Caroline Chisholm was a take-no-prisoners game-changer of colonial Australia – as well as a charming, wholly committed, and utterly determined force of nature. Arriving in Australia in 1838, she was appalled by the plight of young female immigrants in Australia. With no government help, Chisholm established accommodation, services and the first employment office in the colony, along with contracts and minimum wages, jobs and homes; she created employment agencies in a dozen rural centres as well. Sarah Goldman is a journalist, initially working for newspapers in Sydney and London and later transferring to television with the BBC.  In Australia, Sarah has been a producer for both commercial and ABC television news in Sydney and Melbourne. Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force is Sarah’s first book. On Tuesday 6 February 2018, Sarah Goldman spoke about Caroline Chisholm at The Sydney Institute.

CAROLINE CHISHOLM – A GAME-CHANGER IN EARLY AUSTRALIA

SARAH GOLDMAN

Thank you, Gerard, it’s terrific to be here at The Sydney Institute – Good evening to everyone and thank you so much for asking me to talk about Caroline Chisholm.

So, Caroline Chisholm – who was she?

Her name is vaguely familiar to most of us – it’s permeated our consciousness in a variety of ways. There is a Federal Electorate in Melbourne named Chisholm, a suburb of Canberra, a hill in the NSW Southern Highlands, aged care homes, buildings, school houses, parks and streets, too numerous to mention.  And of course, she was once on our $5 note and our five-cent stamp.

There is a Federal Electorate in Melbourne named Chisholm, a suburb of Canberra, a hill in the NSW Southern Highlands, aged care homes, buildings, school houses, parks and streets, too numerous to mention.  And of course, she was once on our $5 note and our five-cent stamp.

But for all of that – most of us don’t really remember much about her. When I started to write this biography one friend said to me “Caroline Chisholm? Oh yes, I think she was headmistress of my daughter’s school.” Well she wasn’t. That is unless the daughter was at school in the 1800s, which seems highly unlikely.

It was that lack of knowledge by my own sons that initially started me investigating her – they had never heard of her – and to be honest, I didn’t know much about her either. We learn about so few influential women from our history, that I thought it important to interest them in at least one.

The more I discovered Caroline, the more I became fascinated with her story – in the end she was my constant companion for about six years

I researched the facts and evidence of Caroline’s life – what she did, how she did it and where she went – but primarily what drove me was finding the flesh and blood woman behind those stories.

In an effort to understand her, I considered, amongst other things, what it was like in the nineteenth century for a woman to give birth, to lose a child and to be separated from her husband for years at a time – particularly in Sydney when an attractive and eligible young lawyer, Thomas Callaghan, made her the centre of his attention.

In view of the attacks against her from the feminists of the 1970s, I was curious about her understanding of women’s role in society and also how she managed to balance life as a working mother.

In view of the attacks against her from the feminists of the 1970s, I was curious about her understanding of women’s role in society and also how she managed to balance life as a working mother.

I discovered a woman with a surprisingly modern approach to religion and ethnicity: a pragmatic, humane and humourous woman with immense self-confidence. Sometimes sarcastic, not always tactful, she was nonetheless a political reformer who believed essentially in the rights of women and that quintessential Australian maxim: A fair go for all.

There is so much that I could say about Caroline – but I’ve been given a time limit – so tonight I would like to focus on three major aspects of her life. The first being her very different attitudes from most other nineteenth century women, her work with poor immigrants and, what is probably least known, her social radicalism that, I believe, still resonates with us today.

Most females of Caroline’s era (unless you were the queen) were restrained legally, financially and socially. Husbands had the right to control their wives, children and all goods and money owned or earned by their women. Females were considered inferior emotionally and intellectually.

As one well-known author of the 1840s, Sarah Stickney Ellis, wrote in her book The Daughters of England: “As women, then, the first thing of importance is to be content to be inferior to men — inferior in mental power, in the same proportion that you are inferior in bodily strength.” And this was in her chapter advising women on their preparation for marriage!

What I found so compelling about Caroline was that she stood out as being on a different plane entirely. She didn’t fight those beliefs – she didn’t try to “shirtfront” anyone – she just ignored them with superb overarching confidence. On three continents, in India, Australia and Britain, she sought out the powerful men of government and bent them each to her will to make a better world for the disadvantaged.

She didn’t fight those beliefs – she didn’t try to “shirtfront” anyone – she just ignored them with superb overarching confidence.

