Caroline Chisholm was known as ‘the emigrant’s friend’, having earned the title for her work with poor migrants to Australia in the 1800’s. But despite all her work and her fame today, she died poor and forgotten after such an amazing life.
Caroline was one of this country’s most outstanding women. Her portrait was on the five dollar note for more than twenty years.
Caroline Chisholm was born in England in 1808. Even as a young girl she was interested in helping people. Her parents’ home was always open to everyone, no matter how rich or poor.
When she was twenty-two years old she married Archibald Chisholm, an officer in the British Army. Early in their married life the Chisholms decided to move to Australia. When they sailed into Sydney it was still a convict town.
Unlike other army wives Caroline didn’t stay at home. She took walks around the small town of Sydney, and was shocked at what she saw. There were many women living on the streets. Forced to travel out on filthy, overcrowded ships, they’d come to Australia looking for a better life. But when they got to Sydney, there were no jobs or places to live.
Caroline wanted to start a home for unemployed women, and then to find them jobs. She asked the Governor George Gipps for a building. Her submission was: “I would like a building to house these girls. I’m willing to work hard, assist in any way, give my time freely, provided such a home for young girls becomes a reality.”
The Governor said it would cost too much, but was impressed by Mrs. Chisholm. “Mrs. Chisholm is tall, stately in her bearing, ladylike in her manners. Her face beaming with kindness, her voice is musical and she speaks fluently.”
Caroline didn’t give up. After many meetings the Governor finally gave in. “You can have Immigration Barracks”
Caroline’s great great grandson, Don Chisholm, spoke of Caroline: “She was quite forceful but in a very pleasant and feminine way. I also think she was intensely practical so when she came to talk to a bureaucrat or Government official, they were always amazed first of all how practical she was and secondly as to what she’d already done before she got in their door. So that it was very hard for them to deny.”
Caroline’s battle for the Immigrant’s Home was only just beginning. The building was filthy and full of rats. “Dear God, if it is your wish for me to begin from nothing, I shall with your help.”
Caroline Chisholm tried to juggle her home duties with her work to help female migrants. Archibald supported her ideas. Mrs. Chisholm was often criticised for neglecting her children. She had nine in all.
The Female Immigrants’ Home though, was a great success. Within two years Caroline had found jobs and homes for at least a thousand women. Caroline’s home moved most of the women off the streets, but she could still see that future migrants would need help.
She convinced the authorities that something had to be done about the dreadful conditions on the ships being used to bring people to Australia. She set up an employment office, and was the first person in Australia to introduce work contracts; agreements about working conditions and pay.
She continued to travel the country to find jobs and homes for about 11,000 migrants, most of them young women. In all this time Caroline accepted no money for her work.
Don Chisholm again spoke of her: “She was given no financial support initially by the government at all and it really was an extraordinary thing for anyone to achieve, let alone a housewife who was looking after children and a family.”
In 1846, Caroline Chisholm went back to England to work on another scheme for migrants. She talked the government into giving the families of former convicts a free voyage from England to Australia.
In 1877 Caroline Chisholm died at home in England. By then she was very poor and almost forgotten. But Australian history recognises Caroline Chisholm as one of our greatest women.