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Female Emigration to Australia

Page history last edited by hmikrc@mail.umkc.edu 9 years, 11 months ago

During the Victorian era, England was colonizing much of the world, and, for a good many emigrants, the location of choice was Australia.[1] As most travelers at the time were male, society encouraged women to make the voyage.  Being an immigrant was difficult, and the harshness of a still mostly "uncivilized" Australia made life difficult for most who moved their.  However, it offered a chance for jobs and freedoms for women that was worth all hardships.



"Advertisment." Examiner 1667 1840. 30. British Periodicals. Web. 16 Oct 2010. URL




     Persons who may contemplate proceeding to the above highly prosperous Colony, are informed that a LINE of REGULAR PACKETS, with the best arrangements for the security and comfort of Cabin, Intermediate, and Steerage Passengers, are despatched, with strict punctuality, every month, on fixed days, by Mr. JOHN MARSHALL, an Australian Emigration Agent, 26 Birchin lane, Cornhill, London, FROM LONDON and PLYMOUTH TO PORT PHILLIP  and SYDNEY.

     They are all Ships of unusually large Tonnage, and of the First Class; have Poops, are liberally fitted and supplied with Provisions of the very  best quality, are commanded and officered by men of known character and competency, carry thoroughly qualified and experienced Surgeons, and Persons engaging their Passage by them can make their arrangements with ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY AS TO THE TIME OF EMBARKATION.  They can join by Steam, at LONDON or PLYMOUTH, at a very small cost.

     A FREE PASSAGE will be granted by these Ships to suitable married Agricultural Servants and Mechanics; and also to Single Females, when approved according to the regulations.  Single Male Agricultural Servants, particularly Shepherds, and good Household Servants, from 18 to 30 years of age, will be conveyed on payment of 5l. each, if of approved character.

     Accounts recently received from the Colony represent the demand for labour there to be greater than ever, and all well-conducted and peroperly qualified persons may reckon with perfect certainty on immediate and constant employment, and, in a few years, by steady perseverance, on materially improving their condition in life.

     The days on which the above Ships will be despatched during the year 1840, will be as follow:--











   Port Phillip and Sydney.





   Port Phillip and Sydney.





   Sydney direct.





   Sydney direct.





   Port Phillip and Sydney.





   Sydney direct.





   Port Phillip and Sydney.





   Sydney direct.





   Port Phillip and Sydney.





   Sydney direct.





   Port Phillip and Sydney.





   Sydney direct.


     The terms and conditions of Passage, and all other particulars respecting these Ships, and the Colony of New South Wales, may be had on application to Mr MARSHALL, addressed as above (post paid).

*hover over bolded words for explanations


Emigration to Australia



1838 Map of Australia[2]



Push for Female Emigration


It was a common belief that single women, or spinsters, were overly excessive in 19th century England.  England’s colonization efforts sent British men across the globe, leaving a plethora of unmarried women behind.  Conservatives like William Greg strongly believed that this imbalance of genders was causing the spread of immorality and that it was crucial to correct this balance.  “There is an enormous and increasing number of single women in the nation, a number quite disproportionate and quite abnormal; a number which, positively and relatively, is indicative of an unwholesome social state, and is both productive and prognostic of much wretchedness and wrong,” (Greg 158). 

The 1851 Census reported about 500,000 excess women in Britain due to a male emigration, higher mortality rate and a later marrying age for men (Dreher 3).  Victorian society thrived on “order and progress,” and the redundancy caused a problem (Dreher 3).  According to the middle-class ideology during this time, middle class woman needed to marry; and as the men’s sphere was economic, so the woman’s sphere was domestic and her failure to marry was viewed as a failure to legitimize herself in society. 

Many like Greg believed that the society’s problems could be solved by shipping the single women elsewhere.  The various forces at play within Victorian England—colonization, redundant women, the rise of the middle class—converged as emigration to the colonies shifted its focus from men and lower classes to single women of the middle class. 

Although it appears these women were shoved onto ships and out of England, in actuality many women were obliged to make the passage to a British colony to make themselves happy (Dreher 5).  Feminism was beginning to take aim at gender roles and female emigration helped to solidify an avenue of independence for women.  A feminist society called the Female Middle-Class Emigration Society (FMCES) was created during the 19th century.  According to Dreher, this society “stressed training, employment prospects and working conditions” (5).  The objective was for women to work in the colonies to establish their independence, not to rely on marriage as a means of survival. 

