Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877) was a British-born author and philanthropist, whose work with immigrant families, women and children ensured the successful colonization of Australia.
Caroline Jones Chisholm was born in a time of turmoil. On the continent, Napoleon was wreaking havoc, and the wars undertaken to defeat him were sapping Great Britain of her resources. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and by the late 18th century there had emerged a massive underclass of "deserving" poor, many without means of subsistence. To deal with the poverty, a support system loosely based on the Christian principle of charity was espoused. Foremost among the early protagonists of this social philosophy were John Howard, Robert Owen, and Elizabeth Fry—philanthropists who perceived the need for outright abolition of state poor laws in favor of a more personal reliance on voluntary charitable support of the poor by the upper class.
Not without its opponents, this system of poor relief and quasi-state aid persisted not only in Great Britain, but in most cases throughout the empire until the end of World War I (1914-18). Born in 1808 into the reasonably well-todo family of William Jones, a yeoman farmer in Northampton, Caroline Chisholm received an education that reflected the times. As a young girl, she visited the sick of the neighboring village, providing them with help and care, and was, in the words of one biographer, educated to "look on philanthropic labor as a part of her everyday life."
At seven, she displayed a passionate interest in immigration. Having heard wondrous tales of far-off lands in what has been characterized as an enlightened household, she invented an immigration game. Using a wash basin as the sea, she "made boats of broad-beans; expended all [her] money in touchwood dolls, removed families, located them in the bed-quilt and sent the boats, filled with wheat, back to the friends." This early interest in immigration would later provide a focus for her rising philanthropic passion.
When Captain Archibald Chisholm asked her to marry him, the 22-year-old accepted on the condition that she maintain the freedom to pursue any philanthropic concern she desired; his acceptance of her terms forged a loving compromise that would endure throughout their marriage. Indeed, he assisted Chisholm, becoming somewhat of a partner in her great works. But another problem confronted the young couple. Archibald was a Roman Catholic. Raised Protestant—in an age and nation where Catholicism was viewed with suspicion and mistrust—Chisholm faced a difficult decision. Deeply in love with her husband, she converted to Catholicism and lest one think that her conversion was one of mere convenience, "the record of her life," as one biographer put it, "shows that she was a most devout Catholic." Her Catholicism would, later in life, furnish opponents with dangerously powerful ammunition in their fight against her work.
For the first two years of their marriage, the couple lived in Brighton until, in the early months of 1832, Archibald received a posting to Madras, India. When Chisholm followed him there a few months later, she immediately discovered a viable outlet for her philanthropic passions. Living in a military encampment, she observed the soldiers' families and found the condition of their children, especially the daughters, appalling. As they ran about without discipline or structured education, she decided to establish a school for these unattended young ladies. As the wife of a junior officer with limited resources, Chisholm would have to raise the necessary funds through private donations. She enlisted the help of a few friends and set out to appeal to the generosity of "a few gentlemen." At the end of five days, they had raised 2,000 rupees, and The Female School of Industry for the Daughters of European Soldiers was founded. The school, which taught cooking, housekeeping, and the "three R's," was a significant first step in Chisholm's philanthropic career.
During their sojourn in Madras, she gave birth to two sons whose care coupled with the maintenance of the school kept her busy. In 1838, Archibald was granted sick leave, and the Chisholms headed for Australia. The difficult journey took over seven months, acquainting Chisholm with the inherent difficulties of travel to Australia, a lesson that would partly fuel her philanthropic concern for the plight of immigrants in the years to come.
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, the pearl of New South Wales (NSW) and the visible symbol of an ascendant Australia, stretched at its seams, bustling with activity and opportunity. Initially, all immigration had been unassisted, but in 1831 the Home government 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 ship-owners. 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, ship-owners 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.
