Almost As Bad as Ireland:
The Experience of the Irish Immigrant
in Canada, Saint John, 1847

By James M. Whalen
In the 1840’s, death and emigration depleted the population of Ireland. In 1846, when the potato crop failed, widespread destitution and famine followed: an epidemic of fever and dysentery broke out; thousands died, not only from hunger but from disease. The only way to escape the misery of the country, it was believed, was to emigrate and in the summer of 1847 thousands made their way to Irish ports, and to Liverpool, in preparation for the journey. The exodus was unequalled in the history of Ireland with over 100,000 emigrating to British North America alone. They came from areas in which the disease was particularly malignant and if they escaped fever before leaving, or on the ocean voyage, it often broke out after their arrival in the new land. It was anticipated that large numbers would arrive in a destitute and weakened condition, but the British colonies were not expecting such a heavy influx and were not prepared to cope with the situation. A Committee of the Saint John Common Council stressed that neither Emigrant Officer, nor anyone else:
“could have possibly imagined that loads of pauper emigrants would have been shipped from different Irish ports and from Liverpool, worn out with poverty and disease, and labouring under fever of a most infectious and malignant description. The difficulties came upon us like a thunderbolt.”
In February 1847, the Government Emigration Officer at Saint John, Moses H. Perley, pointed out the urgent need for better accommodation at the quarantine station, which was located on Partridge Island about two miles from the city. It was controlled by the Saint John Common Council under terms of the city’s Charter of incorporation of 1785, and regulations required that all ships, with passengers, anchor there for medical inspection. On the island stood two fever sheds, both of which were in poor condition and together would only accommodate about 100 people. Before repairs were made to these buildings, or increased accommodation provided, ships with cases of fever and dysentery on board began arriving in quarantine. It was discovered, sadly, that in many of them passengers had died during the voyage.

The first emigrant vessel, the Midas arrived at Partridge Island from Galway on 5 May with 163 passengers. During the passage ten died and others were sick with fever. Other vessels followed with passengers generally in good health, but the situation soon changed for the worse. On 16 May, the Aldebaran landed from Sligo with 418 passengers. Of these, 36 died on route, 105 were ill on arrival and more than 80 of them subsequently died in quarantine. A few days later, on 22 May, the Pallas put in from Cork having on board 31 cases of fever among the 204 passengers. Only one person died during the voyage but 27, including the captain, Robert Hall, died after landing. Then, on the 24 May, the Amazon came in from Liverpool with 262 passengers. Two passengers had died on route, 34 were ill on landing and the mortality on Partridge Island was 55.

By early June, the sheds at the quarantine station were crowded with fever patients – “the floors of every ward being completely covered to the very doors.” A total of 2,471 emigrants were in quarantine at this time, but many of them were still on board vessels waiting to be landed. It was obvious that facilities had to be found elsewhere. As a temporary measure, military tents were used to shelter the sick and in the absence of receiving sheds, they provided refuge to healthy emigrants during the time required for the purification of the vessels. These too were soon filled, and some masters became so anxious to land their passengers that they made additional tents from the sails of their vessels.

Ordinarily, tents were floored with boards and those living in them were supplied with cots. Tents were quite adequate during fine weather but afforded insufficient protection when it was cold and damp. At times when there was no flooring in them, and no cots provided, patients were forced to sleep on a bedding of straw, spruce boughs or even the bare ground. Others made shelter out of a few boards and some were exposed to cold and dampness in the open air with no covering except their clothes. This situation induced some emigrants to burn the fences around the grounds of the lighthouse-keeper and even a supply of bedsteads for fuel. The need for accommodation prevented the immediate removal of emigrants from vessels in quarantine. Their confinement on board, with the sick, convalescent and healthy crowded together, often caused the disease to spread more rapidly at anchor than at passage. This development was attributed to the lack of ventilation at stationary vessels, as it was believed the ocean breezes purified the air and reduced the danger of infection. Moreover, there was no medical officer on board most vessels, because, under the provisions of the Passenger Act of 1842, they were not required to carry one.

