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Caroline Chisholm: friend or foe?

Polish digger Seweryn Korzelinski claimed Caroline Chisholm "carried on what accounted to a traffic in women". Yet others called her a saint of her day, a pioneer of women's rights and "the emigrant's friend".

The gold rush had attracted huge numbers of men to Australia, which was already largely populated by farmers and male convicts. Chisholm wholly believed women would have a civilising influence on the rough male population and were vital to the future of the young colony. Ellen Clacy agreed recording in her memoirs:

"In some tents the soft influence of our sex is pleasingly apparent: the tins are as bright as silver, there are sheets as well as blankets on the beds, and perhaps a clean counter pane, with the addition of a dry sack or piece of carpet on the ground."

The Assistant Gold Commissioner commented that the South Australian diggings were preferable to those in Victoria or New South Wales because of the influence of women and families:

"The presence of well dressed women and children gives to the goldfields, apparently distinguished for decorum, security and respectability."

The emigrant's friend

Alarming prospect the single ladies off to the diggings
John Leech, London, 1854
Reproduced courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum and the Gold 150 website

Chisholm established the "Family Colonization Loan Society". She hoped to attract women to the colony and to provide opportunities for "fallen" women in England to reform and restart their lives in a new country. The society loaned women the fare for passage to Australia and arranged domestic employment in rural areas. The employers and sometimes husbands repaid the fare and paid an addition fee of 3 pounds for their British emigrant.

Ellen Clacy wrote, "No one in England can fully appreciate the benefits her unwearied exertions have conferred upon the colonies. I have met many of the matrons of her ships, and not only do they themselves seem to have made their way in the world, but the young families who were under their care during the voyage appear to have done equally well."

Preying on a naïve migrant

Korzelinski on the other hand believed she was taking advantage of young women who "having lived in England for a considerable number of years… had lost hope in the future". She painted a bright picture of the gold bearing colony, carefully omitting its defects.

"She never mentioned that numerous transports of women had already gone to Australia before the one she was organizing. Consequently not all of the new emigrants would be able to get married nor get an occupation they were suited for… In towns and settlements there are plenty of servants. Newly-arrived women on the whole are not suitable for agricultural tasks and are not used to heavy labour."

Most women were sent directly from Melbourne to jobs in the bush. Those without jobs stayed in one of her emigrant houses until, according to Korzelinski, they were rescued.

"True lodging and food were free, but it was so carefully calculated how many ounces of food were necessary to keep a human being alive that women considered it a great stroke of luck to be rescued... They were prepared to grasp at every opportunity and agreed to go with a sailor, an ex-convict, anyone, even without having met the man previously, and knowing nothing about him. Nor was there any difficulty in obtaining a women (sic) from the emigrant house. Whoever wished arrived, picked one to his liking and carried her away."

Temporary brides

Korzelinski accused Chisholm of building on Australia's already large population of morally questionable women. He wrote an account of hundreds of women being sent to the Castlemaine gold fields.

"A few hundred women were sent to Fiery Creek district and placed there in batches of a few per tent. In the township of Castlemaine everybody who wanted to take a woman and proved that he had 10 pounds could get a woman and a dowry of a similar amount with a tent and two blankets. With a dowry like that one could begin digging. After all, many of us begin digging without a penny."

Korzelinski questioned the morals of a man who would marry a woman for 10 pounds, a tent and blankets. Very often, when the money was spent, the man would leave his wife behind and head for richer diggings where he would likely marry another for her dowry and repeat the process. The deserted wife often became a "temporary bride", a woman who would favour a man with her company and sexual favours, so long as the gold lasted. Then she, like her first husband, would move on to the next wealthy digger.


By Suzie Hoban


Mrs Charles Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the gold diggings of Australia, Lansdowne Press, 1963.

Geoff Hocking, To the diggings!: a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Australia, Lothian Books, 2000.

Seweryn Korzelinski, (translated and edited by Stanley Robe) Life on the goldfields; Memoirs of a Polish migrant; 1850s in Victoria, Mentone Educational Centre, 1994.


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