There were early signs that Caroline was not conventional. Although there are doubts about her legitimacy, Caroline was definitely the daughter of William Jones, an illiterate man who started life as an itinerant agricultural day worker but ended up a wealthy member of the nascent middle-class. She was the youngest of his 16 children. Born in Northampton, an unremarkable English Midlands town, as a young woman she did what was expected of her – she married.

But Caroline was very careful in her choice. When Archibald Chisholm, a lieutenant in the East India Company, fell in love with her and proposed, she told him that she wanted to lead a public life, an idea almost unheard of for women in the 1800s. Caroline explained that she wanted to work at helping the less fortunate. She insisted that Archibald stay away from her for a month to consider the idea. Such a wife could have been difficult for a man seeking promotion in the East India Company. Thirty days later, Archibald returned saying that he accepted her terms. They were married just after Christmas in 1830 – she was 22 and he was 32.

She insisted that Archibald stay away from her for a month to consider the idea. Such a wife could have been difficult for a man seeking promotion in the East India Company.

Their marriage was to last forty-six years – in that time Caroline would become one of the most recognised women across the British Empire; there were public triumphs, and personal tragedies including sickness, death and poverty.

Archibald was an ordinary man; an adequate soldier, he’d had a classical education but knew little about practical finance, always struggling to make ends meet. But in all their years together, he never once shied away from the promise that he gave her that day – Archibald supported Caroline unconditionally. Unusually for the time, theirs was not a male-dominated marriage of man and wife, but a true partnership.

In all their years together, he never once shied away from the promise that he gave her that day – Archibald supported Caroline unconditionally. Unusually for the time, theirs was not a male-dominated marriage of man and wife, but a true partnership.

The first year of marriage, though, brought tragedy. Caroline had fallen pregnant almost immediately. But her baby, also named Caroline, died within three weeks of being born. With one exception, previous biographers have ignored that baby. Infant mortality was not unusual in the early-mid 1800s. In fact, it’s estimated that some 16 per cent of children died within the first two years at that time so it’s easy to give a metaphorical shrug. But how devastating it must have been for Caroline – a young devout woman, in love with her husband. That child was not just another statistic – she was Caroline’s daughter.

Her baby’s death helped Caroline find a purpose – she had always known that she wanted to help the underprivileged, but from that point she spent the rest of her life trying to save other women’s daughters, almost as though to make up for the loss of her own, giving poor girls and young women some choice in life apart from drudgery or prostitution just to survive. It would be almost two decades and four sons later before Caroline gave birth to another daughter.

She had always known that she wanted to help the underprivileged, but from that point she spent the rest of her life trying to save other women’s daughters, almost as though to make up for the loss of her own

Not long after the child’s death, Archibald returned to India – Caroline joined him about 18 months later. It was a wildly exotic location for a woman who had, until then, lived all her life in myopic rural seclusion. She was thrust into a brightly colourful world, nor was it just the heat that would have been challenging – she was also confronted with snake charmers, half naked local men and the indolent life of an English memsahib.

However, Caroline wasn’t about to sit back and spend hours gossiping over tea and cake. Near the start of her five years in India, she opened a vocational school for the needy daughters of the British foot soldiers in Madras, modern day Chennai. In doing so, she convinced the Governor of Madras, Battle of Waterloo hero Sir Frederick Adam, to support the project, giving her valuable experience in manipulating important people and honing her organisational abilities. During her five years in India, she also gave birth to two healthy boys

.In doing so, she convinced the Governor of Madras, Battle of Waterloo hero Sir Frederick Adam, to support the project, giving her valuable experience in manipulating important people and honing her organisational abilities.

I’ve included all this to give an idea of what life was like for women in those days.

In a world where mathematicians had devised calculus, scientists the telescope and engineers the steam engine, medicine in the first half of the nineteenth century, particularly when it referred to women, was evolving very slowly, often guided as much by folklore and pseudoscience as by genuine medical knowledge. British women in India were told not to suckle their own babies after the first few days because the climate did not suite their delicate constitutions. And one well-respected English army doctor even published a book on raising children in India, devoting at least two chapters to short-term breastfeeding. He suggested that if a woman suffered from lumps in her breast whilst breastfeeding then the nurse should suck the breast dry with “her own mouth”. Then he suggested that it should be rubbed with oil and brandy, after which up to two dozen leeches should be applied to the lump. To make certain that the treatment worked, the lump should be “fomented with hot water, so as to encourage the bleeding”. One suspects that the cure was much worse than the condition.

