‘Importation’ to a distant shore
ELIZABETH Rushen’s Colonial Duchesses is the story of young Irish women who had the courage to immigrate alone to New South Wales in the 1830s. It covers two voyages by the vessel Duchess of Northumberland in 1835 and 1836, and one by James Pattison in 1836. Together the ships brought 750 free single women to the colony at a time when more and more men were landing as convicts.
Rushen examines the women’s lives and their experiences before and after migration, seeking answers to some of the questions raised by their decision to emigrate. What inspired them to leave Ireland? Was there a selection process? How were they treated during the voyage. How did they cope with the process of migration? What was their reception in Sydney?
Most came from parish workhouses or charitable institutions such as the Cork Foundling Home or the House of Industry. Their numbers included some who took the opportunity to pave the way for relatives who followed later, or to reunite with family already in the colonies. Regardless of background, all have been traditionally disparaged as products of poverty, disease and hopelessness who were in effect dumped on the colony by unscrupulous agents.
According to Rushen, however, close examination of the records reveals ‘‘the women were enterprising and embraced the opportunity offered ... to improve their living and working conditions … [T]hey chose to escape the entrenched poverty and afflictions of their homeland for a life of opportunity.’’
A government-funded scheme brought emigration within their reach. Mass emigration of young women began with the ships Red Rover (from Ireland) and Princess Royal (from Britain) in 1832. In the five years it operated, 16 ships delivered more than 1200 women to the colonies. The scheme was administered initially by an emigration commission based in London but subsequently by committees that operated in Dublin as well. They were established to charter ships, promote the idea of female emigration and administer applications for a passage.
The selectors in Britain and Ireland took seriously their brief to choose ‘‘industrious and virtuous’’ women. Knowing there had been complaints from colonists, they even wrote to NSW governor Richard Bourke, assuring him ‘‘the utmost care and judgement has been exercised in their selection”. As a precaution, the committees gave each woman a certificate of character before she left.
Forgoing revenue to import immigrants created a proprietorial attitude among the colonists, who subjected the women to intense scrutiny through a prism of ‘‘respectability’’. When James Pattison arrived in February 1836, the Ladies Reception Committee was delighted. Declaring the women to be ‘‘the best importation yet’’, it reported that ‘‘the whole, with the exception of two who are of unsound mind, appeared to be in excellent health and very cleanly and orderly in their dress and appearance’’. And it assured the community that none had left their employment for ‘‘impropriety of conduct’’. When Duchess of Northumberland arrived later the same year, its passengers were also initially described as ‘‘The best importation yet!’’
The women were expected to find their own work. As Rushen explains, traditional ‘‘hiring fairs’’ were familiar ground but their ignorance of local wages and conditions must have made many feel anxious about the terms they agreed. Rushen’s examination of their employment outcomes is one of the fascinating details in the book. Government accommodation was provided for a limited time but the women were expected to find an employer and move off the
Colonial Duchesses government’s financial hands as quickly as possible. There was no support for those who had difficulty in finding jobs or whose first choice did not work out. Three months, at most, and they were on their own.
Rushen reconstructs the lives of many individual women. Kitty Berry, for example, was typical of her shipmates. She accepted a job with a pastoralist far from Sydney. Within eight months, with the support of her employer, she married an English convict who was still serving his sentence. Ultimately the couple settled in Braidwood, where they bought a 100 acre (40ha) farm. By the time Kitty died, she had contributed nine children to her new homeland and was living in comfortable, although not wealthy, circumstances.
Some women turned to crime. About 10 per cent of those who arrived on the two Duchess voyages and 3 per cent from James Pattison went to prison, but few committed serious crimes. Six women joined convicts in the Female Factory for offences such as larceny, ‘‘cutting and wounding’’, stealing from another immigrant, or being drunk or disorderly. After a succession of appearances before the bench for drunkenness, Catherine Merritt was found drowned in Sydney Harbour barely four years after she arrived.
In 1837 the emigration committees were replaced by an agent-general for emigration, and in 1840 a commission was created to oversee all migration from Britain and Ireland.
The emphasis switched from young women to the importation of families, tradesmen and labourers.
Colonial Duchesses provides a comprehensive picture of female emigration in the 1830s from every possible angle. It adds to Rushen’s impressive body of work on this topic and is a significant contribution to our knowledge of these unsung women and the part they played in developing our community.
A landing party: detail from the cover of Elizabeth Rushen’s