1850s–70s: A Long and Dangerous Journey

1850s Sailing Clipper
1850s Sailing Clipper.
Image: Bill Wood
Source: Museum Victoria

For those who travelled to Australia in the nineteenth century, the journey was often long and dangerous. In calm weather a sailing ship might take as long as four months, while a well-run clipper ship with favourable winds could make the journey in a little over half this time. These ships represented the pinnacle of sailing ship technology. With their streamlined hulls and acres of sail designed to catch even the slightest breeze, clippers were built primarily for speed.

By the 1850s it was possible to make the journey by auxiliary steamer, using a combination of steam and sail. However steam technology was still too inefficient to allow a ship to travel all the way to Australia under its own power. With the strong prevailing westerlies on the 'Great Circle' sailing route benefiting the clippers, sail continued to dominate the trade until the end of the 1870s.

Life at sea was uncomfortable and often hazardous, particularly for passengers who travelled cheaply in 'steerage' (the lowest deck and below the water line). Storms were common in the Southern Ocean, but were not the only danger. Hygiene was poor at the best of times and worse in bad weather. 'Batten-down the hatches' meant passengers on the lowest deck were confined without ventilation or light in conditions that were ideal for the spread of disease. The use of candles or oil lanterns was restricted and sometimes forbidden—cramped conditions with timber, straw mattresses, hemp (rope) and tar caulking, meant a fire could spread with terrifying speed. A disaster at sea or shipwreck on the coast left little hope for rescue—few sailors or passengers could swim, and there were rarely enough life-boats for the numbers on board.

Settler Origins

Regardless of the difficulties in getting to Australia, it had become an increasingly popular destination for free settlers. Convicts were no longer the major source of new arrivals to the colonies. With the discovery of gold in 1851 and a booming economy, people were now coming to Victoria and Australia by choice. People came from many countries, the majority from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, America, China and Germany. (For details, see Origins - the First Census.)

However, not all settlers were welcomed equally—for example, from 1855-61 ship's captains had to pay poll taxes of up to £10 per head for each Chinese passenger they landed in Victoria. Word soon spread back home, and many young Chinese seeking their fortunes subsequently disembarked in South Australia and walked overland to the Victorian goldfields.

Chinese immigration remained controversial for many decades. The following verse from a song by Charles Thatcher perhaps encapsulates the attitude of many colonists to the arrival of immigrants from China. (Thatcher became a popular music-hall entertainer on the Victorian goldfields after his arrival in 1878).

You doubtless read the paper
And, as men of observation,
Of course you watch the progress of
Chinese immigration.
A thousand of these pig-tailed chaps
In Adelaide are landing,
And why they let such numbers come
Exceeds my understanding!


  • Google 'Clipper ships' and 'Australia'. How long did the fastest of the clippers take to sail from England to Australia?

  • Use the Immigration to Victoria - a Timeline website to prepare a graph of population growth in Victoria since the 1830s.

Image Gallery

Melbourne Punch cartoon, 1857 Emigration pamphlet c. 1858