glasgow in 1873 for the Eastern Steamship Co (Ducal Line) which traded between the UK and India.  A massive 3013 gross ton iron steamship, she had a maximum speed of eleven knots, derived from a combination of steam and sail, and was around three times the size of the average emigrant sailing ships which had preceded her.

The Duke could accommodate sixty first-class passengers, together with a vast number of migrants – around eight hundred in total – who were housed in bunk compartments between the decks. In practice, passenger numbers usually hovered around the 500 mark. She remained in service on this route until 1902, some sixteen years after taking Sarah to Brisbane.

Steam ship the SS Duke of Sutherland
Sarah’s ship, the SS Duke of Sutherland

Steam ships had many advantages over sail – as well as their enormous capacity, they were generally safer, were very fast, were not dependent on the winds and tides, were reliable (provided they were maintained well) and could therefore be chartered to provide very regular services to transport people, goods and mail between Great Britain and the rest of the Empire. The use of sails on these types of commercial journeys more or less disappeared by the turn of the century.

Steam power cut the journey time to Australia by a whopping fifty per cent. What steam ships did require, however, was vast amounts of good quality coal. As a result, the major shipping lines established coaling ports at regular distances along the main routes. Although steam was much quicker and more reliable than sail, it was incredibly dirty and also created extremes of temperature on board.

Deaths due to heatstroke among passengers multiplied after the steamers were introduced, and became the most common cause of death amongst adult passengers – those unfortunate enough to have their quarters close to the engine room particularly suffered. Passage through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, always the hottest part of the voyage, could see temperatures on board hover around a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, night and day. 

A Perilous Voyage

Mortality on board migrant ships remained of constant concern to the colonial governments. Steam ships, whilst not without the risks associated with high temperatures, were by and large not troubled by the major outbreaks of disease which had plagued the sailing ships transporting first convicts and then migrants to both Australia and America. 

Death rates among passengers travelling across the Atlantic to New York at the height of the Irish Famine in the 1840s and 1850s averaged ten per cent; on some ships, it was as high as forty per cent. Just forty years later, around ninety nine per cent of passengers travelling on board a steam ship to Queensland could expect to complete the journey; most fatalities on board were amongst children who succumbed to diseases like measles and pneumonia.

The improvements in death rates can be attributed to a number of factors, not least the shorter journey times, rigorous health checks at the port of embarkation, the presence of an on-board surgeon and matron on every trip, a constant supply of fresh water from condensers and the introduction of refrigeration which meant that live animals no longer had to be carried and slaughtered on board.

An engraving of a burial at sea
“Burial at Sea” (Artist Unknown) The Australasian Sketcher, November 1880

Mortality rates on the many German migrant ships headed for Australia were significantly higher – these ships tended to be much less regulated and more overcrowded; the continental migrants as they were known were not subject to the rigorous pre-departure health checks faced by British migrants.

The highest number of deaths recorded on an Australian migrant ship was seventy seven, on the German-registered Sultana, after an horrendous one hundred and fifteen days at sea; all but two of the dead were children. Surprisingly, even death rates on board the convict ships were less than two per cent, but perhaps this can be explained by the fact that most of the passengers would have been young men, and very few children, the most vulnerable to heat and disease, would have been on board.

The greatest risks to steamship passengers (apart from heatstroke) were from accidents and collisions, running aground on reefs and rocks, and shipping water in heavy seas. Even the largest, sturdiest-built ship would have been thrown around like a cork in very bad weather. Given the huge number of journeys the migrant ships made to Australia (some figures estimate as many as 1317 voyages were made), only three ships were ever lost. The last was the SS Dacca which sank with all hands in the Red Sea in 1890. Incredibly, it wasn’t until 1888 that it became law for all ships carrying migrants to be fitted with life-saving equipment.

The Duke of Sutherland was involved in her fair share of incidents at sea; in September 1902, she struck a reef off Lizard Island in the Coral Sea and was stranded for six days without any means of contacting the outside world . Several unsuccessful attempts were made to reach Cooktown in Northern Queensland but it wasn’t until a week later that they managed to communicate with a small passing steamer which bore news of their predicament to the mainland. Eventually she was refloated and limped to Cooktown for repairs.

