Colonial immigration scheme: ‘Single and Free’ by Elizabeth Rushen
When we think about immigration to Australia, what springs to mind is sailing ships carrying the first white immigrants: convicts and their military guards. Next, we might think of the huge post-war influx of people from war-torn Europe, followed by successive groups of refugees from other war affected regions: Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa.
Easily forgotten in this mix are the brave, resilient and (for some) desperate women who chose to be part of an early colonial scheme administered by the London Emigration Committee in the 1830’s.
Historian and author Elizabeth Rushen has written a fascinating account of the way the scheme was established, the women who volunteered, and their fates once they arrived in the colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania.)
There were fourteen ships altogether, which carried nearly 3000 single women from Britain and Ireland over a four-year period from 1833 to 1837.
Why did the colonial government invest time and money in such a scheme?
The main reason was the extreme gender imbalance in the colonies at the time. Male convicts and settlers outweighed women by over three men to each woman. This resulted in a shortage of female labour for the strictly gender-segregated jobs of domestic servant, governess, nurse, and agricultural roles such as dairy maid.
Also, the behavioural strictures and preoccupations of the period required women’s ‘moral’ influence to temper the behaviour of men. Not surprisingly, the applicants to the scheme needed to provide evidence of good behaviour and ‘respectability’.
Why would women volunteer for such an enormous, life-changing step? They left behind their homes, families, friends and communities, to face numerous perils and discomforts on a months-long voyage to an unknown place, where safety and decent employment could not be guaranteed.
Rushen’s research shows that, although the scheme initially aimed at recruiting poor women, there were in fact a mix of backgrounds of participants. Some of the women were indeed poor, desperate for an opportunity to make a living. Others were from educated middle class backgrounds. Some were simply up for a challenge, or a new life away from the constraints of their homeland.
The mismatch between the original aims and the realities of the scheme meant that the responses to the new arrivals were also mixed: ranging from welcome and support from some settlers to outright hostility from those who regarded the bounty immigrants as unfair competition for jobs, husbands, and homes.
The book is a deep dive into the scheme itself, the ships that brought the women to Australia, and especially, the women themselves. Who were they, why did they come, and what happened to them once they reached the colonies?
It’s a fascinating account of an often-overlooked episode of colonial history; and as Rushen concludes:
The vast majority of these women…made the voluntary decision to emigrate, their expatriation improving the quality of their lives…These were adventurous and courageous women who embraced the challenges of colonial life. (p176)
Single and Free: Female Migration to Australia 1833-1837
They contributed to the development of the colonies as domestic and agricultural workers, their enterprises as dressmakers, midwives and teachers, as wives and mothers of the rising generation. (back cover)
I have written before about the Good Girl Song Project and the musical production Voyage, which is based on the research and stories in this book. If you haven’t yet checked it out, do have a look at the website. It is a moving and entertaining portrayal through music and drama, of the experiences of some of the women who took part in this early colonial immigration scheme.
Single and Free: Female migration to Australia 1833-1837 was published by Anchor Books Australia, 2016