When we read fiction set in the Regency period, we often come across references to sea journeys but, usually, they’re over pretty quickly. On one page, we’re at Dover or Harwich or Falmouth. A paragraph or two later, we’ve arrived at our destination and the story continues. (Not in all fiction, of course. Who could forget Mary Challoner’s horrendous cross-Channel trip in Heyer’s Devil’s Cub? Still, at least Vidal proffered a basin at the vital moment.)
Nowadays, our ships have GPS and radar and even engines! 😉 So this modern figure, staring out over a slightly stormy sea, has little to fear from going on board. But what was it really like, making a sea voyage on one of the Regency’s relatively tiny and fragile sailing craft?
Let’s take an imaginary sea journey…
Let’s assume it’s 1811. It’s wartime, of course. But in spite of pesky Bonaparte, you have to go on a sea voyage — to Buenos Aires, of all places! Perhaps you’re travelling for urgent family reasons. Perhaps you’ve been sent there on Government business, as Sir Horace Stanton-Lacey was in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy. Sir Horace had the luxury of travelling in peacetime. But at the moment, the war is still raging, so you don’t. And you do have to go.
How do you get from London to Buenos Aires?
First you get yourself all the way down to Cornwall, probably by mail coach, unless you’re rich enough to be able to afford to travel post.
In the mail coach, it will take you 18 hours from London to Exeter plus another 14 or so to Falmouth. If you’re sitting inside, you’ll probably be crammed up against other passengers for all those hours. If you’re lucky, you might be able to snatch a bite to eat while the horses are being changed but there will be no leisurely dining en route. Quite a trip and that’s only the start!
Packet ships carry the mail, and passengers, from Falmouth to all sorts of places. Buenos Aires is one of the routes they are offering, as you can see from this display of the various routes available.
Your trip to BA is expected to take 35 days out. It may take longer if you meet bad weather or enemy ships.
Assuming you make it there in the first place and eventually decide to come back, the return trip will take 52 days. Sailing ships are at the mercy of wind and currents, and the return passage from South America is a lot longer, as you can see from the route map on this display.
Your passage will not be cheap, either. You can travel steerage for £46 but you probably won’t enjoy it even though you’ll be paying a huge amount of money. In 1811, £46 was about what a senior servant like a butler would expect to be paid for a whole year’s work, but all you’d get for it would be a place among the common sailors.
If you want the “luxury” of a private cabin, the price from Falmouth to Buenos Aires is £86 one way. The longer return trip costs £107, more than two butler-years’ worth of wages. Your family business must be extremely urgent to justify that kind of outlay.
What’s the accommodation like?
The ship is very small and the six passenger cabins aren’t exactly spacious. The blacked-in space on the plan will be yours! You can see how small it is in the mock-up below.
Cabins have no portholes and they open onto a communal dining room (marked with red on the plan). Your coat’s hanging on the door to the dining room at the moment. You’ll need to open that door if you want any natural light.
If you prefer privacy, you’ll need to light your candle or feel your way around in the dark.
Facilities are somewhat basic, too, but at least you won’t have to provide your own food and you’ll even get to eat with the officers! You will have to provide your own bedding, though, part of your 400 lb baggage allowance. And on the way back, in spite of that hefty price hike, you will have to provide your own food as well.
During your 35-day voyage, you might have a run ashore at Madeira, but probably nowhere else, and you’ll have to take your exercise on the deck, trying to thread your way through the guns, and the ship’s boats, and the livestock (which you’ll be eating later). But, remember, there’s to be absolutely no fraternising with the crew while you’re doing it. And no climbing the rigging, either.
Hang on, though. It’s wartime. What if your ship is attacked? What happens to you then?
Danger? What danger?
Just in case you’re wondering, these are your captain’s instructions (and — sorry — they don’t mention you, the passenger, at all):
“You must run where you can. You must fight when you can no longer run and when you can fight no more you must sink the mails before you strike [your colours].”
So your ship will run from the enemy and you’ll get away, will you?
Well, you might.
During the French wars, from 1793-1815, 68 packet ships were captured by enemy ships or by privateers. Three or four a year, on average. Since the total packet fleet in 1808 was only 39 ships, that’s not exactly brilliant odds for your forthcoming trip. Still, some packet captains are stout fellows who are prepared to fight.
Take the packet ship, the Duke of Malborough, for example. Her captain, John Bull — yes, that really was his name! — did fight in 1814 off Cape Finistere against a privateer. Sadly, one passenger was a casualty. Even more sadly, it transpired that the attacking ship was not a privateer at all, but a ship of the Royal Navy! No wonder they call it the fog of war.
Bon voyage, intrepid seafarer!
You can find more exhibits and information about Regency passenger travel in the wonderful displays at the National Maritime Museum, Cornwall where many of my photos were taken.
Much of this information was included in my guest blog on Louise Allen’s Jane Austen’s London website a couple of years ago. I’m grateful to Louise for allowing me to use it again here.