Chisholm, Caroline (1808–1877)

views updated

Chisholm, Caroline (1808–1877)

British-born philanthropist, known as "The Emigrant's Friend," who is famous throughout the world as a result of her selfless devotion to the welfare of Australia's early settlers. Pronunciation: CHIS-um. Born Caroline Jones on May 10, 1808, in Wootton, near Northampton, England; died in London on March 25, 1877; daughter of William (a yeoman farmer) and Sarah Jones; married Archibald Chisholm (captain in the forces of the East India Company), December 27, 1830; children: Archibald (b. 1836); William (b. 1837); Henry (b. 1839); Sydney (b. 1846); Caroline (b. 1848); Monica (b. 1851).

Traveled to India to join her husband (1832); founded The Female School of Industry for the Daughters of European Soldiers in Madras; traveled to Australia (March 1838); established the Female Immigrants Home in Sydney (1841); formed branches to settle immigrants throughout New South Wales (1842); prosecuted the captain of the ship Carthaginian (1842); gave evidence to New South Wales Legislative Council's Select Committee on Immigration (1845); sailed for England (1846); lobbied the Colonial Office on behalf of emigrants; gave evidence before House of Lords committees on the Execution of the Criminal Law and Colonization from Ireland (1847); established the Family Colonization Loan Society (1849); traveled to Melbourne, Australia (1854); established Shelter Sheds for immigrants on the routes to the Victorian goldfields (1854); fell ill with a kidney disease and moved to Sydney NSW (1857); founded her Educational Establishment for Young Ladies in Sydney (1862); returned to England (1866); bedridden until her death (1871–77).

Other than the queen of England, only one woman has ever been featured on Australia's bank notes. Such is the standing of Caroline Chisholm that, when a new plastic $5 note was issued in Australia, there was a huge public outcry that her image would no longer appear. In a time when women were strictly confined to the home and purely ornamental roles, Chisholm made a place for herself in public affairs and the early history of Australia.

She was known as "The Emigrant's Friend," and, though she never held any official positions, she was a self-appointed advocate of immigrants arriving in the then fledgling colony. Chisholm was so charismatic and of such moral and intellectual stature that she managed to break through the barriers that otherwise prevented women from influencing government and social policy. Her main concern was always the welfare of the poor and downtrodden of both the new colony and the mother country, England. She was so determined to help them that she thought nothing of transgressing gender roles of the time.

During her childhood, as a yeoman farmer's daughter in Northamptonshire, England, Chisholm's charitable instincts were grounded in the neighborliness of her parents. Her father often brought home people down on their luck. Since she grew up during the Napoleonic Wars, there were many poor widows and wounded soldiers roaming the countryside. "My first attempt at colonization was carried on in a wash hand basin, before I was seven years old," Chisholm wrote years later. "I made boats of broad beans; expended all my money in touchwood dolls; removed families, located them in the bed quilt, and sent boats filled with wheat (of which I kept a store in the thimble case) back to their friends."

Her love of humanity was so strong that she gave her best to all who asked her help no matter to what class or creed they belonged.

—Margaret Kiddle

When she was only six years old, her father died. The large number of people at his funeral praised his benevolence and readiness to support the poor and weak. In the postwar years, there was even greater poverty, and, though a widow herself, her mother often sent Caroline out with baskets of food for the old, poor, and sick of the district. Together with some cousins, young Chisholm was educated by a governess. She excelled at arithmetic, a skill much used in her later life, when she made meticulous calculations of costs for her migrant shelters, ships, and the economics of migration schemes.

An extremely intelligent young woman, she was bored by the male suitors she encountered until she met Lieutenant Archibald Chisholm, a Scot on leave from army service in India. When Archy soon asked for her hand in marriage, Caroline hesitated, concerned that her unconventional ways and strong "calling" to help the needy might hinder his career in the army. He replied, "I will help you always," and, true to his word, supported his wife throughout her life, contributing money, time, and effort. When posted abroad in army service, he agreed to live apart so that she would not have to leave her work. Archy seemed content to stand in her shadow, while working for her on the many projects she initiated.