Of the 2 million British who emigrated to Canada and Australia during the years of 1830-1899, only about 15% were woman, with a small portion being middle-class.  However, the implications of the movement were noticed both in Britain and in the colonies.  The domestic realm of women was heralded as a powerful British imperialist tool, fusing their sphere with more legitimacy.  Rhetoric for woman’s emigration accredited women with fortitude and industriousness usually only credited to men, changing traditional notions of gender.  Similarly, the prospect of self-determination and class mobility in the colonies challenged many social proscriptions found in England (Dreher  6).  Though the push for female emigration in the middle-class was not a success in terms of number, much social change was wrought in its efforts. 



Emigration to Australia 


When Australia began to move away from its former status as a penal colony, domestication of the wild outback became of supreme importance.  Middle-class women, embodiments of domesticity that was so essentially British, became the preferred candidates for emigration to Australia.  The gendered sphere of the home prepared them to become caretakers of the nation, while their class status offered stability to the colonies.  In return, they got the hope of a new life and upward class mobility.

Emigration was “a sensational trend suggestive of a predominant quest for an alternative mode of ‘Englishness’” (Myers “Performing” 3).  British citizens were to bring their Britishness with them wherever they went as ambassadors of the civilized English.  This growing awareness of what it meant to be British, a burgeoning national identity, grew in large part due to contact with the indigenous people of English colonies (Dreher 6).  Ideally, then, those citizens chosen to emigrate would be noble exemplars of their homeland.

Women were the embodiment of both domesticity and common sense.  They were believed to bring “home” with them wherever they went (Myers Antipodal 10).  Women, then, were to bring this home within, the emblem of true Britain, to Australia.  Janet Meyers terms this the “portable domesticity” of middle class women, which she defines as the “replication of British domestic life aboard emigrant ships and in the colonies” (Myers “Performing” 130).

Class consciousness played a crucial role in the emigration to Australia.  This was exemplified by the situations aboard ships.  Middle-class women, situated in the second class, often felt superior to the working class emigrants with whom they shared living quarters.  Because it was impossible to physically separate themselves from their “inferiors”, it was extremely important that middle-class women distinguished themselves visually.  They sought to maintain both their personal appearance and a domestic household aboard the ship.  Unlike first-class patrons, who had household items provided for them, these women had to bring these things aboard the ship themselves (Myers “Performing” 133).  Their cabins became, in essence, portable homes, in which to establish and maintain their praised middle-class domesticity.

However, the middle-class women also sought to align themselves with the upper classes, with hope towards the potential of upward social mobility found in Australia.  Often these women would request the same treatment and commodities of the first-class passengers.  For instance, Margaret Pyman, a governess aboard a ship headed to Australia, complained that she had to pay for her wine while other passengers were given a free bottle of sherry each week (Myers “Performing” 133).  Acting more on a principle than actual desire or wants, middle-class women were asserting themselves as equal to those in the upper-class.


Morality of Female Travellers


Despite the general favor in which female emigration was regarded there was still much apprehension of relocating vast numbers of women away from England.  

The main concern for an emigrant woman on a passage to Australia was threats to her morality, not physical threats that were incurred by harsh travelling conditions.  Seasickness, other possible diseases, and the risk of shipwreck were undermined by the idea that a woman would be corrupted morally on such a long journey.  The idea that a ship was an “unclaimed space,” (Kranidis 158) where class status was less definitive created the fear that higher-class women would lose integrity by associating indiscriminately with other passengers. 

A single woman’s corruptibility was especially worrisome as she complicated sexual issues aboard a ship where both genders were intermingled in close quarters.  If single women were allowed to freely roam the ship, it was thought inevitable that she would fall into sexual immorality with men of any class or age.  Authorities took measures to ensure the single woman’s safety with an underlying purpose of protecting everyone else from the single woman.

One suggested precaution was to completely sexually segregate ships.  As this was implausible, some ships assigned single women to particular families for her protection.  Even more common were Matrons as chaperones.  According to Kranidis, married women heavily restricted the actions of unmarried women by confining them to their cabins and censuring their language (161-162).  Education and domestication also provided circumvention from “moral licentiousness and illicit social activity,” (Kranidis 159).

Another precautionary measure to keep women from being corrupted was Reception Homes.  These places of refuge were usually located near the final destinations in Australia and provided safety from physical threats as well as moral threats.


The Female Convict in Australia


During the Victorian Era, England was colonizing much of the world.  Australia, with its intriguing natives and diverse wildlife, along with its unforgiving conditions, was establish as a penal colony.  However, some women saw the continent and the English colonists as a land of opportunity.

