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Women in colonial times

Harriett Brims

Harriett Pettifore Brims (1864-1939), Harriett Brims' photographic studio and residence, Ingham, Queensland, ca. 1894-1900. Image courtesy of John Oxley Library through Picture Queensland: 146939.

From the first day of the English colony in New South Wales in 1788, European men, women and children were all represented although the ratio of male to female colonists was seven to one.

The female colonists in Australia were of three groups. The first and by far the largest group were convicts. The new colony gave some convict women the chance to develop their skills and improve their situation.

The next group were the wives of military responsible for policing the convicts. Some military wives, like Elizabeth Macarthur, would become among the most important and successful people in the colony.

The third group, the free settlers, were enticed by the opportunity and freedom a 'new' country like Australia could offer. Women became an influential and hardworking part of colonial Australia.

In addition to the female colonists there were female Indigenous Australians - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women whose lives were changed dramatically when the English colonists arrived in large numbers. The lives of women like Truganini, Walyer, Fanny Cochrane Smith and Cora Gooseberry are often both sad stories of families torn apart and also fascinating stories of resilience.

Free settlers

From 1793 onwards, women arrived as free settlers. A government bounty encouraged the migration of young married couples and single women. Other immigrant women often followed the lives their fathers and husbands led. As outback pioneers on selections, as squatters and drovers wives, they shaped and created Australia's rural towns just as much as men did, working alongside them, managing homes, raising children and educating families.

The reality of life in colonial Australia often meant that upper class women had to perform physical labour and hard work for which they were little prepared. Women of social standing found themselves in the harsh, often brutal surrounds of outback Australia where they frequently struggled to build lives for themselves and their families.

The life of Georgiana McCrae - an aristocratic woman in early Melbourne

Georgiana McRae, self-portrait.

Georgiana McCrae, self-portrait. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

Georgiana McCrae was a daughter of the Duke of Gordon. In Britain she was recognised as an excellent painter and in 1820, at the age of 16, she won a silver medal from the Royal Society of Arts for her work.

In 1830 Georgiana married Andrew McCrae, a lawyer who initially practised in Edinburgh. In 1838, he booked passage to Australia, which he believed offered huge opportunities. Georgiana, unable to travel at that time due to illness, is said to have raised the funds to purchase passage by painting miniatures, as well as receiving help from the Duke's second wife. She and her children landed at Port Phillip on 1 March 1841. When Georgiana arrived in Melbourne the settlement was only five years old and was a virtual shanty town.

The cottage her husband had rented in Lonsdale Street was nothing like Gordon Castle, where Georgiana had lived in her youth. The cottage had an outdoor toilet, mud and animal faeces underfoot and a hole in the roof for the cooking fire smoke to escape. The privileged life she had led as a member of the English upper class was well and truly over.

In February 1842 they moved to Mayfield, on the Yarra River (near Studley Park), designed by her and described as 'one of the first superior houses erected in the Colony'. In 1843 Andrew took up the 'Arthur's Seat' run near Dromana, and there built a house in which the family lived from 1845 to 1851. Georgiana is said to have welcomed local Aboriginal people when they passed through each year. Georgiana was acknowledged by other runholders for being as useful as a drover among cattle and horses, and was renowned as a 'medicine woman'.

Although her husband moved about, including going to the goldfields, Georgiana remained in Melbourne. There she died in 1890 at the age of 85. Today she is remembered as a true Melbourne pioneer, an accomplished artist and brave woman.

Bounty immigrant women and Caroline Chisholm

Young women, often orphans, servants or factory workers, were actively recruited with low priced 'bounty' tickets to Australia in an effort to balance the male-female ratio in the new colonies. Many of the young 'bounty' girls who arrived in Sydney and Melbourne found themselves in a miserable situation, with little but prostitution and crime to sustain them.

A barracks building in Maitland used by Caroline Chisholm to house immigrants. Photograph by John Houldsworth.

John Houldsworth, A barracks building in Maitland used by Caroline Chisholm to house immigrants. Image courtesy of the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.

Caroline Chisholm, the wife of a British soldier, arrived in Sydney in September 1838. There she saw the misery of unemployed immigrant women who lived on the streets in the areas known as the Rocks, not far from the wharves where the ships arrived.

Caroline began helping some of these women find work and took others into her home. She taught them the basics of housekeeping and cooking so they could be employed in the homes of the middle and upper classes.

While her husband was fighting in the Opium Wars in China, Caroline convinced Governor Gipps to let her use an old shed as a welfare agency. She and her sons moved into the 45-foot long shed that was home to thousands of rats. Within a short time, it was also home to 100 women.

Caroline worked hard to educate the women and get them paid work. She expanded her welfare agency beyond Sydney, setting up sixteen emigrant women's hostels around the colony.

Female 'bounty' immigration continued. From 1848 to 1886 the Female Immigration Depot, housed at Hyde Park Barracks, was the main reception and hiring depot in Sydney for 'unprotected' females. The depot received thousands of working-class Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh female immigrants during its 38 years of operation.

Caroline died in England in 1877, recognised as leading social reformer. She is remembered in Australia today by many schools that bear her name, the Caroline Chisholm Society, the federal electorate of Chisholm in Victoria, the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics and many other charitable and social organisations, awards and foundations. For many years her image graced our $5 note.

Aboriginal women

Aboriginal women in colonial Australia such as Truganini, Fanny Cochrane Smith and Cora Gooseberry led lives that were very different from their ancestors'. Their challenge was to find meaning in a world where their traditional ways and lands were changed.

Truganini - negotiator, diplomat and guerilla fighter

Truganini wearing a traditional shell necklace.

C A Woolley, Truganini wearing a traditional shell necklace, 1866. Image courtesy of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

One of the foremost Tasmanian Aboriginal leaders of the 1800s, Truganini was a negotiator and spokesperson for her people. Truganini was born in 1812 on Bruny Island which is in the D'Entrecasteaux Channel, south of present day Hobart.

Her early life was typical of many young Aboriginal women of Tasmania in the early 1800s. Before she was seventeen, her mother had been killed by whalers, her uncle had been shot by a soldier and three of her sisters had been abducted and sold to sealers (one of whom was also shot by a sealer). Her betrothed, Paraweena, was drowned in the Channel by timber sawyers.

In 1832 Truganini and her husband Wooraddy helped find the remaining Tasmanian Aborigines as part of a plan to re-settle them on Flinders Island at Wybaleena. In 1838, Truganini was part of a guerilla war campaign at Port Philip, Victoria with a group of other Tasmanian Aborigines - the men later executed in Melbourne's first public execution. Truganini returned to Wybaleena in 1842.

In 1847, Truganini and the remaining 45 people were moved to Oyster Cove, Truganini's traditional country. Truganini died in 1876. Her skeleton was displayed at the Tasmanian Museum until 1947. In 1976 her remains were cremated and scattered in the D'Entrecasteaux Channel according to her wishes. Samples of her skin and hair were finally returned from the British College of Surgeons in 2002. A shell necklace attributed to Truganini was found in a southern England museum in 2001. (The Age, 30 May 2002)

Useful links

Free settlers

Caroline Chisholm

Truganini and aboriginal women

Cora Gooseberry

Other resources

Last updated: 5 March 2010
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd

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