Recording the Journey, 1850s–70s

Ally Heathcote's 1874 diary
Ally Heathcote's 1874 diary: Brief sketches of life on board a steam vessel
Source: Museum Victoria

For those migrants who were able to read and write, it was a common practice to keep a diary or journal of the voyage. For most migrants the journey to Australia was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and keeping a diary was a way of recording this important event.

Diaries were also kept to lessen the pangs of homesickness and provide a routine with which to fill idle hours during the long monotonous days at sea. Some also had an eye towards publishing their memoirs.

Nearly every one with even a moderate acquaintance with the three R's keeps a diary, which he or she, as the case may be firmly proposes to transmit to fond relatives at the earliest opportunity. Or more ambitious still, to publish in a book form so as to astonish the colonials with their extraordinary powers of observation.
— Illustrated Australian News
, 24 March 1875.

However, whilst first hand accounts offer us a valuable insight into the migrant experience of the educated, the memoirs of non-English speakers and working class migrants are noticeably absent. Instead we can only rely on observations such as the following to provide us with some understanding of the treatment received by these groups. The following extract highlights the discrimination often encountered by Chinese passengers.

As the boat drew nearer, we could see that something unusual was happening, for sitting in the aft part of the boat were three natives of the Celestial Empire and some luggage. Evidently, they were coming aboard as passengers, for as soon as they reached the gangway, they scrambled on board, luggage and all. This was the signal for a very loud outbreak of indignation, and loud were the complaints about having these Chinamen forced upon us. We absolutely refused to allow them to join us in the saloon.
— Thomas Park arrived from England in 1852.

Often to while away the long hours on board ship, someone would begin a newspaper to keep fellow passengers amused. The following was produced in The Champion of the Seas Times, No. 11. Monday, September 24, 1855.

On Thursday last, died at her residence on deck after a lingering illness, "the cow". The doctor has not given any official report of the complaint under which the patient suffered. We believe however, it was from general disabilities caused by the exhausting process carried on for some time, which while it made our tea more palatable, and the babies more chubby, tended to bring the generous creature to a rapid death. Rest in Peace.


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

Handwrite and display on a noticeboard a single-page edition of a shipboard newspaper. Include items about progress of the journey, the weather, accommodation and food.