The history of Australia as a penal colony began in 1788 when the convicts of the First Fleet landed in what would become New South Wales.  At the time, half of the passengers to Australia were convicts and one in five convicts were females ("Australian History").  These women were normally first offenders who had been convicted of robbery, pickpocketing, prostitution or shoplifting.  The sentence for these offenses was often seven years on the continent before they were released, at which time they were expected to earn the money for a return trip to England or settle in the colony ("Settlers & Immigration”). After eight months at sea surviving diseases like scurvy and dysentery, it is understandable why many of these women chose never to make the voyage home ("Australian History").


Most female convicts shipped to Australia were in their twenties and unmarried.  They were placed in special factories set up for convicts to spin wool or sew clothes.  Depending on their crime or temperament, some women were given more the more labor-intensive jobs of keeping up the barracks for the other convicts or growing food.  The colonies set up for the women were meant to be self-sustained by the convicts who worked there, which cut costs on labor and taught the women a trade that could prepare them for their release.  Women who served domestically at their mother countries were often given the same jobs in Australia and were sometimes even paid from £10-£15 a year.
Some female convicts traveled while they were pregnant (“Women in Colonial Times”).  Because many of the female convicts had children while serving their sentences, some women were assigned to work in convict nurseries. The babies were looked after for up to two years, at which time the governor or warden would decide whether the mother was fit and able to care for the child.  If the mother had not served her sentence, or was deemed unfit to care for the child, they were sent to an orphanage in the colony ("Australian History").


Female convicts could gain their freedom by serving their sentences, but freedom was also given to women who married colonists.  Many desperate men went to the convict camps looking for wives to run their homes.  After convicts were released they were called Emancipists or Expirees and were often looked down on by the colonists who had immigrated to Australia of their own free will ("Australian History").  Emancipists sometimes returned to their native countries or, more often, stayed within the colonies to marry colonists or other expirees. 


When the Australian Gold Rush began in 1851, many young Englishmen flocked to the continent to find their fortunes and often married within the country rather than returning to England to find a wife ("Australia in Brief”).  The likelihood that a dainty English wife would thrive in the harsh lifestyle of the outback was unlikely, so the tough determination of the Emancipists was often a value rather than a deterrent. 

There were many women who found that in Australia they were free from the societal boundaries and expectations in England.  They went on to become successful businesswomen in the colony, where many feminine qualities were valued, such as cooking and sewing.  Some women even became prominent citizens and social reformists with regards to the treatment of aborigines and local wildlife  (“Women in Colonial Times”).


Life in Australia


A vast amount of people emigrated to Australia during the Victorian period.  Most of them were seeking a better life for themselves and their families.  The emigrants that took up a new life in Australia seem to have mostly similar experiences, yet some perceived their lives in Australia as a success while others would do nearly anything for the chance to just go back home.

One account published in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post on Thursday, November 10, 1853 was of a personal nature, as well as a suggestive one for future emigrants.  The depiction of emigrant life in Australia begins with, “When I landed here I found things in an awful state of confusion, and everything frightfully dear…  [Rent was] anything they liked to ask for an empty hole­̶ I cannot call it a room” (Emigrant Life in Australia).  Emigrant’s homes were make-shift tents created with what little they had brought or found that could be molded into a shelter.

The attempt to build homes was made more difficult by those who owned the land emigrants built on.  They soon found out that rent for the earth they stood on was necessary.  It was also ordained that no hard boards or object of any kind could be used as a type of roof; this lead to diseases such as typhus fever and dysentery becoming rampant.  Families soaked by rain huddled together and watched their own or those around them die (Emigrant Life in Australia).
The same article explains that those arriving without currency or a skill like carpentry had difficulties finding employment.  The author found himself killing wild duck for a little money. Even still, what money was to be had was taken by the government.  The author finishes his matter-of-fact description of life in Australia with a simple warning, “Tell any young man you may know who thinks of coming here to think well before he leaves England… Thousands of gentlemanly young men are next to starving, and would gladly return” (Emigrant Life in Australia).

The women, according to this same article, were not left out of the suffering.  Each day, when the man went out to find a job, the wife stayed home with the kids in a small tent where the roof would not allow for standing and the ground was wet.  She would often find herself facing the police, who wanted rent money or claim a violation.  She was beaten and abused and the husband could do nothing for her without money, not even stay home to defend her.  Women in Australia most likely slept with a gun under her pillow and in her bosom when she was awake (Emigrant Life in Australia).

Not all emigrants to Australia found the life so harsh.  An article published in The Era on Sunday, January 9, 1853 by Joseph Loudon suggested a prosperous experience after emigration; he discovered a job in the gold mining business.  He spoke highly of his wages and general health. In the article, he encouraged men “that don’t mind roughing it ̶ men with or without capital ̶ men that don’t mind losing their comforts” to emigrate to Australia.  He confessed that a great deal of work was necessary, but seemed to relish in the satisfaction of accomplishing a hard day’s work (Live in Australia).

