Friday Saturday Hoyden: Caroline Chisholm

Below is a very brief bio from an Australian government site on Civics and Citizenship:

Caroline Chisholm (1808–1877)
Caroline Chisholm was born in England. She arrived in Australia in 1838 and set up a home for other women who had come to live here. She worked to improve life on the ships bringing people to Australia to start a new life and started a loans plan to bring poor children and families to Australia. She arranged free trips so that the families of convicts who were transported to Australia could come to join them. She also believed poor people should be able to buy farms cheaply.

Caroline Chisholm’s work has been remembered in several ways. Her face has appeared on stamps and on a bank note.

She was given a medal of the Order of Australia in 1994.

It’s very bare bones, isn’t it? With a bit of reading of other sites linked from another government website, I’ve fleshed out the picture. Caroline Chisholm came to Sydney as a military wife with a family history of philanthropic works and a husband whose own philanthropic sympathies were crucial in her acceptance of his suit.

This fairly blunt profile of Caroline Chisholm presents her as an impressive but uncomfortable woman due to her uncompromising standards, and came as a bit of an eye-opener to me in terms of sanitised school history: the fact that the young immigrant underclass women that she was training had been lured to the Australian colonies where they were left to fend for themselves and would have no options other than prostitution or crime to earn a living was very heavily glossed over, from most of the sanitised histories you would think these girls just materialised from thin air onto Sydney’s streets with no jobs and no housing. Apparently the PTB (Powers That Be) simply wanted warm female bodies to even out the sex ratio without any concern for whether the women would be able to support themselves without degradation (and without any thought for the fact that the deepest need for female immigrants as servants and potential wives was in the country areas (a fact proved by Chisholm in later years), yet they were dumped on the wharves at Sydney with no instructions and no transport out of the city).

Even in that blunter profile, there is no further detail on the training residence she established in Madras, India before she came to Sydney: the Female School of Industry for Daughters of European Soldiers (the school was taken over by the government when the Chisholms left Madras). The name was obviously referring to offspring resulting from liaisons between the colonising forces and Indian women, many of whom would have been illegitimate and thus socially ostracised (the girls whose fathers had married their mothers were only marginally more socially acceptable to the caste-conscious). The fate of girls deemed unmarriageable at the time was sexual exploitation if physically appealing, the lowest forms of drudgery if physically unappealing, and both for those of average appeal. Caroline Chisholm was not only interested in alleviating homelessness and poverty, she wanted poor women to have the choice of “respectable” work other than prostitution/crime and more importantly work that paid more and provided more dignity than basic drudge work. While obviously aware that some sort of servant work was most likely their future, Chisholm well knew that having the polish to act as a personal maid or nanny, or as a shopgirl or clerical assistant, was far better work than slopping out the kitchens and courtyards.

Chisholm also believed very strongly in family as a civilising force (and that marriage was a vital social protection for women given the mores of the time), and thus wanted her girls and young women to be eligible for marriage to respectable hardworking men through the acquisition of skills valuable in businesses and farms. Finding husbands for her proteges was emphasised in her programs in both Madras and Sydney, and her later championing of the free emigration of left-behind families to reunite with male convicts and settlers (and the emigration of whole families with proper preparation for what they would find in the colony) was part of the same belief that only a society of families could create a civilised country. In view of her fierce commitment and advocacy of family life, it is ironic that Chisholm was often criticised that her dedication to her philanthropic work must have meant that she was neglecting her own children, apparently based on nothing more than the premise that if she wasn’t personally supervising them all day every day then this was ipso facto neglect. Pah.

She was also very aware that it was harder for married men with families to find work and feed everyone than for the single men who immigrated, so she also helped such families find work and ideally land outside Sydney so that they could rise above poverty. This was not popular with many of the landed gentry of the squattocracy, who wanted workers but definitely did not want small landholders cluttering up their acres for grazing.

Chisholm has rather gone out of fashion in recent decades. As mentioned above, for some decades Chisholm featured on the Australian $5 note, but she was bumped to make way for the Queen’s image when the $5 note became our lowest denomination of note currency (apparently the monarch’s face on the lowest denomination note is a matter of tradition) – so there are no longer oodles of kids asking “who’s this lady then?”. The White Hat profile referenced above offers some reasons that include a rather glib assessment that a “victim mentality” approach to social work doesn’t sit well with Chisholm’s emphasis on individual hard work, although there is mention that her tough approach could also be seen as lacking compassion.