Eventually, carpenters, at great risk to their health, constructed two additional fever sheds on Partridge Island, one two stories high, the other one story, and each 100 feet long by 20 feet wide. They were totally unsuitable for hospital purposes, because they were so narrow that there was hardly any space between the beds of the crowded wards. Patients suffering from different stages of fever, and many in a dying state, were often crushed together with convalescents. Usually, they slept on the floor, males and females in the same room; with their chests, boxes and other personal effects scattered around them, congesting the main passageways. One of the buildings had no covering in the outer walls and it was impossible to hire carpenters to complete it because of their fear of the disease. Some patients, therefore, suffered from exposure, especially during inclement weather. Dr. George J. Harding, the Health Officer in charge of the Quarantine Station, resided on the island during the emigration season. He carried out the medical inspection of passenger vessels and if he detected disease on board, the sick were removed to one of the fever hospitals. The healthy remained in quarantine for a relatively short period, as they were allowed to go on in to the city, once they were cleared, and the vessel in which they arrived had been cleaned and fumigated. This procedure appeared to be the best system for ensuring that they reached the port of Saint John in apparent good health.

Early in June, with the fever sheds full, and the overflow crowded into tents, the duties of the Health Officer became so burdensome that he could not handle the responsibilities alone. Although it was extremely difficult to obtain medical assistance because of the danger of contracting disease, Dr. William Harding, a brother of the Health Officer and Dr. James Patrick Collins, went to the quarantine station to assist him. Both doctors were attacked by fever soon after they arrived on the scene and Dr. Collins, who was only 23, died on 2 July, though Dr. Harding recovered. At this time, with only the Health Officer on the island the situation was critical. During the first two months of the passenger season, May and June, 27 vessels, carrying a total of 4,893 passengers, arrived. The number of deaths at sea and on board vessels at anchor mounted to 264 and another 154 perished on the island and upwards of 500 lay sick in fever sheds and tents. During this period, however, the medical duties were almost entirely conducted by the Health Officer alone. Sometime in July, the peak period for emigration, relief came as Dr. William Mitchell volunteered his services. The two doctors faced a monumental task, as 28 more vessels, having on board 4,058 passengers, arrived during that month, 186 were lost on route or died on ship-board in quarantine and another 112 died at the lazarettos.

Early in August, Dr. Mitchell was stricken with fever and Dr. George J. Harding, once again handled the medical duties single-handedly. On 5 August, the British Merchant put in from Cork with 338 passengers. There were 33 deaths on the voyage; about 50 were ill on landing; and 56 subsequently died. The Emigration Officer at Saint John prophetically wrote: “This fresh supply of fever on a large scale, will press severely on Dr. Harding, who is now greatly exhausted.” A few days later, on 9 August, the Health Officer was prostrated with fever. No replacement was found until 13 August when Dr. William S. Harding made his return to the island, having just recovered from an attack of fever. The latter Dr. Harding served as Health Officer for the remainder of the passenger season. Dr. Wetmore acted as his assistant, until September, when his services were required at the Emigrant Hospital at the City and County Almshouse. Dr. George L. Murphy, it appears, was also engaged in medical duties at the quarantine station about this time. The doctors had more than enough to tax their energies, as they had to attend to over 1300 emigrants who were either ill on the island, or were on board vessels waiting to be landed; other vessels were expected at any moment. As a matter of fact, a total of 3,509 passengers arrived in seventeen vessels during August; 136 emigrants died on route or on board vessels in quarantine and large numbers were hospitalized on the island, ill with fever.

By the end of August, over 12,000 emigrants had landed at the quarantine station since 1 May, many of whom had succumbed to the rapidly spreading fever. At this time, the Lieutenant Governor appointed a Board of Physicians “to inquire into the state of the emigrants at Partridge Island, and at the Almshouse”, with a view to suggesting measures that might lead to improvements. The Board reported that the disease was contagious, as evidenced by illness among doctors and others who had been in contact with infected emigrants, and attributed its presence in the Saint John area to the following factors:

“The co-operating influences of poverty and its concomitants upon the system of the emigrant prior to embarkation; to impurities of atmosphere in the crowded holds of vessels; to neglect of personal cleanliness; to impure water; and want of medical attendance and supervision during the passage; and lastly and principally, to exposure, impurities, want from insufficient attention, and hospital deficiencies at the quarantine station at Partridge Island and to the deficient supply of wholesome water.”
In those days, however, the medical profession had no knowledge of the source of the disease, or the manner in which it was transmitted.