The rain was also rough within Mr. Loudon’s depiction of emigrant life.  He also described a lack of faith in the police and claimed that most slept with guns under their pillows.  Safety in Australian colonies was most assuredly an issue.

The lifestyle for British emigrants in Australia was a change from that to which they were accustomed.  Many emigrated to prosper and most all were sorely disappointed. Immigrants also struggled with maintaining their British ways in the new land.  They had to alter their upbringing to fit in their new world.  Life was rough and not for the light-hearted.  The drastic changes for the women required them to be tough and black-hearted.  It was not the ideal existence for any British emigrants.



Works Cited


"Advertisment." Examiner 1667 1840. 30. British Periodicals. Web. 16 Oct 2010.  <http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:bp-us:&rft_dat=xri:bp:article:e727-1840-000-67-124638>.

"Australian History." Australian Travel Information, Travelling in Australia, Backpacking in Australia, Holidays in Australia, Australian Travel Guide, Australian Explorer. Web. 10 Oct. 2010. <http://www.australianexplorer.com/australian_slang.htm>.

"Australian Immigration History." Australia Top 10 Guide. Web. 16 Oct. 2010. <http://www.australiatop.com/immigration/History.asp>.

"Australia in Brief: Ancient Heritage, Modern Society - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade." Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Home Page. Web. 10 Oct. 2010. <http://www.dfat.gov.au/aib/history.html>.

Dreher, Nan H. “Redundancy and Emigration: The ‘Woman Question’ in Mid-Victorian Britain.” Victorian Periodicals Review, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 3-7. The John Hopkins University Press on behalf of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals. Web. 06 October 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20082640>.

"Emigrant Life in Australia." Trewman's Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser, Issue 4572. 10 Nov 1853.  Print.

Greg, William Rathbone. “Why Are Women Redundant?” Victorian Prose: An Anthology. Ed. Rosemary Mundhenk & LuAnn McCracken Fletcher. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 157-163. Print.

Haines, Robin. “Indigent Misfits or Shrewd Operators? Government-assisted Emigrants from the United Kingdom to Australia, 1831-1860.” Population Studies, Vol. 48, No. 2 (July 1994), pp. 223-247. Population Investigation Committee.  Web. 05 October 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2174890>.

Haines, Robin. “Medical Superintendence and Child Health on Government-Assisted Voyages to South Australia in the Nineteenth Century.” Health and History, Vol.3, No. 2 (2001), pp. 1-29. Australian and New Zealand Society of the History of Medicine. Web. 05 October 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40111403>.

Kranidis, Rita S. The Victorian Spinster and Colonial Emigration. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Loudon, Joseph. “Life in Australia.” The Era, Issue 1853.  9 Jan 1853. Print.

Myers, Janet C. Antipodal England: Emigration and Portable Domesticity in the Victorian Imagination. Albany: State University of New York, 2009.

Myers, Janet C. “Performing the Voyage Out: Victorian Female Emigration and the Class Dynamics of Displacement.” Victorian Literature and Culture 29.1 (2001):129-146. JSTOR. Web. 6 Oct 2010.


Picard, Liza. Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870. Google Books. Web. 16 Oct. 2010. <http://books.google.com/books?id=Io9macvFdt4C&pg=PA12&lpg=PA12&dq=victorian poop deck&source=bl&ots=rCariHmqsa&sig=oUvQhG1htKP0H1hftfFMFMx5kok&hl=en&ei=Oba5TOPIPIK0lQe->


"Settlers & Immigration." Aussie Educator Home Page. Web. 10 Oct. 2010. <http://www.aussieeducator.org.au/tertiary/subjects/history/australian/immigration.html>.

“Women in Colonial Times." Australia's Culture Portal. Web. 10 Oct. 2010. <http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au/articles/colonialwomen/>



Project Group Members

Project Completed: Fall 2010



Member Name



Andrea Abernethy UMKC
English 426
Katie Comiskey
English 426
Stephanie Ham
English 426
Brandi Handley
English 5526
Heather Inness
English 426










"Advertisment." Examiner 1667 1840. 30. British Periodicals. Web. 16 Oct 2010. <http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:bp-us:&rft_dat=xri:bp:article:e727-1840-000-67-124638>. 


  1. See http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/australia/SAassistedindex.htm for more information on Australian immigration.
  2. "Australia, according to the Proposed divisions." from The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, Volume 8, 1838 to accompany "Considerations on the Political Geography and Geographical Nomenclature of Australia by Captain Vetch, Royal Engineers, F.R.S." http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Australia_1838.jpg

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