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The Emigrant Route Hangö-Copenhagen-Hull

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By Gunnar Damström, Bellevue

In the early part of the 19th Century Swedish Ostrobotnia was an area where farming and associated trades were dominating. Shipping was lively and contacts abroad were good. Shipbuilding and tar production were important trades in rural villages2). During the latter part of the century the picture changed. The population growth was strong. The population of Swedish Ostrobotnia almost doubled in 50 years. Finding employment for young people in the rural areas became more and more difficult. The shipping business went into recession with the coming of the steam ship era. As a result shipbuilding and tar export declined. The economical development of the area stagnated. A similar famine struck the Maine Passamaquaddy Bay area at his time.

The new age represented by railroads, saw mills and industry was slow in coming to Ostrobotnia. Farms had been divided among heirs and by the mid 1800’s their size had reached the economical break-even point. The number of crofters and cottars living in the Vasa Province tripled from 1815 to 1875. J.V.Snellman, renowned Finnish economist wrote in 1869:”No matter how one views the situation, manufacturing and home industry must find its way to Ostrobotnia or the population must emigrate”5)

Snellman was right, and since the needed improvement failed to materialize the situation was ripe for massif emigration. One missing link was the unavailability of cheap and comfortable transportation. That missing link was filled when the railroad and the passenger steam ships came. The Vasa railroad was opened in 1883. In 1885 Gamlakarleby got its rail connection.

The Finnish Steamship Company was founded in 1883 with the business idea to transport Finnish butter to England via Hull1). The first FSC ships, Sirius and Orion were delivered in May and June 1884 and were designed for the FSC maiden line to Hull, England. Both vessels were freighters, however each had accommodation for nine passengers in cabins. FSC’s start as a passenger carrier had very modest proportions.

Sensing the growing demand for passenger transportation to the New World, the FSC placed orders for two steam ships, which were combined freight- and passenger ships. The Wigham Richardson & Co shipyard in Newcastle-on-Tyne built s.s. Astrea and s.s Urania, delivered in 1891. The ships had accommodation for 22 passengers in first class; 34 in second class and 186 passengers in third class. This did not prevent to company from accepting 509 emigrants on the Urania on at least one trip to Hull in the spring of 1893.

Edvin Hjelt entered the employ of FSC in 1891 and was first officer and later master of Astrea from delivery until December 1899 when he took charge of the ship Polaris.

The following letter from an emigrant tells about the journey to the New World. “The (Finnish Steamship Company) agent met us already in Hyvinge, which was good; because as we stepped off the train in Hangö we were 350 exhausted emigrants milling aimlessly about. At 11 p.m. we were ushered onboard the Astrea, which caused inconvenience for people with children that had just fallen asleep. First people with small children were allowed to embark, then the women, and lastly the men. People who did not have appropriate passports were escorted away by the police. We were led below deck, where there were wooden bunk beds with an inch thick mattress. No pillows or blankets were provided. In the morning we were given a tin can of coffee, a quarter loaf of bread with butter, two round potatoes and a herring. For dinner we got two round potatoes, some meat gravy and a small piece of bread, which was thrown on the plate like feeding a hog. Next we were given a yellow soup that we called brass soup. In the evening we were served tea and a small sausage sandwich. The food was inadequate, but fortunately we had some food with us from home so we managed. At Hull the (FSC) agent arranged us in several customhouse lines. The custom officials came and inspected our suitcases and chests. We received the train tickets for Liverpool. Horse carriages took us to the houses of the America line, where we waited three days for the ship’s arrival. (In Liverpool) we had health screening. We had to watch out for thieves.

On the ocean liner Westerlund we were accommodated in 20 person cabins, men in the fore ship, women further back. Here we were provided a pillow and a blanket but got no sleep, for everybody was yelling constantly in his or her language. People were singing and playing cards the whole night long, so we had plenty of entertainment, however little sleep. Not a good trade off. Food was scarce. The menu included many modern dishes, but the Finns had little appetite for those, accustomed as they were to flour puddings etc.