In contemporary sources, references to the physical effects of fever and dysentery are infrequent. Medical authorities pointed out that typhus, among other things, caused a “depression of the vital or organic nervous power, and its character, like that of most epidemic diseases, often assumes a frightfully aggravated from. On the subject of relapsing fever, it was simply noted that some emigrants had spent up to sixteen weeks at the quarantine station undergoing several relapses of it. As for dysentery, there is an occasional reference to “bowel complaint” and “diarrhea” which are symptomatic of it. One emigrant, who probably was suffering from a severe form of it, wrote: “I was given up by the doctor I passed blood trough(sic) me for Three days and the skin and flesh busted off my teeth and gave Blood on my mouth”. Many emigrants appeared to suffer chronic effects from fever and dysentery and were too “exhausted”, “debilitated” or “emaciated” to work or perform anything except light work. In fact, the rate of wages at Saint John increased, even though the city was crowded with newcomers, because of the lack of able-bodied labourers. It became increasingly difficult to convince employers that they ought to hire emigrants to work for them, when there was a danger they themselves might become infected.

Although it is important to note the kind of medical treatment given to sufferers of fever and dysentery, contemporary sources are also vague on the subject. With the limited number of doctors and assistants available during the crises, and the crowded condition of fever wards, there is no way in which individual medical attention would have been possible. For example, from August to mid-December, there was a monthly average of 540 patients in the Emigrant hospital at the Almshouse under the care, it seems, of only one physician. Under those circumstances, the doctors could offer no more than a cursory medical examination of patients and it was probably left to nurses and attendants to carry out the prescribed medical treatment. Some of the medicines included purgatives, such as castor-oil and laudanum and stimulants, consisting chiefly of wine and brandy. Also recommended were “ablutions and frequent spongings of the body of the patient with tepid water either by itself or medicated with vinegar or the muriatic or nutric acids”. Beside, the doctors suggested attention to diet, correct ventilation, frequent changes of body and bedclothes, removal of all offensive matter, and fumigation of fever wards and other unclean places, with chloride of lime. Whether there was enough staff to carry out these procedures is doubtful.

As a result of the lack of sufficient accommodation and medical staff, conditions judged by the medical authorities to be conducive to the spread of disease were very much in evidence on Partridge Island. For example, it became impossible to carry out the proper burial of the dead, not only because of the high mortality rate among the emigrants, but also because masters of vessels secretly interred their dead passengers at night. On more than one occasion, bodies were buried in mass graves. For example, in August, when the Health Officer was ill, upwards of 40 bodies accumulated and a huge pit was dug and the dead were buried together in it. A number of corpses were buried in ordinary clothes, without the protection of coffins, and insufficiently covered in soil. As a result, patients in the fever hospital, adjacent to the burial ground, were exposed to an extremely offensive odour emanating from it. Also, an offensive smell arose from the night soil and garbage which piled up around the tents and fever sheds. Filth was not removed regularly, owing to the apparent disregard of emigrants for personal cleanliness, and the helplessness of their physical condition. There was also a lack of stewards to see that this was done. In order to prevent the disease from spreading to the city, constables were employed to oversee the movement of people between the island and the mainland. In spite of this, a few emigrants, probably fearful of contamination, made their way to the city without permission.

Food was unfairly distributed, as portions were often given out only to those who managed to go and collect it for themselves and their friends. Some, however, were unable to cook the rations offered to them, and others hoarded provisions, especially tea and sugar, in their sleeping quarters, for future use. Some emigrants ate half-cooked food, contaminated meat and unripe fruit, some of it foisted upon them by hucksters from the city or drank water that was unfit to drink. This was thought to be a leading cause of “dysenteric affections” which were “fatal among children and adults”. The two main sources from which the quarantine station drew its water supply were totally inadequate. The water in the well, located near the burial ground, was polluted, and the water supplied from a spring on the island dried up during the hot summer weather. Additional supplies were sent from the city in casks, but water supplied in this manner was easily contaminated. Sometimes, shortages occurred because rough seas or dense fog prevented its delivery.

