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High Seas & High Teas – Voyaging to Australia

In this wonderful peek back through time Roslyn Russell has presented the many little daily intrigues of life on-board often a sailing ship and latterly a steam ship travelling to Australia, when the journey could take as long as six or more months or as little as 57 days in a warm, intriguing and enjoyable manner.

Via a collection of diaries penned by a number of the immigrants during their voyages we get to understand a little more about the constraints on-board a slow moving ship as it struggled its way to a new life for the passengers.

That the voyage did not always live up to the manner in which it was touted is apparent, but in some cases the voyage was far better than expected with shipboard life being considered enjoyable and affable.

This of course was not the same for all passengers; convicts had the worst of it, followed by those in steerage immigrating as part of the Government resettlement scheme. The first class passengers had it far better but as William Bethell, a first class passenger on the Agamemnon in 1871 succinctly wrote about his journey, that his experience ‘was not to be borne by mortals possessed by any sort of … nerves’: his diary of shipboard life was definitely not what he expected and as the journey continued so he too continued to find fault.

Margaret Walpole on the other hand enjoyed her journey to Australia on the Pathan during 1883, finding the myriad of colours at dusk and dawn enjoyable and the scenery, when there was more than ocean to view, enjoyable.

Shipboard life could be tedious and many of the passengers came up with novel and enjoyable ways of passing the time, which included plays, dancing classes, eventually a shipboard newspaper and afternoon reading groups.

Each of the chapters has been arranged in order beginning with Sailing Under Servitude and ending at Arrivals, with the journey being broken down into segments which relate to the voyage out. Each section is based on original diaries from the passengers who sailed to Australia and whose jottings and sketches of life on-board ship are a part of the collection of diaries held by the National Library of Australia.

But when they did finally arrive at their destination, many into the quarantine stations as there was disease aboard the vessel they sailed on and others to the freedom of the shores and solid ground under their feet, they shook hands with their fellow travellers and friends and moved on to their new lives, many never to meet again.

Their stories make up a wonderful, authentic, historical record of how the many and varied peoples who sailed to Australia saw their world.

More than 1.6 million immigrants travelled to Australia, which included 160,400 convicts, during the period of 1789 to 1900, most coming from the British Isles but others from European countries were recruited for skills needed in the new, young country.

Each chapter contains sketches, pages from diaries mostly written by men, as they were the biggest per capita of immigrants, to in some cases record their journey, in others to pass the time, but whatever reason drove these men and women to record their slice of life, it has given the future generations a very real understanding of what life was like and the expectations of those who came to Australia all those many years ago.

Fascinating, enjoyable, and very real this is a book which will be enjoyed and become a family keepsake as the information helps to flesh out the many, many relations of Australian families, who arrived as immigrants facing the unknown, in a country that was finding its way into a new beginning.

Author Roslyn Russell, ; foreword by Kerry O'Brien
Publisher National Library of Australia
ISBN 9780642278852
Website www.
Distributor National Library of Australia
Released March 2016