And we were inoculated, providing we did not have scares as proof of precious inoculation. On the twelfth day we were outside Philadelphia where we were met by a pilot and a physician who conducted health screening. Next arrived 20 custom officials who inspected our luggage. On shore our eyes were inspected and we were asked how much money we were bringing with us, where we were going, etc. Next we arrived at the (America line) offices where we received train tickets and so we traveled in comfortable, upholstered coaches and were able to rest on the benches. The conductor helped us with transfers to other trains.

Herman S.” 4)

1898 was a milestone for the FSC. That year two steamers designed specifically for passenger transportation were delivered. Wellamo and Oihonna were designed for the Hanko-Stockholm and Åbo-Stockholm route respectively.

In 1899 two new steamers were delivered from the Gourley Brothers Dundee shipyard. Arcturus and Polaris were larger vessels intended for the Hull-line. Polaris, of 2018.85 tons had accommodation for 80 passengers in first class and 167 passengers in third class. She was constructed for traveling in ice and had a motor capacity of 3500 hp.

Edvin_Hjelt.jpg

Edvin Hjelt was the first master of the Polaris. He continued in this capacity until he took charge of the steamship Titania December 8, 1908. In 1913 he celebrated his 1000th voyage across the North Sea.

The famous Finnish author and reporter Guss Mattsson was a frequent traveler on the FSC ships. He wrote the following report on his trip with Polaris 3) : "Traveling on board the bigger Hull ships is always a special treat. Polaris and Arcturus are the best ships of the Baltic Sea and both provide a taste of Atlantic cruising when selected for transportation. One detail seems unpleasant to me. On our Finnish ships it is customary that second-class passengers are provided the same right as the first class passengers to walk the entire decks for exercise and to enjoy the first class food. On the Polaris segregation system has been implemented mirroring the customs on the Ocean liners.

As soon as the Polaris leaves Hangö all kinds of gates are applied on the decks and locked with sturdy pad locks. The tiny space on the aft deck and port side walkway is reserved for the second-class passengers who have to share the space with Russian emigrants. The special menu provided in the aft dining room also has a character of second class. By telling this, my purpose is not to blame the Company, it is entitled to reduce the degree in comfort in proportion to the reduced fare. I mention it encouraging passengers who like myself normally are content with a second-class bunk bed during sea voyages to select first class accommodation on the Copenhagen ships for the added comfort and good food.

Emigrant life on board provides entertainment, although it is depressing to see these able men and women leave their Finnish turf. But they are in a merry mode, laugh, play and dance. Already the first night, as the August night descended on the Baltic Sea and the silhouettes of passengers became obscure, the sound of a violin could be heard and in a minute one could see couples bouncing around on the narrow, tarred parquet between rope coils and boxes. This was down on the poop deck. Up on the aft deck the same music provided for the ring dances applied in a triangle, though. The violin was recessed and the viola filled in with hilariously falsified upper class melodies. On the aft hold cover the Russians were seated in close rows busy with small talk while the tea from the samovar was passed around and the boy who was dispatched to bring more each time secretly sucked the premier brew through the kettle spout.

Polaris.jpg

Emigrant ball on the Polaris. From Edvin Hjelt’s stereographic photo collection The second day, yes, alas the second day……A brisk southwesterly wind shredded the white wave tips and made the Polaris behave like a rocking horse. The daughters of Finland were lining the railings, standing on their toes, spitting. Those who were unaffected walked hence and forth, slapping their backs while laughing and humming the polka tunes of last night. Soon the spindrift covered the fore ship and the emigrants were crowding the on the aft deck for cover. The upper class passengers passed ice cubes, lemon wedges and stiffeners. Approximately three showed up at the supper table. One had herring, one enjoyed a piece of dark rye bread, and one sat staring out in space. I imagine the honored reader has experienced this kind of entertainment? If not, it is worthwhile to give it a try. In particular staring is a thrilling stage”

Polaris2.jpg

This postcard from Edvin Hjelt’s collection shows the Polaris, brimming with emigrants entering Hull Harbor.

