top of page

The Voyage of the China, 1856

Shipboard life 1875

Montage of sketches depicting life on board an emigrant ship. Making New Zealand :

Negatives and prints from the Making New Zealand Centennial collection.

Ref: MNZ-0661-1/4-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The “China” (630 tons) departed from Gravesend, 4 Sep 1855 and arrived in Nelson 4 Jan 1856. George Denton shared an 8' 9” x 7' 10” cabin with a Messrs Lang (a tailor by trade), Taylor (a retired sea captain) and one other (probably Macarthur). The fare for a larger twin cabin was £70.


The first cabin passengers had food prepared and cooked for them but the intermediate and steerage passengers had to prepare their food from the stores provided and give it to the cook. Rations of flour, rice, salt meat, salt fish, ham, dried peas, oatmeal, tea and coffee, etc were given out weekly from the hold. There were often disputes about the amount of provisions and frequent stealing of food and utensils. The passengers also carried their own private stores to supplement the ship's rations. The most valuable commodities were yeast and soda (for bread and puddings) and candles. George Denton observed “the best way to learn to cook is to have your dinner dependant on your skill” and gives a recipe for the pudding; ship's biscuit (soaked overnight), add boiled rice, raisins, suet and sugar and two handfuls of flour, bake two hours.

Water was also rationed and dispensed daily, pumped from the cisterns. It needed the addition of raspberry vinegar or lemon juice to make it palatable as it smelt like “ditchwater”. Later they were able to make a filter with sponge and charcoal but by the end of the voyage, the water supply was running low and they were reduced to 2 quarts per day between the four of them.


The longboat was converted into a farmyard to contain the livestock to feed the first cabin passengers, but after only six days out 13 fowls and six pigs had died and were thrown overboard; “they will not be missed by us as we are only treated to the smell of them”. On the 18th Sep, a sheep and another two pigs died and George noted that “if they do not kill the rest they will soon be fit for the British Museum to be classed amongst the skeleltons.” However some must have survived as a sheep was killed on 22 Oct.


The quality of the sailor's food was also the subject of complaint; “the sailors differ with the black cook because he does not make their food fit to be eaten, they threaten to throw him overboard but he ordered them to keep off or he would stick a knife into them.” The sailors were given rations of grog but obtained more by sending the passengers to buy extra for them. The third mate was responsible for the delivery of the stores but was taken off the task after constant arguments, he then got drunk and refused to work at all and spent the remainder of the voyage confined to the Boatswain's cabin awaiting a charge and trial on arrival in Nelson. Captain Ayres seemed to have little authority over the sailors, as they refused his orders to attend the Sunday prayer services.


If a “middie” or passenger went up the rigging and was caught by the sailors he would be tied to the rigging and released only on payment of a 5/- fine. Women were not allowed on the forecastle -one women from steerage was caught by the sailors who chalked her boots all over. On board entertainment consisted of French and sewing lessons, dancing and singing with music supplied by a flute and fiddle, and also games of hunt the slipper and tricks played by the sailors on hapless passengers. Whales, porpoises, flying fish and jellyfish (which they hauled aboard using a hamper) provided another diversion. They also caught two sharks and several albatross, which were killed and skinned, the wing bones being prized for pipe stems.


Many of the passengers were seasick for the first few days compounded by the stench from stagnant water in the hold. One unfortunate woman (possibly Mrs Leaper Snr) had fallen down and broken her leg on the day the ship left the docks and spent the first three weeks below decks in the ship's hospital. If there were deaths amongst the steerage passengers, George makes no mention in his journal.


By the end of Sept the sun was so hot it melted the pitch on the decks, and many slept on deck at night. They crossed the Equator on 15th October and the sailors dressed up with Old Neptune leading the parade, but the traditional shaving did not take place. Rats were a problem on 8th Nov, frightening the ladies in the next cabin by running about during the night. They passed the Cape on 20th November and from then on hit rough weather and rain with the ship rolling tremendously, crockery was broken, water casks got loose, mattresses wet and water poured down the hatchways into the cabins. One of George's cabin mates slipped and fell against the companion ladder and cut his head severely, taking two days to come around. One advantage of the colder weather was that the tallow candles they had made were now firm enough to use.

By the 19th December “we now begin to wish the voyage over”. Tempers had been running short in steerage, the butcher had been caught stealing provisions from the second cabins and some provisions (particularly the sailor's tobacco) had run out. Liquor was still plentiful as the sailors were often drunk. Christmas Day was celebrated with preserved meat, plum pudding and sherry.


Finally, on 4th Jan 1856 they reached N.Z. coming down off Farewell Spit into Blind Bay. The ship was obliged to anchor two miles offshore, unable to get into harbour until spring tide on the 7th. Passengers could be rowed ashore by enterprising Maori for a charge of 10/- or wait until the ship was in harbour when it would cost one shilling. Those who went ashore reported “plenty of work, wages high, everthing very dear”; a loaf of bread was 10d, beef and mutton 10d per lb, eggs 2/- per dozen, cherries 6d per lb. “Fruit is very plentiful, berries and cherries hang closer then I ever saw them before.”

Denton stayed on board waiting for a schooner to take him on to Wellington. He did, however, spend two days ashore where he travelled 8 miles to Richmond and along the Waimea plain, up the mountain into the bush. After this trip he reports “Macarthur got a situation on a farm 20/- per week and board and lodging.”


The Nelson Examiner of 9 Jan 1856 reported the arrival of the “China” with 16 cabin passengers and 63 assisted emigrants, however the intermediate passengers took exception to being classified as assisted emigrants and wrote to the editor to correct this “there being intermediate passengers equal to 15½ statute adults”. The Nelson Examiner also published the testimonial presented to the ship's surgeon, C.S. Cottrell, to which 82 signatures were attached. Passenger list for the "China" 1856


The arrival of the “China” must have caused a flurry of excitement amongst the Nelson settlers, as advertisements began appearing in the newspaper for the goods and supplies it had brought. These included;
25 pairs of cartwheels, a dog cart and harness, grinding stones and handles
ironmongery (axes, scythes, forks, spades, locks, hinges, taps and pails)
cases of currants, raisins, nuts, sago and rice
casks of salad and castor oil
oatmeal, pearl barley, macaroni and vermicelli
spices, ginger, vinegar, soda, saltpetre and Epsom salts
chalk, whiting, putty, Stockholm pitch, bathbricks, linseed oil, turpentine and paint
drugs, clocks, chairs, bales of fabric
Men's clothing; slops, moleskins and tweed trousers, coats and vests, white & regatta shirts, blue serge shirts
Drapery goods; white cotton hose, gloves, shawls, scarfs, parasols, bonnets & hats, handkerchiefs
One store claimed its grocery department was “replete with everything necessary for household consumption”.


In Wellington, George Denton went into business (1863) as an Ironmonger, Watchmaker and Jeweller in Willis St. He lived at “Fernhill”, Woolcombe St. where he established a trout hatchery and was a founding member of The Acclimatisation Society.



The Journal of George Denton, MS-Papers-2260-007, Alexander Turnbull Library.

The Cyclopedia of New Zealand, Wellington 1897.

The Nelson Examiner 9 & 12 Jan 1856.

Baker M. Keep the Name Bright; The Story of the Wellington Dentons, Christchurch, Baker Family Publishing, 2000.

bottom of page