By 1838, Caroline was 30 – and Archibald was due another furlough – so the family of four headed for Sydney. Initially settling at Windsor, another child was born, a third boy, Henry, whose descendants still contribute mightily to Australian society today. Within 18 months of their arrival, Archibald was needed back in India to cover for officers sent to China at the start of the Opium Wars. Caroline stayed here with her three young sons.

Sydney in 1840 was an uneasy mix of beauty, opportunity and horror. Can you imagine what it would have been like sailing in through the heads on a bright Spring morning, almost no buildings all the way down the harbour until you reached Sydney Cove? The town itself had mixed reviews, there were reports of excellent shops in George Street and, this bit I like, lovely little cottages with gardens in Pitt Street … others were not so kind, describing Sydney as second class, dusty and dirty.

Sydney in 1840 was an uneasy mix of beauty, opportunity and horror.

What really mattered, though, was that the colony was on the verge of a humanitarian crisis.

Transportation was ending, increasing the need for free workers – thousands of poor bounty immigrants, their passage paid by the Colonial government, were being brought into Sydney, many more than the town could absorb. In an effort to even up the gender numbers, a significant percentage were single girls with high hopes of this new world.

Transportation was ending, increasing the need for free workers – thousands of poor bounty immigrants, their passage paid by the Colonial government, were being brought into Sydney, many more than the town could absorb.

Their arrival coincided with a serious commercial slump in Sydney: the not unfamiliar property speculation cycle of boom and bust had by then created a severe downturn, Britain was in recession, meaning fewer exports to the “home country”, and the whole was exacerbated by a drought that was to last six years.

It was a perfect storm.

Of course, it was the girls that caught Caroline’s attention. By 1841 it was estimated that some 600 were destitute in Sydney. There were few shelters and even fewer jobs. Caroline wanted to start a home for them.

Of course, it was the girls that caught Caroline’s attention. By 1841 it was estimated that some 600 were destitute in Sydney. There were few shelters and even fewer jobs. Caroline wanted to start a home for them.

Ignored at first by Governor Sir George Gipps, who, though describing her as an attractive young matron, considered that she had, “overrated the powers of her own mind”, she nonetheless kept battling, supported by the press but not by the clergy.

One of main obstacles she encountered was religious division. Caroline had been born a protestant but when she married Archibald, a Catholic, she converted to his faith. There was considerable animosity between the two religions at that time.

One of main obstacles she encountered was religious division. Caroline had been born a protestant but when she married Archibald, a Catholic, she converted to his faith. There was considerable animosity between the two religions at that time.

Her attitude to religion and also ethnicity was one of the major surprises I encountered in my research. Although genuinely a true devotee of Catholicism, she believed that no creed should be pre-eminent – saying in a letter to Colonial Secretary Lord Stanley in 1842: “I have no wish to see any power whether English or Irish — Catholic or Protestant — have too much in their own hands … for one might try to oppress the other.”

Similarly, in response to protestant firebrand John Dunmore Lang in 1846, who attacked her for encouraging Catholic immigration, saying that he wanted to “live and die among his own people”, Caroline responded: “My idea of good neighbourhood is not so contracted; I have lived happily amongst pagans and heathens, Mahometans and Hindoos — they never molested me at my devotions, nor did I insult them at theirs”.

Caroline responded: “My idea of good neighbourhood is not so contracted; I have lived happily amongst pagans and heathens, Mahometans and Hindoos — they never molested me at my devotions, nor did I insult them at theirs”.

Later in London, she would assist single Jewish girls and families to emigrate to the colonies, whilst in 1847 she was acknowledging the Indigenous people of Australia as quote: “the original owners of the land” – some 145 years before the High Court’s Mabo ruling.

Then, in the 1850s and 1860s, she was not only teaching English to the Chinese but also standing up for them against awful discrimination both in Victoria and NSW, saying in the Melbourne Argus Newspaper in 1857: “This immigration cannot be stopped… there will be no rest until man is recognised as man, without distinction of colour or clime.”

In fact, Caroline was supporting our idea of a modern multicultural society decades before the word was even invented.

In fact, Caroline was supporting our idea of a modern multicultural society decades before the word was even invented.

