Privies and Hygiene

'Sea bathing in the Tropics'
'Sea bathing in the Tropics' from the illustrated diary of Edward Snell, who sailed from London to Melbourne aboard the Bolton in 1849. This illustrates the difficulty of keeping clean onboard, not least the lack of privacy available.
Source: La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria

Most ships provided only basic toilet and bathing facilities. Authorities complained that even these were under used and the sailors often had to wash the upper decks which passengers used as open-air toilets. Some steerage passengers had never used a privy or a water closet before. Buckets of water were used to flush contents down to the bilges [under steerage], which were emptied when the ship finally docked at port. The smell would have been disgusting.

The toiletting process became much worse in storms, or during the night, when passengers in steerage were locked in and no lights were allowed. Accidents were messy affairs. As people did not understand the basic rules of hygiene, and toilet paper had not been invented, rags or clothes were soaked in vinegar and hung on the back of the toilet door to be used by all. This led to the spread of diseases like dysentery and typhoid. Deaths at sea were common.

On better managed ships, the areas below deck were thoroughly cleaned every few days by sailors and many of the women in steerage. Bedding which was usually made of straw, attracted fleas and cockroaches. People brought up their bedding in fine weather to shake it out and air it. However, in storms and bad weather, the bedding was often soaked through and this led to outbreaks of influenza and pneumonia. In the over crowded conditions in steerage, epidemics were common. Most victims were babies and young children, who often died of complications and lack of medical care. Infected passengers often came on board, having passed undetected through pre-boarding medical checks. Tuberculosis, an infectious disease of the lungs, was one of the most dangerous diseases.

The sleeping berths were disinfected as often as possible, using a mixture of vinegar and chloride of lime. But often the cracks in the wooden slats of the bunks harboured lice, cockroaches and fleas. It was not uncommon for rats or mice to be found in the beds and bedding.

Many people in the nineteenth century didn't bathe regularly and the connection between personal hygiene and disease was not well understood. Due to the cramped and overcrowded conditions in steerage, people could not really take baths and made do with a clean-up with a damp cloth under a blanket. Most people did not have the room to change their clothing and often wore the same garments or clothing for the entire voyage. Facilities for washing clothes were very restricted. Underclothes were virtually unknown to many people at the time, deodorants were not used and many people did not clean their teeth. One can only imagine the smells of soiled nappies, grubby clothes, and unwashed bodies in a crowded environment!


Imagine that you are migrating to Australia in the period 1850–1870.

Write a letter to your family in England about the voyage so far. Describe the problems you are experiencing in trying to stay clean and healthy.