Surviving Steerage – part one

On the 30th of August 1893, 32 year old Isabella ROSS (nee DEWHURST) boarded the S.S. Majestic at Liverpool to embark on an 8 day voyage before travelling across country to join her husband and a new life for their family in Wellington, Vancouver Island, British Columbia (B.C.) Canada. With her on that late summer morning were her two infant children. This was to be the first of three transatlantic crossings that Isabella and her young children would make over the next 14 years.

Isabella Dewhurst was born in Lancaster, England on the 31st of May 1861, the first of 12 children of railway goods guard Christopher Dewhurst and his second wife Mary (Lucas). Her sister Margaret Anne b.1873 featured in this earlier post: There and Back (and there) Again: A Dearborn Tale. By 1871, Shap born Christopher had been promoted to engine driver at the Shap Granite Works, Westmorland and had relocated his growing family – including 9 year old Isabella – to the nearby village of Tebay, Westmorland.

In 1879 aged 18, Isabella gave birth to an illegitimate daughter – Mary Elizabeth and after spending time as a general servant at a private boarding school in Lancaster, she married George Oliver ROSS on the 5 August 1889 in Irvine, Ayrshire. Described as a dressmaker from Carlisle, Cumberland, her husband George, a 22 year old tailor from Riccarton, Ayrshire, was 5 years her junior. Their son George Lucas ROSS was born on the 6th May 1890 in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire and William Malcolm ROSS on the 20th of November 1891 in Shap.

In early March 1893 George ROSS journeyed from Glasgow to New York aboard the S.S. Circassia, bound for a place called Sheldon. (Note was not made in the record of the State.) He travelled 2nd Class arriving in New York on the 20th of March and in August Isabella and their two boys followed him across the Atlantic. George’s brother William Oliver ROSS, a coal miner, had already emigrated to Vancouver around 5 years earlier in 1888-1890.

S.S. Circassia

Whilst few transatlantic crossings in the late 19th century could be described as luxurious, George’s journey in a 2nd class cabin aboard a ship designed for 1100 but carrying only 222 passengers would have been considerably more comfortable than Isabella’s cramped, noisy steerage accommodation on the S.S. Majestic.

Built in 1890 for the White Star Line, the S.S. Majestic had a capacity of almost 1500 passengers across 3 decks. Isabella and her sons George and William were accommodated in the lone female traveller’s Steerage quarters. With 1417 souls aboard, Isabella was far from the only lone woman with small children to manage. The ships manifest lists at least 20 other women, mostly described as “wife” but without accompanying husbands, in Steerage.

S.S. Majestic

Unlike her fellow 1st class passengers who boarded at Liverpool via a landing stage to the upper decks, Isabella’s first glimpse of the Majestic would have been a sheer cliff face of black bulwark as the paddle tender slowly crawled towards the hull. Following a medical inspection the gang-plank was lowered and a slow procession began to board. Clutching her children and their six bags close to her, fearful of losing her only possessions amongst the crush of the other 900 steerage passengers, Isabella began her journey to a new life. H. Phelps Whitmarsh describes his experience of embarkation in 1898 thus:

“Evidently the doctor was in no hurry; for we stood crowded together, in the heat of that summer day, two mortal hours, waiting his pleasure. Poor mothers! Poor babies! Tired, hot, and hungry (for no dinner had been served), the little ones cried incessantly, while the women complained in a high key, and twelve nationalities of men swore.”  Whitmarsh, H. Phelps. Steerage Class – Conditions in 1898 – A First-Hand Account.

According to the ship’s manifest, Isabella and her children were heading for Vancouver [Island?], to join George who had begun to establish himself as a tailor in the mining community of Wellington. Packed into the lower decks of the ship, steerage passengers had next to no privacy or comfort. To escape the constant throbbing of the engines those lucky enough to be in possession of a blanket spent as much time as possible on deck, the freezing Atlantic air being preferable to the smell of spoiling food and human confinement below. The classes of passengers were strictly segregated and the steerage section operated as an entirely isolated community.

After over a week at sea, the S.S. Majestic finally arrived in New York. The mostly immigrant steerage passengers were held back, sometimes spending an extra night on board whilst the 1st and 2nd class passengers disembarked and were admitted to America. Only then, carried on barges, were the steerage passengers transferred to nearby Ellis Island to begin the process of immigration.

Ellis Island
Early 20th century immigrants await processing in the Great Hall at Ellis Island

3 or 4 ships, with anything up to 5000 passengers, were processed by Ellis Island each day. Isabella and her children would have passed a further medical examination with the threat of deportation if they failed. America was only interested in admitting healthy persons who could become useful members of society, qualities which Canada, the ROSS’s final destination, also desired. Having passed the immigration board’s questions, Isabella and her sons were free to buy tickets to Vancouver Island and continue their long journey coast to coast across North America and the Canadian border to rejoin George.

ladysmith mapWellington, Vancouver Island was a coal mining town which grew around the Wellington Pits. By the turn of the 20th Century the coal seam was exhausted, the owner James Dunsmuir moved his entire production to the newly sunk Extension mines and Wellington became a ghost town. Many of the workers and their attendant merchants and suppliers moved their lives and their houses to Dunsmuir’s brand new commuter town – Ladysmith. As owner of the local railroad, Dunsmuir made trains available to transport the existing Wellington buildings and gave free plots of land in Ladysmith to his miners for housing.

George and Isabella’s daughter Myrtle Marie Dewhurst ROSS had been born in Northfield, B.C. (now a suburb of Nanaimo about 22 miles north of Ladysmith) on the 27th of May 1894. George’s trade as a tailor would have been hit hard by the closure of the Wellington pits. The decline of the town may have been a contributing factor in Isabella’s decision to return home to England in the spring of 1898. Isabella and her three children, George aged 8, William 6 and Myrtle 5, travelled aboard the S.S. Mongolian arriving in Liverpool on the 25th of March 1898. Another possible factor was the illness of her father Christopher who subsequently died on the 29th of September in Shap.

S.S. Mongolian

Part two to follow…





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