A Place Called Home: The Life of a Female Immigrant in Colonial Australia

Posted: September 11, 2015 in Essays
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A/N: Minor essay written for historical subject; HST110 – The Making of Australia.  Received a Distinction.

Colonial Australia was a place ripe with opportunity; it is what encouraged so many to make the perilous and often deadly journey across the ocean to an unfamiliar country half way around the world.  This essay attempts to analyse the Hyde Park Barracks Museum exhibition, ‘A Place for the Friendless Female’ and how it displays the quality of a woman’s citizenship in colonial Australia.  Using secondary sources this essay will consider how successfully the exhibition places the role of female immigration in the history of colonial Australia.

In the early days of colonisation in Australia, women were outnumbered by men quite easily ten to one.[1]   In order to restore the balance of sexes, women were encouraged to immigrate to Australia.[2]   The prospect of starting a new life where there was more opportunity, was a beacon of hope for many working class women.  These women were required to be within an age limit of eighteen to thirty-five and were subjected to a series of tests before they were granted passage to the new settlement.[3]  Many travelled to Australia to avoid the work houses or unite with family, however most were enticed by the prospect of work and potential marriage.[4]   The building in which the exhibition was housed was actually the original female immigration depot after the last of the convicts were moved to Cockatoo Island in 1848.[5]   Within this port, there was lodgings for more than one hundred women, they were not able to move on from this place until a ‘socially acceptable channel’ had been paved for them.[6]   Whether this was through being released to family members or through work in domestic services, the women waited out their days doing small menial tasks.  To a woman of the current day and age, waiting to be collected like an animal at the pound is beyond insulting, however, women’s rights movements did not come into full effect until the end of the eighteen hundreds, so this was the norm for these ladies.  Labour shortage was an issue in the early colonial days so many women found the competition for jobs quite substantial, many found work as domestic servants and other roles fit for a woman of that time. [7]

The exhibition focuses on the journey of women from their native country to Australia and gives insight to the way women, looked, dressed, and acted during colonial times.  However, it is missing a lot of detailed information on how women were integrated, treated, and the quality of their citizenship in colonial life.  The subject of assisted immigration was brushed over in the exhibition, this is an important aspect of the history of the opportunities afforded young women during this time.  Single women who were assisted immigrants were assigned to particular employers and were expected to work as domestic servants, eventually becoming wives.[8]   They were required under the Assisted Immigration Act (1852) to sign an indenture binding them to find work in Australia, their wages were garnished until they had paid back the sum of the passage to the new colony. [9]  Some women rebelled against this particular form of designation, going on to become something more than a typical ‘working class’ servant.[10]   The life of a woman in the female immigration depot mentioned briefly in the exhibition was not as simple as ‘they spent their time writing letters, reading, sewing and receiving religious instruction.’[11]  It was akin to something similar to a prison, though the doors were not locked or barred, they were still controlled, schedules, though slightly flexible were still to be adhered to.[12]  The women were allowed to leave the depot, but only three women at one time and they were required to ‘wait their turn’.[13]   Doubtfully this was not the type of life was what these women expected when they were accepted to board the ships to Australia.  They, like most, came to Australia to seek new opportunities, hoping for a better life, what they got instead was some mild form of slavery.

To many gentlemen in colonial life, a woman was a tool to be used to create a certain image, one perhaps of civilised living.[14]   Interestingly this counteracts the English notion that the women who took the three month journey to Australia were the troublesome and the degenerates, some simply sent these women through assisted immigration to be rid of them.[15] These women often came under attack regarding their suitability for Australian colonial life, this was frequently judged upon criteria set forth by government, as was also stated in the exhibition.[16]   Despite the need for women in the colonies, some middle and upper class people frowned upon these single working class women who were chartered to come to Australia.  They did not conform to the social ideals of a ‘proper’ woman, therefore were seen as a threat to the ‘order of things’.[17]   Over time there was an increase in Irish settlers making their way to Australia, the Irish women were especially frowned upon by the English, they were seen as ‘hard and stupid’ and simply not aware of the proper behaviour acceptable in a household.[18] [19] [20]This very quickly led to fears that the assisted immigration was not producing acceptable candidates that fit the colonial ideals, rather proper English values.[21]   Despite these notions, assisted immigration did continue on for quite some time, bringing male and female settlers from many nations.

‘A Place for the Friendless Female’ is a fantastic exhibition which gives an insight into what women experienced during colonial life, however it barely scratches the surface of what women had to go through during these times.  This essay has analysed the Hyde Park Barracks Museum exhibition and using other sources has made the connections and emphasised the importance of women and their immigration in colonial Australian history.


[12] [13] Crook, Penny and Tim Murray. “An Archaeology of Institutional Refuge: The Material Culture of the Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney 1848 –1886.” Archaeology of the Modern City Series, 12. Sydney: Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 2006.

[10] [14] Grimshaw, Patricia. “Making Male and Female Worlds.” In Creating a Nation, edited by Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath, and Marian Quartly, 79-105. Ringwood, Vic: McPhee Gribble, 1994.

[15] Haines, Robin. “Indigent Misfits or Shrewd Operators? Government-assisted Emigrants from the United Kingdom to Australia, 1831–1860.” Population Studies, 48 (1994): 381-394.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [11] [18]Hyde Park Barracks Museum. “A Place for the Friendless Female.” http://www.migrationheritage.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/friendlessfemale/index.html.

[8] [20] [21] McConville, Chris. “Peopling the Place Again.” In A Most Valuable Acquisition, A People’s History of Australia since 1788, edited by Verity Burgmann and Jenny Lee, 73-86. Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1988.

[9] Reid, Richard. “Dora MacDonagh and her ‘sisters’: Irish female assisted immigration to New South Wales c. 1848-1870.” In Irish Women in Colonial Australia, edited by Trevor McClaughlin, 64-81; 200-201. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1998.

[16] [17] [19] Rushen, Elizabeth. “‘Not the very lowest and poorest classes’: Irish female assisted immigration to Australia in the 1830s.” Australasian Journal of Irish Studies, 9 (2009): 52-72.

Creative Commons License
A Place Called Home: The Life of a Female Immigrant in Colonial Australia by Sheridan Brownlie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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