Dr Catherine Bishop is an Honorary Associate of the History faculty at the University of Sydney and also the Author of Minding Her Own Business – Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney which won the Ashurst Business Literature Prize in March 2017. There are few memorials to colonial businesswomen, but
Catherine Bishop’s research and conclusions in her work brings the stories of these entrepreneurial women to life, with fascinating details of their successes and failures, their determination and wilfulness, their achievements, their tragedies and the occasional juicy scandal. To discuss her work on colonial business women, Catherine Bishop addressed The Sydney Institute on Wednesday 20 June 2018
A SILENT FORCE: COLONIAL BUSINESSWOMEN OF SYDNEY
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak here today. It is actually something of a surreal experience to be speaking here at the Sydney Institute today – I will explain why at the end. I would first like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and pay my respects to elders past and present, and to any Indigenous people here today.
Today when we talk about businesswomen in Australia we tend to see them as a late twentieth century phenomenon – part of the success of second wave feminism. Before that, it is felt, women were generally homemakers. In the 1950s the common image is that of a smiling, lipsticked, carefully coiffed housewife with her charming children in her bright kitchen with its shiny new Kelvinator fridge, in a suburban house. Hubby would be seen waving cheerily from his car as he went off to work on weekdays and outside mowing the lawn or washing the car on the weekend. Traditionally, it seems, a woman’s place was in the home, and had been since at least the nineteenth century, when the ideal of female domesticity was at its height.
Traditionally, it seems, a woman’s place was in the home, and had been since at least the nineteenth century, when the ideal of female domesticity was at its height.
What I want to do today is to blow that idea out of the water – to show that women have been active in the economic world as businesswomen at least since the colonisation of Australia. Why is this important? Why should you care in 2018? For two main reasons. First: because it changes the way we think of women’s roles in the making of Australia – legitimising even more firmly women’s place as economic actors and leaders – and ensuring that the idea that a woman’s place was ever just in the home can never again be taken seriously. Second: it refocuses our attention on the importance of small business. Most (although not all) of the women I talk about were running small enterprises – Gina Rhinehart or even Mary Reiby these women were not. Today there is a lot of rhetoric buzzing around about the significance of small business as if it is a new thing – but if you looked at nineteenth century Sydney the majority of enterprises, whether run by men or women or both, were small. Individually they might appear unimportant but taken together they were the lifeblood of the city.
if you looked at nineteenth century Sydney the majority of enterprises, whether run by men or women or both, were small. Individually they might appear unimportant but taken together they were the lifeblood of the city
A couple of years ago I took a “virtual” walk up Pitt Street in 1858 uncovering numbers of businesswomen – about one quarter of the buildings could be linked to businesswomen, to women as independent tenants or to women as property owners. You can find this on the Dictionary of Sydney website. Today we will consider another street, to listen for the voices of women in business.
If you walked up George Street, one of the main streets in Sydney in the 1860s, you might have heard the polite murmurings of the ladies stepping out of their carriages on their way to purchase a new bonnet at Madame Ponders, a dress from Mary Firman, or to inspect the new range of baby linen at Mrs May’s baby linen warehouse, as they paused to breathe in the delicious smells coming from pastry cook Catherine Meredith’s house, or were tempted by the confectionary products made by the Venter sisters. You might have heard Elizabeth Love calling “time please” at the Kangaroo Inn on the corner of Bathurst Street; Catherine Buckley loudly evicting a lodger late with his rent; or Mary Bell hallo-ing to passers-by as she swept the front step of her grocery shop. Dealer Harriett Spiers might have been noisily shooing children away from her doorstep, while Sarah Stoney welcomed them into her toy warehouse (at least those accompanied by purse-carrying parents).
Further down the street, her competitor in the toy bazaar business, Mrs Robberds, would have been similarly welcoming. Eliza Hanslow would have been speaking more softly perhaps, comforting a bereaved family at her undertaking business. Elizabeth Coates would have been supervising the delivery of goods to her glass and china warehouse, reminding the suppliers in no uncertain terms that she would not be paying for any breakages, oh no. You might also have heard widowed Sarah Adnum consulting with her sons at her ironmongery business. Her husband had left his tools to his sons but he left the business to his wife. There was no doubt who was in charge. You also might have spotted Mrs Hughes escaping from her lodging house and popping down to get her daily tipple from Elizabeth Capper at the Prince of Wales Hotel.
Elizabeth Coates would have been supervising the delivery of goods to her glass and china warehouse, reminding the suppliers in no uncertain terms that she would not be paying for any breakages, oh no.
