From 1788 to the late 1890s, every single immigrant to Australia – convict, assisted or free – shared a common experience they would never forget: a passage under sail in a crowded ship lasting anywhere from 60 to 200 days.
On any voyage, between 200 and 400 people could be crammed into a small ship (sometimes less than 35 metres long) surrounded by a seemingly never ending ocean, day after day, after day. Even though they sailed in an era when things moved at a pace less hectic than now, the length of the passage to Australia inflicted tedium beyond belief.
So what did these reluctant travellers do to relieve the monotony of life on board these ships? The diaries of emigrants from this period tell us that some simply slept, drank, ate, and slept again. Others played cards, kept journals and wrote letters, read books, drew and painted. Some caught fish, sharks and birds. Others gossiped, fought, consummated, and even ended relations. People held prayer meetings, published shipboard newspapers, and produced, directed and acted in plays.
For many, music, singing and dancing would have been a highlight on a lengthy and monotonous voyage. Ships pianos were essential shipboard equipment during 19th-century migration to Australia and have social, historic and technological significance.
The piano below came to Australia in 1852 and was sold to a family in Williamstown when the Captain sold many of the unnecessary ship’s implements to fund a return journey. In 2010 I bought this piano off the descendants of the family that purchased it on arrival to Australia. It was claimed to have been on board the Emigarant ship “Wanata”. This claim has not been substantiated and probably never will be, but as my descendants arrived on that same ship in 1852 and then endured months of quarantine due to typhoid from overcrowding, it was too good an opportunity to let go. It has not as yet been restored but is complete, including its gold badge. It is difficult to hold a tuning as the timber frame – after so many years of drying out – does not hold the tuning pins tightly anymore. The piano is kept more for Australian heritage significance than as a piece of piano forte and if only it could talk, it could tell informative tales of what those early pioneers did on a long journey from England to Australia!