Since Archy was a Catholic, Caroline converted to Catholicism in order to marry in his church. This was to have major implications in later years when her work was often challenged by Protestant fanatics. When she cared for and promoted immigration for the Irish who were among the poorest of the poor, especially at the time of the famine, they accused her of being a tool of the papists. Caroline Chisholm, however, served all comers with equal zeal no matter what their religious persuasions and won many accolades for her lack of a partisan approach in a time when this was extremely rare.

Following their marriage, the couple lived in Brighton for two years; then Archy was called back to service in India. She followed him there after a few months and lived in Madras for over six years. The role of an officer's wife was one of superficial socializing, but Chisholm soon found a more worthwhile occupation. Having noticed that the children of the common soldier, especially the young girls, lived neglected and aimless lives with the prospect of early degradation all too prevalent, she decided to open a school for them. At first, she requested and was given use of a room in the barracks within the fort. When this proved impractical, she persuaded the newly promoted Captain Archibald Chisholm to move out of the privileged environment of the fort and into a poor area where she secured use of a large building on the waterfront. Impressed by her sincerity and skill, officers contributed financial support for her Female School of Industry for the Daughters of European Soldiers. Caroline Chisholm was no naive bleeding heart. Her endeavors were characterized by a shrewd assessment of human nature and strict rules, coupled with kindness and attention to the needs of her charges. The girls were trained in the three Rs, as well as domestic management.

Chisholm gave birth to two sons during her time in India. At the end of seven years service, Captain Chisholm was again due for extended leave, and they decided to explore Australia, or New Holland as it was known then, hoping it might offer a better future for their sons than

Britain. The school that Caroline had set up continued after her departure.

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, free immigration slowly began to transform Australia from a reputedly desolate penal colony to a thriving, prospering, proud member of the British Empire. Sydney stretched at its seams, bustling with activity and opportunity. Initially, all immigration had been unassisted, but in 1831 the Home government had instituted a system of assisted immigration. This new step was taken because the majority of the free immigrants had been single men, and since the transported convicts were predominantly male as well, a poor male-female ratio existed in the colony. The disparity between the sexes was, according to some, "causing grave moral evils," and assisted immigration, it was hoped, would provide a balance between the sexes and encourage civilized conduct in this less than civilized outpost of the Empire. The British government, however, emptied the slums, tenements, orphanages and asylums of England, and by 1835 this system was suffering severe criticism. A program of bounties was instituted, by which agents of Australian settlers in England would offer bounties to qualified immigrants. Gradually, bounties were handed out by shipping companies and shipowners. These shipowners were granted bounty permits in their name, with no mention of specific immigrants, by the governor of Australia. Spotting an opportunity for immense profit, shipowners packed as many immigrants as possible on their ships, without regard for their suitability or comfort. Regardless of the obvious corruption of this system, the settlers were contented with these new immigrants.

One of the main flaws associated with assisted immigration and the bounties was the lack of provision for immigrants after disembarkation. Whereas in 1838, when Chisholm arrived in Australia, less than 7,000 immigrants entered the country, by 1841, a surge in immigration swelled the number of newcomers to over 20,000. Even in the best of times, such a number would have overwhelmed the system. In the depressionary times of the early 1840s, the effects were disastrous. Immigrants—largely taken from large urban centers in England, Scotland, and Ireland—preferred starvation in Sydney to an uncertain future in the bush. Although a demand existed in the interior for labor, these immigrants were unwilling, without assistance, to venture far from Sydney's familiar trappings.

Within a few days of arriving in Australia, the Chisholms took a house outside Sydney on the Hawkesbury River where they settled down happily in an idyllic rural environment. During visits to the city, Caroline was soon aware of the plight of the poor immigrants, many of whom were unable to find work on their arrival. Young female immigrants, homeless and friendless, became easy prey for those men prone to ruthlessness. The assumption at the time was that the women were naturally immoral. Chisholm, who could see that they were victims who had been heartlessly treated, began to shelter the girls in her own home while training them for a new start. She also used her connections to find them jobs.

