Saturday, May 12, 2012

DUNNIKINS, ABLUTIONS AND FILTH



Two hundred or so people packed into Euterpe, a 19th century sailing ship that was sixty one metres long (less than two thirds the length of a rugby field) and a smidgen more than ten metres wide. They set off from London on a voyage lasting five months without stopping anywhere until they reached New Zealand.


All those people had to eat, sleep, wash themselves and their clothes, amuse themselves and stay healthy. Their quarters were cramped, and there wasn't much room on deck either. There was no bathroom, although there were the "dunnikins" which were "atrocious contrivances" and only constant attention from those in charge ensured that they didn't become pestilential spots on board. Part of the duties of Euterpe's Doctor Davies was to see that everyone landed safe and well, so that the ship was awarded a "clean bill of health".

On the voyage of 1879 the passengers were glad to find that the Captain had arranged for a temporary bath on the main deck so that passengers could wash. The bath may have been a canvas cubicle with a hose – sea water of course. (Anyone who wanted fresh water had to collect it themselves any way they could, when it rained.) Diarist Joshua Charlesworth noted that it was a pleasure to get up early on a hot morning and have a shower bath on deck, throwing buckets of water at each other, or having the hose played over.

"The Euterpe Times" sometimes contained messages from the doctor (a man inclined to big words) in which he gave advice on keeping well. A ship at sea, he declared, "has the solitary advantage of being surrounded by air free from injurious terrestrial emanations. In all other respects it is placed in unfavourable circumstances, for it combines inadequate space for passengers and crew with ventilation liable to frequent interruptions, and often followed by the outbreak of infectious diseases".

He stressed the importance of cleanliness, orderly habits, fresh air, healthy recreation and exercise "so as to avoid as far as possible the dangers which are liable to arise from a superaccumulation of filth". He urged passengers to take part in activities to aid blood circulation, call the abdominal muscles into play, and promote the action of the bowels, thus counteracting "any tendency to gastric derangements and intestinal torpidity" (i.e. stomach bugs and constipation). No chance of anything like that with Dr Davies in charge, and Euterpe reached Lyttelton without a single case of sickness to report to the port Health Officer.

It's hardly a surprise that the accounts of Euterpe's voyage of 1879 contained so much about games and athletics, music and dancing. But that story will have to wait for another day.

The photo is courtesy of Mike Wood Photography – what would I do without his pictures


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