I suspect that some of her other views are more to do with Chisholm’s lowered public profile – especially her view that small farmers were the best way to ensure Australia’s social stability and economic prosperity, a view that our corporate monoculture agri-industrial conglomerates definitely do not share today any more than did the squattocracy then. An examination of various rural towns dwindling as their young people move away to find work since the conglomerates aggregated acreages and “rationalised” the workforce certainly supports her belief regarding social stability, and the jury is still out on the long term sustainability of the prosperity generated by huge farming conglomerates. She was also intensely religious, literally with the faith of the converted, as she joined the Roman Catholic church upon her marriage: in a secular society such strong religious precepts can make people uncomfortable.

But there is to my mind a deeper reason that ties into the rise of social conservatism since the 1980s: Chisholm’s view of family was not that of the nuclear family with a male breadwinner beloved of modern “social conservatives”, but one of men and women in extended families working together to sustain themselves and improve their communities. Women sharing childcare responsibilities in groups so that they could go out to perform other work that would generate extra income or tangible benefit for their households was exactly what she meant by civilisation. In Madras she encouraged local women to bring their young children to the girls’ school so that her students could learn mothercraft while the mothers could have time for other things during the day – the first documented creche. The idea that civilisation consisted of women utterly financially dependent on their menfolk Chisholm would have laughed to scorn, having seen exactly the squalor and desperation that such a world-view created for women who lacked men to provide for them. Women having access to the opportunities and resources to ensure their own financial security is exactly what she advocated, and that’s why she’s out of fashion in our allegedly “postfeminist” society.



Categories: education, ethics & philosophy, history, social justice, work and family

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6 replies

  1. very interesting & educational 😀

  2. thanks for this. Do you have any specific references for the bit about the young immigrant underclass? It’s not really a surprise of course (and probably wasn’t to them either), but a source would be useful.
    ‘modern “social conservatives”’ may prefer a single male breadwinner, but real social conservatives would prefer a small land-owning family farm where bread winning and family support are not only shared, they are hard to distinguish. Sadly, while the jury might be out on the mega-agri-industrials, it seems to be well and truly closing on the alternatives: they cannot compete financially. And clearly, that is the only criteria that matters.

  3. Oz Ozzie:

    Do you have any specific references for the bit about the young immigrant underclass?

    From the Oz Govt website already linked in the article above:

    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.
    and after Chisholm set up her hostel:
    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.

    Oz Ozzie:

    It’s not really a surprise of course (and probably wasn’t to them either), but a source would be useful.

    To which “them” do you surmise it was probably not a surprise? The colonial recruiters who paid these “unprotected” women a bounty to come to Australia to become wives, or to the young women themselves? I think if I had been actively recruited to come to a new country where men needed wives, I might have expected some sort of agency to meet me at the docks to take me to dormitory accommodation of some sort and preside over some sort of social function where I and my fellow bounty immigrant girls would meet these men who needed wives. Seeing as how the whole point was supposed to be moving “unprotected” girls into the “protected” state of matrimony and all.

  4. Oz Ozzie:

    Sadly, while the jury might be out on the mega-agri-industrials, it seems to be well and truly closing on the alternatives: they cannot compete financially. And clearly, that is the only criteria that matters.

    Yes, social stability has come a distant second to profits in the policy arena over the last few decades. It’s one consequence of overpopulation – a classic supply/demand curve where an abundance of potential workers means that workers as a whole are valued less highly and their concerns are not considered, because they can be easily replaced.

  5. Wow, a lot of things I didn’t know about Caroline Chisholm. A fascinating read.

  6. Agree that the disaorganisation would be a surprise, though given how generally disorganised things were back then, and that it was a government operation, not that much of a surprise. But certainly a very unpleasant one. Agree that social stability comes a distant second to profits. This is bad, of course, but I cannot identify any society bigger than a tribe where this has not been true anywhere in history. Happy to be enlightened of course. And thanks for repeating he link for me.

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