Immigrants to Canada

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The Voyage Over on a Ship of the Allan Line

(Not all of the Allan Line ships are listed here. These are the ships known to have carried child emigrants to Canada.)

Ships 1860s - 1875 | Ships 1876 - 1893 | Ships 1894 - 1904 | Ships 1905 - 1930s and also of interest, Ships to Quebec 1793

Although Alexander Allan began his shipping days in 1819, it would be many years before his sons would form a major shipping company. In 1840 the Cunard Company was founded followed in 1852 by the Allan Line. Crossings were now done on a schedule, no longer dependent on the whims of a breeze, and in less than half the time. The days of the single ship owner were numbered as competition from these shipping companies, who catered more to passengers, began to cut into their business.

Mr. Buchanan, the Chief Immigration Agent at Quebec, reported in 1860:

Mr. Allan states that his charge for adults is 7 7s. sterling. When we consider the shortness of the passage, the generous dietary, the unlimited supply of water, the protection afforded by the better description of these ships, from sickness, from ill-usage, and from the want of cooking accommodation, it is almost impossible to conceive how there can be any room for competition.(1)

Mr. Buchanan stated in his report of 1862 that the average length of passage by steamers was 13 days from Liverpool, England and 18 days from Glasgow, Scotland. By sailing vessel it was 36 days from Britain and 50 days from European ports.(2)

By 1863 about 45 percent of the emigrants were arriving in Canada by steamship. That number increased to 81 percent three years later and by 1870 was almost at 100 percent.(3) The voyage was now taking about 17 days and the old sailing ship, with the independent master, was all but gone.

The Allan Line

Sailing from Glasgow and Liverpool, the ships of the Allan Line probably carried more young immigrants to Canada than any other line. Between 1852, when it was founded, and 1909 when it was taken over by the Canadian Pacific, the familiar red, white and black funnels of the Allan Line ferried these young charges to Canada.

A few of the old wooden sailing ships of the Allan Line were used by some of the early emigration schemes. The St. Lawrence was built in 1852 with a capacity of 578 tons and the Ottawa, built in 1851, had a capacity of 492 tons. These ships, however, soon gave way to the new, larger, iron steamships.

Hibernian, which made its maiden voyage in 1861, was a small, 1,888 ton vessel. It was lengthened in 1871 and sailed the Liverpool and Glasgow service until 1901 when she was scrapped.

The Austrian was a 2,458 ton ship which was built in 1867. Refitted several times, she was used on the Canadian and the South American service until she was scrapped in 1905.

The Circassian docked at the port of Quebec May 7, 1873 on its maiden voyage. It was lengthened from 375 feet to 415 feet in 1875 and refitted with compound engines. She sailed the Liverpool to Montreal service until 1896 when she was scrapped.

John Graham was Captain of the Moravian which brought lads from the Wellington Farm School Reformatory to Canada in 1868. It appears to have been a real workhorse of the fleet. Only 2,466 tons, she too was lengthened from 320 feet to 389 feet and refitted with compound machinery. She was wrecked off the cost of Nova Scotia in 1881.

The Phoenician, arriving at Quebec July 10, 1874 with Miss Macpherson's children, does not appear in the list carrying child emigrants again until April 30, 1878 when William Quarrier's children arrived onboard her at the port of Quebec. The Phoenician had started life as the Saint David, was lengthened from 272 feet to 335 feet and renamed. Interestingly enough, William Quarrier's first party of children sailed to Canada on board this ship when it was called the Saint David. Captain Edward Scott was in charge in 1872 when the first Quarrier party took ship for Canada. A compartment was set aside for the children as well as a portion of the deck. Phoenician was refitted in 1888 and removed from the Liverpool and Glasgow service to South American service.

The Parisian was the first large steamer of the Allan Line, at 5,359 tons, sailing in May 1881. She was the first to have bilge keels to dampen the rolling, thus reducing seasickness. In 1902 the Parisian was equipped with the first wireless. Used on the Liverpool to Canada and the USA service Parisian was scrapped in 1914.

The Sarmatian, built in 1871, was large and very comfortable. She was removed from service in 1908.

The Polynesian, which sailed on her maiden voyage in October 1872, had a different reputation. Sailors said this ship would "roll on wet grass"(4) and called her "Rolling Poly." In 1893 she was refitted and renamed the Laurentian. Despite its reputation, it was still used by many of the child emigrant organizations, sailing from Liverpool and Glasgow to Canada and the USA until she was wrecked near Cape Race in 1909.