Mrs Julia Ellis was always to be heard – perhaps abusing a local publican or, on one occasion, shouting angrily and chasing after Mary Hurley who had brazenly made off with four pairs of shoes from outside Julia’s boot and shoe shop. (Law-abiding folk will be pleased to know that Mary was caught, tried and sentenced to three months’ hard labour.) Alice Holliday would probably have been buying fresh Hobart apples to make an apple pie to serve in her restaurant from her neighbour Miss Leslie, who sold fruit vegetables and seeds. You might have heard Mary Davis haggling with a customer over the price of beans at her greengrocers’ store and, hoping her customers didn’t head to the markets further down the street, where the sound of several female voices loudly advertising their wares could invariably be heard; Anne Venels with her tripe, Mrs Bird selling fruit and Mrs Warren seeds. These would be punctuated by the odd dispute – like when fruiter Selina Preston hurled a chair as well as some unladylike language at the neighbouring stall holder, also a fruiterer – Mary Ann, Mrs Hector Martin, who also happened to be Selina’s daughter.
These would be punctuated by the odd dispute – like when fruiter Selina Preston hurled a chair as well as some unladylike language at the neighbouring stall holder, also a fruiterer
And this is just in George Street.
It would, in fact, have been difficult to avoid seeing or hearing a businesswoman in any 1860s Sydney streets. And this is just businesswomen. There were also the sounds of the women they employed – the barmaids, apprentice dressmakers and shop girls, whose chattering voices would have drifted out of windows and doors during the day, replaced in the evening with the rowdy partying of the madams, girls and their eager clients in the various houses of disrepute. Hardly silent then, were the businesswomen of Sydney but many of them were indeed a force to be reckoned with. And I estimate that around 15-20 percent of Sydney’s businesses in the mid nineteenth century were being run by women – either alone or in partnership with husbands, family members or other women.
Hardly silent then, were the businesswomen of Sydney but many of them were indeed a force to be reckoned with.
It is odd then, that when we think of colonial women a hundred years earlier it is of women as wives and mothers – as you can see in these memorials, a child is an essential accessory – motherhood reigns supreme. We tend to think of crinolines and cups of tea, of domesticity in drawing rooms and kitchens, and of children, appearing every 18 months to 2 years for a period of 20 or 30 years. This is reinforced when you read much of the history that has been written. And it is true that most women in nineteenth-century Sydney married and had oodles of children; and many led lives that were essentially domestic – their contribution – and a valuable contribution it was – to colonial society – was to bear and rear children, care for the home manage household budgets and provide the civilised niceties of life.
But many of these useful wives were also in business. This was, after all, a time when homes and businesses were co-located. Childcare could be combined with a business. There are no memorials to businesswomen in Sydney – the sole exception would be the face gracing the $20 note – Mary Reiby, who was exceptional, I would argue, not because she was a woman in business, but because she was extraordinarily successful and rich – unusual for men or women. There are memorials to businessmen, partly because they often translated their business success into political power – a path unavailable to women, or because these businessmen funded and designed buildings or engineered railways – men’s work leaving a much more permanent physical imprint on the city than women’s work.
There are memorials to businessmen, partly because they often translated their business success into political power – a path unavailable to women, or because these businessmen funded and designed buildings or engineered railways
Letters and diaries from the time also provide a picture of domesticated female life. This is arguably because of the nature of the surviving collections – they are primarily the letters and diaries of men and of upper middle-class women, whose families (or husbands) were considered important enough for their family records to be preserved. They mention women pretty much not at all in the case of men, and as servants or well-married daughters, in the case of women. There were the occasional exceptions; Blanche Mitchell, daughter of Surveyor Thomas Mitchell wrote in her diary of having dance lessons with Mrs Acutt and German lessons with Mrs Logan; and she was forever ordering bonnets to be retrimmed by Madame Ponder.
So, I was excited when I found the diary of Phebe Hayman, a woman I knew to be in business because I had seen advertisements for her millinery business in the newspaper. But her diary mentioned her business not once – so that her descendent who had the diary did not actually know that Phebe Hayman had been in business. It is therefore not surprising that businesswomen have slipped out of the historical memory – have been silenced.