Polaris3.jpg

This picture showing emigrants crowding the decks of the Polaris is from Edvin Hjelt’s stereographic photo collection. At times the Company accepted as many as 500 emigrants for the Hull trip. Keep in mind that she had accommodation for 167 third class passengers.


Polaris continued to travel the Finland-Copenhagen-Hull line until Word War I broke out in August 1914. In 1914 the Imperial Navy requisitioned Polaris and two years later she was expropriated and sailed for St. Petersburg, never to be seen again in Finnish waters.

Arcturus.jpg

Polaris’ sister ship Arcturus, famed for transporting the 27th Ranger Battalion home to Finland in February 1918. Arcturus continued in service until 1957. She was scrapped in 1960.

The luxury liner Titania was built at the by now famous Gourley Brothers Dundee shipyard. Titania, of 3490 DWT had births for 739 passengers, 86 in first class, 68 in second, and 585 in third class. She continued trafficking the Finland-Copenhagen-Hull route until World War I broke out. At that time she happened to be in Hull where she remained until 1916 when she was expropriated by the Royal Navy. Two weeks later she was torpedoed while on convoy duty and sunk east of Scotland.

Titania.jpg

S.s. Titania, ready for departure in Hull Harbor, passengers knitting, playing chess, reading. The Master, Edvin Hjelt standing at the railing in the background 1)

Shortly before World War I broke out, one of the most celebrated ships ever to sail in the FSC flotilla, the Ariadne was delivered. During WW I she was requisitioned by the Imperial Army as hospital ship and was stationed in Helsinki. After the war and much-needed repairs she was commissioned to service the Finland-Hull route during the winter months. She continued to traffic the Baltic Sea until 1969 when she was sold as scrap metal.

In 1919 as the world was recovering from the war, FSC, having lost major tonnage through sinking and expropriation put in two veteran ships, the Astrea and the Arcturus on the Hull line. Edvin Hjelt, close to retirement was given the command of the Astrea, the ship he had surrendered command of twenty years earlier.

In 1925 The Oberon was delivered. She was the largest Finnish ship at the time and was considered the sturdiest passenger and cargo ship built in Europe for travel in ice. The engine delivered 4500 hp, the speed was 15 knots, the length was 305 feet and the cargo capacity was 1000 tons. In first class Oberon could accommodate 115 passengers and in third class 242. Oberon trafficked the Hull line until her tragic sinking December 19, 1930.

The Wellamo was delivered in June of 1927.

From 1891 to 1924 the Finnish Steamship Company transported 417,015 emigrants, 319,083 traveling from Finland, 97,932 returning to the motherland. 1909-1911 saw the peak of the emigrant movement. Those years 67.939 trans ocean passengers and emigrants traveled on the FSC ships. 1912-1914 the numbers declined to 56.833. During the war years the number of trans ocean passengers was only 11,797.

During the years 1870-1914 58,441 persons from Swedish Ostrobonia emigrated. This should be seen in relation to the total population of Swedish Ostrobotnia, which in 1910 was 129,7122). Of the emigrants 25%-30% eventually returned to the motherland.

With the introduction of US immigration quotas in 1924 (471 Finnish emigrants per year) and the improved employment situation in Finland the heyday of the immigration movement had definitely passed. Some emigrants then headed for Canada. However the Canadian Government introduced quotas in 1930. The depression effectively ended the emigrant mass movement from Finland to the New World.

  1. Thure Malmberg, Arnold Neumann: De Vita Båtarna, Finska Ångfartygs Aktiebolaget, Helsingfors, 1970
  2. Bengt Kummel: Emigrationen från Svenska Österbotten 1870-1970, En Översikt, Svenska Österbottens Historia III, Svenska Österbottens Landskapsförbund, Vasa, 1980.
  3. Nya Pressen September 16, 1906.
  4. Österbottniska Posten July 5, 1901.
  5. Åkerblom: Lantbruket i Svenska Österbotten, 1954.



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