On the voyage of 1879, London to Lyttelton, New Zealand, the sailing ship Euterpe’s emigrant passengers had to endure many weeks at sea with not a great deal to do. True, they had to wash their own clothes, prepare and cook their own meals and keep their sleeping accommodation clean and habitable. The ship was small even by the standards of the time, and there was not much space, but they managed to amuse themselves in a variety of ways. They danced on the hatch covers, raced each other around the deck, played music, ran Sunday school classes in the lifeboats, and – proof that buying and selling is embedded in the human DNA – held sales, auctions and raffles at the drop of a dice.
On Tuesday 16th September passenger Mr Middleton played auctioneer at the first session of the Euterpe Auction Mart. Diarist George Lister noted that “the articles were of a miscellaneous character consisting of potted meats, salmon, lobsters, sardines, preserved milk, tobacco, candles, dishes, tins, woollen and linen jackets, hats and caps, cheese, lemons, marmalade, sugar and leather laces.” The bidders were keen, especially for the milk and potted fish which went for four times their value. Some passengers wanting cash to buy the very expensive liquor available on board even sold some of their clothes – a good suit went for a few shillings. Others parted with their bread ration and a piece the size of a hand could fetch sixpence.
Sales and raffles also took place on deck as the voyage proceeded. James Martin bought a bottle of lime juice, a tin kettle and knife, fork and spoons at one sale, and his sister-in-law Annie won a ring in a raffle. These were conducted by charging an entry fee of perhaps a shilling, and the contestants then threw dice against each other until the winner was found. On one occasion Mr Skinner’s watch was raffled, Mr Hopkins won the contest, and immediately sold the watch back to Mr Skinner for £1. Everyone enjoyed the occasion, Mr Hopkins made a profit and Mr Skinner got his watch back.
NB: This may be one of the last Euterpe blogposts because the voyage is nearly over and the documentary sources are all but exhausted. Some of the passengers and crew have become familiar, others remain just names. For me it’s personal. The captain was my great-grandfather. On board on that voyage was his son, my great-uncle, whom I met just once in his old age without, of course, knowing or caring about his history. I wish – oh how I wish! – that I could talk to them both now.
Photo courtesy Mike Wood Photography - with thanks as always