But when you start looking properly at the records, with the advantages offered by the digital archive, you suddenly start seeing women in business. My search has been like doing a big jigsaw puzzle – using lots of “traditional” paper archives as well. So, I have looked at trade directories, court and insolvency records, letters and diaries and also newspapers. One of the principal sources, however, – and probably the most valuable tool – was the National Library’s Trove website. Many of you may be familiar with it, as well as with its need for ongoing government support. Here they have digitised newspapers from around the country. What does this mean? It means that you can search all these newspapers across time by keyword.
when you start looking properly at the records, with the advantages offered by the digital archive, you suddenly start seeing women in business
You can trace people across decades, and from place to place, to an extent that you could not before. With this resource here is the potential to discover a different picture of the past than the one that we have. Businesswomen spilling over into Sydney’s streets are just one example. To find them you have to critically examine the records – because often the women are hidden behind men, or behind non-gender specific listings in trade directories. Thus “Doak and Kerr”, dressmakers, in the trade directory, after searching through Trove, turned out to be sisters Margaret Doak and Rebecca Kerr, whose long lived business lasted from the 1830s in Londonderry, Ireland, through emigration to Sydney in the 1840s, and passed down to Margaret’s widowed daughter Minnie, who restyled herself “Madame Beattie” in the 1870s, included Bessie Rouse of Rouse Hill estate amongst her customers and remained in business until into the twentieth century.
Looking in the newspapers for advertisements from “William Robson”, who was listed in the 1858 trade directory as a milliner in Pitt Street was also illuminating. He carefully advertised that the millinery will be carried on as usual by Mrs Robson “late Miss Rossiter”. William had married well. We often think of women marrying men as a career move or for financial security in this period, but men did too. William was a storeman in a drapery shop in unfashionable South Head Road before marrying Mary Ann Rossiter, who had been running her millinery business in busy Pitt Street since her arrival as a single woman immigrant. William not only gained a business minded wife but also a business and upmarket address, for under the law of coverture, a wife’s property and profits legally belonged to her husband.
He carefully advertised that the millinery will be carried on as usual by Mrs Robson “late Miss Rossiter”. William had married well.
The listing for William Robson milliner in the trade directory was legally correct… he DID own the business. But Mary Ann was just one of many wives who were the real businesswomen behind the name on the door. And even though legally they could not make contracts or chase creditors or run up debts, or appear in court without their husbands, they nevertheless ran businesses. Sometimes, like William Robson, their husbands were partners or supportive, but trouble arose if a husband was problematic or absent – if he went into debt then his creditors could turn up and take the profits of his wife’s business, and if he was absent then she couldn’t go into court and chase her debtors.
if he went into debt then his creditors could turn up and take the profits of his wife’s business, and if he was absent then she couldn’t go into court and chase her debtors
And as we saw in the array of businesswomen in George Street, women were not only milliners and dressmakers. Elizabeth Gold inherited her husband’s plumbing business and did well enough to win City of Sydney contracts in the 1830s; Mary Sylvester ran a salt manufactory; and there were also butchers and bakers and confectionery makers. And while we might assume that Elizabeth Gold managed the business rather than laying pipes herself, we have to be careful about making assumptions. Ada Tost and Jane Rohu were taxidermists, a mother and daughter team who most certainly were practitioners. And then we have the delicious example of Ritta Macnamara. It was her husband’s name above the butcher’s shop door, but it was not Henry that raconteur Randall Bedford remembered when he visited the store as a small boy in the 1860s. It was Mrs Macnamara behind the counter, “handling the meat axe and saw as if they were toys” and boasting of “doing six bodies a week”. This give quite a different model of nineteenth century femininity from the drawing room ladies of the middle classes, but one that was equally respectable, as far as most of Sydney’s population was concerned.
For a woman could be “respectable in her business”, particularly if she was successful. The significant exception to this respectability perhaps were the brothel keepers, who were not listed in any trade directory. They were disguised as boardinghouse keepers, or coffee house proprietors or tobacconists, and sometimes hoteliers. Several gentlemen writing to the newspaper at the turn of the twentieth century about the halcyon days of their youth in 1860s Sydney recalled Polly Smith’s gambling den and “bower of beauties” at the Prince Imperial Hotel. A visit to Polly’s seems to have been a rite of passage for one young man at least, although perhaps he just had his first beer there.
a woman could be “respectable in her business”, particularly if she was successful. The significant exception to this respectability perhaps were the brothel keepers, who were not listed in any trade directory
In her speech at the Ashurst Business Literature Prize presentation last year, Commonwealth Bank chair Catherine Livingstone remarked upon the importance and effectiveness of storytelling as a means of persuasive argument and effective teaching and training. These stories provide context, she said, to allow the human brain to make sense of the lesson or facts being presented. “The value of business literature which tells a story drawn from history is inestimable,” she concluded.
Aside from providing entrepreneurial lessons, the stories I have found also have another purpose. By telling and retelling the multitude of stories about the businesswomen of nineteenth century Sydney we can change the way we think about where women belong in business today. Really? You may be skeptical. How can the 150-year-old stories of laundresses, brothelkeepers, dressmakers, publicans and the odd female undertaker and ginger beer manufacturer affect the future of women in Australian small business? It is all about challenging and changing assumptions.
