March 26 – Caroline Chisholm

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Caroline Chisholm, renewer of society

Caroline Chisholm arrived in New South Wales in 1838 with her husband Archibald, an Army officer on leave from service in India. She quickly became aware of the plight of many of the settlers, and especially of young girls who arrived from Britain after a long sea journey, sometimes seeking a husband or boyfriend who had been sent out as a convict or who had arrived earlier to find work. Often illiterate and impoverished, and without friends or contacts, many girls turned to prostitution in order to survive.  Caroline established a home for them in an old barracks, launching an employment agency offering work with local families who, as part of the contract, gave them protection and care. Her work broke down prejudices against “convict girls” and helped to establish a sense of solidarity in the emerging colony.

Recognising that good work could be found in the emerging farms and homesteads; Caroline led wagon trains out into the bush, settling young people with jobs. She became famous as a matchmaker, as girls met and married farmers and founded homes of their own. A devout Christian, Caroline believed in the sanctity of marriage and family life, and saw the injustice of official government policy, which encouraged young men to settle in Australia but tried to block the arrival of women who were officially described as “encumbrances”.

Men who had been sent out as convicts begged her to find their wives or fiancées back in Britain, and she travelled to London to do this, eventually reuniting many families. Renting a modest home near the London docks, she started a Family Colonisation Society helping poor families to settle in Australia, commissioning ships with clean and adequate accommodation, and establishing a London hostel next to her own home where families could stay while waiting to sail. Former shipping arrangements had meant men and women sharing accommodation, and a complete lack of privacy: she established a scheme in which all young unmarried people were adopted into families for the voyage, which also ensured networks of friendship and practical assistance on arrival in Australia.

Sometimes subjected to insults because of her Roman Catholic faith, Caroline remained a good-humoured woman whose tact and discretion, especially when dealing with the poorest families, made her much loved. She became the first woman ever to give evidence to a British Parliamentary committee, addressing MPs examining the ending of transportation and the possibilities of family migration. Herself a farmer’s daughter, she energetically promoted Australian farming, taking a sheaf of wheat from a New South Wales farm into Parliament to make her point.

Returning to Australia, Caroline worked to establish “Chisholm shelters” along the rough tracks leading out into the bush, opened a small school, and continued to lobby for the needs of settlers. Eventually settling back in London, she died in 1877 and is buried in her native Northampton where her grave names her as “The Emigrant’s Friend”.

Joanna Bogle