The foremost concern of Caroline Chisholm was the plight of the young immigrant girls. When Captain Chisholm sailed for China in 1841, his wife decided to come to the aide of the abandoned and penniless women of Sydney. Assisted by a committee, Chisholm set out to establish an immigrants' home where these women could reside until suitable employment could be found. Immediately, she met opposition from the colony's governor, Sir George Gipps, who believed as did most people of the day, that women had no place in public life. Her Catholicism, as well, raised the suspicions of some opponents to the plan, though the opposition remained muted in the beginning. While praying in Church on Easter Sunday, 1841, Chisholm made a solemn vow:
… to know neither country nor creed, but to serve all justly and impartially. I asked only to be enabled to keep these poor girls from being tempted by their need to mortal sin, and resolved that to accomplish this, I would in every way, sacrifice my feelings—surrender all comfort—nor, in fact, consider my own wishes or feelings, but wholly devote myself to the work I had in hand.
Invigorated by her new pledge, she proved a formidable adversary to Gipps. Eventually, after striking a bargain that no state funds would be used, Gipps acquiesced, giving Chisholm part of the old immigration barracks. Thus, in 1841, the Female Immigrants' Home was established. In the first year alone, it served approximately 1,400 women, helping to settle most of them in the interior of the continent. Situating these young women in suitable homes, Chisholm traveled extensively and by the end of 1842 had established 16 branch homes throughout northeastern New South Wales. That year, she authored Female Immigration Considered in a Brief Account of the Sydney Immigrants Home, the first book published in Australia by a woman.
With the advent of a crippling economic depression, Chisholm began to concentrate on settling whole families of immigrants on land of their own. Demand for labor in the bush remained high, but British land-settlement policies had kept the price of land high enough to make land purchase impossible for all but the wealthiest immigrant families. Chisholm regarded permanent settlement of the lands in the interior as both a way to combat the depression and a way to alleviate the problem of overpopulation in Great Britain. She devised a system of land settlement by which families would be distributed in the bush in small settlements, with 10-to 15-year clearing leases (as opposed to rent), allowing these families to prosper.
This idea interested several important landowners, most notably Captain Robert Towns, who offered her 4,000 acres at Shell Harbor, NSW, for the settlement of 50 families. But, fearing that the plan would create a new class of landowners and thus upset the prevailing political structure of the colony, the Select Committee on Distressed Labourers stated that the Committee was "afraid we should find that these people becoming employers of labour would do us a mischief." Undaunted by her lack of support, Chisholm pressed on, publishing a survey entitled "Voluntary Information from the People of New South Wales," in order to further stimulate acceptance of the organized settlement of Australia by Britons.
Determined to take her fight directly to the British people, the family visited England upon Archibald's 1845 retirement from the army. With her organization firmly established in Australia, Chisholm felt the need to furnish it with a steady flow of immigrants. Explaining her philosophy, she wrote:
for all the clergy you can dispatch, all the schoolmasters you can appoint, all the churches you can build and all the books you can export will never do much good without "God's Police"—wives and little children.
In England, she could appeal more directly to philanthropic and social reformers, and she hoped to do this by circulating the "Voluntary Information" among all classes of people in Great Britain. Thus, upon arrival in England, Chisholm developed the three-point agenda that she thought necessary to promote the successful settlement of Australia: (1) to organize a viable colonization system; (2) to arrange for unwanted and mistreated orphans a chance at a new life; and (3) to convey to Australia the wives and children of men transported by the British government earlier, either as ticket-of-leave men or emancipated convicts.
First, she wanted to organize a national scheme for sustained colonization. A few months after her arrival, Chisholm set up an office in London where she could interview prospective immigrants. She published "Emigration and Transportation Relatively Considered," extolling the virtues of systematic emigration over forced transportation, and soon gained popularity in some powerful circles of Victorian society. Charles Dickens wrote several articles in his periodical Household Words championing her cause, and with such support the Family Colonization Loan Society was founded in 1847. By the end of 1849, 200 families had been enrolled and plans for chartering a ship were begun. In providing for passage to Australia, the Society effectively eradicated overcrowding and other injurious conditions on ships which had plagued earlier immigration schemes. The first vessel to be chartered, the Slains Castle, sailed in September of 1850 with 250 families on board. Soon, other ships followed, and Chisholm succeeded in convincing whole families to undertake emigration. In 1852, the Legislative Council of NSW granted the Family Colonization Loan Society the sum of £10,000 in support of continued immigration. Chisholm's work had gained the support of the Australian government, and the success of the Family Colonization Loan Society had been assured.
