Rhian Tritton – Writing a new life: the construction of self in ss Great Britain’s emigrant diaries

Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below

An international & interdisciplinary conference

Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney


Event Dates: 25 June 2010
Bristol, UK

Rhian Tritton (ss Great Britain/Brunel Institute)
Writing a new life: the construction of self in ss Great Britain’s emigrant diaries

ss Great Britain sailed between England and Australia between 1852 and 1875, and a number of diaries and letters survive written by her passengers. This paper uses the evidence of these sources to argue that the diaries written by emigrants on ss Great Britain were transitional narratives generated in a liminal stage, with specific characteristics.

The experience of emigrants on ss Great Britain is usefully illuminated by van Gennep’s theory of rites of passage. Thus the voyage, and all the emotional and mental adjustments required during it, are part of the liminal stage, a period of adjustment and reconfiguration of emotional and intellectual boundaries. Beginning a diary can be seen as a rite of separation.

Viewing the passage on ss Great Britain as a liminal stage, a period of adjustment, enables a detailed unpicking of the ways in which emigrants made sense of their changed status. Particular characteristics of the diaries written during the voyage come into focus. For example, many diarists mention the ways in which they domesticated their cabins, putting their personal stamp on them and replicating their familiar environments. Turning this profoundly unfamiliar space into a familiar domestic space shows emigrants ascribing the meanings of what they have left behind to their current state. It also demonstrates the way in which emigrants do not feel able to write a diary until their physical space is stabilised, and a familiarly domestic environment created. The role of spatial coherence in the construction of self is thus illuminated.

A further way in which diarists construct their emigrant personae, their liminal selves, is by identifying with the moral codes they have left behind on dry land. Thus nearly all diarists recount in detail and with relish the gambling, thieving and excessive drinking which took place on board. None of them recounts their participation, as though they have resisted temptation and therefore have reaffirmed the extent to which they were maintaining the values of home.

In conclusion, it is argued that the liminal state of the emigrant journey on ss Great Britain was a key factor in the ways in which diarists constructed their emigrant selves. The stories they recounted illustrate the importance of an appropriately domestic environment in which to write, and also the key role that social and moral codes from “home” played in the formation of new identities for a new life.

Rhian Tritton, ss Great Britain/Brunel Institute, email
Rhian began her career as a costume curator, then completed a Masters in Education. After working for English Heritage and running a museum consultancy, she joined the National Trust to run their learning programmes nationwide. Rhian came to ss Great Britain Trust in 2008 as Director of Museum and Educational Services. As well as managing the curatorial, education and interpretation functions, her remit includes the development of the Brunel Institute, due to open next to the ship in 2010.








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