A newspaper report from the Sydney Morning Herald of 3rd October 1902, describes (with an understatedness bordering on the hilarious) how the SS Duke of Sutherland passed Cairns “leaking only slightly”.  A passenger by the name of Hugill recounted how “the vessel appeared to have ploughed her way through the top of a coral reef … the passengers took things quite philosophically and made quite a picnic affair.”

The Daily Regime

A very strict daily regime was imposed on board all emigrant ships to ensure that order was kept at all times and also to guarantee the cleanliness and therefore health of the ship and her passengers. Sarah slept in an iron bunk in a small compartment with five other girls. Passengers were expected to be up and about by seven in the morning before attending to their ablutions, dressing, rolling up their bedding, sweeping around and under their bunks and cleaning the whole accommodation area.

Breakfast was between eight and nine o’clock, lunch at one o’clock, supper at six in the evening, and “lights out” was at ten o’clock.   Passengers were divided up into groups of between ten and twelve, known as a “mess”, along military lines, for the purposes of daily cleaning duties and cooking.

The surgeon appointed a group of constables from among the senior male passengers, to keep watch during the night and to ensure that order on board was maintained. In effect, this meant keeping an eye on the single female quarters just in case any amorous young gentleman on board was tempted to pay a late-night visit.

Dr Poland would also have selected a teacher for the children on board, who were required to attend classed for six hours each weekday. The older children and young adults were encouraged to attend evening classes, while educational lectures on a wide variety of topics, including life in Queensland and what immigrants could expect upon arrival, were organised for the benefit of the other passengers.

To modern eyes this may appear a fairly grim and tedious routine, however, Sarah would have found that after the completion of her cleaning and cooking chores she had a great deal of leisure time on her hands. For a former maid-of-all-work, this would have been something of a novelty, and for Sarah the voyage would have been the one and only time in her life that she ever experienced anything approaching a “holiday”.

To fill in the long hours, passengers would organise deck games and sports like cricket were played frequently, although anyone scoring a six was very unpopular for obvious reasons. Sarah and her female companions organised concerts and dances, put on plays, and held parties for the children. There was an extensive library on board – the ship’s records show that a very high proportion of the passengers were literate.

On Sundays, the surgeon issued the children with sweets, and birthday parties with extra treats were a regular feature. Additional rations were provided at Christmas. Many of the poorest passengers on board experienced a standard of living and a quantity of food they could only dream of back home. Throughout the activity programme the proprieties were always observed, and the single ladies were kept separated from the men at all times. Alcohol was completely banned, even for the first class cabin passengers, and only Dr Poland had access to a small supply, literally for “medicinal purposes”.

“A Very Pleasant Voyage”

Incredibly, there exists in the annals of the Brisbane Courier, an account of the SS Duke of Sutherland’s journey from London to Brisbane precisely one year after Sarah’s departure.  This voyage was almost identical to Sarah’s as the ship called at the same ports and even sailed under the same captain and crew. This report of the journey –  a moment paused in time – provides a wonderful description of what everyday life on board would have been like for Sarah and her fellow passengers and the hazards they would have encountered on the way.

                      Wednesday 4th January 1888 – The Brisbane Courier.


The B.I.S.N. Company’s supplementary steamer Duke of Sutherland, 2024 tons, Captain J. S. Cox, from London, via ports, with immigrants and a general cargo, anchored in the Brisbane roadstead at midday yesterday and was assisted up the river on the afternoon’s tide by the tug Beaver, berthing alongside Messrs. Gibbs, Bright, and Co.’s wharf, Kangaroo Point, about 3 o’clock.

The Brisbane contingent of her immigrants, to the number of 295, having been duly inspected by the immigration agent, were landed on the wharf, and marched from there to the new immigration depot, Kangaroo Point, where they were comfortably housed. Their luggage was transhipped into lighters, and will be landed at the old depot in William Street, as there is no accommodation yet for it at the new premises.

