Caroline Chisholm

Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877), immigrants' friend, was born near Northampton, England, daughter of William Jones, a yeoman farmer who died while she was young. She was brought up to regard visiting the sick as her social duty. In 1830 she married Captain Archibald Chisholm of the East India Co., and about that time became a convert to Catholicism. Her husband was posted to Madras in 1832 and there she helped establish and ran an industrial school for soldiers' daughters, in which girls were taught basic literacy and trained in housework. Her first two children were born during their six years in Madras.

In 1838 the Chisholms embarked on the Emerald Isle for Sydney, and en route were delayed for a month in Adelaide. At a time when theories of colonisation were widely contested - and especially the price at which to sell 'vacant' colonial land so that emigration would remedy distress among the British working class without recreating the problem in the colonies - Mrs Chisholm witnessed the early difficulties of the colony founded by 'systematic colonisers'. She became a participant in the colonisation debate, favouring small-scale family settlement.

The Chisholms arrived in Sydney towards the end of a speculative land boom and rented a house at Windsor where their third son was born. Two daughters and another son were born later. Shortly after Captain Chisholm's recall in 1840, the boom collapsed; emigration schemes, devised to supply plentiful labour to an expanding economy, flooded the labour market. The closure of the Immigrants' Barracks following the adoption of bounty immigration intensified the problem: bounty immigrants were required to disembark within ten days. Distressed for women left homeless, Mrs Chisholm successfully petitioned for the reopening of the Barracks and personally met ships on arrival. She is best remembered for arranging transport to country centres for immigrant women, sometimes riding with them herself. At a time when policing of the pastoral districts was largely directed to protecting the more distant runs from Aboriginal attack, women required an escort for safety. She activated a network of mainly Catholic friends and was soon able to claim complete success. Within a year the stream of immigrants had fallen to a trickle.

Her attention focussed then on family reunion: the earlier immigration schemes had restricted the number of children accompanying parents and there were still families separated by transportation. Her later family colonisation scheme was linked with self-help ideals: her society was prepared to advance a portion of the fare, but expected and generally secured repayment. She travelled extensively in the British Isles, raising money and overseeing arrangements. From 1845 her husband joined in this work.

All her activities were directed to securing hard-working immigrants for the colonies; she appears never to have doubted that in Australia prosperity, or at least a decent living, was assured to anyone willing to work hard. Her aims were epitomised in the form of land settlement which she came to favour: families would be encouraged to take up small blocks which could be worked with their own labour; the land would have to be bought but payment would be permitted over a long period. From 1854, her energies were increasingly directed to land reform.

Captain Chisholm returned to Australia in 1851 and Mrs Chisholm in 1854. They received 5000 pounds as a gift from the Victorian government, and 2500 pounds by private subscription. They opened a store but were not very successful. Caroline, though in poor health, ran a school at Newtown, Sydney, for several years. In 1866 they left the colony. Mrs Chisholm died in London on 25 March 1877.

Famous in her own lifetime she was later raised in estimation by a generation embittered by sectarian conflict: her supporters came from all denominations and help was extended across religious divisions. Likewise, a theoretical concern for family life brought her further acclaim in twentieth-century Australia.

Heather Radi

Margaret Kiddle Caroline Chisholm 1957.