Ships, 1850s–70s

'MARCO POLO Well known Emigrant Ship of the Fifties'
'MARCO POLO Well known Emigrant Ship of the Fifties', painted by T. Robertson 1859.
Image: Thomas Robertson
Source: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

Marco Polo, 1852–65

The Marco Polo was the first clipper-style vessel constructed for bringing immigrants to Australia. The ship was built in Canada in 1851 and had a hull made of the best softwood. Captained by James Nicol Forbes, the Marco Polo made its first voyage from Liverpool to Port Phillip Heads in 1852 in the record time of 68 days. Forbes pioneered the 'Great Circle Route', sailing far south in the Southern Ocean, where he could catch the strong, icy Antarctic winds.

Captain J.N. 'Bully' Forbes became renowned in shipping circles for record sailing times and for compromising passenger well-being. On this first voyage an outbreak of measles and influenza in icy conditions led to the deaths of 51 children and two adults.

The Marco Polo offered luxury for first-class passengers, whilst below deck the majority were squeezed into cramped and uncomfortable steerage berths where food and hygiene were of poor quality.

Great Britain, 1852–76

The Great Britain was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843. It was the first ocean-going, iron-hulled, steam-powered passenger liner, and when built, was by far the largest ship in the world. It was originally built for the North Atlantic trade routes, but it is primarily remembered as an emigrant clipper. It was responsible for carrying over 15,000 immigrants to Australia.

When the Great Britain first anchored in Hobson's Bay in 1852, local excitement was overwhelming. Over 4,000 people paid a shilling each to tour the ship.

In addition to cabins for 750 passengers and 130 crew, the Great Britain also provided accommodation for livestock. To satisfy the dining needs of those travelling from Melbourne to England in 1861, the following livestock were taken on board the ship: 550 chickens, 250 ducks, 150 sheep, 55 turkeys and geese, 30 pigs, a couple of lambs and oxen, and a milking cow and calf.

Today, the restored Great Britain is on display in the city of Bristol, England, resting in the dry dock where it was originally built.


Make an illustrated timeline for the Great Britain:

Be sure to show information about the years in which the ship carried immigrants to Australia.

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