In February of 1912, my great-grandmother – the one I’m named for – traveled from London to America on the SS St. Paul. According to the ship’s manifest (which I can see at Ellisisland.org), she was around 30 and her children were 16, 5, 3 (my grandfather), and 1. Her oldest son was already in the US with his father – they’d gone over first to earn money to bring the rest of the family over. (Family legend says my great-grandfather had planned to sail on the Titanic but couldn’t raise the money in time. I kind of doubt it – I don’t see why they’d have gone up to Liverpool instead of sailing from Southampton.) They didn’t have a lot of money, so they would have gone in steerage.

I’ve known all of that for years, and traveling in steerage with three tiny children and a teenager on the North Atlantic in winter has always sounded like a special king of hell to me. I’m beginning to see why it might have sounded like a good idea.

I’m reading The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, by Juliet Nicholson (the grand-daughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, who were there in the thick of it. The title is not meant to be taken with complete seriousness. For one thing it was hellishly hot. None of that “Britain Sizzles in the 70s!” headline nonsense; the temperature actually got up to 100. TO quote the book, “With one feebly flowing standpipe and a barely usable lavatory between 25 houses, one-third of the 900,000 people in East London were described in a report published in 1909 by the Poor Law Commission as living in conditions of ‘extreme poverty’ “. That was the year my grandfather was born. In 1911, when his younger sister was born, Nicholson writes “the East End had become intolerable int he hot August weather. In filthy six-story tenement buildings with narrow stone staircases, four or five people might share not just one room but one bed.”

Working conditions were likewise intolerable; that was the year of labor strikes among both men and women workers that threatened to starve London and did nearly starve the strikers and their families. With the dockworkers striking, no food could be unloaded and even then a lot of London’s food came from abroad; when the railway workers went on strike too, it became harder to bring in English food as well. With no wages coming in and never having had wages enough to save any money, the strikers had to depend on the strike funds (which couldn’t have been that large) and on donations for food.

Not all the poor were that desperate; even some lower-class people were able to save enough to take seaside holidays. Still, the numbers of the poorest are huge, as of the numbers of the strikers. (I wonder if my brother the union organizer might actually be working in the family tradition?)

I am beginning to understand just why the stench of steerage might have smelled like opportunity.