Marcus Wilkins was born in 1854 in a little village just outside Coventry. When he was two, his father moved into the city and, with his father and two brothers, carried on a large building business. At that time Coventry was booming with the silk and ribbon trade. However, about 1860 fashion changed. Ladies began wearing feathers instead of ribbons, which caused a terrible slump in the Coventry silk industry. This also meant no new factories or other buildings were needed.
There was a good deal of talk at that time of emigration to the colonies and when Mr W R Brame came to Coventry lecturing on New Zealand he found a field ripe for his harvest. Marcus’ parents, with several other families, decided to join the Non-Conformist Party. In his memoirs, Marcus remembered the tug boat towing their ship, the Hanover, down the river to Gravesend where she anchored for two or three days until being towed out to the English Channel. He was eight years old. After that it was a blank until they got over their seasickness.
When their appetites returned there were bitter complaints of the quality and scarcity of the rations supplied. Marcus commented: “People who travel nowadays have no conception of the conditions endured by the emigrants of 70 years ago.” Rations were doled out once a week, in a raw state. The beef was fearful stuff, the pork was better but there was very little of it. Small amounts of preserved meat and soup and bouillon were served out.
The flour allowance was minimal. There were biscuits so hard no-one could bite them. Some of the passengers pounded them in a pestle and mortar, while some made coarse graters and grated them. Mixed with a little flour they made bread. Some soaked them and made puddings, but all the time they had a bitter taste.
Preserved potatoes were supplied, and coffee beans were served green and had to be roasted and ground. Marcus’ people had a coffee mill that was in great demand.
A little oatmeal or rice would have been a great boon, but could only be had by buying from the purser. An allowance of fresh water was served out each morning for drinking, but a share had to go to the galley for their tea and coffee. Seawater was used wherever possible for cooking.
There were two galleys – one for the captain and crew, and the other for the passengers. There were two men in each galley, and you can just imagine two men cooking for over 300 passengers. If anyone was particular, they had to bribe the captain’s cook to do little things for them.
Their food was carried up to their cook. Passengers had to attend at noon when their meal or puddings were hooked out of the boilers and thrown into a trough. Each parcel had a wooden label tied to it and the cook called the name. Everyone had to wait their turn to use the ovens.
Besides carrying sheep for mutton, the ship carried two cows that were supposed to be for the young children. But the captain’s table had the first pull. Marcus’ mother had one child under eight months and one who was two years old, but she got very little of the milk.
As Marcus wrote: “That will give anyone a little idea of the feeding of emigrants in those days.”
The Wilkins family was among those who took up their land at Port Albert, but that’s another story.