The Duke left London with a total of 485 souls, equal to 427½ statute adults, who were placed under the charge of Dr. Marshall as surgeon-superintendent, and Miss Wale as matron. Nationalities: 204 English, 69 Scotch, 201 Irish, and 9 from other countries.

Classification: 39 free, of whom 21 are English, 4 Scotch, and 14 Irish; 405 remittances and free nominated passengers—152 English, 63 Scotch, 182 Irish, and 8 from other countries; and 39 full payers. The assisted, free, and remittance and free nominated passengers paid a total of £400 towards their passages and ship’s kits.

Occupations: 132 female domestic servants, 109 farm labourers, 45 general labourers, 1 gardener, 11 miners, 1 blacksmith, 1 bricklayer, 1 carpenter and joiner, 1 wheel-wright, and 10 others whose trade or occupation is not specified. Social condition: 51 married couples, 166 single men, 156 single women, 43 males and 44 female children between the ages of 1 and 12 years, and 12 infants.

The Duke of Sutherland landed 1 single male and 4 single females at Thursday Island; at Cooktown—5 single males and 5 single females; at Townsville—6 married couples, 28 single males, 28 single females, and 18 children; at Rockhampton—2 married couples, 12 single males, 13 single females, and 4 children; at Maryborough—6 married couples, 12 single males, 15 single females, and 16 children; leaving 18 married couples, 106 single males, 91 single females, and 62 children for Brisbane.

The Duke of Sutherland, which, as already stated, is under the command of Captain Cox, left the Royal Albert Docks at 1.30 p.m. on Friday, the 4th November.

The following particulars concerning the voyage have been kindly furnished by Mr. H. Lyndamore, her popular purser. The Duke anchored off Gravesend at 5.20 p.m. on the 4th November for the night, and embarked the emigrants at 1p.m. on the following day.

The anchor was weighed at 11.30 p.m. that date, and Gibraltar was passed on the 12th. She passed Malta on the 17th, but did not call on account of the prevalence of cholera there; arrived at Port Said at 3.30 p.m. on the 18th; left same date and reached Suez on the 21st, leaving again same date.

On the 26th of that month a fatal casualty occurred. An able seaman, named Wylie, by some means fell overboard, and, although, the vessel was stopped for two hours, he was never seen again. Colombo was made on the 6th December, and left on the 7th, and she arrived at Batavia on the 15th, leaving again on the same date. On the 17th of that month, when passing through Lambok Straits, the vessel was caught in a tide rip, and shipped large volumes of water both fore and aft, which caused no small amount of alarm amongst her passengers.

She reached Thursday Island on the 24th of December, and left on Christmas morning. A slight accident occurred as she was leaving this port. In swinging round preparatory to leaving, the Duke of Sutherland, owing to the strong current running at the time, fouled the hulk Star of Peace, which is stationed there. The result was that her after gig was smashed.

She arrived at Cooktown on the 27th, left that afternoon, and anchored in Cleveland Bay on the 28th; left at 11.30 p.m. on the 30th; arrived in Keppel Bay on the 31st, and off the White Cliffs, Hervey Bay, on the 1st instant; left on the morning of the 2nd, and, as before stated, anchored in the Brisbane roadstead at midday yesterday.

The Duke experienced fine pleasant weather all the way to Townsville, but from that port to Maryborough she had to contend against strong head winds and squally weather. The general health of the immigrants during the whole voyage has been excellent, and there has not been a single death. There was one birth when the vessel had reached Hervey Bay.

The immigrants are a strong and healthy-looking class of people, and have proved amenable to discipline during the entire passage. Their quarters have been kept scrupulously clean, which no doubt accounts to a very great extent for the entire freedom from sickness.

The monotony of the voyage was agreeably relieved by concerts, which were held regularly twice a week, and which were always numerously attended. Altogether the voyage of the Duke of Sutherland has been a very pleasant one. The vessel will be reported at the Customs this morning, and discharging operations will be commenced forthwith.”

 The unfortunate man overboard, Wylie, had in fact met a gruesome end. Captain Cox described in the official report of his death, “It is believed that when the third mate saw Wylie throw up his arms, that he was then pulled down by a shark for he was never seen to rise again.”  