Early in 1840, Archy left to return to his post in India. Shortly after, Caroline visited those camped near the disused government Immigration Barracks and witnessed a married "gentleman" seducing a homeless waif. There and then, she resolved to devote "all my leisure time in endeavouring to serve these poor girls, and felt determined, with God's blessing, never to rest until decent protection was afforded them." She worked to secure an interview with Sir George Gipps, the governor of the colony, requesting access to the Immigration Barracks. Gipps, shocked at her temerity, refused. Undaunted, Chisholm collected detailed information and became an expert on the employment needs of the colony and situation of immigrants. In 1842, she authored Female Immigration Considered in a Brief Account of the Sydney Immigrants Home, the first book published in Australia by a woman. Because her work received a great deal of publicity, Gipps finally had to give in; she soon had the barracks furnished and was sheltering her flock.

Intent on providing comfort and protection in the short term and gainful employment in the long, Chisholm boarded arriving ships to collect girls before the madams and hucksters wooed them away. Also, possibly protected by her fame as a selfless benefactor, she often walked into the rough Rocks area where no unaccompanied woman other than herself dared go. "She cast aside all fear and even ventured there at night," wrote biographer Mary Hoban . "She was a well-known figure now in all parts of Sydney, and if a girl wanted protection, she had only to join the black-clad lady and walk away with her."

Chisholm periodically led parties of female immigrants on expeditions into the bush. She not only escorted them but stilled their fears of the wilderness and rode ahead to secure a camp or lodging for the night. On the journey, she would approach settlers for offers of safe employment and would invariably find positions for her charges. The settlers were grateful for her efforts in supplying much needed helpers. Often men in need of work, and their families, joined her parties. Because of Chisholm's reputation and moral authority, employers tended to trust the women she recommended, while the women tried to live up to Chisholm's expectations. Many would invoke her name as protection from exploitation. In the relatively lawless and rough interior, "I'll tell Mrs. Chisholm" served as a shield.

Over the years, she made many expeditions into the bush and established regional Female Immigrant Homes. Wherever she went people offered her free accommodation, often supplying her entire expedition with food and horses. When traveling by ship along the coast (a common mode of conveyance in the days before made roads), she was given free passage for herself and her charges. In one famous incident, Chisholm tackled the appalling conditions on the emigrant transport ships. After hearing of a particularly shocking incident on the Carthaginian, she sued the captain. Though it was unheard of for a woman to take a captain to court, she won the case, causing other captains to improve conditions.

Eventually, a financial depression and inflated land prices slowed the arrival of new immigrants. Chisholm closed down her Female Immigrant's Home and returned to her house on the Hawkesbury. Those who needed her still came to ask for help, and many of her female immigrants came to introduce their new husbands. They usually brought a piece of their wedding cake—hence the subtitle of one of her biographies, Fifty-One Pieces of Wedding Cake. But Chisholm continued to agitate on the subject of immigration and employment in the colony. She wrote articles, letters, and pamphlets to espouse her ideas, which were often ignored or opposed. Determined, she took her concerns to higher powers. When she audaciously wrote to Lord Stanley, the English colonial secretary, she began by saying: "The novelty of receiving a letter from a lady, regarding Immigration to this colony, will, I feel assured, ensure my letter a reading…. It is perhaps as well I tell you at the commencement that I am neither a visionary or an enthusiast, I am a practical worker of my own plans." Though she was an enthusiast who envisaged many novel plans, her practicality and the extensive research and factual knowledge with which she backed her ideas won respect. She was heard in forums where women had not before appeared. Over the years, she was called to give evidence to a number of government enquiries both in Australia and England.

Caroline Chisholm was deeply religious and had a strong commitment to women's traditional roles, despite her own activities, which were nonetheless an expression of woman's role as nurturer. She just extended her concept of family to everyone who needed her. Her work for Australia was based on creating and reuniting families and settling them on land of their own. The wisdom of some of her policies have been questioned because small holdings are not viable on the arid soils of Australia. Though she may have made mistakes, she never stinted in her efforts for the lower classes and was often the lone voice representing them in government and society.

She campaigned to find ways to transport family members to Australia that had been left behind by the emancipists (released convicts) and emigrants who could not afford ship's passage for all their children. The better to pursue this task, she decided to go to England and encourage the poor there to migrate to the "lucky country" where their standard of living could be greatly improved. Before she left, she conducted a detailed survey of successful small farm settlers in New South Wales.

