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The Last Port.
Peter Tavy
1 - The Emigrant Depot

From ‘The Western Daily Mercury’- 13th December 1875

Barring accidents, Plymouth, in the 1870’s was the last port at which the emigrant ship touched on her way down the Channel. The town of Plymouth was dear to many thousands who toiled in our great colonies. Tom, who has worked and thriven in Australia for the last 20 years, always speaks of the place with the tenderness affection; not because it was the spot on which he last trod British soil, and took a final embrace of his poor old mother, but for an entirely different reason – a reason which is quite pathetic in its sweet simplicity. I will break it to the reader as gently as I can.

Well, then, it was on Plymouth Barbican that Tom, twenty years ago, bought his last glass of Burton beer for the small sum of two pence. That is a delightful recollection which can never be effaced from his heart; for although Australia is a big country, and produces a good crop of kangaroos every year, yet it cannot supply Burton beer at two pence per glass. And yet people get drunk and swear terribly in Australia! Directly the emigrant goes on broad, if he wants beer he has to pay about six pence a glass for it. The steward does not charge this price from any desire to make an unrighteous profit out of the article; he is simply actuated by a kind and humane wish to prepare the emigrant for Colonial life. If a man were to land in Melbourne, and suddenly find that the beer market had gone up four pence per glass, the shock to his system might necessitate his going into hospital for three months, which would be so much valuable time lost. But when he discovers the painful fact on the voyage, he quickly recovers, because he has nothing else to do, and he lands on the other side a wiser and a sadder man. However, it is not until he has fetched the Cape of Good Hope that his conscience ceases to upbraid him for not having had one more glass at Plymouth. I have devoted some space to this subject because I feel it is of national importance; and I would respectfully suggest that in Hints to Emigrants, and in similar works, special attention should be drawn to the fact, that Plymouth is the last place at which it is possible for the emigrant to have a spell of real dissipation for nine pence.

When the emigrants, exported by the Colonial Governments, arrived at Plymouth, they were taken to the emigration Depot, on Baltic Wharf, where they were comfortably lodged and boarded till the ship is ready and the wind fair. The depot could accommodate, on an emergency, as many as 1,000 people; but if you happened to be one of the 1,000 you would not be deeply impressed with the comfort of the place. To enjoy the full luxuries of the depot, it would have been advisable to have stayed there when there were about 500 inmates. Then it was not necessary to wait two hours to get a wash, and the talented chef of the establishment would have had a fairer chance of bringing out the proper flavour of the soup.

The single girls, the single men, and the married people were lodged in separate blocks of the building. But the two first-named portions of creation, from whence the supply of husbands and wives were drawn, were not kept apart all the time. They were permitted to flirt by daylight in the depot yard, subject to certain rules and regulations. For instance, no kissing was allowed on any pretence whatever. If a young man wanted to kiss a young woman for her mother, he would have to get a special order from the Emigration Commissioners in London. A moderate amount of hand squeezing was permitted, but if the young woman cried “oh!” the young man must drop it at once. A married man was permitted to flirt with his wife as much as he liked between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., but no man was allowed to kiss another man’s wife; and that was the reason so many poor wives never got kissed at all. The dormitories and the mess rooms were light, well warmed, and as perfectly clean as a man-of-war in commission. The sleeping berths were two stories high. The single women’s dormitory could sleep 300. In the married people’s dormitory the father and mother sleep in the lower berths, and the children in the upper one. This was a very wise arrangement, as it gives the children the opportunity of tumbling out and breaking their necks if they choose to avail themselves of it. But most of the youngsters seemed to think they owned their parents a grudge for bringing them into the world, so lived to worry the old people to death. Eight or ten emigrants formed a mess, and they elected one of their number as head, whose duty it was to fetch the victuals from the kitchen. They generally choose a head with an honest-looking face, as such a one was less likely to eat the tit-bits of fat as he carried the food up-stairs. The most painful regulation in reference to the single men was, that anyone who wanted to get drunk must go outside the depot to do it. This pressed very hard on those who don’t like walking. In the men’s dormitory there was a big red stain on the floor. It was not red ink; it was merely a scarlet mark that had been put there by two men to note the spot where they had held a friendly argument one night. It was understood that the human nose had been a leading feature in the discussion. The boarding was on a very liberal scale; the women received the same allowance as the men, but they were not compelled to eat it all unless they liked it. Anyone who thought he could eat a bit more if they stood up, was permitted to do so. Children under 12 years of age, had half rations; if they asked for more the doctor gave them caster oil and worm-wood. When a child had had three doses he generally leaves of making any more foolish inquiries, but a very bad case will take four “goes” of oil before they cry “Enough!” On certain evenings a chaplain would go to the depot and hold a service there; but any emigrant who objects to being converted was not obliged to attend.

Mr. Watson was the depot master, and during his connection with this establishment, and a similar one at Blackwall, an immense number of people have passed through his hands on their way to the other side of the globe. Mr. Watson was an able and energetic man with great responsibilities, but he kept his depot and its inhabitants in first-rate order. To do this, he often had to speak very frankly, and, when occasion required, he did not scruple to point out the defects which disfigure the manners and conversation of certain of the emigrants.

The Emigrant Depot at Blackwall and Plymouth are leased by Mr. Hill, of Reading, who contracts with the various Colonial Governments to board and lodge the emigrants for two shillings and two pence per head per day. These depots are undoubtedly very excellent institutions, for they keep all the people together, and prevent them from being swindled at the low lodging houses in the town. A remarkable instance of the great value of the Plymouth Depot has lately occurred. An emigrant ship meet with such severe weather after leaving port that she had to put back to Plymouth for very extensive repairs, which detained her six weeks. During these six weeks the 200 emigrants who were on board her have been lodged in the depot free of all cost to themselves. What would have become of these men, women, and children without such an institution? They must either have returned to their friends, who had been flattering themselves that they had got rid of the emigrants for ever, or else have fallen a prey to the Plymouth landsharks. In the latter case, some of the girls, instead of going to Australia, would have stood a good chance of going to the bad in England. But in the depot all have been well cared for and protected during these six weeks of enforced idleness; some of the men have obtained temporary employment in the town, thus earning a nice little sum with which to play pitch and toss on the voyage out. All this goes to prove that these depots should not be done away with – a thing, by-the-bye, which no one has talked of doing.

Before going on board, the emigrants are asked what articles of clothing they are in need of, and most of them are supplied with boots and various other things, including a pound-and-a-half of tobacco. These are given to the people by the Government of the country to which they are proceeding, who take in exchange the emigrant’s promissory note for value received. These promissory notes are payable when the emigrant is in a position to meet them. I believe very few emigrants ever pay their promissory notes, for when they are in the position they are seldom in the disposition to do so, and the Colonial authorities are so very glad to see them that they let the affair slide. Therefore, I advise emigrants never to be shy, but always ask for a lot of things.

In another article, I propose taking the reader on board the emigrant ship, but, of course, he need not come unless he likes.

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