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many thanks to Liz Davies and Harry Dodsworth

Voyage account of the Allan Line steamship, Polynesian, Captain Robert Brown, from Liverpool 15th April / Londonderry 16th April 1875, to Quebec 9th May 1875


On 2005-01-11 Harry Dodsworth wrote:
In September 2004, Liz Davies posted a letter to the Lincolnshire list (Eng-Lincsgen) written by Sarah Russell about a voyage in steerage from Liverpool to Quebec on the Allan Line steamship Polynesian. This is copied here with her permission. The Montreal Gazette had an account of the same voyage by a cabin class passenger. It sounds like a different ship - talk about Upstairs, Downstairs :-) I copied the original Victorian prose; I think the reporter was paid by the word.

Letter from Sarah Russell, posted by Liz Davies:
A letter received from Toronto, envelope dated May 11th, 1875, from an old servant, who, with her husband and several other friends, was sent out by the Labourers' League in the "Polynesia" which left Liverpool April 15th 1875:

Dear Sir,
I just drop a few lines to let you know that me and my dear husband are quite well but not very happy. If I had but have known what I know now I should never have come out in an emigrant ship. It is a most miserable concern: you are more like a lot of pigs than anything else.
They put you down in a dark den amongst Irish, Germans and all sorts. And if you don't like it you must lump it. And then they shove you in a hole to sleep that stinks worse than any pigsty, with about six families together, so you may guess how delightful it is. Now I must tell you how we fare. For breakfast we have a small loaf each, with some boiled coffee sweetened with treacle; it is delicious. And then for dinner we have soup, or rather swill, and boiled jackass I will call it - for I don't know what other name to give it - and boiled rice to eat with it. I can do better with the rice than anything. Next comes tea, boiled again, with hard biscuits and butter. Then comes the horrid time for bed, not to rest but to roll about.
It is the 2nd May when I write this. This is our third Sunday on board. I must not forget to tell you about the voyage. Sea-sickness set in on Saturday morning, April 17th, in right good earnest, I think nearly everybody had a go in. I began on Friday night and was bad until the Saturday following. I could not stand to dress myself. I had to have the doctor. I could not bear the sight of food, but not so now. I could nearly eat anything. I should like to just pop in and have a nice bit of roast beef with you; it would go down very nice. But I suppose I must wait until I get across the deep, if it ever comes to pass.
We have been at a standstill for the last six days, and goodness knows whether we shall ever get from here any more. We are surrounded with ice for hundreds of miles, and it is so very cold, and there is no fire for you to warm your poor feet: so we have to starve[*]. May 4th, last Wednesday there was lots of young men ventured on the ice, and walked for some miles, but all except two returned by teatime. Some of the sailors went in search of the two lost ones, and they found them on a piece of ice, and they dare not stir for seals. There are a great many of them about here.
Sarah Russell.
P.S. Arrived at Quebec Sunday morning.