Back in 1841, Caroline eventually convinced the Governor and the various churches to back her plan for a home for the bounty girls. In what was a radical idea at the time, she then invited clergy of all faiths to attend to the girls there. A plaque now marks the spot on the north-eastern corner of Bent and Phillip Streets where the old wooden home once stood.

A plaque now marks the spot on the north-eastern corner of Bent and Phillip Streets where the old wooden home once stood.

It was there that Caroline effectively set up a not-for-profit accommodation and employment agency financed by a few donations and by the employers who paid for the benefit of having workers sent to them in the bush.

Before opening for business though, Caroline did her homework discovering how many girls were required in various areas, for what type of work at what rates of pay and conditions. She then took to the rugged bush tracks to deliver the girls into safe, well paid employment, travelling miles from Sydney – north to Armidale, west to Gundagai and on coastal steamers up to the Hunter – on trips that would have taken weeks to complete.

Sir Roger Therry, a judge, parliamentarian and friend of Caroline described in his 1863 book one of her journeys. He wrote:

I remember … meeting her on the Goulburn road, as early as 5 o’clock in the morning, when the first burst of an Australian spring loads the air with the perfume of the acacias, and the glades of the open forest are clothed in a mantle of bright green … Mrs Chisholm herself, wrapped in a loose cloak, was seated on the top of a dray, laden with casks and bales of goods … Besides her and around her were seated twelve or fourteen young girls. Alongside of the dray walked about thirty others.

Each girl was guaranteed good wages and conditions by a written contract. In fact, Caroline insisted on the contracts being made out in triplicate – one for the employee, one for the employer and one she kept on file at the home. She wrote more than 2,000 contracts, but not one was ever challenged in a court of law.

She wrote more than 2,000 contracts, but not one was ever challenged in a court of law.

Can you imagine what would be involved in setting up such an organisation today? Even putting aside planning permission…And yet this was accomplished by a woman, on her own with only the benefits of a reasonable education, good organisational ability and sheer persistence, at a time when gas lamps had just started lighting the streets of Sydney, universal franchise, even for men was only a pipe-dream, and the first train in the colony was still some fifteen years into the future.

It was not long before she expanded the enterprise to include families and single men also.

Where people remember Caroline, it is probably for her work on behalf of the poor bounty girls, and indeed it started off a chain reaction that led on to the rest of her incredible life. It is this work, however, which caused the feminists of the 1970s to criticise her as being “the ideological underpinnings for more than a century of domestic servitude by Australian women.”

It is this work, however, which caused the feminists of the 1970s to criticise her as being “the ideological underpinnings for more than a century of domestic servitude by Australian women.”

I have absolutely no doubt that they were wrong.

Caroline certainly did put women into domestic and menial jobs and she did encourage them to marry, when appropriate. However, she was no white slaver, prostituting girls out on exclusive long-term agreements. Caroline didn’t see marriage as the lesser of two evils, but as a separate entity. Primarily, she understood that the girls needed safe working environments – now where have we heard that before? She was catering for thousands of ill-educated and illiterate underprivileged women with little control of their own lives or chance to improve it. There were no universities in Australia when she started her work, and in any case, women weren’t admitted to tertiary education here until the 1880s.

What Caroline did was to establish the poor female immigrants from Britain in secure employment with proper wages and identifiable conditions well before there was any such thing as unionism in Australia, even for men.

What Caroline did was to establish the poor female immigrants from Britain in secure employment with proper wages and identifiable conditions well before there was any such thing as unionism in Australia, even for men.

Nor did she expect women to be little more than domestic drudges, telling an emigration meeting in the UK in 1853: “I never can imagine that Almighty God sent females into the world to be cooks and housemaids all their days”.

And she realised that self-sufficient women were necessary for the Colony to progress. Writing in The Argus in 1855: “We ought not to forget that if this country is to become a great nation, we must endeavour to uphold in the females who come here principles of self-reliance and independence.”

In effect, Caroline was giving the women a choice and the wherewithal to support themselves for as long as they needed to do so, offering them respect and the opportunity to build substantially better lives than the ones that they had left behind.

In all, during those first eight years, she assisted some 11,000 poor immigrants in the colony.

Caroline also made ocean travel safer for poor passengers, particularly women. In 1842 she initiated the first prosecution in Australia against a captain and ship’s doctor. The men from the immigrant boat the Carthaginian had bullied and brutalised a female passenger on the voyage to Sydney. After lobbying for the two be charged, Caroline gave evidence in court herself. Both were found guilty and received six months jail and a fine of £50. A new standard of behaviour had been set into law.

