I creep along a narrow, dimly-lit corridor lined with four-bunk berths. I can hear the ship’s timbers creaking and there is the musty smell of unwashed travellers. Most of the berths are empty but I notice that one has a curtain covering its entrance. Tentatively I draw it back, revealing a sight that makes me jump back in fright. Inside is a woman giving birth. The room is tiny, the conditions are grim and there is little in the way of medical assistance. Welcome to life aboard the SS Great Britain in 1852.
An estimated 2 per cent of Australians are descended from immigrants who were ferried from England aboard the SS Great Britain, a ship designed by daring engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The ship made 32 voyages between 1852 and 1875, transporting 15,000 people looking for a better life. The trip took about 60 days and, for the poor souls travelling in steerage, it was no cruise.
I’ve been assured that giving birth can hurt at the best of times; doing so on a ship in a force eight gale while crossing oceans must have been horrendous.
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