Joseph E. Dutton was Captain of the Sardinian in the 1870s. Called "Holy Joe" by his crew, Captain Dutton held Sunday services at 7:00 a.m. for the crew and a special service was held in the Chartroom for the officers of the ship. At 10:00 a.m services were held for the steerage passengers. There were "30 to sleep in one little room,"(5) wrote Miss Glen Airston of Owen Sound in her diary. Built in 1875, this ship appears on October 5, 1875 carrying Catholic children to Canada. In May of 1878 Miss Macpherson and party were onboard when the Sardinian exploded on entering the harbour at Derry, Ireland. They finished their voyage onboard the Peruvian. On May 14, 1878 the following letter appeared in the Times:

Captain Grills, of the Liverpool Mercantile Marine Service Association, going to Derry upon a pleasure trip, was upon the bridge of the 'Sardinian' when the accident occurred, and speaks in high terms of the discipline of officers and crew under the trying circumstances. He says: - 'I was on the bridge with Captain Dutton, looking for the approach of the tender, when in a moment an explosion occurred down in the forehold, where a quantity of coal was stored, and blew into the air thousands of fragments of wood. Immediately afterwards people came shrieking up the companion ways, many of them cut, bruised, and blackened. The scene was indescribable. A great deal of confusion was caused by the separation of children from parents and husbands from wives. One poor woman begged me to go and find her baby, which was torn from her arms. The Captain, on hearing the explosion and seeing the smoke, sprang from the bridge, ordered the hose to be instantly applied, and by dint of extraordinary exertions on the part of himself, the officers, and crew, succeeded in saving several people who were in the midst of the debris. The hold was flooded with water from the hose, but the smoke continued to pour out in dense volumes, and ultimately they had to abandon all hope of saving the ship except by opening the sluices and letting the water in. Before doing this the vessel was taken into five fathoms of water, so that when she settled down her decks would be above water, and she might the more easily be pumped out and raised. While thee orders were being executed, the whole of the saloon passengers, assisted by many of the crew, were engaged in transferring the emigrants to the mail tender which had just come alongside. About 300 or 400 soon crowded her decks, and she landed them at Moville pier, after which she returned for orders. Subsequently the second tender took off most of the saloon passengers, many wounded, and a large quantity of baggage. The boats were lowered in order to save the baggage. The mail tender returned and took the rest of the people, and I went with them, and we reached Derry about nine o'clock that night. I cannot refrain from referring to the heroic conduct of one lady, a saloon passenger, who, while partially dressed, rescued a baby that was fearfully burnt, at considerable risk to herself; the mother had proceeded to Derry, thinking she had lost her child for ever. The promptitude and energy displayed by Captain Dutton was in every way admirable, and his orders were executed with great decision. Miss Macpherson and her little band of Canadian emigrants showed no small amount of true fortitude and heroism. Most of the children behaved nobly under the trying circumstances, and exhibited much of the fruit of their careful training. They kept repeating to one another many of the sayings they had heard from Miss Macpherson about being patient, and brave, and good. I visited the infirmary before leaving on Saturday, and spoke to each of the nine patients, who are all suffering seriously, but I am hopeful of the recovery of some.'

Miss Macpherson's account appeared in a letter which she sent to her friends at the Refuge in London.

Sunday morning
Since we parted from you and those beloved Christian friends at St. Pancras last Wednesday, we seem to have lived years, and learnt more of the reality of the delivering power of our loving Father than in all our lives before.
Wondrous to relate, and as marvellous as the deliverance of the three children from the fiery furnace, is the fact that all our precious little ones are in safety, and now gone to a place of worship.
Behold the living-kindness of our God! Had the explosion taken place a little while later, our vessel would have been on her way instead of standing still waiting off Moville for the mails.
Most of the children were on deck, basking in the lovely sunshine of that afternoon. We were all busy finishing our letters, and I intended to write one more, and then go and spend an hour in the children's steerage, when presently there was a terrible sound, as of a cannon, followed by a deathly stillness for two minutes; I rushed on deck and beheld a man jet black with soot, his hair burnt off, issuing from a gangway near; then one of my own boys came, exclaiming, 'Oh, Miss! I prayed to Jesus, and He saved me.' Then the deck became a fearful scene of confusion, poor foreigners weeping, and oh! The mutilated men and women, ghastly with fright, some of their faces entirely skinned.
My first care was for the little ones. They clustered round me, as the two young men, (former boys of 1870, who had been home to see their friends), gathered them out of the crowd. Mr. Merry gave me the list, and they dried their tears, and answered to their names when called. We soon found all accounted for, and wee hushed with praise. Picture us all standing near the wheelhouse, awaiting orders, or to see, it might be flames, or another explosion of a still more serious character.
Oh! Could every Sunday school teacher in the land realise my feelings at that moment, they would never rest until every child in their class was washed in the Blood of the Lamb. I saw nothing but imperfection in all my work, and want of burning reality for souls.
The scene of the disaster was very near to the children's sleeping berths; a very few yards off two women sat upon a box together, one was blown up into the air, the other driven she knew not whither; but late that night I came across her seeking a bed in Moville, and she told me that in those first terrible moments every sin she had ever committed came before her, and the one most awful was her having rejected the Lord Jesus Christ. Oh, what our God can do in the twinkling of an eye! By unbalancing a little breath of His own created air, then the stoutest-hearted sinners quail.(6)

