First Rate Food

19 March 2023


19 March 2023


First Class passengers enjoyed a variety of delicious food on board the ship, but for those down in Steerage (Fourth Class) it was a very different story...

The animals that left port on board the SS Great Britain did so to fulfil a very important requirement of passenger travel at sea – that of the essential need for food.

The ship, upon disembarking from Liverpool for its average 60-day voyage to Melbourne, Australia would be loaded with, up to: “2 oxen, 1 milk cow, 30 pigs, 150 sheep, 2 lambs, 1 calf, 56 turkeys and geese, 250 ducks, 550 fowls”. The ship promised its 1st class passengers the equivalent of a luxury hotel dining experience and, in order to ensure this, all fresh meat needed to be carried alive! After all, portable refrigeration units wouldn’t be introduced to family homes, let alone ships, until the 20th century.

Given that life on board a ship for 60 days would be fairly limited, something that all passengers and crew, no matter what their class, had in common was mealtimes and they enjoyed talking and writing about what was consumed on the SS Great Britain.

The type and quality of food consumed definitely depended on your class of travel. If you were a passenger in the After Saloon (1st Class) you could expect quite a variety of delightful dishes. A Bill of Fare from a voyage in 1869 advertises a whole range of meats from beef, turkey, duck to geese and fowl, as well as a whole host of delicious desserts such as pancakes, fruit tarts, French pastries and rice pudding. Would you think of rice pudding as a luxury dessert today?

The Galley on the SS Great Britain

Unfortunately, if you were down at the other end of the scale in Steerage (4th class) you could expect a very basic ration. This would include salted meats, ship’s biscuits, pea soup and plum pudding. When Thomas Francis Ferris was travelling in Steerage on the very first voyage to Australia in 1852, he wrote that “as far as the meat was concerned [it] was quite uneatable, so desperately salty and tough… [but the] plum pudding was first rate”.

The quality of the food would vary from class to class, day to day and quite often person to person, it was very difficult to keep up to 700 people on board happy! On one voyage in 1853 a 2nd Class passenger named Robert Saddington wrote that one meal “consisted of Wretched Tea – Bad Sugar and Patent Concentrated Milk with excellent Broad Biscuits & Butter”. He may not have been a fan of the tea service on board, but he did later go on to say that “Our provisions get better with every meal – today we had Curried Chicken at Dinner…”

Annie Henning, a lady travelling 1st Class on the same voyage as Mr. Saddington, remarked in her diary about the breakfast service that it was “wonderful in the way of meat. There is generally hot beef steak, mutton chops, boiled salt fish, herrings, potted anchovies, cold ham, tongue, beef and boiled eggs and bacon, cold boiled fowl, hot rolls, tea, coffee [and] toast.”

Food was a universally shared experience in the 19th century, just as it is today. Next time you visit see what more you can discover about food on board the SS Great Britain!

Written by Natalie Fey (Interpretation Manager)

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