The class system on board
As in every other sphere of life, the experience of travelling by sea depended on wealth and status. Like the railways, ships soon offered very different packages to suit each pocket:
- 'First Class' - luxury
- 'Second Class' - not luxurious, but decent
- 'Third Class' - the most basic
Often, these classes could be found on the same ship, although they did not mix. One of the benefits of travelling first class was being able to avoid the 'rabble'.
The class differences affected every feature of life on the ships, particularly the quality of accommodation and food. Status on board could even influence a passenger's access to lifeboats, as the tragic example of the Titanic demonstrated. The lower quality accommodation was always on the lower decks, so escaping from a sinking ship was far more difficult.
|The Titanic leaving Southampton. © NMM|
Some ships catered specifically for the wealthier passenger. The Avila Star was one of the Blue Star Line's so-called 'luxury five' liners. Alongside cargo, she carried first class passengers between London and Argentina.
|The Avila Star (1927) in the Royal Victoria Dock. © NMM|
The 'first-class' experience
The standards for luxury were set by Brunel's visionary but unsuccessful Great Eastern. Designed to carry passengers in all three classes, her first-class facilities were equal to those of the best luxury hotels.
|A family saloon on the Great Eastern. © NMM|
The first-class experience involved not only opulent accommodation but also a carefully segregated world of luxury, away from the eyes of other passengers. This meant exclusive dining and entertainment areas.
|The grand saloon of the Great Eastern. © NMM|
|Plate from a service used on the Great Eastern. © NMM|
Even the tableware was opulent by the standards of the time.
The less fortunate
For those unable to afford the better classes of accommodation - the majority of travellers, and almost all emigrants - life on board was less wonderful.
|Below deck on the emigrant ship St Vincent. © NMM|
Into the 20th century
|Union-Castle Line plate. © NMM|
As the general standard of living rose, the quality of service offered by shipping companies improved hugely.
While first-class travel was still luxurious and the differences were maintained, travel in the lower classes was no longer the ordeal it once had been. Even ordinary passengers could look forward to a basic but reasonably comfortable journey.