The Sardinian would continue to be used on the Atlantic runs but was scrapped in 1920.

Captain Smith, of the Peruvian, was very fond of children. When Annie Macpherson expressed concern about the bad examples her young lads were being exposed to "by the gentleman of the cabin, with their smoking, drinking and ribaldry of song," Captain Smith saw to it that the lads were kept busy. He gave them the job of "keeping the watch and pulling on ropes, the sailors shouting 'Hey little Macpherson' to all and sundry."(7) Captain Smith was so impressed with Annie's lads that he gave her a testimonial saying, "how well the boys conducted themselves on board the ship during the voyage."(8)

Miss Macpherson's account appeared in a letter which she sent to her friends at the Refuge in London.

The Prussian, sailing in May of 1875 offered the following menu (as printed in CIHM, #15087, Montreal Ocean Steamship Company, S.S. Prussian Allan Line):

SS Prussian
Allan Line
Montreal Ocean Steam Ship Company
Agents in Liverpool, Allan Bros. & Co., James Street; Agents in Montreal & Portland, H. & A. Allan; In Quebec, Allans,Rae & Co.; Agents in Antwerp, Aug. Schmitz & Co.; In Hamburg, W. Gibson & Hugo; In Paris Gustave Bossange
May 6, 1875
Bill of Fare

Spatchcock & Mushrooms
Fried Ham & Eggs
Fried Potatoes
Mutton Chops
Minced Collops
Dry Hash
Yarmouth Bloaters
Fried Tripe & Onions
Devilled Kidneys
Beef Steak & Onions

Buenos Ayrean was the "ugly duckling" of the fleet. She had a heavy superstructure and a straight stem but was the first steel steamer on the North Atlantic.(9) Built in 1880, this ship was the first to be built of steel, not iron, thus enabling it to be lighter than the other ships in the fleet. Used on the Glasgow to Canada service, Miss Bilbrough brought a party to Canada onboard this ship May 13, 1880 and continued to use this ship for several years. The ship was scrapped in 1910.

The SS Numidian sailed from Quebec to Liverpool in 1892. A list of Saloon passengers and some crew members were listed.

Refrigeration first appeared on the Bavarian in 1899. This ship was the first of the 20th century fleet of the Allan Line. She was followed in 1900 by the Tunisian which boasted good heating and ventilation. It also had hot and cold fresh, and salt, water on tap and four-birth emigrant cabins with spring mattresses.

The Huronian disappeared without a trace in March of 1902 while on her way to Halifax from Liverpool. In 1905 the Virginian became the first turbine liner. Emigrants in 3rd class were served meals at a table, food was good but they were kept wholly distinct from other classes of passengers.

In 1909 Canadian Pacific bought out the Allan Line. For many years it would be the Canadian Pacific ships which transported the young emigrants to Canada.


1. Sessional Papers, 24 Victoria 1861 (14), report of Mr. A.C. Buchanan.

2. Parliamentary Papers (British), 1863, XV (3199), p. 34.

3. Ibid., p.213.

4. Ibid., p. 135.

5. Ibid., p. 128.

6. Clara M.S. Lowe. God's Answer. pp. 154-155.

7. Gillian Wager. Children of the Empire, (London: 1982), p. 62.

8. Ibid.

9. Appleton. p. 199.

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© Marjorie P. Kohli, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 1997-2007
Last updated: February 14, 2007 and maintained by Marj Kohli