Monday, 5 October 2015


Migrants are the hot topic of the moment, so I thought I’d write about two of my ancestors who migrated from Liverpool, England to Victoria, Australia.

I am a migrant.  It took me two months to migrate from Canberra to London but that was by choice and was an excellent adventure.  I was fortunate to have a round-the-world plane ticket and comfortable accommodation booked.  I also had somewhere to stay when I arrived and a passport that would let me stay.  Many others are not so lucky.

My two ancestors also took around two months to travel between England and Australia, leaving Liverpool on 16 February 1861 and arriving in Melbourne 75 days later.  They travelled on the most technologically advanced ship that existed at the time, Brunel’s SS Great Britain.  The SS Great Britain is now a very good tourist attraction in Bristol (see photo) so it is possible to get a good idea what life was like for migrants on the ship.  I visited the ship last year and learnt a lot.

SS Great Britain, in Bristol.
 So who was on board the SS Great Britain?  My ancestor Sarah Pilling nee Holden and her daughters Betsy (also my ancestor) and Sarah, aged 6 and 3 respectively.  They were travelling to join husband and father John Pilling who was already in Australia, having departed England four years earlier, also on the SS Great Britain, probably leaving behind a pregnant wife (I don’t know Sarah Pilling’s date of birth).

The Pilling family came from Haslingden, Lancashire, not far from Manchester.  At that time, cotton mills were the main industry in the area and the Pilling and Holden families worked in the mills, mostly as weavers.  Hours would have been long and the work was hard.  Like many in that part of England, they were Baptists, non-conformists, which may have led to some discrimination and disadvantage.  So life in England was not easy for them.

John Pilling was a book keeper and had gone to the goldfields in Victoria, perhaps to seek his fortune and a better life for his family.  I assume things worked out for him as his wife and children eventually followed.  I wonder if the long delay was due to the family waiting until they felt the younger Sarah was old enough to travel.  Whatever the reason, it seems to mirror what still happens with migrants today with one family member migrating in the hope of bringing the rest of the family along later.

First class cabin
Steerage cabin
Seeing the SS Great Britain was an eye opener for me.  While the first class cabins looked reasonably comfortable although not luxurious by modern standards (see photo), life for the steerage passengers didn’t look quite so nice.  I assume that Sarah and her children travelled in steerage; there is no indication that the family were well off.  In steerage, Women and children were accommodated in cabins whereas men were more likely to have been in long dormitories (see photo).  The cabins (see photo) were tiny, with four narrow bunk beds.  Some luggage would have been stored in a trunk under the beds in the room, the rest in the hull.  It is likely that Sarah and her two daughters would have shared one bunk.  The other beds would be filled by strangers.  It is hard to imagine just how cramped and uncomfortable that would have been.

Steerage dormitory style accommodation
When not in the cabins, steerage passengers had limited access to the deck and weren’t allowed near the first class passengers.  There was none of the entertainment or facilities that are available on a modern cruise ship, so passengers had to find ways to amuse themselves.  According to the SS Great Britain exhibition, drinking was rife so Sarah would have had to protect her daughters from unsavoury behaviour.  On the positive side, all the teetotaller Baptists on board would have held religious meetings and would generally have looked out for each other.

While this sounds like a challenging journey, it was probably the most luxurious and easiest for any of my ancestors who migrated from the United Kingdom to Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Other ancestors experienced things like epidemic disease sweeping through the vessel or ship wreck.  Some of my ancestors had no choice about migrating, being soldiers or convicts.  As for the others, I think they must have been very brave or very desperate to travel around the world in such conditions.  I am grateful that I can now do the journey in just under 24 hours in the relative comfort of a modern airplane.

Notes on lineage: Me > Mum > John Macdonald Charley > Constance Mary Macdonald > Besty Pilling > Sarah Holden


  1. Fascinating insight into life on board. Now a trip to Bristol is on my growing bucket list.

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  3. Thank you for those photos. They are marvellous. I found your blog through GeniAus GAGs.

  4. A wonderful insight into life on board...our ancestors were very courageous. thanks Jill and Alex, for sending me to your blog.