On 10 June 1854, some two years after the death of her husband Kenneth Budge, my 3rd great grandmother Margaret Budge née Gunn (1819 – 1863) married for a second time, to Ewan Rankin (1825- ?), a carpenter in Wick in the far north of Scotland.

Soon afterwards she and her new husband, with the four surviving children of her first marriage, made the long journey—nearly five hundred miles—from Wick to Liverpool, planning to emigrate from there to South Australia.

The family sailed as assisted immigrants, passengers whose fare was paid by a Government body.

McMinn, W. K. 1852, Emigration depot at Birkenhead Illustrated London News, 10 July 1852 retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135889210

They embarked on the new emigrant ship Dirigo, launched that year in New Brunswick, Canada. She was 1282 tons, owned by Coltart and Co, and registered in Liverpool.

In light of what unfolded we are fortunate in having quite detailed records of this voyage of the Dirigo, much of it correspondence between officers in the Colonial Land and Emigration Office; some of it even tabled in the House of Commons.

The Dirigo got off to a bad start:

“She was to have been ready for the reception of her emigrants at noon on Friday, the 24th June, but owing to various delays, the whole of her passengers could not be embarked before the 3rd of July ; and although moved into the Mersey on the 29th June, she could not, from the rainy and tempestuous weather, finally sail until the 6th July.
“At the final muster of the emigrants on the 4th of July, when the sailing orders were delivered, the number on board was equal to 426 statute adults [passengers over the age of 12] ; and with the exception of diarrhoea among children (a very common complaint in emigrant ships at starting), and the case of an emigrant named Nottage, who was recovering from an attack of the same malady, all the people answered to their names, and were to all appearance in good health.”

On 7 July Captain Trevillick telegraphed the owners:

“From Trevellick, Queenstown, to William Coltart, Son & Co.,
Chapel-street, Liverpool. SATURDAY —Ship “ Dirigo,” from Cork ; three deaths; seven cases cholera; two cases fever. Expect to see or hear from you. (Reply by magnetic telegraph.)”

William L Echlin, Surgeon Superintendant of the Dirigo wrote to the Emigration Officer at Dublin:

Sir, Ship “Dirigo,” Cove of Cork, 8 July 1854, 5 A. M. IT is my painful duty to inform you that sickness of a very serious nature has broken out on board the ship “ Dirigo,” Captain Trevellick, commander, which sailed from Liverpool on Thursday the 6th instant at 1.30 p. m. About this time, a girl aged 13 years, was reported ill; she was promptly attended and every attention was paid to her, but she expired about 3 p. m. Her father, who was in attendance upon her, sickened and expired upon the following night at 8 p. m. On the 7th instant, about 7 p. m., cholera appeared on the lower deck, attacking two men, one single and the other married. At 11.30 p. m. another case presented itself on the poop deck.
On the 8th instant, between the hours of 2.30 a. m. and 5 a. m., three other cases appeared, two amongst the single women, and one on the lower deck. There are also two cases of fever, but I am happy in stating they are progressing favourably. It is almost impossible that those persons suffering from cholera can recover. 
Under such circumstances as the above, I have considered it prudent to order the ship into Cork, with the hope of having the sick promptly removed, so that the health of the remaining passengers may be insured. I trust that the urgent necessity of the case will be sufficient excuse for the order I have given.”

On 8 July the Dirigo arrived in Cork. The Government Emigration Officer advised the Colonial Land and Emigration Office that he had landed the sick, but had no means of landing the healthy passengers. When inspecting the ship with the medical examiner of emigrants, the Government Emigration Officer found 7 dead and 19 persons were in confirmed cholera, and more than half the passengers suffering from diarrhoea and premonitory symptoms. The Government Emigration Officer sent the Dirigo back immediately to Liverpool, in tow of the Minerva steam ship, as he believed the passengers would be provided with accommodation of a better description and at an earlier period than could be effected if they stayed in Cork.

The Dirigo arrived back in Liverpool on the morning of 10 July. It was towed to the dock gates at Birkenhead. The authorities there, however, were reluctant to allow the emigrants, sick or healthy, to be re-landed. There had been three more deaths and there were likely to be more before night. There were about 100 cases with cholera or with premonitory symptoms. There was much alarm among the passengers. At 1 am on 11 July 300 of the healthy emigrants were eventually brought ashore in a steamer to the depot.