Concerning the second and third goals of her stay in England, Chisholm had little problem securing transport, and later homes, for two shiploads of children taken from several orphanages around England. She managed as well to secure assistance from the British government for the transport of the families of convicts sent to Australia in the previous decades. But while her work in England ensured a sustained, successful colonization of Australia, Chisholm was not without her detractors.
In Australia, in fact, the Presbyterian minister Dr. John Dunmore Lang stirred up old religious bigotries, crying, "No Popery!" (no pope) to all who would listen. Fearful that Chisholm's efforts might lead to the creation of a Catholic majority in Australia, Lang devised his own reactionary and divisive immigration scheme and vowed to "deliver this Colony and Hemisphere for all time coming, from the justly apprehended and intolerably degrading despotism of Rome." Lang later vowed to "live and die amongst his own people," and not among Catholics. In response, Chisholm wrote:
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; and am I not to enjoy the same privilege in New South Wales?
Ironically, the feud between Lang and Chisholm only served to promote the colonization of Australia. Since she had secured the only viable means of accomplishing this task, British support, the subsequent success of her venture was guaranteed.
But by 1854, with the advent of the Crimean War, ships became scarce, and Chisholm decided to return to New South Wales. Upon her arrival, she discovered a new problem which required her attention. With the discovery of gold in the wilderness, vast tracts of land beyond the original boundaries of the 19 counties of NSW originally surveyed in the 1830s were deemed off-limits by the local government. Chisholm toured the goldfields, becoming a champion of the cause of the small farmers and demanding that the government "Unlock the Lands!"
Our aim must be to make it as easy for a working man to reach Australia as America, and we must hold out a certainty of being able to obtain land. Nothing else will tempt the honest working man of the right sort to emigrate.
Still, her call for this opening of the land and the sale of tracts of land at an affordable price, initially fell on deaf ears. When her health failed in 1857, she was forced to leave this fight half-fought as her tenure in public life drew to an end. Archibald Chisholm's pension from the Honourable East India Company had all but dried up, and in an effort to address her family's economic hardship, she opened a ladies' school at Rathbone House, Newtown, in 1862, which subsequently closed in 1864. By 1866, Archibald and Caroline Chisholm had returned to England. A few months later, she was granted a government pension of £100 a year. The last five years of her life were spent bedridden and ill.
At the age of 69, Caroline Chisholm died on Sunday, March 25th, 1877, in London. The Times' obituary outlined her achievements in about ten lines, and Australian papers barely marked her passing. The inscription on her headstone reads: "The Emigrant's Friend." Renowned French historian Michelet praised her thus: "The fifth part of the world, Australia, has up to now but one saint, one legend. This saint is an Englishwoman." Florence Nightingale, slightly more militant in her method, nevertheless characterized herself as Chisholm's "friend and pupil," and Robert Lorne, member of the Legislative Council of New South Wales wrote of her life and work: "It was the most original ever devised or undertaken by man or woman, and the object, the labor and the method were beyond all praise."
Further Reading on Caroline Chisholm
"Chisholm, Caroline" in The Australian Encyclopedia. Vol. 2, Michigan State University Press, 1958.
Hoban, Mary C. Fifty-one Pieces of Wedding Cake: A Biography of Caroline Chisholm. Lowden, 1973.
Kiddel, Margaret. Caroline Chisholm. Melbourne University Press, 1950.
Younger, R. M. Australia and the Australians: A New Concise History. Humanities Press, 1970.
Clark, C. M. H. A History of Australia. Vol. 3, Melbourne University Press, 1973.
Kennedy, Richard, ed. Australian Welfare History: Critical Essays. Macmillan of Australia, 1982.
Malony, John. The Penguin Bicentennial History of Australia: The Story of 200 Years. Viking, 1987.