* Starve means chill to the bone in Northern English dialects

Montreal Gazette, May 19, 1875
Her Safe Arrival in Port - Seven Days in the Ice - Screw almost Disabled
Cool Conduct of Captain Brown and Officers - An Iceberg 600 Feet High
Two Boys Adrift on the Ice - Heroic Conduct of the Officers
For some time no little anxiety has been felt in Montreal and elsewhere with regard to the safety of the Polynesian, and as the days followed each other without bringing positive news of her safety, the anxiety deepened, and each morning during the last week the first question in the morning has been "Any news of the Polynesian?" asked with the prayerful hope that some news of her safe arrival was at hand and the last thing at night the same question has been asked at the newspaper and telegraph offices by anxious friends, and the disappointed look which followed the negative reply, showed how deeply rooted was the feeling that something had gone wrong. A visit to the offices of Messrs. Allan, however, had in all cases a reassuring effect, and we are glad to announce that the confident expectations of these gentlemen have been realized.
On Friday afternoon came the news from Cap Rouge that a steamer had passed the point with no bowsprit, and as it was known the Polynesian carried none, the news was hailed with delight and the pent up anxiety of the public gave way, and everyone drew a long breath. There were of course a few who refused to believe that the vessel was safe, and insisted in their belief that she had shared the same fate as the City of Boston and others which had gone to the bottom with all on board and never been heard of, but the fact that the passengers of the vessel arrived in town by train from Quebec last evening, none the worse for their long voyage, will have the fact of reassuring those who so believed.
We are indebted to the kindness of D. S. Bernard, of Bernard Bros, dry goods, 268 Notre Dame Street, a cabin passenger on the Polynesian, for the following
We left Liverpool, Captain Brown, on the fifteenth day of April, and had a very fine passage. The time was spent very pleasantly, the vessel running very well, and the ladies and gentlemen enjoying themselves in various ways, chess, music, reading, prayer meetings, and othe modes of killing time being indulged in. As the voyage wore on the company became better acquainted, and all the happy incidents of a trip across the ocean in a stout-built well managed vessel fitted up with all modern conveniences for enjoyment, were indulged in. Day after day passed, and on the 25th we reached Newfoundland; here numerous seals were observed, their antics causing great amusement to the passengers. On the 24th, just before sighting land at Newfoundland we passed many large pieces of floating ice, one of them being
above the water, and, of course, an immense distance beneath. Captain Brown said it was the largest he had ever seen during the twenty-four years he had been at sea. It was a beautiful but terribly magnificent spectacle as the sun's rays scintillated from its million peaks and spires, reflecting all colors, and hues which no painters' art could portray. We passed it ten miles away, and though the passengers had time enough to contemplate its beauties, the captain, officers, and crew were at work with all skill and carefulness in avoiding others of smaller size, but scarcely less beautiful or dangerous. The very thought of a vessel going against such monstrous obstacles sent a strange sensation along one's spinal column, which did not stop until it had reached the points of each individual hair. At the Banks, and while passing the bergs, the weather was extremely cold, with a stiff north wind blowing. When opposite Port aux Basque, we fired a gun to signal the operator at the station. We now commenced to meet with much floating ice in the Gulf and our progress became slower and slower. For a time we would be surrounded with floating pieces, which would almost stop us completely, the vessel crashing through it nobly, straining every bolt and pin to reach port safely. Finally
and examination proved that one of the arms or fans had broken off with the pressure of the ice. Still we pressed on, nothing daunted, though the press of ice was becoming firmer and firmer. No uneasiness was felt, the officers and crew acting with the greatest coolness and caution. Though hoping for clear water, the ice was pressing around us closer and closer, and we could see that we were not the only ones imprisoned by the "pack," for we could see masts of other vessels sticking up above the piled ice in several directions. We kept on going slower and slower until Tuesday, when at 10 o'clock we were
It was now found that another of our fans had been broken from the screw, and under those circumstances our captain wisely concluded to lie where we were until the ice was melted by rain or driven away by wind, either of which would have been welcome. We had passed the Bird's Eye Rock [Bird Rocks] by this time, and comparatively safe from danger of going ashore, the only thing to fear was
in the pack, should a storm come on. However, though we could make no headway, the passengers never failed to enjoy themselves in every way they possibly could, and the monotony of the scene was relieved with songs and tete-a-tetes in the grand saloon. And so the time passed from the 27th of April to the 6th of May, when we started about noon. Slowly but surely the stout vessel cut her way, and as she advanced nearer her destination her difficulties became fewer, and the ice became more "rotten," yielding easier at each revolution of the screw until we finally reached clear water, and were soon on our way, the vessel leaping through the water as if she felt she had escaped and was rejoicing in his freedom. The steamer Lake Champlain was some distance in our rear, and we signalled her and the other vessels of our escape. Although we had been a long time over due very little inconvenience was felt, and we were only put on a somewhat shortened allowance on the 30th as a precautionary measure. On the 7th we reached Cap Rouge; passing Gaspe coast we fired a gun, and a pilot came on board and took charge of the vessel until we reached Quebec. The passengers say the officers and men behaved like brave and efficient men, and their action had the effect of reassuring every one on board.
given by a cabin passenger in a great measure corroborates the account given above by Mr. Bernard, but gives a thrilling story of how two boys, who had been out on the ice, were lost by going too far, and darkness coming on, they were unable to reach the vessel. To add to the horrors of the situation the ice on which they were got adrift, and then they were surrounded by water
As may be imagined, this caused much anxiety on board and the officers and crew were soon exhausting ways and means of extricating them from their perilous position, and after a long search the little fellows were rescued benumbed with the cold, but nothing the worse otherwise than from the effects of the fright occasioned. Had it not been for the perseverance and intrepidity of the officers in command of the parties, however, it is just possible the youngsters may not have had the chance to repeat their folly.
The Polynesian's imprisonment brings to mind a case which occurred some years ago, when in 1847, the ship Albion [see note & link below] was 45 days in the ice. The vessel was commanded by Captain Bryce Allan, and took 72 days to make the passage from Glasgow to this port.

note: The wooden ship Albion, was an Allan Line sailing vessel of 471 tons, built at Greenock in 1845. . You can read Captain Bryce Allan's letter home, with vivid account of the 1847 voyage, at "Immigrants to Canada" website.

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