Saturday, March 3, 2012

The First German Immigrant Ships Arrive, 1855

In the 1850s there was a great need for “quality labour” in the Australian Colonies.  Since the time of Rev. Lang in the 30s & 40s, the German States had been identified as a source of sturdy,     hard-working settlers.  Given the poor condition of many Germans due to overpopulation, famines, and civil strife – most notably the revolutions of 1848 - many desperate people were eager to improve their lot.  Over the following decades millions would uproot themselves and their families from their ancestral villages and embark on a one way voyage to the Americas, Australia and elsewhere.

Moreton Bay Courier, August 5,1854
Entrepreneurs set themselves up as Immigration Agents both in Europe and the New World.  Based in Sydney, the most prominent of importers of German labour to the Australian Colonies was Wilhelm Kirchner.  In 1854, he arranged for immigrants ships to sail directly from Hamburg to Moreton Bay.

Mr. H. Buckley, of Brisbane, has received advices of the first German emigrant ship Aurora, having sailed from Hamburg for Moreton Bay, together with the particulars respecting the emigrants, and their employers. The Merbs, the second emigrant ship, was to leave Hamburg, also for this port, on the 11th November.[1]

Temporary Lodgings for Emigrants, Hamburg (1882)
Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz (

Despite being at sea for over four months, it was the practice not to stop on route for fresh provisions.  This was purely for economic reason – the quicker the voyage the greater the profit. It was also because, from experience, sea-weary passengers were often inclined to leave the boat at the first opportunity, say in Rio or Cape Town.

The first to leave Hamburg was the Aurora, which sailed on November 11, 1854. The Marbs (also given as Merbs or Merbz) departed two weeks later. Both vessels arrived off the Queensland Coast on the same day in March 1855.  The voyages were not without incident.  The Marbs had major health issues ever since leaving Hamburg.

Moreton Bay Courier, March 24, 1855

The Marbz entered the bay on Friday by the northern passage, and reached the anchorage without any mishap. She had, we believe, 250 immigrants on board when she sailed, but 47 in all, children and adults, died during the voyage from fever, measles, and cholera.[2]

The Aurora did not even manage to enter the bay.  With no local charts and not pilot appearing to guide the ship in, the Captain mistook the South Passage between Stradbroke and Moreton Islands for the main entrance.

A report reached Brisbane on Saturday morning, that one of the German immigrant ships which have been for some time expected, had run on shore while attempting to enter the bay by the southern passage, and that the other had safely reached the anchorage. The report turned out to be substantially correct.

The Aurora, from Hamburgh, with 300 immigrants, was off the south passage to the bay on Wednesday. It appears that there was no chart of the coast on board, and that the captain was ignorant that there was any other entrance. Several guns were fired and signals made to attract attention, but as there was no appearance of any assistance, it was determined to attempt the passage into the bay.

In running in it was found that to prevent a total wreck on the shoal on which the steamer Sovereign perished, and to save the lives of those on board, the only course left was to run the ship on shore. All sail was accordingly crowded on her, and she was run high up on the sand, on the seaside end of Moreton Island.

She stands quite upright, and is accessible at half ebb, being dry at her bows. It is not expected that she will be got off. The females and children on board have been removed to Cleveland, and the crew and immigrants are in good health and condition.[3]

The loss of the Aurora reignited debate about the inadequacy of navigation aids in the colony.

THE loss of the German immigrant barque Aurora supplies another painful proof of the wretched inefficiency of our Government at Moreton Bay. Admitting that great blame must be attached to the owners for sending the ship to sea without a proper chart, it is yet plain enough that a lighthouse at Cape Moreton would have prevented the error which has led to this catastrophe. That no lives were lost must be attributed to the mercy of Providence and the presence of mind of the Captain. The moral guilt of the long delay that has occurred in establishing this lighthouse remains as heavily upon the Government as if every soul on board had perished.[4]

Emigrant ship below decks
As for the Marbs, the Government Health Officer, Dr. Hobbs, was scathing of conditions on board that resulted in the loss of almost one in five passengers.

The high mortality rate and complaints of insufficient provisioning led the Health Officer for Brisbane, Dr. William Hobbs, to report the matter to the authorities. His report led to an inquiry into the conditions aboard the ship.

Dr. Hobbs was very critical of the insufficiency of clothing and the absence of fresh provisions and basic comforts. He attributed the high mortality to the lack of these necessities and suggested that unless the system was changed, it could be expected that other ships would suffer similar losses. He pointed out that the character of the vessel had to pay for each adult passenger - alive or dead - but would stand to lose nothing if all the passengers were to die, as he insured each of their lives.

