Did you know 30 percent of the passengers, over 16, travelling to New York and Melbourne aboard the SS Great Britain were women? The average age of female passengers was 30, and being roughly the same age as those women, I wondered what my life might have been like if I had travelled at sea over 150 years ago.
Passenger lists are an excellent starting point to look at the lives of the women on board the SS Great Britain. According to these lists, about half the women on board were married, many travelled out with their husbands but others went alone or with children.
The other half of the female passengers were single and often described as ‘spinsters’. Some were chaperoned by the captain, who would ensure they were safely met upon their arrival.
Very few female passengers have listed professions and often their marital or class status is listed as their profession; such as lady, wife, spinster or widow. Out of the few professions listed, many of them would be associated with women, including dressmakers and seamstresses; such as the Marsden sisters who travelled out in steerage in 1873 to work as governesses. However, there are some women listed with professions that are not necessarily synonymous with female occupations, such as ironmonger, painter and miner. Agnes Broadbent, a 48-year-old second-class passenger travelled out in 1853 and is listed as being an ironmonger. However, we cannot be sure of her seniority in the company, we can only speculate.
One way in which women are given a voice, in the collection, is through various passenger diaries; some of which are held here at Brunel’s SS Great Britain.
Diary writing was a popular pastime for ladies and was one of the ways they occupied themselves during long sea voyages. Approximately a quarter of the surviving diaries in our collection are written by women.
Rachel Henning’s diary, which is housed in the Brunel Institute, stands out as a wonderful tale of a Victorian woman. We know about her adventurous life in Australia, thanks to the letters she wrote to her family, which were later published after her death.
Henning was a passenger on board voyage 20 in 1861. She was a 35-year-old travelling to Australia for the second time. At first glance she appears to be a privileged upper-class lady, however, after reading her diary and letters, we sense her move to Australia really broadened her horizons. They detail her adventures, which included crossing dangerous creeks, admiring mountain ranges and even feasting on eels out in the countryside. From first class cabins to camping in the starry outback, she ended up living a life that would have been unimaginable back in the UK.
Rachel later married, changed her name and moved to New South Wales. However, when her letters were published, her maiden name was kept. She is still known as Rachel Henning to this day, an SS Great Britain passenger who went on a big adventure.
Author: Imogen Dickens, International Project Officer