Caroline Chisholm - The Emigrants' Friend
Created | Updated Jun 21, 2015
Edith Cavell - Nurse and WWI Martyr | Margaret Sanger - Pioneer in Birth Control and Women's Rights | Lisa Potts - Schoolyard Heroine | Flora Sandes - Heroine of the Great War | The Night Witches - Russian Combat Pilots of World War Two | Lillie Hitchcock-Coit - Firefighter | Emily Wilding Davison - Suffragette | Caroline Chisholm - The Emigrants' Friend | Grace Darling - the Lighthouse Heroine
Caroline Chisholm is well-known throughout Australia for her actions during the colonisation of the former British territory. She helped many thousands of young girls and families to find homes and work.
Caroline Jones was born in Northampton in 1808, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Her family encouraged her to care for others from an early age Her mother and father ran a farm and were charitable to those around them, offering free accommodation to travellers and food to those less fortunate than themselves. Caroline's father died while she was still quite young; her mother kept the family farm after her father's death, and although they sometimes had difficulty making ends meet, the family did not fall into poverty.
Caroline first met Captain Archibald Chisholm at a ball close to her home. Although Archibald was thirteen years older than Caroline, they got on well and had many things in common. They were both interested in helping those around them and had both lost their fathers early in life. Archibald's grandparents were Scottish and were educated landowners. However, they had lost their money and land in the Highland Clearances of the 18th Century. Archibald was an officer in the Indian army and feared that he would be called back to India before he had the chance to get to know Caroline properly. He made the decision to ask Caroline's mother for her daughter's hand in marriage. Caroline herself had something to say, though, before she would agree. She wanted Archibald to promise to treat her as an equal and to agree to support her in her philanthropic pursuits. These were extremely unusual requests: at this time, it was uncommon for a man to see his wife as an equal, let alone allow her to have a career, but Archibald agreed. Caroline also made some concessions. She had been raised as a Protestant, but made the important decision to become a Catholic like Archibald. They eventually married in England when Caroline was twenty-two years old.
After they had married, Archibald was called back to India. Shortly thereafter, Caroline joined him in Madras. Caroline was thrust into an entirely new life of tea parties and regimental balls. She was on her way to becoming wrapped in the social life of an officer's wife. Yet she could not turn a corner in Madras without seeing people reaching out to beg. She daily faced the terrible sight of young girls sleeping in doorways, many forced into crime and prostitution. The full shock came with the realisation that some of these children were the daughters of British soldiers and that many of their wives had also resorted to crime. She decided to open a school for these girls, stating that it was 'God's plan'. She hoped that this would secure them paid employment, better marriage options and happier, healthier lives. She appealed to the Governor of Madras for help in starting the school and was successful. Caroline was a strict disciplinarian, but also encouraged the girls to think for themselves. She asked mothers to bring their young children to the school to encourage the girls to learn life skills and to give the mothers a well-deserved break.
In May 1838 Caroline gave birth to a son, also named Archibald, and a year later had another son, William1. The heat of India began to affect Caroline's and the children's health, Archibald was granted furlough2 and they headed to the colony of New South Wales in Australia. The Chisholms found a home for themselves near the centre of Sydney. Archibald was recalled to active duty during the Opium War in China in 1840. One day, before he left, the Chisholms were taking a walk when they met some Highlanders from Scotland who could not speak English. Archibald was able to speak Gaelic, and so found out that they had no money and couldn't find any work. Archibald quickly lent them some money to buy tools so that they could start their own business as woodcutters.
The Chisholms began to turn their attention to the sad state of the immigrants, especially that of the homeless girls. Caroline was distressed at the sights she saw in Sydney. Once again, she saw young women sleeping in doorways and begging for food. Most had come over from England and found that a life of begging and prostitution was all that greeted them. Caroline took it upon herself to help these women, feeling it was God's will. She began her campaign immediately handing out pamphlets and writing to government officials; some of Caroline’s writing was published in the Sydney Morning Herald. As people began to realise what was happening on the streets of Sydney they came forward offering donations of food and clothing but Caroline knew that more was needed.
