Life Below Stairs: English Servants Emigrating to Australia, Part I

Liverpoo.gifIn the mid to late 1840s, many girls in service decided to make the arduous journey from England to Australian ports. One must remember that the journey took three to four months to complete, depending upon the weather and the winds. Clipper ships were still being used for such journeys for they were more economical than steam-driven ships. The clippers would export their “live lumber” and bring back a much needed import to English shores. Many died during the journey. Illness and harsh treatment was commonplace. It was not unusual to have 50 to 100 to die during the journey. Many of those deaths were babies of women who hoped for a better way for them and theirs. 

Some of the agents hired to gather candidates for the servant class presented the girls free passage. They also were not opposed to giving free passage to prostitutes. The girls were not promised protection on the journey, and many found themselves debauched by the men aboard ship. 

janilye-4794-full.gifIn 1846, South Australia appointed matrons to oversee the girls in hopes of securing more appropriate candidates. This became a common practice. As many as fifty to sixty employers met with each of the “acceptable” girls. It cost about £20 per girl (train fare to Portsmouth, bedding, and fare) to bring a woman from England to Australia. Queensland and South Australia groups often absorbed the cost of the girls’ voyages to bring reliable help to their homes. These schemes were abandoned when governmental economic issues interfered with the practice. Even so, thousands of servant girls arrived in Australia thanks to these programs. 

“In the decade from 1878 to 1888, over 21,000 female servants went out to Queensland alone, a total surpassed only by the number of farm workers who emigrated to the same colony. Nevertheless, the demand remained so high, that is could never be wholly satisfied. Some girls elected to stop off even before they reached Australia, as there was always an eager queue of would-be employers waiting at Colombo, Batavia, and Thursday Island and, after the Suez Canal had been opened in 1869, at Malta, Port Said, and Aden, too. One young woman servant, who disembarked at Thursday Island, off the northern tip of Queensland, eventually amassed a fortune of £15,000 by becoming the owner of five pearl-fishing boats and of the island’s best hotel. For those who completed the voyage, adequate provision had been made for them to obtain suitable situations. In the early days, some girls had drifted into prostitution through the great temptations which prevailed in the pioneer towns with their great excess of single men. In 1841, Mrs. Caroline Chisholm, the wife of an Indian Army officer, established a home and registry office in Sydney and, later, at her own expense, took her first party of girls, who had been frightened by ‘foolish stories about blacks and robbers in the bush,’ up river on a steamer to a district called Hunters River, where all sixty girls soon found situations at double the wages they could have obtained in Sydney. She went on to establish four more homes and sent many servants out to famers in the bush. By the 1850s, New South Wales had also set up its own official depot, where servant girls could live in charge of a matron until they were hired. (Both publican and lodging house keepers were prohibited from hiring single girls for obvious reasons.)” (Frank E. Huggett, Life Below Stairs, Book Club Associates London. pages 139 -141) 

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, business, commerce, servant life, Victorian era and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.