Emigrants who contracted fever after arriving in Saint John were usually taken to the city and County Almshouse, which was located in the Parish of Simonds, about one mile from the city. The authorities wanted to remove them from the centre of population to whom they constituted a danger of contagion. The Almshouse, it appears, served as a shelter for both destitute and diseased emigrants for several weeks before hospitals and sheds were built exclusively for the use of emigrants. The exposure of parish and emigrant paupers to those suffering from a malignant and contagious fever had serious consequences for sick and healthy alike. During the period from March 1847 to March 1848, 2,381 emigrants and 610 parish paupers were admitted to the Almshouse establishment, including the emigrant hospitals and sheds. The death toll was appalling, as 560 emigrants and 126 paupers died during that fateful year. In 1856, the chairman of the Board of Health, Dr. William Bayard, who had been a physician at the Almshouse during the crises of 1847, recalled:

“The Almshouse soon became a plague spot, the rooms were crowded to excess… local and personal impunity soon generated a pestilential atmosphere, and the records at the Almshouse will furnish frightful evidence of its mortality among the doomed inmates of the misnamed hospital.”
Late in August 1847, when fever sheds and hospitals were completed near the Almshouse to accommodate sick emigrants, conditions in it improved considerably. The Emigrant Hospital, as it was called, really consisted of several buildings. There was one structure which could accommodate 110 patients, another which could accommodate 128, and there was an indeterminate number of narrow sheds similar to those on Partridge Island. Generally, there was a lack of space between patients; passageways were blocked; and there was no covering on the outer walls of some of the buildings. Consequently, patients suffered from exposure during damp and windy weather. Nonetheless, by late August there appeared to be ample room for all those who sought refuge there.

Dr. William Bayard served, except for a brief period, as attending physician at the Emigrant Hospital from 1 May to 30 July, when he contracted fever. Dr. Robert Bayard performed the medical duties for about two weeks, in late June and early July, during the absence of the former Bayard. There was no doctor there from 29 July to 12 August. During that time the patients were under the temporary care of William Craig, the superintendent of the emigrant population. Then, Dr. John Paddock was hired as visiting physician on 12 August, but after only after one month of service he too was attacked by fever. Dr. Wetmore, who had been a medical assistant on Partridge Island, replaced him. Wetmore served as physician for an undetermined period of time, but he too was prostrated by fever. It is not certain what medical arrangements were made for the emigrants after that time.

In the city of Saint John, destitute emigrants were crowded into hastily erected sheds located at the east end of St. James Street. They provided temporary accommodation for about 200 emigrants who, before their erection, were lying at night in the streets. These sheds were situated about 200 feet from the Provincial Marine Hospital and 1,200 to 1,500 feet from the military barracks. Captain J.D. Johnstone wanted them removed, because he believed the emigrants living there presented a grave danger to the health of the soldiers under his command, and to the residents of the Lower Cove area of the city. Although there was constant movement of emigrants in and out of these buildings, the danger of contagion, although ever present, was greatly reduced, because as soon as fever developed, the sick were immediately removed to the Emigrant Hospital outside the city. Early in December, the sheds were closed, and 182 emigrants remaining there sent to the City and County Almshouse.

The former City Poorhouse, located on the corner of Carmarthen and King Street East, did not serve as a fever hospital during the epidemic, despite the fact that a committee, appointed by the Quarter Sessions, had recommended that it be restored for that purpose. Probably, its proximity to the centre of the city prevented it from being used as an infirmary. At first, destitute emigrants from the Aeolus, which had arrived on the 31 May from Sligo with some 500 passengers, found refuge there. They were former tenants from the Lissadell estate of Sir Robert Gore Booth and had been sent out at his expense. Although they arrived in seemingly good health, many suffered from sickness after coming to the city. “The old poor’s house is a factory of disease, in consequence of the filth and destitution of its inmates, many of whom are penniless widows and orphans.” Authorities acted quickly in order to prevent the spread of disease among the inmates. A few days later, a doctor inspected the premises and ordered the removal of the sick to the Emigrant Hospital. Late in August, about 150 pauper emigrants still remained in the poorhouse, and it was believed that many of them would become a public charge on the taxpayers of the community. About two months later, these emigrants were cleared out of the building, and the provincial government, generously assisted by private charities, converted it into an orphan asylum.

