Berths consisted of an iron framework, a mattress, pillow (‘or more often a life preserver as a substitute’) and a blanket, which was not necessarily sufficient to keep passengers warm unless they slept fully dressed. Passengers had no designated baggage space and kept their possessions underneath their berths; open deck space was limited and the lack of separate dining rooms meant passengers’ sleeping compartments were their ‘constant abode’. Menus seemed sufficient on paper, but in reality the quality and preparation of the food was inadequate. Separate wash rooms were provided for men and women, as required by American law, but they were not kept clean and serviceable; soap and towels were not provided, and the floors were ‘damp and often filthy until the last day of the voyage’, when the port authorities inspected the ship. ‘When to this very limited space and much filth and stench is added inadequate means of ventilation, the result is almost unendurable’, wrote one traveller.
The White Star Line’s ‘Big Four’ (Celtic, Cedric, Baltic and Adriatic) were different. They set new standards for third class accommodation from 1901.
According to one passenger, the food for those travelling in third-class was ‘all of a very fair quality and abundant’.
Celtic and her sisters had a large third class capacity, but their accommodation was vastly improved. A train brought emigrants to Liverpool on the morning of sailing, then a bus conveyed them to the dockside at no extra charge. After the doctor’s examination, they were assigned their rooms and berths with due consideration: ‘Friends and acquaintances were placed together as much as possible. The various nationalities were quartered together as much as possible. The few Jewish passengers were assigned staterooms distantly removed from all the others’. Altogether, ‘proceedings followed a careful plan and were kindly conducted, so that no needless crowding and rough handling resulted’. Once third class passengers were on board, the ship left the dock so that second and first class passengers could board at the Liverpool landing stage.
Third class staterooms were ‘painted white, and kept thoroughly clean’. The air in the staterooms and passageways was ‘remarkably fresh’ and the ventilation effective. Each berth had a straw-filled mattress and pillow, with a pair of heavy blankets: ‘at the head of the berths was a drop shelf that served either as a seat or table, as the occasion demanded’. Each room had a mirror and ample hooks for clothing: ‘a lever for turning on the electric light in the room and a bell for summoning the steward or matron were within easy reach…There was plenty of space for hand baggage’. The floors were ‘scrubbed every day by the stewards on their hands and knees, and were well dried’. Each section had a steward responsible for it. Stateroom accommodation was available for most third class passengers and large sleeping compartments contained several hundred berths that were ‘constructed and supplied exactly like those in the staterooms’. The public bathroom facilities were well supplied with soap, towels, and kept clean.
Decks were spacious and there were ‘comfortable benches’ that were ‘placed at frequent intervals’. For all the attention paid to the luxuries of first and second class, third class was plain and simple, but clean, comfortable and fresh.
By Mark Chirnside