Maiden voyage of an emigrant ship

Reprinted from the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald (date uncertain in the 1970s)

The largest wooden ship built in Scotland until that time was launched from the yard of Barr & Shearer, Ardrossan, in September 1860. She was named the Lady Egidia by her human namesake, Lady Egidia Montgomerie, daughter of the Earl of Eglinton, and a month later the ship sailed to Otago in the south island of New Zealand with 438 passengers, more than a quarter of whom were under 12 years of age.

After a voyage of 104 days, she arrived at Dunedin with 413 passengers aboard: 32 had died on the journey and seven had been born. The Lady Egidia was 219 feet in length and 37 feet broad; and her registered tonnage was 1,235 — 17 feet shorter and 80 tons less than the present Ardrossan-Arran ferry, Caledonia,for purposes of comparison.

The price of the passage on the maiden voyage was £ 96, and among the 58 married couples, 137 single men and 70 single women who sailed, were 40 labourers, 31 ploughmen, 22 carpenters, 17 shepherds and 50 domestics.
The passengers boarded the ship off Greenock in very wet weather on Wednesday , Thursday, and Friday, October 10 to 12, and she set sail on Saturday, having a tow from a steamer to off the Mull of Kintyre.

On the first day at sea the ship was pitching and rolling, almost eveyone was sick, and although it was the Sabbath, owing to the roughness of the weather no one was able to conduct worship, while on the second day the mountainous waves swamped the decks and the passengers were unable to eat; the roast mutton, salt meat and preserved potatoes waltzed off the table with one roll of the ship.

By the fourth day there was a lot of water on board and the ship was off course. Had the passengers known their voyage was going to last another 100 days their spirits would doubtless have been even lower than they were.

A stowaway gave himself up to Captain Currie on the sixth day, doubtless thinking that nothing could be worse than hiding in the bilges; and he was set to labour at the dirty work. A couple of days later the weather suddenly improved and the Lady Egidia forged ahead. By the eleventh day the passengers were taking an interest in the porpoises alongside and gossiping about the fact that some of the young women had misbehaved themselves on the Sunday night.

The mate stated on the 21st day —Saturday, November 3 — that all the week’s provisions had been served out and there would be no dinner. This caused a general outcry and disputes about water and provisions, and new arrangements were made.

A Sunday School, a singing school and a rifle corps were formed but the latter had a hard job trying to drill with the motion of the ship.

The first death, a 15-month-old child, occurred on the 29th day, by which time the ship was nearing the Cape Verde islands, and was almost becalmed. The temperature was 80 in the shade and many of the children were quite ill .On the 41st day, Friday, November 23, the ship crossed the line and passengers enjoyed the traditional ceremony of being shaved and ducked by Neptune and his minions; they were travelling at about nine knots and it was very hot; young men from the steerage class were sleeping on the deck but there had been eight infant deaths so far.

There were complaints that the water for drinking was very bad and needed to be filtered through a large sponge, and that it could hardly be drunk without something strong in it.

The voyage continued with happy and sad incidents: the passengers spent the 58th day trying to shoot albatrosses but never knocked a feather out of any: scores of whales were spouting in all directions. The children’s death list was now 13—two families had lost their only children and another the last of three children: there had been three deaths in 12 hours.

The ship was occasionally becalmed: there was discontent in the steerage because the third mate was not giving out the full rations, and a committee was formed to complain about the food. There were a number of cases of measles on board and many complaints also against the doctor.

However, Christmas Day was celebrated with dancing on the deck and with an extra plum duff, and the captain treated the intermediate class passengers to a glass of sherry. By New Year’s Day the ship was making about 14 knots; the 20th death occurred ; some heavy squalls were being experienced and water poured down the hatchway and swilled about under the bunks. But at midnight the ship’s bells were rung and there was singing, fiddling, dancing and shouting, and nobody had any sleep till morning. Two more children died during the night: it was the 80th day at sea.

For the next few days the passengers felt that the captain and the doctor were trying to gain their good opinion as some of them were making a list of grievances to give to the emigration officer. When the ship was about 700 miles from land pieces of freestone were issued for scrubbing the decks, and although it was not enforced, the passengers were obviously expected to do it.

The single women refused to participate and their dinner was kept from them until they would clean their place, but the girls refused the meal anyway. When the third mate tried to read the rules to the young women they did not listen but hissed and clapped their hands until he was obliged to retire in confusion.

The cry of “Land-ho” went up at 3 a.m. on the 100th day and the weary passengers sighted the coast of Otago, but exasperatingly the ship was becalmed and could not make landfall until three days later — about one o’clock on the 104th day, January 28, 1861, the emigrants staggered ashore at Dunedin jetty.

Of the 32 deaths on the voyage all but two were of young children, and 18 of them died of diarrhoea.

The Lady Egidia, which belonged to Patrick Henderson’s Shipping Company, continued to sail between Scotland and New Zealand for a number of years and was broken up when she was 22 years old, in 1882. There are many descendants of the passengers from her first voyage still living in Otago and they have held celebrations on the 50th and 100th anniversaries of their forebears’ epic crossing.

Despite the rigours of the voyage there were no complaints about the ship herself: a tribute to the craftsmanship of Ardrossan builders 110 years ago.