In the autumn of 1847, there were over 150 children in the Emigrant Hospital at Saint John City and County Almshouse, most of whom were either orphans, half orphans or children whose parents were suffering from disease. Other children were huddled in sheds on St. James Street and Partridge Island, or scattered in various parts of the city, where some lived chiefly by begging. A shelter was needed in order to remove them from exposure to disease and provide them with proper care. The intention was to build up their physique, in order to induce residents of the urban and rural areas to adopt them. A staff, which included Dr. John Paddock as medical attendant, was hired. Late in October, the first of the orphans, 74 in number, were transferred from the Emigrant Hospital into the new orphan asylum. By the end of the year nearly 200 children, some of whom were extremely debilitated and subsequently died, had been admitted to the establishment.

In the late summer and fall of 1847, emigrants continued to arrive but less frequently and generally in better health than in the earlier part of the season. For example, in September, nine vessels reached port with a total of 1,380 passengers, 60 of whom died before arrival, or on board vessels in quarantine. In October and November, another nine vessels carrying 1,052 landed, and only eleven deaths occurred on ship board at sea or in quarantine. On 1 November, the very day the quarantine station was closed for the year, the Aselus, having on board 428 of Lord Palmerston’s tenants and the Triumph, with 46 from Mr. Ffolliott’s estate, came from Sligo. The passengers on the Triumph arrived in good condition, but the destitution and suffering of those on the Aselus was deplorable. The Health Officer candidly remarked:

“ There are many superannuated people; and others of broken down constitutions, and subjects of chronic disease, lame, widows with very helpless families, feeble men with large helpless families…and that nearly 400 so glaring paupers are thus sent out. Who so tame would not feel indignant at that outrage?”
By this time, public buildings were so overcrowded with sick and destitute that it was difficult to find accommodation for the newcomers. Outraged municipal authorities, fearful of large financial burdens to provide for their support, tried to induce them to return to Ireland by offering to pay their way. Because they were not willing to take up the offer, there was no alternative but to crowd them into the emigrant establishment at the Almshouse. Room was provided for many of the children, however, in the Emigrant Orphan Asylum.

The annual report of Moses Perley, the Emigration Officer at Saint John, reveals that a total of 17,074 emigrants embarked for New Brunswick in 99 vessels from Irish ports and seven from Liverpool, but the passengers were “very nearly, without exception, all from Ireland”. Altogether over 2,100 died: 823 deaths occurred on the passage, and 1,292 died after arrival, the majority in Saint John where 14,892 emigrants landed. The mortality at the quarantine station on Partridge Island was 601 and another 595 died at the Emigrant Hospital. Few died elsewhere in the province of New Brunswick except at Middle Island in the Miramichi River where 96 deaths were recorded, all passengers from the Looshtauk. In the city of Saint John, the mortality in the former poorhouse, and in fever sheds in the south end was minimal. Because these institutions did not receive fever patients, and if infection took place after admittance, the sick were immediately removed to the Emigrant Hospital to the Almshouse. The number of deaths, beyond the official total, will never be known, because there were undoubtedly many who died of whom there is no record. In Perley’s opinion, 2,400 died, or one seventh of those who set sail for the colony. This figure, of course, does not include seamen, or residents of the province, who died as a result of the epidemic.

No accurate account exists, either, of the number of emigrants who proceeded to the United States after their arrival in New Brunswick. Perley estimated that nearly fifty percent re-emigrated, “notwithstanding the exertions used to prevent their entrance there.” Many wanted to go directly to the United States, but chose instead a British colony, because the passage rate from Great Britain was cheaper and the entrance requirements were less severe. Usually, the able-bodied, consisting chiefly of heads of families, left immediately, or after a short period of time in the province, leaving their dependents to the temporary or permanent care of the overseers of the poor, or the Almshouse commissioners. The Passenger Act in the United States restricted the landing of the sick and destitute, and some who ventured to go on were sent back to the British territory. Others, probably, left the colony, as they had left their homeland in order to escape from the disease which was carrying off so many of their friends and relatives. For example, the Henigans, who had been sent out from the estate of Sir Robert Gore Booth, explained, “We left miserable St. Johns it is allmost as bad as Ireland we are getting on very well since we came to the State of Maine.”

