It was July 1882 when The Polaria docked in Swansea.
The ship had been launched on the Tyne by Mitchell and Co. in February that year for Carr Line of Hamburg. It had been specifically designed for the emigrant service operating between Hamburg and New York and could accommodate over 1000 passengers. Carr Line had been contracted to carry 18,000 people during 1882 and The Polaria was an important part of the huge fleet that was populating America. Crossings normally took between 17 and 19 days. This was its second trip.
The Polaria was docked in Swansea for three days in order to pick up coal and tinplate and during this time it became ‘the object of the highest interest on the part of the local community.’ It was a remarkable entertainment from another world.
There were 731 passengers on board and suddenly there were a lot of people out on the streets early on Monday morning, no doubt very grateful to feel the solid ground beneath them for a while. They still had to face the Atlantic. Few of them would ever have travelled this far before. Swansea has always been a busy port and sailors from all over the worlds have always come ashore. The town had always done its best to accommodate them – and to take their money – though they were always regarded with suspicion and as a potential source of disorder. It was certainly unusual to see foreigners in such large numbers as this and it became a big news story for the Cambrian newspaper.
The newspaper reported that the majority of the passengers were Germans ‘from various areas of the newly constituted but not as yet well consolidated German Empire.’ Whilst the cargo was being loaded, they became a local curiosity. They were, we are told, ‘stared at and joked about by the small minded and the thoughtless idlers,’ which is very reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice where ‘all the boys in Venice’ follow Shylock and laugh at him. Certainly, Swansea has never been the most cosmopolitan of places. Soon the locals gathered at the docks for a closer look and many were taken on a tour of the ship, which underlined its status as a kind of entertainment.
The ship is described as a small town, ‘with a most diverse population.’ There were nearly 200 Russian and Polish Jews from the ‘troubled dominions of the Czar’ where they had been ‘cruelly treated.’ They are of a ‘very degraded standard’ and dressed in rags. Their ‘faces and hands would be all the more seemly for a freer use of the soap and water which are so liberally supplied on board ship.’ Their fares were paid by international relief committees and they do seem to be in particularly difficult circumstances. Of course the reporter could have found similar examples of abject poverty and squalor if he had ventured up to the top of High Street but he had a different agenda.
The newspaper maintains a rather superior tone throughout, with a patronising mix of sympathy and outrageous prejudice. ‘The odours that ascend from their quarters are not of the sweetest kind.’ There is awful cruelty and prejudice in parts of the article.
The reporter tells us that the Jewish emigrants may not be as poor as they look; he writes about ‘the Semitic type in their physiognomy’ and their ‘peculiar genius’ for ‘petty bargaining’ and ‘money changing.’ He considers the Diaspora and remarks that ‘the fabled time for the restoration of the Jews in Palestine is evidently not yet fully come.’ He observes that the ‘sacred land is wonderfully productive’ and could once again yield ‘splendid harvests of cereals, olives and grapes.’ But there appears to be no appetite for the creation of a homeland ‘in spite of the cries of the devout in the place of wailing in Jerusalem.’ The ‘wide wild West’ appears more attractive.
‘So let them go,’ he says,’ and may the blessing of their Jehovah rest upon them! May they be a blessing to themselves.’ However he goes on to add that they will ‘entail no curse upon the peoples among whom they may settle.’
He is more comfortable with German passengers, who are ‘respectable working class, clean in habits’. They paid about £5 for their passage, though 140 of them had tickets pre-paid by family and friends who had already made the journey. There were new passengers as well, for two children were born, one off Mumbles Head and the second whilst the ship was in dock. They were both boys and whilst they may have taken their nationality from the boat on which they were born, nonetheless he was relieved that it was hardly likely that ‘these youngsters will ever be drafted into the German armies.’
Whilst the Germans are obviously a militaristic nation, the Welsh are forever moved by compassion. One of the visitors to the ship was a ‘thorough Welsh woman in Welsh flannel bed gown attire.’ She saw weakness and exhaustion in one of the new mothers . ‘Though she could not convey her meaning in words, she did so in looks. The mothers understood each other and the warm hearted Welsh woman took up the little one and suckled it at her own breasts.’
A story of angelic compassion of the Welsh? A story to give his readers a warm glow of pride about Welsh generosity and humanity. Or a fiction? Perhaps it is best if you make your own judgement.
Thousands of people gathered to see the departure of The Polaria at 9.00pm on Wednesday. Poorer spectators allegedly expressed their wish to join the emigrants. Thirty men went to the captain and offered to work their passage. Fifty ‘loafers and would-be stowaways’ were discovered and sent back in the steam tug as the ship sailed away. Is any of this true? It is hard to say. Perhaps such details just helped to make it a good story.
We know that the SS Polaria was carrying ordinary people prepared to do something extraordinary in order to build a new life. There are still many across the world who are forced to leap into the unknown for a better life – and today some of them come to Swansea. In 1882, Swansea waved them goodbye.
The report in The Cambrian ends with some reflections on emigration and how it is most successful when families and neighbour hoods go together. ‘There is no loneliness, no misery save through the unavoidable accidents of life.’