Many of the girls on Sydney's streets were uneducated as well as homeless and therefore found it even more difficult to find employment. They had no one to help them in the way that their parents normally would have done. Caroline knew that it was important to help these girls - not only in the short term by providing temporary housing, but also in securing long-term employment and marriage opportunities. She hoped to begin a school that would look after and educate the girls. She set about preparing a proposal to deliver to the Governor of Sydney. Caroline had to argue her point several times before the Governor eventually consented and presented her with an empty, disused barracks. It had been unused for some time and was overrun with rats and other creatures, but Caroline worked to make it inhabitable. The barracks became known as the 'Female Immigrants Home'. Girls flocked to find a place in the Home. Caroline, with the help of her family, set about teaching the girls how to cook, clean, be articulate and do basic arithmetic. Caroline saw potential in the bush farms of Australia, so she assisted the girls in getting jobs as milkmaids and farm workers. She eventually set up an employment office, and was the first person in Australia to introduce work contracts, ensuring the rights of the girls she assisted. Caroline also helped families, who, having migrated to find a better life, found themselves destitute with nowhere to turn.
Archibald was soon recalled to India to serve the remaining six years of his military service. Caroline continued to help the poor unemployed women arriving in Sydney. She met the ships as they arrived and took women in need to the Home. She also offered assistance to families and single men, but determined that poor, single women were the most vulnerable members of society. In addition, she had children to look after and a house of her own to run. She worked tirelessly for those who needed her never accepting payment for her work. It was unusual for women of Caroline's status to have work outside of the home and she was often criticised for a perceived neglect of her domestic duties.
During her time in Sydney, Caroline assisted many thousands of immigrants. She became extremely experienced in helping them and wrote about her work in her report of 1842: Female Immigration, Considered in a Brief Account of the Sydney Immigrants' Home.
Return to England
Convicts who were transported to Australia had to leave their families behind in England and so Caroline began a family reunion scheme to help those who had served their sentences bring their families out to join them. In 1845, Archibald retired and the family returned to England. Caroline set about promoting this scheme and trying to locate the wives and children of convicts. She also tried to locate children of convicted couples in the hope of reuniting them with their parents. Caroline fought for and won free passage for convicts' families. She then set up the 'Family Colonisation Loan Society' to help poorer families travel out to Australia.
Caroline was extremely concerned about the conditions under which people were being transported. She fought for and achieved better travelling conditions for all passengers on long voyages and began chartering ships herself. In fighting for the rights of passengers travelling to Australia, she helped to ensure the passing of the Passenger Act in 1852. She became an advocate for the Australian colonies and succeeded in sending out 3,000 people in five years. Archibald returned to Australia and acted as Caroline's 'colonial agent', welcoming and assisting those whom she had sent out. Caroline's plans to continue sending out families alarmed those already settled in Australia. They felt threatened by the farming achievements of the newcomers and the large community of Scottish Presbyterians was concerned at the sudden influx of Irish Catholics. In six years Caroline and Archibald assisted 11,000 people to settle as servants, farmers and wives in New South Wales. Caroline was now famous and supported by many powerful people including the author Charles Dickens3.
Caroline was unimpressed with the sudden increase in emigration when the news of gold mines reached England; she was concerned that this would disrupt the already delicate Australian society. When she returned to Australia in 1854, she toured the goldfields, suggesting various welfare projects, some of which, such as the creation of housing for miners, were implemented by the government. The Chisholm family lived for some time at Kyneton, not far from Melbourne — the town was a main stopping point for miners going to the gold fields and here they set up other refuges for women in need.
Caroline's drive to help those less fortunate came not only from the example set from her parents, but from her strongly-held Catholic values. This drew criticism from the Scottish Presbyterians who formed the vast majority of the Australian population at the time.
At this time, Caroline wrote a letter to the editor of The Argus, an Australian newspaper, which explains some of her thinking. She talks of the issues in Australia at this time:
Gold lies at our feet, and yet with all these advantages we are on the verge of national insolvency, and the hands of our people are stained with blood.... Let us cast aside all party feeling or class interest; let us retrench, economise and abandon the idea that getting further into debt will clear us of our difficulties. We too long have indulged in taxing — we have become under the Wakefield system 4 a nation of consumers, instead of producers.
Caroline, Archibald and the family returned to England again in 1857, when Caroline's health began to deteriorate. They lived solely on Archibald's pension until Caroline died in 1877. Not entirely recognised during her lifetime, she died forgotten and in relative poverty. She and her husband are buried together in Northampton under the epitaph The Emigrants' Friend.
The Chisholm Legacy
Caroline's actions contributed to changes in the selection of migrants, their treatment on the voyage out and their reception on arrival. She is remembered in Australia in many ways: she adorned the five-dollar note and the five-cent stamp for some time5 and many charitable causes and schools are named after her, Caroline Chisholm College and Chisholm Primary to name but two. She was also given a medal of the Order of Australia in 1994 and the Canberra suburb of Chisholm is named after her. She had been largely been forgotten in England until recently, when in 2004 a school in Northampton was named after her.