Eat Your Way to Australia

25 May 2022


25 May 2022


Could you survive on the rations of a Victorian steerage passenger?

Salt pork and ‘hard tack’, anyone? 

People boarding the SS Great Britain in the 1850s faced a two-month voyage – and one of the chewiest diets in history. How would you like to eat nothing but the ‘ration’ for sixty days?  

This half term, discover the weekly food allowances available in steerage, the lowest class of passenger travelling to Australia on the SS Great Britain. 

In the depths of the world’s first great ocean liner, the passengers on the cheapest tickets were confined together in tightly packed accommodation for 60 days at a time. They had to eat and sleep in this cramped, dark space for the duration of their journey.  

There wasn’t much to look forward to at mealtimes! In the 1800’s you got what you paid for: steerage passengers received the bare legal minimum provisions including ‘salt junk’ and a mountain of ships biscuits. 

Natalie Fey, Interpretation Manager at Brunel’s SS Great Britain, highlights how ‘Eat Your Way to Australia’ brings visitors face to face with life in steerage. 

‘Recreating the steerage ration has given us an insight into what it  was like to live on board.  The provisions were really  limited, and the rules and routines around meals were quite strict.  It must have had a big impact on a steerage class passengers experience on board.

The ration includes salt meat and many other ingredients which families today may never have used at home. I find it really interesting to compare what we think of ‘staple foods’ now and in the 1850s. Most of us have tea, coffee and rice in our cupboards – and baked beans take the place of dried peas – but there’s no pasta in the steerage ration, no cooking oil. And we know the biscuits were almost impossible to eat – you had to soak them or they’d break your teeth!’

Every day during May half term visitors are invited to put themselves in the shoes of a steerage passenger and learn what, where and how they dined on board. Whilst steerage passengers had to bring their own bedding, crockery and cutlery with them, their food was included in the price of their ticket. The ship’s owners were legally required to list the weekly provisions each passenger was entitled to under the 1855 Passenger Act. This Act lists out all the different foods and quantities, so this historic source makes it possible to recreate the steerage ration in 2022.

Unlike first & second-class passengers, who had their own dining saloons, steerage passengers ate at benches within their accommodation area. The limited space meant that they had to take turns to eat, passengers were organised into “messes” of 10 –14 people. Each week a different ‘messman’ was  responsible for maintaining order, collecting rations for their mess and clearing up after meals. This wasn’t always an easy task! 

“There are 14 persons at our table & for some time there was always a disgraceful scramble as those at the top of the table always seized more than their share. I have at last succeeded in enforcing order & as they have made me carver I endeavour by strict impartiality to keep the peace among them.” – The “Anonymous Quaker”, Voyage 9 1852  

Allan Gilmour’s detailed plans of steerage

The diary of seventeen-year-old passenger Allan Gilmour has given the SS Great Britain team great insight into life in steerage. His detailed drawing of the space outlined the living quarters and offering a unique snapshot of the life of a third-class passenger in 1852.  

Today, you can step back into these spaces, which have been accurately recreated onboard and experience the organised chaos of life in steerage. 

Could you stomach the rations of a low-class Victorian voyager or would you rather go hungry? 

‘Eat your way to Australia’ runs this February Half Term, 11 – 19 February, from 12pm – 4pm on board the ship. 

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A biscuit that would break your teeth