In spite of reports of famine and disease in Ireland, and indications that the immigration of destitute and unhealthy people would be more extensive than in previous years, no special measures were taken at the port of Saint John to prepare for the influx. Repairs were not made to existing quarantine buildings on Partridge Island until vessels from Ireland actually began to arrive, and it was soon discovered that additional fever sheds were needed to accommodate the large numbers of sick. Before these were built, tents were used, but it was impossible to provide shelter for all who needed it. A similar lack of accommodation was noticeable once emigrants reached the mainland. Emigrants who contracted disease after arriving in the city were simply placed in the Almshouse, located in the Parish of Simonds, along with parish paupers, who often were infected from exposure to them. It was several weeks before fever hospitals were completed, near the Almshouse establishment, exclusively for the use of emigrants. Hasty preparations were also made to deal with the large number of pauper emigrants. The old city poorhouse was fitted up to house destitute tenants from the Booth estate, and sheds were rapidly built, in the Lower Cove area, for other indigents who had been lying about in the streets without shelter of any kind.

At the quarantine station, and the almshouse, little could be done, under the circumstances, to prevent the spread of the epidemic. The Board of Physicians, which conducted a study of conditions at Partridge Island and the almshouse suggested the erection of additional buildings at the quarantine station, and other improvements, including a proper burial ground, a wholesome supply of water and adequate medical staff. But their recommendations came too late in the season to be of any benefit for that year. Throughout the spring and summer of 1847 the epidemic raged out of control, but with the arrival of autumn, and the coming of colder weather, it gradually subsided. By then the number of emigrants who could become infected had diminished. But the crisis was far from over, because public buildings were still crowded with the sick and dying.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the colonists rightfully laid some of the blame on Irish landlords, such as Booth and Palmerston, who together sent nearly 2,000 of their poorer tenants to New Brunswick in order to relieve their estates of the financial burden of providing for them. The colonists needed a supply of sturdy labourers and farmers, who would become permanent settlers, not emigrants carrying contagion, or paupers who would become a public charge. The British government did not intervene on behalf of the dispossessed emigrants, because it adopted the principle that emigration to North America ought to be voluntary. The government was responsible, however, for the enforcement of the Passengers’ Act, which controlled and regulated the transport of passengers from Great Britain. The Act was not administered strictly enough to afford emigrants the intended protection because, with the larger number involved, there was not enough staff to enforce it properly. Complaints were frequent about insanitary and overcrowded conditions on board unsound emigrant vessels, but surprisingly, only five convictions were made at Saint John in 1847 for violations of the Passengers’ Act. More importantly, hasty medical inspection of emigrants at points of departure resulted in the infected often going on board vessels undetected, and others gradually becoming contaminated from exposure to them.

Upon arrival in Saint John, several of the able-bodied , or those in possession of enough money, went to the United States, leaving the destitute and the sickly behind as a burden on the Emigrant fund from which the deserving were maintained for up to one year. In 1847, the total expenditure (in excess of the proceeds in the fund) amounted to 14,820 pounds. The taxpayers of Saint John feared a substantial increase in their poor rates from the large number who, undoubtedly would become a permanent charge, once they were no longer eligible for relief from this source. Prodded by local authorities, the provincial government appealed to London for assistance, and after a series of sharp exchanges, the British government accepted part of the burden. They agreed to pay 7,410 pounds, which was exactly one half the amount of the deficit.

As for officials in Saint John and County, it can be said that they showed a certain lack of foresight in not anticipating the extent of the immigration, or the wretched condition of the emigrants. Since they did not make any advance preparations, they were forced to employ stop gap measures in order to deal with the crisis. But when one considers the influx of some 15,000 mainly destitute and diseased emigrants, into an area with a population of slightly over 30,000, it was no wonder they were overwhelmed by the problems it created.
NOTE by James M Whalen: The writer of this piece would like to point out that this article first appeared in Archivaria (the Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists) No. 10, Summer 1980. It was reprinted in The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada, ed. R. O’Driscoll and L Reynolds, Toronto, Celtic Arts, Vol 1, 1988.