“... large fires at both ends of the dining hall having been previously lighted, and tea already made to serve them. The thankfulness of these people at finding themselves once more in the depôt, and as they said, out of danger, more than repaid the anxiety of those engaged in attending their wants.”
McMinn, W. K. 1852, Government Emigrants’ Mess-Room in the Emigration depot at Birkenhead Illustrated London News, 10 July 1852 retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135889210

At 3am on 13 July a second party of 65 emigrants were landed leaving 20 on the ship who were sick or convalescent. These were landed the following night.

C. Stuart Bailey of the Colonial Land and Emigration Office who was in Liverpool wrote:

“I did not, however, overlook, while attending to my other duties, the importance of carrying out the Commissioner's instructions to induce the people to take daily walking exercise in the country. On several occasions I took parties of women and children to spend part of the day in the park, adjoining Birkenhead, regaling them with cakes and milk ; at another time, I hired half a dozen spring carts, and conveyed the whole of the people, men, women, and children, a few miles into the country ; giving them, in addition to their usual rations, which we took with us, a liberal supply of cakes and milk, and a small allowance of beer for the men ; and still further to encourage them to take exercise in the open air, away from the town, a notice was posted at the depôt, that such as might desire it should have cooked rations for the whole day served out to them in the morning.”

Ewan Rankin was among 118 passengers who signed a memorial concerning the cholera outbreak. Although they had made a number of complaints in the memorial, many of those who signed re-embarked and continued their journey to Australia. The Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners investigated and settled their complaints before sending the Dirigo to sea again.

Fifty-seven people from the Dirigo died of cholera from 8 July to 9 August.

The Dirigo left the Mersey at 7 p.m. on 9 August to continue her voyage to Adelaide. All her passengers were reportedly in good health and spirits. The voyage was more than a month delayed in setting off but the passengers had been ashore for four weeks recuperating from their ordeal.

The Dirigo . . . Arrived from Liverpool on the 22nd November, after a passage of 107 days. She landed 482 immigrants. Fourteen deaths and twelve births took place at sea. This ship arrived in a very excellent order. The cleanliness, general management and discipline of the people reflected the highest credit on Mr. W.L. Echlin, the surgeon-superintendent.

South Australian Government Gazette 1855.

At the same time the Dirigo was having trouble with cholera, another emigrant ship, the Bloomer, was leaving Liverpool. Amongst the emigrants were the Ralph family, ancestors of Greg. The Bloomer left Liverpool on 20 July but had to leave from Liverpool, on the other side of the Mersey, rather than Birkenhead because of the cholera at Birkenhead. The Bloomer arrived in Portland, Victoria on 21 November 1854 after a voyage of 124 days.

In reading the correspondence about the cholera outbreak on the Dirigo I was impressed by the efficiency of the officials dealing with the Dirigo cholera outbreak and struck by their kindheartedness. I was particularly touched by the conclusion of a report prepared on 10 August by C. Stuart Bailey, the Commissioners’ Despatching Officer at the Birkenhead Depot, an officer of the Colonial Land and Emigration Office:

"I have much gratification in pointing to the success which attended these simple efforts to promote the healthful recreation and amusement of these people; for instead of leaving, en masse, dispirited and discontented, long before the time came for a general muster preparatory to re-embarkation, good health, good spirits, and confidence were restored, and the number of those who had returned to their homes, instead of being 250, as at first threatened, did not exceed 50 adults altogether ; that is to say, the number in adults of the original passengers who re-embarked was about 300."

We smile condescendingly at Dickens’ portrayal of Victorian bureaucratic tanglements—Little Dorrit‘s Circumlocution Office is an example—so it is useful to be reminded that our forefathers were also very capable of doing things well.

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Further reading

  • SHIPPING REPORT. (1854, November 1). The Hobart Town Advertiser (Tas.), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article264615098
  • Accounts and Papers of the House of Commons, Volume 46. Emigrant Ship Dirigo: Correspondence between Officers in Charge of Emigration Depot at Birkenhead, and Colonial Land and Emigration Coms. in relation to outbreak of cholera on board emigrant ship Dirigo. Retrieved through Google Books.