The description of a voyage during which one crew member was eaten by a shark, and during which the ship nearly sank, as a “very pleasant one” is I think testament both to the general acceptance of the perils of seafaring in the 19th century and the stoicism of the emigrants.

Across the World in 60 Days

On Sarah’s voyage, the Duke’s 499 passengers were mainly young fit working class people in their twenties and thirties; as well as the young ladies travelling under the Single Female Migrant scheme, there were a number of single men, but also married couples travelling with children.

Groups of older siblings were not uncommon – the young Humphreys brothers, Edwin (23), Alfred (21) and young William (16), all travelled together, as did the Wyeth family, consisting of twenty-four-year-old Mary Ann Wyeth and her four younger brothers, the youngest of whom was only fourteen. As I pored over the passenger list, I pondered the fate of each of these young people and wondered what life in the colonies had held for them.

The route that the old convict and immigrant sailing ships took to Australia was incredibly circuitous. Totally dependent upon the winds and currents, a typical immigrant ship would sail down the Thames to Gravesend before heading round into the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay, then making for the Atlantic Ocean. Instead of heading south and following the west coast of Africa, the ship would sail south-west towards South America.

Upon reaching the South Atlantic, the captain would hope to pick up the winds to take his ship back across the southern-most reaches of the Atlantic and veer east towards South Africa and around the cape of Good Hope. These ships were so far south that foul weather was virtually guaranteed. Passengers could expect to encounter snow storms, raging seas, huge waves and even icebergs.

The captain would eventually begin to plot a northerly course, passing Tasmania before heading up the coast of New South Wales and then to Queensland. Incredibly, no stops were made en route unless there was some sort of emergency on board and the ship had to put into port for repairs. Passengers could be on board without sight of land for three months. Voyages in excess of 121 days were recorded – an unimaginable seventeen weeks at sea.

A map showing migrant routes to Australia in the 19th century
The long way round…wouldn’t have fancied this much.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 changed everything and revolutionised the transport of people and goods between Europe, Asia and Australasia, cutting thousands of miles and up to several weeks off the journey to Queensland. This incredible feat of engineering which had taken ten years to complete, combined with the use of the new steam-powered ships, reduced the voyage time to around sixty days, although one ship managed to complete the distance in just forty five.

An emigrant ship could now travel through the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal, pass through the canal from Port Said to Suez, sometimes stopping at both ends of the canal to take on coal, then sail down the Red Sea to the Port of Aden where it would make another stop before heading out into the Indian Ocean and around the southern tip of India. The ship would put into port in Colombo in what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) then east to Batavia (Jakarta) in Indonesia where a final coal stop would be made. Queensland waters would finally be reached just west of Thursday Island, the northern-most point of Australia. 

The ship then had to negotiate myriad small islands (including Lizard Island, where the Duke was destined to run aground in 1902) and the Great Barrier Reef as it hugged the coast of Queensland, dropping off cargo and passengers at various small port towns along the way to Brisbane, its final destination.

I had wondered what Sarah would have made of the sights, sounds and smells of these exotic foreign ports, places far beyond her experience or imagining. Sadly, I learned that she would have seen very little of them; usually only the fare-paying passengers were allowed onshore when the ship was in port. It’s unlikely she’d have got to see much more than the docks at any stopping-place on the voyage. I found this somewhat strange.

Were the migrants considered too untrustworthy to be allowed off the ship? However, it is to be remembered that Sarah and her fellow passengers were precious cargo – the Queensland government, who was funding their voyage, did not want their investments to be corrupted in any way, either physically by disease (or more likely, by alcohol) or morally.

Foreign sea ports were no places for single young women travelling alone, whatever their social status. The shipping lines contracted to the government were paid a premium for each live passenger landed in Australia, and they were not prepared to lose anyone on the way.

If any outbreaks of disease were reported in the forward ports, none of the passengers at all would be allowed to disembark, and only those crew members essential to the unloading of cargo and the loading of coal were permitted on dry land. On the Duke’s previous journey, one gentleman who had been taken ill had been left behind in a hospital in Colombo.

