Life On Board – Charles Dickens

Life On Board - Charles Dickens

Sketch of Dickens in 1842 during American Tour. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

SOCIAL STUDIES – Read an excerpt from his book American Notes detailing his account of the journey. In 1841, he travelled to America on board Cunard Line’s first paddle-steamer, the Britannia. It left New Year’s Day from Liverpool and arrived in Boston 21 days later.

‘It is the third morning. I am awakened out of my sleep by a dismal shriek from my wife, who demands to know whether there’s any danger. I rouse myself, and look out of the bed. The water-jug is plunging and leaping like a lively dolphin; all the smaller articles are afloat, except my shoes, which are stranded on a carpet-bag, high and dry, like a couple of coal barges. Suddenly I see them spring in the air, and behold the looking-glass, which is nailed to the wall, is sticking fast upon the ceiling. At the same time the door entirely disappears, and a new one is open in the floor. Then I begin to comprehend that the state-room is standing on its head.

‘Before it is possible to make any arrangement at all compatable with this novel state of things the ship rights. Before one can say “Thank Heaven!”, she is wrong again. Before one can say she is wrong, she seems to have started foreward, and to be a creature actually running of its own accord, with broken knees and failing legs, through every variety of hole and pitfall and stumbling constantly. Before one can so much as wonder, she takes a high leap into the air. Before she has well done that, she takes a deep dive into the water. Before she has gained the surface, she throws a summerset. The instant she is on her legs, she rushes backwards. And so she goes on staggering, heaving, wrestling, leaping, diving, jumping, pitching, throbbing, rolling and rocking and going through all these movements, sometimes by turns and sometimes altogether: until one feels disposed to roar for mercy. A Steward passes. “Steward!”, “Sir?” “What is the matter? What do you call this?” “Rather a heavy sea on, Sir, and a head-wind.”

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Life On Board - Charles Dickens

From Aquitania Comparisons, SSHSA Archives.

‘I say nothing of what may be called the domestic noises of the ship: such as breaking of glass and crockery, the tumbling down of stewards, the gambols overhead of loose casks and truant dozens of bottled porter, and the very remarkable and far from exhilarating sounds raised in their various state-rooms by the seventy passengers who were too ill to get up to breakfast. I say nothing of them: for although I lay listening to this concert for three or four days, I don’t think I heard it for more that a quarter of a minute, at the expiration of which time, I lay down again, excessively sea-sick. A description of one day will serve for all the rest.

‘The weather continued obstinately and almost unprecedentedly bad, we usually straggled into this cabin, more or less faint and miserable, about an hour before noon, and lay down on the sofas to recover; during which interval, the Captain would look in to communicate the state of the wind, the moral certainty of its changing to-morrow (the weather is always going to improve to-morrow at sea), the vessel’s rate of sailing, and so forth. Observations there were none to tell us of, for there was no sun to take them by.

‘The Captain being gone, we compose ourselves to read, if the place be light enough; and if not, we doze and talk alternately. At one, a bell rings, and the stewardess comes down with a steaming dish of baked potatoes, and another of roasted apples; and a plate of pig’s face, cold ham, salt beef; or perhaps a smoking mass of rare collops. We fell upon these dainties; eat as much as we can (we have great appetites now); and as long as possible about it. If the fire will burn (it will sometimes) we are pretty cheerful. If it won’t, we all remark to each other that it’s very cold, run our hands, cover ourselves with coats and cloaks and lie down again to doze, talk, and read (provided as aforesaid) until dinner-time. At five, another bell rings, and the stewardess reappears with another dish of potatoes – boiled this time – and store of hot meat or various kinds: not forgetting the roast pig, to be taken medicinally. We sit down at table again (rather more cheerfully than before); prolonging the meal with a rather mouldy dessert of apples, grapes, and oranges; and drink our wine and brandy-and-water. The bottles and glasses are still on the table, and the oranges and so forth are rolling about according to their fancy and the ship’s way, when the doctor comes down, by special nightly invitation, to join our evening rubber: immediately on whose arrival we make a party at whist, and as it is a rough night and the cards will not lie on the cloth, we put the tricks in our pockets as we take them. At whist we remain with exemplary gravity (deducting a short time for tea and toast) until eleven o’clock or thereabouts; when the Captain comes down again, min a sou’wester hat tied under his chin and a pilot coat: making the ground wet where he stands. By this time the card-playing is over, and the bottles and glasses are again upon the table; after an hour’s pleasant conversation about the ship, the passengers, and things in general, the Captain (who never goes to bed, and is never out of humour), turns up his coat collar for the deck gain; shakes hands all around; and goes laughing out into the weather as merrily as to a birthday party.’

Questions for Further Thought

  1. What can one learn about the conditions of sea travel from reading first hand accounts?
  2. If Dickens was a first-class passenger, what do you think conditions were like for other classes?


John Adams, Ocean Steamers: A History of Ocean-Going Passenger Steamships 1820-1970 (London: New Cavendish Books, 1993).

Additional Resources

Read the entire work by Dickens.

Education Standards

National Council of Teachers of English

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