In 1845, Captain Chisholm retired from the army and returned to Australia. The following April, determined to take her fight directly to the British, Caroline and her family sailed for England armed with a bundle of Voluntary Statements and countless letters and small amounts of money for relatives throughout the British Isles. During her six years in Australia, Caroline Chisholm had settled 11,000 people. Amazingly, to all of these, she gave some degree of personal attention.

As soon as she arrived in England, she found her fame preceded her. People gathered to see her, while letters arrived sometimes addressed only to "Mrs. Chisholm, The Emigrant's Friend, London." Determined to set up a system for national emigration to Australia, she approached the Colonial Office, and, though she had, as the Illustrated London News reported in 1877, "neither rank nor influence and an income scarcely amounting to a competency," she was heard. Chisholm persuaded them to send a shipload of children to Australia, to be reunited with their parents.

All the same, her wider ambitions were often blocked by the slow wheels of bureaucracy and the interests of the Australian squatters who were the upper class of the new colony and wanted to maintain a monopoly on land. They had far more influence in the halls of British Parliament than she did. Resolved to provide a means of escape for the paupers suffering in the newly industrialized wastelands of England, she decided to set up her own emigration system. Traveling the length and breadth of England, she visited relatives of those she'd helped in New South Wales (NSW) and expounded on the virtues of emigrating to Australia. In 1849, she raised the initial capital to establish the Family Colonization Loan Society, which loaned money to families to be repaid after their successful settlement in Australia.

To ensure safe conditions, she personally oversaw the outfitting of ships for her emigrants. One benefactor built a ship for the Society, which was christened the Caroline Chisholm. Her energy and capacity for work was enormous. From 1846 to 1847, she processed 4,071 applications for emigration, and her house was constantly crowded with inquirers. Each day, she looked at an average of 140 letters, saw 30 to 40 hopefuls in the morning, went to the docks and gave directions for the fitting of her ships, went to town to transact business, and in the evening saw another 40 to 60 candidates. After 9:30 PM, she went to visit female immigrants boarded near her house to see them settled for the night. In between, she found time for her family. By the early 1850s, Caroline Chisholm was one of the most famous women in Britain.

In 1854, with the advent of the Crimean War, ships became scarce, and Chisholm decided to return to New South Wales. On arrival, she faced a new problem. With the discovery of gold near Melbourne, vast tracts of land were deemed off-limits by the local government. Her call for opening of the land, and the sale of tracts of land at an affordable price, initially fell on deaf ears. She set off to the goldfields to survey conditions and initiate the establishment of cheap hostels called Shelter Sheds on the roads. But the pace of Caroline Chisholm's efforts eventually caught up with her. In 1857, she fell ill with a kidney disease, was forced to leave this fight half-fought, and moved to Sydney for medical treatment. Though she continued some level of agitation for her concerns, she began to fade from view. Her work, for which she had always refused any government pay lest it compromise her, had impoverished the Chisholms, even though a number of testimonial sums were given her by the public. Archibald Chisholm's pension from the Honorable East India Company had all but dried up. In an effort to address her family's economic hardship, she opened an Educational Establishment For Young Ladies at Rathbone House, Newtown, Sydney, in 1862, which subsequently closed in 1864. Too ill to work, she asked a priest for a loan.

Then, in 1866, she and Archy returned to England so that one of their daughters might complete schooling. In 1871, until her death, Chisholm became bedridden. Though granted a government pension of £100 per annum, the family could only afford a dingy apartment, where Caroline spent her last years in pain and poverty until she died in her sleep on March 25, 1877, aged 69. Though somewhat neglected in her dying years, her fame as a great benefactor has lived on. Caroline Chisholm changed the course of Australia's history and helped ensure its future prosperity by successfully settling so many willing workers.


Hoban, Mary C. Fifty-One Pieces of Wedding Cake: A Biography of Caroline Chisholm. Lowden, 1973.

Kiddle, Margaret. Caroline Chisholm. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1957.


Kyneton Historical Society, Kyneton, Victoria, Australia; Latrobe Collection, State Library of Victoria, Australia; Mitchell Library, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia; National Library of Australia, Canberra; Northamptonshire Record Society, England; Royal Historical Society of Victoria, Australia.

Chris Sitka , freelance writer and researcher, Sydney, Australia

About this article

Chisholm, Caroline (1808–1877)

Updated About content Print Article