Being pregnant at any time is no picnic but being pregnant at sea in the nineteenth century must have been particularly difficult. Although there was a doctor on board who could administer rudimentary treatment, the combination of sea-sickness and morning sickness must have made this two-month long journey almost unbearable for a pregnant woman. For those unfortunate mothers who didn’t manage to carry the child to full-term, their babies were buried at sea.
However, many babies did survive, and fellow passengers often wrote about the births in their diaries, especially when the children were given unusual names. Whilst some of the babies born on board were named after their mothers, fathers or grandparents (following common naming conventions of the time), at least five were named after the ship herself! One boy was called Henry Britain Denniston who arrived on board in 1874. In the second half of the nineteenth century parents became more adventurous, especially those from middle to upper-class families, and sometimes named their children after fictional characters, such as Pip from Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Rachel Henning, a first-class passenger sailing to Australia in 1861, writes about the most extraordinary name of a baby born on board. ‘…We also received the gratuitous information that the child was to be called ‘John Grey Morland Hocken Great Britain Magazine’ being a combination of the names of the Captain, the Doctor and the talented periodical which employs the wits of the passengers.’
The Captain was clearly popular amongst the passengers, and another family chose to use his name. In 1865, just off the coast of Cape Verde, John Gray Britain Donaldson was born to parents in Steerage and named after the captain and the ship. Reportedly the passengers collected money for the child for him to receive on his 18th birthday.
In 1868, Pilot Britain Robinson was born the same day as the ship reached Melbourne. A pilot is the name for both the boat which guides the ship into port, and her captain. You can see the family’s original ticket on display in the Dockyard Museum, but of course it doesn’t include the unborn baby.
On the same voyage back to England, William Britain Griffiths was born. We’re in touch with his descendants, one of who is named Britain, after his ancestor. It’s incredible to think that over 150 years since the last passengers travelled on board the Great Britain, people are still named after this monumental ship!
Author: Imogen Dickens, International Project Officer