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The diaries tell both personal and social histories of immigration, the gold rush, ocean travel, settlement and much more


In unfavourable winds the ships would have to tack frequently, so a long distance might be travelled without making much progress. ‘Our ship has made 160 “miles” in the last 24 hours,’ recorded a passenger on the Alfred, ‘but this is not all to our advantage as the Capt. has had to tack a good deal’. On the Suffolk in 1863 a passenger talks about the difficulty of sleeping in a ship that was tacking: We are falling off to sleep when a breeze springs up and the ship is put about so that we have to change our pillows to what was the foot of the bed, that being the highest. About 2 in the morn my spouse wakes me up to change the pillows again the ship having tacked again and when we awake in the morning we find our heads lower than our heels, so they must have put the ship about once more whilst we were asleep … Slept well last night in spite of the ship being on the obnoxious tack. Some people, it seems, will complain about anything: ‘Crossed the 180 degree Meridian [the international date line] early in the evening so we will have two days in succession much to our disgust’, grumbles a crew member on the Archibald Russell in 1933. Others find humour in small things, with a passenger on the Hereford talking about crossing the equator, which was commonly known as ‘the line’: ‘… at last we have reached the Equator … some of the passengers are having others on finely. They have fastened a hair across the telescope & are telling them it is the line we have crossed.’ 28 SIGNALS 104 SEPTEMBER–NOVEMBER 2013

When looking back from 2013 it appears that human nature has not changed much since the 1800s and 1900s, with the same social issues faced, the same humour, the same gossip and nastiness. On the Renown in 1876 there is one entry that in today’s language would almost equate to a Twitter or Facebook post, with ‘likes’, ‘re-tweets’ or ‘flames’: … there is a young lady on board who has taken a great fancy to one of our Mess Mates who turns out to be a married man … all her companions have cautioned her but all to no effect, the sailors are there fore writing placards & sticking them up in several places about this man concerning his affairs … so this is causing a great bit of fun with all concerned.

Author Jan Harbison, technical services librarian for the museum’s public research facility the Vaughan Evans Library, is retiring as this article is published. So too is her colleague, library manager Frances Prentice; both were founding staff of the library and among the museum’s longest-serving employees. Quote from the Parma diary is from The search for the Kobenhaven and other true sea stories of the Depression years, published by Graeme K Andrews Productions, Epping, NSW, 1984. Reproduced with permission. Quote from the Suffolk diary is from From England to Australia: the 1863 shipboard diary of Edward Charlwood, published by Burgewood Books, Warrandyte, Vic, 2003. Reproduced with permission.

Another entry, from a young female passenger in 1847 on the Tasmania, could be likened to today’s schoolgirl bullying: … Miss Palmer. For description, comely face, excessively good-natured, and says the most extraordinary things, she is extremely fat, short and thick, not the slightest degree of grace, wears no bustle so of course can have no style about her. The only difference is that in 2013, we know our blogs and tweets can be read by anyone at all. These diarists could never have imagined our world of social media, yet it’s a world in which their very private scribblings can be read by an audience interested in the small similarities – and vast differences – between life then and now.

01 This child’s diary records Maureen Mullins’

experiences in 1952 when she sailed unaccompanied from Britain to Australia, to take up a new life in a Fairbridge Farm School in country New South Wales. The diary was borrowed for display in the museum’s travelling exhibition On their own – Britain’s child migrants.



Profile for Australian National Maritime Museum

Signals, Issue 104  

The Australian National Maritime Museum's quarterly journal Signals.

Signals, Issue 104  

The Australian National Maritime Museum's quarterly journal Signals.

Profile for anmmuseum