Friday, 26 August 2016

Women and Eureka

By the 1850s, immigration to Canada was a far more attractive in the eyes of respectable women than to Australia that was still haunted by its convict origins. [1] Women were outnumbered by roughly six to one in the convict settlements until the increase in free female immigration in the 1830s. [2] Historians such as Lloyd Robson, Alan Shaw and Robert Hughes have largely accepted the judgements of contemporary officials of female convicts generally as ‘damned whores’, possessed of neither ‘Virtue nor Honesty’. [3] Michael Sturma pointed out that middle- and upper-class commentators tended to see working-class women as prostitutes simply because their behaviour transgressed their class-based notions of feminine modesty and morality. For instance, long-term relationships were a common and accepted part of early-nineteenth century working-class culture, but from the perspective of the middle- or upper-class observer, these women were prostituting themselves, albeit to ‘one man only’.[4] Early feminist historians such as Anne Summers and Miriam Dixson have ironically reinforced this picture of wholesale whoredom by incorporating the stereotype as a key element in explaining Australian women’s current low status in relation to Australian men. [5] Women were compelled into prostitution by State policy and structural factors rather than their own personal ‘vice’. Portia Robinson presented an alternate view of the women of Botany Bay as good wives, good mothers and good citizens. If they were prostitutes, she says, it was as a result of the criminal environment in Britain rather than conditions in Australia that offered women the opportunity of redemption. [6]
Image result for women on Australian goldfields

Gender balance was, for instance, a defining characteristic of Irish migration to Australia throughout the nineteenth century and Irish women made a major contribution to Australian society. [7] About a third of convict women were Irish. For instance, on 20 January 1849, Lord Auckland arrived at Hobart from Dublin with 211 female convicts. More than 1,000 young women came to Sydney and Hobart in the 1830s from Foundling Hospitals in Dublin and Cork. Approximately 19,000 Irish bounty and government assisted migrants arrived in Melbourne and Sydney between 1839 and 1842 of whom about half were female. In 1855-1856 over 4,000 single Irish women arrived in Adelaide. Such infusions of Irish female blood had a powerful influence on the development of colonial society. The ‘Earl Grey’ female orphans sit within that tradition. The difference is that these ‘orphans’ stand as symbolic refugees from Famine and came from among the genuinely destitute sections of Irish society.

Although the young girls from the workhouses were sent out to take up domestic service, very few had any experience of the work. This did not please existing settlers: they had been led to believe they were getting proficient labour cheaply, not realising that the profession ascribed to each girl was what the guardians considered her fit for, and not for any previously acquired skill. This led to problems and the Irish orphan ‘girls’ were soon maligned in the Australian metropolitan press as immoral dregs of the workhouse, ignorant of the skills required of domestic servants. Although all the workhouse girls from the first three ships to arrive in Australia had been hired almost as soon as they came ashore, a report to the Children’s Apprenticeship Board claimed that in Adelaide in 1849 ‘there are 21 of the Irish Orphans upon the Streets’ and ‘indeed there appears to be a greater number of orphans than any other class of females’. [8] While some of the ‘girls’ were neither as young nor as innocent as was inferred, it was also the case that many of the employers came from humble backgrounds themselves and often had no idea of how to treat or train a servant. Nor did the training the girls received in the workhouse prove useful in a domestic setting. When an immigrant girl failed to provide the level of service expected, she was frequently returned to the depot, or turned out of doors and left to her own devices. Having no other means of support, some of the discarded servants turned to prostitution. As protests grew more vocal, and as the Famine in Ireland appeared to have abated, the British Government agreed to end the scheme. The final group of Irish workhouse orphans left for Australia in April 1850. Altogether, 4,175 girls were sent overseas during this period; 2,253 to Sydney, 1,255 to Port Phillip, 606 to Adelaide and the remaining 61 to the Cape of Good Hope.

When gold was discovered, the majority of women remained in the towns with their families:

Women are the only scarce people that is here, in a city of some 10,000 Inhabitants, you will not see more than twelve or twenty women in a day there are only about 300 in the whole city.[9]

But it was not long before some began arriving on the goldfields. By 1854, there were 4,000 women on the Ballarat goldfields, compared to nearly 13,000 men. Only 5 per cent of all women were single and there were between 3,000 and 4,000 children. William Withers referred to the lack of females on the goldfields: ‘There were no hospitals or asylums in that early day, and a woman was an absolute phenomenon’. [10] Based on the census returns for March 1857, the total population on the goldfields in Victoria was 383,668 ‘exclusive of the residents in the Chinese encampments, and the roving aboriginals’. There were 237,743 males and 145,925 females but that:

...the numbers of the two sexes on the goldfields who, in March, 1857, had arrived at a marriageable age, but who were unmarried, stand thus in round numbers: males, 48,000; females, 2,700; or nearly eighteen males to one female. These figures at once bring before us, in a most startling form, the great sexual inequality of the goldfields’ population. [11]

However, the 1861 Victorian census showed that the population of the Ballarat goldfields had grown to 12,726 men, 9,135 women and 7,838 children, and the city was now beginning to settle into a more normal ratio of men to women. At that time, 136 women in Ballarat listed their occupation as gold mining, compared to nearly 8,000 men.

[1] Elder, Catriona, Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity, (Allen & Unwin), 2007, pp. 40-93, contrasts the notion that the working man is everywhere with the invisible woman.
[2] Carmichael, G., ‘So Many Children: Colonial and Post-Colonial Demographic Patterns’, in Saunders, K., & Evans, R., (eds.), Gender Relations in Australia: Domination and Negotiation, (Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich), 1992, p. 103.
[3] Robson, L. L., The Convict Settlers of Australia, (Melbourne University Press), 1976, Shaw, A. G. L., Convicts and The Colonies, (Faber & Faber), 1966, and Hughes, R., The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1788-1868, (Collins), 1987.
[4] Sturma, M., ‘“Eye of the Beholder’: The Stereotype of Women Convicts, 1788-1850, Labour History, Vol. 34, (1978), pp. 3-10.
[5] Summers, Anne, Damned Whores and God’s Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia, (Penguin), 1975, and Dixson, Miriam, The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia, 1788 to 1975, (Penguin), 1975.
[6] Robinson, P., The Women of Botany Bay: a reinterpretation of the role of women in the origins of Australian society, (North Ryde), 1988, p. 236.
[7] See, McClaughlin, Trevor, (ed.), Irish Women in Colonial Australia, (Allen & Unwin), 1998.
[8] Cit, Report to the children’s apprenticeship board, Poor Law Commission Office, Dublin, 27 November 1850.
[9] Ulster American Folk Park, serial no: 9701190, copyright John McCleery, Belfast.
[10] Ibid, Withers, W. B., History of Ballarat, p. 55.
[11] ‘Inequality of the Sexes on the Gold Fields’, Ballarat Star, 5 July 1859.

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