During the Irish famine (1845 – 1849), an estimated 500,000 people were dispossessed of their cottages. Unscrupulous landlords used two methods to remove destitute tenants. The first involved applying for a legal judgment against the male head of a family owing back-rent. After the local barrister pronounced judgment, the man would be thrown in jail and his wife and children evicted. A ‘notice to appear’ was usually enough to cause most pauper families to flee and they were handed out by the hundreds.
The second method was for the landlord to pay to send down-and-out families overseas to British North America. Landlords would first make sham promises of money, food and clothing, then pack the half-dressed orphans of Ireland in overcrowded British built sailing ships. Hastily and cheaply made, the vessels were known as coffin ships.
The first coffin ships headed for Quebec, Canada. The 2,900-mile journey, depending on the harsh North Atlantic weather, could take from 40 days to three months. Upon the vessels arrival in the Saint Lawrence River, the ships were supposed to be checked for disease and any sick passengers removed to quarantine facilities on Grosse Isle, a small island thirty miles downstream from Quebec City.
But in the spring of 1847, shipload after shipload of fevered Irish arrived and overwhelmed the small medical inspection facility, which only had less than 150 beds.
By June, 40 vessels containing 14,000 Irish immigrants waited in a line extending two miles down St. Lawrence. It took up to five days to see a doctor, many of whom were becoming ill from contact with the typhus-infected passengers. By the summer, the line of ships had grown several miles long. A fifteen-day general quarantine was then imposed for all of the waiting ships. Many Irish succumbed to typhus as they were forced to remain in their lice-infested holds. Hundreds of bodies were simply dumped overboard into the St. Lawrence.
Other victims, half-alive, were placed in small boats and then deposited on the beach at Grosse Isle. Abandoned, they were expected to crawl to the hospital if they could manage.
Thousands of passengers, ill with typhus and dysentery, eventually wound up in hastily constructed wooden fever sheds. These makeshift hospitals, badly understaffed and unsanitary, simply became places to die, with corpses piled ‘like cordwood’ in nearby mass graves. Those who couldn’t get into the hospital died along the roadsides. In one case, an orphaned boy walking along the road with other boys sat down for a moment under a tree to rest and died on the spot.
The quarantine efforts were soon abandoned. The impoverished passengers were sent on to their next destination without medical inspection or treatment. From Grosse Isle, the Irish were given free passage up the St. Lawrence to Montreal and cities such as Kingston and Toronto. The crowded open-aired river barges used to transport them exposed the fair-skinned passengers to all-day-long summer sun causing many bad types of sunburn. At night, they laid down close to each other to ward off the chilly air, spreading more lice and fever.
Many paupers had been told by their landlords that once they arrived in Canada, an agent would meet them and payout between two and five pounds depending on the size of the family. It was a lie.
Promises of money, food and clothing had been false. Landlords knew that once the indigents arrived in Canada there was virtually no way for them to ever return to their homeland and make a claim. Thus they promised anything to rid themselves of their tenants.
Montreal received the major influx of Irish during this time. Many of those arriving were quite ill from typhus and long-term malnutrition. Montreal’s limited medical facilities at Point St. Charles was quickly overwhelmed. Homeless wanderers roamed the countryside begging for help as temperatures dropped and the Canadian winter set in. However, they were shunned by Canadians afraid of contracting fever.
Of the 100,000 Irish that sailed to British North America in 1847, an estimated one out of five died from disease and malnutrition, including over five thousand at Grosse Isle.
American ships were built and maintained to higher standards than British ships. Congress reacted to the surge of Irish immigration to the United States by tightening the laws, reducing the number of passengers allowed per ship, thereby increasing fares. America, congressmen had complained, was becoming Europe’s ‘poor house.’
British shipping laws were lax. Ships of every shape and size sailed from Liverpool and other ports crammed full of people up to double each ship’s capacity. In one case, an unseaworthy ship full of Irish sailed out of port then sank within sight of those on land who had just said farewell to the emigrants.
During the trans-Atlantic voyage, British ships were only required to supply 7lbs. of food per week per passenger. Most passengers, it was supposed, would bring along their own food for the journey. But most of the poor boarded ships with no food, depending entirely on the pound-a-day hand-out which amounted to starvation rations. Food on board was also haphazardly cooked in makeshift brick fireplaces and was often underdone, causing upset stomachs and diarrhoea.
Many passengers were already ill with typhus as they boarded the ships. Before boarding, they had been given the once-over by doctors onshore who usually rejected no one for the trip, even those seemingly on the verge of death. British ships were not required to carry doctors. Anyone that died during the sea voyage was simply dumped overboard, without any religious rites.
Below decks, hundreds of men, women and children huddled together in the dark on bare wooden floors with no ventilation, breathing a stench of vomit and the effects of diarrhoea on vessels lacking sanitary facilities. On those vessels that actually had sleeping berths, there were no mattresses and the berths were never cleaned. Many sick persons remained in bare wooden bunks lying in their own filth for the entire voyage, too ill to get up.
Another big problem was the lack of potable water. Sometimes the water was stored in old wooden casks, or in casks that previously stored wine, vinegar or chemicals which contaminated the water and caused dysentery. Many boats ran out of water long before reaching North America, making life especially miserable for fevered passengers suffering from burning thirsts.
The poorest of the poor never made it to North America. They fled Irish estates out of fear of imprisonment then begged all the way to Dublin or other seaports on the East Coast of Ireland. Once there, they boarded steamers and crossed the Irish Sea to Liverpool, Glasgow, and South Wales.
It was a short trip taking up just a day and night depending on the weather conditions and cost only a few shillings. Pauper families sometimes travelled for free as human ballast on empty coal ships. Others were given fare money by landlords hoping to get rid of them on the cheap. Relief funds intended for the purchase of food were sometimes diverted to pay for the fares.
For many, crossing the sea to England was a familiar journey since they regularly worked in the harvest fields or canals and roads of England as seasonal labourers. But for their wives and children, it was a distressing experience. In one case, a crowded steamer heading for Liverpool arrived with 72 dead aboard. The captain had ordered the hatches battened down during a storm at sea and they had all suffocated.
The exiles first headed for Liverpool, a city with a pre-famine population of about 250,000, many of whom were unskilled labourers. During the first wave of famine emigration, from January to June of 1847, an estimated 300,000 destitute Irish arrived in Liverpool, overwhelming the city.
The financial burden of feeding the Irish every day soon brought the city to the brink of ruin. Sections of the city featuring cheap lodging houses became jammed. Overflow crowds moved into musty cellars, condemned and abandoned buildings, or anywhere they could just lie down. Amid these densely packed, unsanitary conditions, typhus once again reared its ugly head and an epidemic followed, accompanied by an outbreak of dysentery.
Cheap lodging houses were also used by emigrants waiting to embark on ships heading for North America. Three out of four impoverished travellers sailing for North America departed from Liverpool. Many of these emigrants contracted typhus in the rundown, lice-infested lodging houses, then boarded ships, only to spend weeks suffering from burning fever out at sea.
On June 21, 1847, the British government, intending to aid besieged Liverpool, passed a tough new law allowing local authorities to deport homeless migrants to Ireland. Within days, the first boatloads of paupers were being returned to Dublin and Cork, and then abandoned on the docks. Orders for removal were issued by the hundreds. About 15,000 Irish were hauled out of filthy cellars and lodging houses and sent home even if they were ill with fever.
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