In 2012 it takes just under a day to travel from Australia to the UK thanks to long haul flights, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the journey was much more of an adventure in itself. Passengers must have felt a little like the fictional character Phileas Fogg as they boarded the steam-powered ships that would carry them half way round the world, often in conditions that would reacquaint even the hardiest seaman with his breakfast.
One of these vessels was the Ormuz, forged in the Glasgow shipyards in 1886 and capable of reaching London from Sydney in just 30 days (although it usually took six weeks with passengers). Its owners, the Orient Line, were so proud of it that they mounted an inscription above the entrance to the first class saloon: ‘Were the world a ring of gold, Ormuz would be its diamond.’
On November 21, 1887, it was described by The Melbourne Daily Telegraph as ‘The Fastest Ship in the World’ on the basis that it had ‘placed the metropolis of the world within twenty-seven days six hours of its antipodes.’
Nearly everybody who reads what is written here will remember the days – not a long time ago at all – when merchants, everybody, stopped on another in the street – “Fine passage, sixty days from London. Wonderful ship the Thermopylae.” But then they had been used to seventy, eighty, and ninety days, a whole three months of waiting for their English letters.’
So what was it like to travel 10,000 miles on this smoke-belching monster of the seas? One passenger, a Mrs Eliza Cripps, kept a diary of her voyage on board the Ormuz from Sydney to Plymouth in 1888. It was surprisingly eventful, involving injury and death, shipping accidents, seasickness, and extreme weather conditions.
The Ormuz left Sydney on April 10th, stopping off at Melbourne on the 13th, Adelaide on the 15th and Albany on the 19th before heading across the Indian Ocean towards Aden and the Red Sea.
Friday 20th April. Another fine day, ship going along splendid. Making 304 miles this afternoon, she commenced to roll very much, one lady passenger was hurt with the vessel giving a lurch.
Four days later, as they headed north towards the equator, Mrs Cripps noted that it was so hot and stuffy in her cabin ‘that I feel as bad as if I was in a bath, and come out wet through.’
One solution to the hot weather was to sleep on the promenade deck, which was usually ‘nice and cool’, particularly at night.
But even the hot weather doesn’t appear to have put people off enjoying themselves.
Wednesday 25th April. We passed a terribly hot night, passengers lying about in all directions. Ship made 344 miles today. Singing and music every day.
Two days later the mood on board changed dramatically.
This morning there is quite a gloom laid over the ship. A gentleman by the name of Mr Lisbet broke a blood vessel and died in about half an hour after, poor fellow. Only the other night he was playing the violin while his sister played the piano. He was buried at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. A very solemn projection there has been 3 or 4 accidents on board.
One feature of the journey were religious services every Sunday given by the Captain in the first class saloon. There were also services in the afternoon and evening on the deck – although on 29th April the Rev Mr Reblard was interrupted by ‘a sudden squall which sent everything flying.’
The following day the weather decided to interrupt a more secular activity.
We have 2 violins and harps playing on the second saloon deck 3 times a day. Tonight while dancing was going on, it rained so suddenly it was just like a sheet of water, it send the people in all directions down below, it’s a regular piece of fun to see them.
Other activities included fancy dress balls and lectures on astronomy. Some, like Mrs Cripps, found pleasure in simply getting up early to watch the sun rise.
It is one of the beautifulest sights I ever saw… the sun reflects on the water which makes it look like land, the clouds rise up and seem to stand like castles and trees – all looks like a green valley.
The ship arrived at Aden on 5th May, to be greeted by naked Arab boys shouting at the passengers ‘throw down a shilling, you got big ship, you got plenty money.’ Some of the passengers obliged, just to see the boys dive into the water ‘like so many rats after a bait.’
At this point the ship took on passengers rescued from another steamer which had sunk after a collision with a P&O ship called the ‘Garonne.’ Two people drowned in the accident.
Then it was off towards Suez and the canal (opened in 1869) which would take them to the Mediterranean. There was plenty of opportunity for sightseeing from the deck, with ducks, camels, donkeys, well-dressed Egyptians and dozens of other steamers making the same journey in the opposite direction.
After leaving Suez and passing Crete the Ormuz stopped off at Naples on May 14th and Gibraltar three days later before beginning the final leg to Plymouth.
Friday 18th May. This morning is what most of the passengers called rough. A great number are absent from the tables which shows they are sick. Now we will be getting into the Atlantic Ocean which makes the ship roll a little.
Mrs Cripps spent her last evening on the ship at a religious service in the second class saloon, where there was ‘a subscription on behalf of three motherless children in the third class.’
The contrast between second class (tickets £30 to £40) and first class (£70) is made clear by the opulent appearance of the first class saloon and drawing room. Third class cost between £15 and £18 (according to the National Archives currency calculator, that roughly equates to £1,000.)
The cheapest way of travelling on the Ormuz was as a stowaway, who once discovered were usually put to work as a member of the crew. One such stowaway was James McKill, a 22 year-old chemist’s son making his way back home to Hamilton in Scotland in August 1888.
For the appropriately named McKill, the drama really began when he disembarked at Tilbury Docks and travelled to St Pancras station to catch a train to Glasgow with a group of fellow passengers, including a 39 year-old engineer called John King.
Mr King was found dead by the side of the track in Haverstock Hill (Belsize) Tunnel the following morning and it was at first thought he had fallen from the carriage by accident. But a few days later two passengers told police that McKill had confessed to pushing him out the door during a fight. He was charged with murder and went on trial at the Old Bailey the following month. McKill was acquitted by the jury after explaining he was drunk when he made the supposed confession and that Mr King probably fell from the train trying to retrieve a bottle of whisky from another carriage.
Excepts from the diary of Eliza Cripps, and photo of the RMS Ormuz, courtesy of David Cripps. The other pictures are courtesy of Chris Tyrer, who has a fine collection of ship postcards on his website.
The story of John King is told in the recently-published book 1888 London Murders in the Year of the Ripper.