Included in Dr. Hobb's report was the following scale of provisions and food allowance on which the "Marbs" immigrant existed for almost four months. The ship sailed direct - no ports were visited on the voyage from which fresh provision could have been obtained.[5]

The good doctor then listed the weekly bill of fare.

 Sunday - Half a pound of salt beef, and plum pudding.
Monday - Half a pound of salt pork, potatoes and sour cabbage.
Tuesday - Half a pound of salt beef, and peas.
Wednesday - Two salt herrings per adult, potatoes and beans
Thursday - Half a pound of beef, rice and treacle
Friday - Half a pound of pork, potatoes and peas
Saturday - Half a pound barley per adult and plums.

The allowance of bread per adult was five pound per week, of coffee, 31 pounds amongst the whole passengers. The allowance of butter was one half pound per week per adult, and of sugar a quarter of a pound per week per adult.

Medical comforts for the voyage consisted of - wine (claret) - 80 bottles, Arrowroot - six pounds, sago - forty pounds, Oatmeal - sixty pounds, Vinegar - 4 Hogsheads. There were no supplies of milk for the children, no porter (port), no spirits, no lime juice, no clothing, and no soap.[6]

Understandably the immigrants were delighted to be on dry land at last.

A German Immigrants. – On Friday last, the brig Brothers brought up the remainder of the immigrants from the two vessels, Merbz and Aurora. Whatever they may have suffered during the voyage, they appear to have landed in good health and   spirits. On Thursday evening a number of them, who had arrived on that day, paraded the streets of Brisbane in bands, singing their national airs, to the great enlivenment of our usually dull town, and to the manifest delight of its inhabitants. 

Early view of Queen Street, Brisbane 

The immigrants are now in the course of being dispersed over the district, to which we have no doubt they will turn out to be a great acquisition. They are decent orderly looking set of people, able bodied generally, and healthy in appearance and likely to take kindly to colonial life, and to thrive in their new home.  

As it appears there is no difficulty in procuring immigrants in Germany for this colony, we hope advantage will be taken of the inclination of that people to emigrate and that continuous numbers of then will be introduced, into these districts, where their national characteristics of steadiness and habits of economy, cannot fail to advance their interests. With all the sources as we can draw from, we shall find difficulty enough in making the supply of labour keep pace with the constantly increasing demands from the interior.[7]


The Aurora suffered its final indignity by being sold for scrap to local character “Old Tom” Dowse.

The wreck of the German barque Aurora was sold by auction on the 18th instant, for the sum of £310, Mr. Dowse being the purchaser.[8]

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The Moreton Bay Courier 3.2.1855
[2] Moreton Bay Free Press 20.3.1855
[3]  Moreton Bay Free Press 20.3.1855
[4] The Moreton Bay Courier 24.3.1855
[7] Moreton Bay Free Press, 27.3.1855
[8] The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW) 23 April 1855


  1. Wonderfully reseached article. My ancestor, Ambros Branscheid and his young family came out aboard the 'Aurora'. Thank you. JH

  2. The Marbs was the ship my ancestors came out on, glad i came across this piece of information.

    1. Hi Trish H, my family also came out on the Merbs. Their family name was Geiger. Do you have access to a ships manifest as I am trying to do more family research as I believe my cousins may have also been passengers on the same ship. Their family name is Ringelstein. Could you please respond to my email address
      Damian Ringelstein

    2. Hi Damian the Geigers & Ringlesteins r related to me through another "Marbs" family the Kleins Iwent to the Geiger family reunion held at Kalbar, QLD back in the 1990's still have the book unfortunately most of my family history is still packed away in boxes until my 3rd bedroom is turned into a study cum bedroom my address is or rosepetels100 on ancestry Ros Richardson

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. The Marbs passenger list Immigration list. We are The Brunckhorst Family

  3. my ancestors also came out on the marbs. there names were marquardtz, glaser, duffel.

    1. Hi deetree50, my family also came out on the Merbs. Their family name was Geiger. Do you have access to a ships manifest as I am trying to do more family research as I believe my cousins may have also been passengers on the same ship. Their family name is Ringelstein. Could you please respond to my email address
      Damian Ringelstein

  4. im reasearching the Harth Family Wom came aboard the "Alurora ". intresting read this article ... rayleane griffiths dalby

  5. This trip to Germany was organised by my Great Great Great Grandfather Edward Lord, shame you didnt mention this in your story.
    Even bigger shame is that the Aurora was sold as scrap ��

  6. Aubrey Bannah February 2018.

    My ancestor Franz Baunach and his wife came out on the Marbs. I have written a history of their decendents in Australia.