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“The Goat of the Sea” Poem, 1854

A recreation of the poem stuck up on the wall in steerage onboard the SS Great Britain.
A recreation of the poem stuck up on the wall in steerage onboard the SS Great Britain.

The Object

  • This poem was originally handwritten by an unknown passenger and put up in the main gangway of the SS Great Britain on the voyage from Melbourne to Liverpool in 1854.
  • A fellow passenger, John Henry Chatterton copied the poem into his diary before it was “torn down by the Officers of the ship”. The original diary is now part of the Australian Joint Copying Project at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, and we have a transcript (typed copy) of the diary in our collection in the Brunel Institute.
  • The poem lists complaints about the quality of provisions for steerage passengers on the voyage. One of their main issues was with the poor quality of bread they were being given, they wanted fresh bread rather than ship’s biscuits. The passengers had formed their own committee as they tried to improve the conditions and quality of food in their part of the ship.
  • It is not very complimentary about the SS Great Britain, describing her as “comfortless”. The ship was sometimes described as ‘greyhound of the seas’, due to the smooth and fast passage she provided – perhaps the reference to “the goat of the sea” is an attempt to undermine this reputation.
  • However, the poem seems to have done the trick, and a few days after it was put up, Chatterton wrote that “our provisions have materially improved both in quantity and quality”.  
 

The Story

Not always ship shape
 
With voyages to Australia on the SS Great Britain lasting on average 60 days and with up to 700 passengers on board, complaints like those listed in the poem were common. 
 
The bread given to passengers was not just a problem on John Henry Chatterton’s voyage. Over ten years later passenger Francis Dell wrote in his diary that “we can’t at all stomach the biscuits. Dreadful hard takes half an hour to eat one”. During an earlier voyage in 1852, passenger Edward Towle complained in his diary that the cook had accidently made the tea with saltwater and that the drink had been promptly poured overboard! 
 
The quality of the food and drink wasn’t the only issue that the passengers of the SS Great Britain complained about. The movement of the ship was another cause of complaints, with one passenger Job Welling in 1875 writing that “The old ship keeps up a fearful rolling from side to side, has scarcely been steady a minute since Thursday evening”. Other passengers grumbled about the ship being dirty, smelly and about water occasionally coming in through the portholes. During the journey to Australia, the ship passed through different climates and passengers often wrote about either being too hot or too cold depending on where they were on the voyage. 
 
Unsurprisingly, boredom during the long voyages was often mentioned in diaries and letters. Annie Henning wrote in her diary that “People are bored now. The first couple of days there were dancing and music in every corner of the ship. Now it only happens occasionally”. Perhaps this boredom played a part in the fact that arguments were common and sometimes fights would break out amongst passengers. It was not uncommon for the captain to stop the passengers’ daily alcohol allowance to calm situations and prevent further fighting. But this of course led to more complaints – a vicious circle!
 

Continue the Story

Poetry on the SS Great Britain
 
Writing poetry appears to have been a popular way for passengers to entertain themselves on board Poems were frequently performed as part of plays and concerts on board the ship and passengers often read poems they had written. In 1862, Mr Dearlove wrote in his diary that fellow passenger William Jones joined him in his cabin after tea and read his poem all about the SS Great Britain and the voyage they were on. 
 
Poems also feature in many of the newspapers that passengers wrote as they were traveling on the SS Great Britain. Many of these poems appear to have been written by the passengers themselves, though often anonymously, and cover a wide range of topics. Some are about life on the ship or the ship herself. Poetry was even used for advertising purposes – one passenger wrote a poem describing his missing hat and offering a reward for it’s safe return!
 
“I’ve lost my cap, not worth a rap,
And scarcely ought to mind it.”
 
There was a range of different types of poems produced, some were long, almost like stories, whilst others were only a few lines in length. The Albatross newspaper, produced during a voyage in 1862, featured an acrostic poem using the first letters of each word in the newspapers title. The Great Britain Times, written during the voyage to Australia in 1865, featured a “Poet’s Corner” each week with many of its poems about missing home, the journey, or love. 
 
“For ever, oh! For ever,
Thy lovely face I see”
 
Not all the poems in the newspapers were new compositions - some were copied from pre-existing poems. An extract from a poem all about searching for gold was included in the on-board newspaper Great Britain Gazette published in 1861.
 
“Gold, gold, glittering gold;
It captivates both young and old”
 

Extra Resources

  • Why not download and print the poem then add your own illustrations? What would a “Goat of the Sea” look like? (Download and print)

 

 

 

  • Try a ship’s biscuit for yourself by following this simple recipe (Download and print)

 

  • Read this extract of a poem about finding gold in Australia. It was published in the SS Great Britain Gazette a newspaper published on about the ship in 1861. (Download and print)

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