For the first 40 years of its history, Australia was considered purely a convict settlement. By 1820 however the Colony was seen as a country with potential. As early immigrants were mostly single men, males soon made up 73 % of the population. The British Government decided to sponsor a scheme to bring women to the Colony. Back in the United Kingdom, women were in the majority and the 'redundant' women were encouraged to migrate. Although the scheme started before the Port Phillip District was under way, many women ended up in Victoria before 1851.
Between August 1833 and February 1837, the London Emigration Committee organised the voyages of 14 ships, 10 from London and 4 from Ireland, bringing the Colony 2,700 young women. The scheme was soon deemed to be a failure by the Committee because of the level of 'immorality' prevalent in New South Wales and it ended in mid 1836, with 2 ships arriving after that date.
The Committee had wished to appoint a superintendent and on the first ship was Joseph Hoskins who had worked in a women's refuge for 25 years. He was accompanied by his wife, who worked as a matron, and his daughter, who was a schoolteacher. Unfortunately the Colonial Government under Governor Richard Bourke was disinclined to make such an appointment.
Although the British government paid for the women to migrate, it made no provision for them to find suitable work or accomodation on their arrival in the colony. Unlike convict women, who were disembarked at 8 a.m., these free immigrants were disembarked in the middle of the day. In Sydney, the only area suitable as a reception site was the lumber yard where convicts worked. This yard was fenced, thus keeping the women in and the men out. Temporary accomodation there was primitive, with plain benches provided for sleeping. Governor Bourke was apparently unaware that as well as scullery maids and dairymaids there were women such as governesses who were not used to sleeping on hard beds.
Elizabeth Rushen has done many years of research both into the reasons for the scheme's failure and into the stories of the women immigrants themselves. She has found that although the women's stories are quite varied, certain patterns emerge.
Right from the start there was the perception that these women were unacceptable, as respectable women in that era did not work. There were few avenues for complaint if good working conditions including the provision of meals for domestic staff, were not met. Some women were employed by ex convicts who had no idea of dealing with servants. Some women did take their employers to court but were usually denigrated for their effort.
Some women never coped with the transition to another country and turned to crime, spending considerable time in gaols, hospitals and other institutions. Some made no imprint on the colony at all. Most women married skilled artisans and many used their own skills to help their husbands. Most married and were totally occupied with bringing up large families. Quite a few returned home but others went to the United States of America, some to California in 1849 and then returned to Australia.
The London Emigration Committee's scheme was to solve the problem of too many women in one place and too few in another. Everyone would be happy. The arrival of such a large number of women into a small population over a short period of time needed much better organisation and although the scheme was scrapped, it was replaced later with the Colonial Land and Immigration Commission. With the help of people like Caroline Chisholm, conditions upon arrival for migrant women improved. Although few of the women who migrated under the London Emigration Committee became important, to Elizabeth Rushen, they are all notable. She certainly does not believe that the women were the sweepings of the workhouses.
Contributed by Jan Hanslow ( PPPG Member No. 1057 )
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