Life Onboard, 1900s–20s

'Concert on Deck'
'Concert on Deck', from a bound album of postcards published by Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., depicting some of the activities engaged in on a voyage East via the Suez Canal, in about 1915.
Source: La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

The introduction of steamships led to greatly improved facilities for immigrants. Grand saloons were provided for first class passengers, and small cabins instead of open sleeping berths were available for steerage class passengers. In addition, the extra crew carried by steamships relieved passengers of many daily chores such as cooking and cleaning, which they had been obliged to do aboard sailing ships.

Steamers also provided more space for recreation, with the addition of the promenade deck and boat decks above the main deck. Most people took advantage of warm weather by lazing around in deck chairs. When the weather was mild, passengers spent most of their time walking the deck and playing deck games. Quoits, indoor cricket, shuttlecock, badminton, table tennis or ping-pong, and shuffleboard were all played to pass the time and keep the passengers fit.

Indoors, in the warmth of the saloon, passengers played cards, chess, dominoes and cribbage. Separate areas were set aside for quiet reading, sewing, and practising music. Sometimes, school rooms were set up for the younger children.

Men were allowed to smoke on the top decks, and in those days smoking was even allowed in the dining rooms. On most voyages, committees organised regular concerts, which provided some of the few opportunities for single male and female passengers to mingle.

However, whilst concerts and other shipboard activities gave passengers the opportunity to mingle, the social distinctions of the 'Olde Worlde' remained firmly in place. For most of the time, each social class was kept apart.

After World War I, the number of migrants increased. Conditions for passengers in third class became more restricted.

The upper deck was First Class passengers, and us common migrants had the main decks. All our cabins were built around the cargo space, four bunks on each side of the cabins, two high.
– Young man, 20, migrated from England in 1923


  • Use the Internet to find out how to play shipboard games:

    Shuffleboard    Quoits    Shuttlecock

  • The film 'Titanic' was inaccurate in some respects. There was no way that Jack Dawson, who was travelling in steerage, would have been allowed into First Class.

    Compare the facilities and menus for first, second and third class passengers on the Titanic. (Remember that the Titanic was more luxurious than most ships of this time.)

Image Gallery

Boys playing greasy pole 'Cricket on the Voyage'