Incredibly, I was able to follow every day of Sarah’s voyage using old shipping reports and telegrams sent by shipping agents to the owners and local newspapers upon the Duke’s arrival at each port.

The Duke of Sutherland sailed from Gravesend on the afternoon of 1st November 1886. Her arrival in Port Said exactly two weeks later, on the 15th November, was reported in the Sydney Evening News. She reached Suez within a further two days, and appears have to sailed straight on to Colombo arriving on 2nd December.

After taking on coal and provisions, she made her way briskly to Batavia in Indonesia – the Newcastle Morning Herald reports her departure on the 13th December “for the Queensland Ports”. Sarah’s first sight of Australia was of Thursday Island on around 17th December, as the Duke passed through the Torres Straits, bearing south east.


The Duke’s first port of call in Queensland was Cooktown, in the far north, where the ship remained in harbour for two days, and where the first of the immigrants disembarked on 21st December. Sarah celebrated Christmas Day on board the Duke attending a brief carol service and having a special Christmas Dinner with the other young women. The Duke’s progress was not halted by the festivities however, with more passengers and cargo being delivered to Townsville, and the small settlements of Bowen and Mackay. Keppel Bay and Port Alma near Rockhampton were reached on Boxing Day, Sunday 26th December.

A large number of passengers had disembarked in Townsville and Rockhampton, including Maurice and Barbara Jones and their five-year-old son Moffatt – tragically their baby boy had died on the voyage and been buried at sea. Baby Jones was one of four babies under the age of twelve months to perish on the journey. The others were all baby boys too – George Morgan, Jesse Wright and Henry Barker. The  eight baby girls and two other baby boys on board all survived. The causes of the infants’ deaths are not noted on the ship’s passenger list – the simple words “Died on the voyage” are written in pencil alongside each of their names.

Despite the advances in sanitation and technology, a two month sea voyage was still fraught with risks for the very young, although of course infant mortality rates generally were much higher in the 1880s, whether at sea or on land. Any passenger who perished on the voyage, whether a baby, an older child or an adult, would be wrapped in sail cloth or cotton sacking and, after a prayer and a few words said by the Captain, consigned to the deep.

The Duke of Sutherland arrived in Hervey Bay on 27th December, with passengers and two locomotives to be delivered to Maryborough. Progress was delayed somewhat when, during the unloading process, the crane lifting one of the locomotive boilers toppled over and the boiler crashed onto the deck. Fortunately, no one was injured.

The ship was further delayed at Maryborough and the passengers were not allowed to disembark as there was no doctor available to inspect the ship for quarantine purposes. The nearest doctor, Dr O’Connor, had to be fetched from fifty miles away and was somewhat disgruntled by the experience, according to reports in the Maryborough Chronicle on Wednesday 29th December. Eventually, after a two day delay, the thirty-one immigrants were given a clean bill of health and were brought ashore by the paddle steamer Pacific.

A postcard of a steamship leaving Melbourne Australia in 1903
A steamship like the Duke of Sutherland leaving the port of Melbourne in 1903

In the early morning summer sunshine of 30th December 1886, the Duke of Sutherland steamed into Moreton Bay. Sarah Marshall rolled up her mattress for the last time, put on her second-best dress, tidied her hair and climbed the steps up to the main deck.


Next: Part III – Realities. What was life really like in Australia for the young  British women recruited through the Single Female Migrant Scheme?

(Taken from Ch 8 of The Horsekeeper’s Daughter by Jane Gulliford Lowes). You can read more about Sarah Marshall’s story here

book cover of The Horsekeeper's Daughter by Jane Gulliford Lowes


Rights of Passage – Emigration to Australia in the Nineteenth Century, HR Woolcock (Tavistock Publications Ltd), London 1986, p. 99.

Sydney Morning Herald, 3rd October 1902, trove.nla.gov.au

Brisbane Courier, 4th January 1888, trove.nla.gov.au

The Horsekeeper’s Daughter Jane Gulliford Lowes (Matador), Leicester 2017.

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