How can the 150-year-old stories of laundresses, brothelkeepers, dressmakers, publicans and the odd female undertaker and ginger beer manufacturer affect the future of women in Australian small business? It is all about challenging and changing assumptions.
If our attitudes today are grounded in the understanding that “in the past a woman’s place was in the home”, that women are “naturally less risk-taking”, that they are “civilising agents” of society, more soft-hearted, gentler creatures than power-hungry, hard-hitting, testosterone-fuelled men, then that makes women in business seem like oddities at worst and as a late-twentieth/early twenty-first century phenomenon “breaking out of their real sphere” at best. If, instead, we have an image of women’s traditional role as being equally responsible for the economic survival of the family – what has been termed by some economic historians as the “two-provider” model – of women as being partners in and proprietors of small businesses, contributing to the economic development of Australian towns, cities and the rural hinterland, as business-minded as men, then it alters the ground on which businesswomen today sit. It provides a context of continuous entrepreneurial activity and involvement.
There is a Facebook page I follow called “Man Who Has It All”. Essentially, what they do is to take phrases and remarks that are frequently applied to or said by women and instead make them about or by men. These remarks are thus rendered ridiculous, as you can see from the examples on the screen. The point here is the same as mine – to expose and challenge our underlying assumptions about women and men and their appropriate roles in Australian (and, more broadly Western) society.
But apart from trying to change the world, my book is also about telling good stories about interesting people for whom life was in some ways similar and in other ways different from our lives today. And it is very much located in Sydney’s streets. I can guarantee that if you read my book you will never look at the city in quite the same way. When you are in the Rocks, instead of John Cadman, wharfinger of Cadman’s cottage, you will remember his wife, Elizabeth, perhaps the first woman to vote in a local election in Australia – she did so in 1859. While you are drinking a pint at the Arthouse Hotel in Pitt Street, formerly the School of Arts, you might spare a thought for businesswoman Caroline Dexter renowned for wearing bloomers, or Cora Anna Weekes, con-woman extraordinaire, both of whom spoke there in the 1850s. Opposite the State Library in Macquarie Street, Horbury House was once home to Miss Frances White and the appropriately named Mrs Cherry, boarding house keepers. And if you are in the Blue Mountains, pay a visit to the Hydro Majestic in Medlow Bath, and rather than thinking of the well-known Mark Foy and his exploits, you might think about the two women who ran the Belgravia Hotel before Foy transformed it in the 1900s. I gave a paper about them recently that I called “Blackmail, Bonking and Bigamy: The Scandalous Pre-History of the Hydro-Majestic”, which gives you the general idea.
I can guarantee that if you read my book you will never look at the city in quite the same way. When you are in the Rocks, instead of John Cadman, wharfinger of Cadman’s cottage, you will remember his wife, Elizabeth, perhaps the first woman to vote in a local election in Australia
And, when you are in Pitt Street Mall glance upwards and admire the 1890s façade of E Way and Co. If you read the plaque it will tell you about the architect, John Sulman, and the business, Ebenezer Way’s department store, which lasted nearly 100 years from the 1860s. But it will not tell you about the real founder of the business – Mrs Emily Way, who started the business in 1864 and continued to play a part in it until the 1880s. While you are there, tap a stranger on the shoulder and tell them about Emily Way, one of silenced but by no means silent force of colonial businesswomen who helped shape the city of Sydney.
I want to leave the nineteenth century and bring you back to the present with two last thoughts – an appeal and an acknowledgement. First, the appeal – I am currently applying for funding to continue my research into the twentieth century, so I would love to hear from anyone who has a mother, or grandmother or aunt or perhaps they themselves ran a business between 1880 and 1980.
I am currently applying for funding to continue my research into the twentieth century, so I would love to hear from anyone who has a mother, or grandmother or aunt or perhaps they themselves ran a business between 1880 and 1980.
Second, I said at the beginning that it was surreal to be speaking here. I first heard about The Sydney Institute nearly 20 years ago. When I arrived in Wahroonga with two small children looking for a part-time job, I went to the local bookshop, Books Etcetera, where Janet Grundy took me on. Being able to escape nappies and toddlers for two days a week and be immersed in the world of books and adults saved me. And, even then, Janet was always throwing boxes of books in the back of her car and racing off to somewhere called The Sydney Institute to sell books. Twenty years later she is still selling books here, although sadly not today for she is ill. But I want to acknowledge and applaud a woman who is a fabulous example of the not-so-silent force of businesswomen in twenty-first century Sydney – Janet Grundy.