After lobbying for the two be charged, Caroline gave evidence in court herself. Both were found guilty and received six months jail and a fine of £50. A new standard of behaviour had been set into law.

But that wasn’t the end of it – not by a long shot.

When Archibald returned to Sydney, the family sailed for Britain – Caroline, then 38 years of age, giving birth to a fourth son on board the boat only days before landing in Hull in 1846.

Despite the rigours of the birth, she launched almost immediately into what today would be called a “family reunion plan” – organising for left behind wives and children of both convicts and poor free settlers to be sent to Australia. Not long afterwards, she began the Family Colonisation Loan Society, helping to fund the cost of sea passages for poor emigrants, at the same time establishing new minimum health and safety requirements for vessels making the Australian run.

She was so very busy that one understandable criticism levelled at her was her attitude towards her children. At one stage even defying Archibald by taking her three oldest boys out of school because she couldn’t afford their fees and continue to work on behalf of the emigrants. She realised that she was compromising her boys’ futures and although expressing regret in a letter to a friend, didn’t alter her actions.

Her last three children, all girls were born in London. The seventh child, a daughter named Sarah, died within six months but unlike the first baby, Caroline seemed to have had little time to mourn. During her eight years in Britain, she helped some 5,000 emigrants to Australia, meeting a raft of influential people along the way, including Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey – son of the tea man – Pope Pius IX, during a visit to Rome, and Charles Dickens.

During her eight years in Britain, she helped some 5,000 emigrants to Australia, meeting a raft of influential people along the way, including Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey – son of the tea man – Pope Pius IX, during a visit to Rome, and Charles Dickens.

By now, Caroline was featuring in newspapers across the British Isles – one of the best-known women of her day, she turned journalist herself and wrote for one of Dickens’ magazines. Although a fierce philanthropist, Dickens was highly disapproving of Caroline for not paying enough attention to her domestic duties, describing what he called her “dirty children” in a letter to a friend. He satirised Caroline as Mrs. Jellyby in his novel Bleak House written two years after meeting her. Unfairly though, he compared her with wealthy and often single women like Florence Nightingale and Baroness Burdett-Coutts (the banking heiress) who could pay someone else to look after their households.

As the years went on, Caroline’s radical view of the world became more pronounced. Returning to Australia between 1854 and 1866, she lived first in Melbourne, visiting the goldfields within weeks of the Eureka Stockade. The leader of the revolt, Peter Lalor, had travelled to Victoria on one of the many boats organised by Caroline’s London Society.

As the years went on, Caroline’s radical view of the world became more pronounced.

Whilst in Melbourne, Caroline organised the construction and operation of a series of Shelter Sheds for poor diggers on their 130 kilometre journey to the Castlemaine goldfields.

By the late 1850s Caroline was unwell and the Chisholm finances were dire. Most of the family returned to Sydney. Although very sick, she was not finished yet. After writing a novella, serialised in a Sydney newspaper about the nobility of the working man, she held a series of public lectures – an extraordinary thing for a woman.

Even ten years later in London, Mrs Peter Taylor, chairperson of the first public suffragette meeting, was mocked as being not only ridiculous but immoral as well, because she had ventured into public life.

No such censure was levelled against Caroline, who had already been called, years earlier, to publicly give evidence before Select Government Committees on immigration in both London and Sydney – in each case a lone woman amongst many men.

No such censure was levelled against Caroline, who had already been called, years earlier, to publicly give evidence before Select Government Committees on immigration in both London and Sydney – in each case a lone woman amongst many men.

Caroline’s talks in Sydney were attended by hundreds of people and reported throughout the colony by the press. Amongst other progressive views, she wanted full democracy, including votes for women, in a time of high property prices – some things don’t change – she supported freeing up the land so that poorer people could buy their own plot, she called for an 8-hour working day, and even suggested that men should help with housework.

Caroline was a remarkable woman, with humour, intellect, and passion – and an incredible organisational ability – she truly was an irresistible force – her achievements are still resonating in Australia today. I suspect that in the audience now there are some of you whose forbears had their original successful start in Australia thanks to Caroline. I believe that her spirit lives on in our country.

I suspect that in the audience now there are some of you whose forbears had their original successful start in Australia thanks to Caroline. I believe that her spirit lives on in our country.