PortCities London

Passengers and the port

Travelling in style

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'.

SS Titanic leaving Southampton.
View full size imageThe Titanic leaving Southampton. © NMM
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 Avila Star (1927) in the Royal Victoria Dock.
View full size imageThe Avila Star (1927) in the Royal Victoria Dock. © 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 'first-class' experience

Family saloon on board the Great Eastern.
View full size imageA family saloon on the Great Eastern. © NMM
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.

The grand saloon.
View full size imageThe grand saloon of 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.


Plate from a service used on the Great Eastern.
View full size imagePlate from a service used on the Great Eastern. © NMM

Even the tableware was opulent by the standards of the time.






The less fortunate

Below deck on the emigrant ship St Vincent.
View full size imageBelow deck on the emigrant ship St Vincent. © NMM
For those unable to afford the better classes of accommodation - the majority of travellers, and almost all emigrants - life on board was less wonderful.


Into the 20th century

Union-Castle Line plate.
View full size imageUnion-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.



   Back to The Lords of the Ocean: Ships of the East India Company