A place for the friendless female
Working-class immigrant women ... were required in the colony as both domestic servants for the middle-class, and ultimately to provide 'virtuous homes' as wives and mothers for the labouring classes.
E-Migration, or, A Flight of Fair Game (detail), Alfred Ducote, Fl 1832-1843, Hand-coloured lithograph. Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia
Well known as a heritage site associated with male convicts in Australia, Hyde Park Barracks is also a significant heritage site for female migration to colonial New South Wales. With convict transportation to New South Wales ending in 1840 and the Superintendent of Convicts having fewer convicts to supervise, the remaining men lodged at Hyde Park Barracks were moved to Cockatoo Island in January 1848. The barracks was then handed over to the Immigration Department and reconfigured in readiness for the arrival of Irish orphan girls, victims of the Great Irish Famine, arriving aboard the Earl Grey in October 1848.
The Female Immigration Depot housed at the barracks from 1848 to 1886 was the primary reception and hiring depot in Sydney for ‘unprotected’ females, whether single or married, with or without children. Prior to the Immigration Depot’s establishment, the government had not assisted female immigrants in any concerted way to secure employment after their arrival in Sydney. During its 38 years of operation the depot received thousands of young, free, government-assisted, working-class, Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh female migrants to New South Wales. Most women came to the colony seeking employment, or were lured by the assisted passage, images of colonial prosperity, and opportunities for marriage. Some came to be reunited with family members who had arrived earlier as convicts or free settlers. While many women were reunited with family after only one night at the depot, others stayed for longer while they waited for family or employers to travel from ‘the bush’ or ‘the interior’ to collect them. Some stayed for several days to find employment as domestic servants at the depot’s hiring days. Advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald, hiring days were held a few days after the arrival of immigrant ships.
Working-class immigrant women of good character were required in the colony as both domestic servants for the middle-class, and ultimately to provide ‘virtuous homes’ as wives and mothers ‘for the labouring classes of the community’.¹ In the early 1800s the ratio of men to women in the colony was seven to one and there was an effort to balance the sexes through the assisted migration of free, single, working-class women. The single immigrant woman appears to have occupied an ambiguous position in society – there were high expectations of her good moral character while at the same time her willingness to leave her family in the British Isles for an unknown future in the Antipodes characterised her as a potential moral risk.
In one week there could be up to 100 women, children and babies staying at the depot, or as few as half a dozen. Sometimes ships full of female immigrants would arrive within days of one another, filling the depot to bursting point, creating the need to sleep several women to a single bed. The barracks and its high surrounding walls ‘protected’ these women, and the colonial government controlled their access to life until their passage into society could be directed into socially acceptable channels such as domestic service or family reunion.
After leaving the depot the women were dispersed in the colony and while some found happiness, others were disillusioned. Not many of these young women left diaries and most of what we know comes from descendants or official records such as ship lists, ships matrons’ diaries, female servants’ agreements, marriage and death certificates, and police records.
Personal treasures belonging to these women were recovered from beneath the floor of Hyde Park Barracks during archaeological investigations carried out from 1979 to 1981 and now form a significant part of the museum’s archaeology collection. Recovered artefacts include gloves, books, stockings, scarves, jewellery, religious medals, children’s and infants’ clothing, children’s toys and many fragments of mauve floral printed cotton dresses which were immensely popular in the late 1850s and early 1860s.² Many of these artefacts will go on display at Hyde Park Barracks Museum in September in a display on the Female Immigration Depot. The display will explore the immigrant women’s voyages to the colony, Irish orphans who stayed at the Depot, Caroline Chisholm’s contribution to female immigration, and the types of work women did once they were employed as domestic servants in the colony.
Assistant Curator Hyde Park Barracks Museum
First published in Insites, Winter 2005
Supported by the Migration Heritage Centre NSW. The Migration Heritage Centre is a NSW Government initiative.
Hyde Park Barracks was not only associated with female immigrants but also infirm and destitute women who found refuge in Hyde Park Asylum from 1862 to 1886. The asylum will be the subject of a book by historian Joy Hughes expected to be published by the Historic Houses Trust in 2006.
1. Select Committee of the Legislative Council on Immigration (1835), p413 cited in Katrina Alford, Production or Reproduction? An economic history of women in Australia 1788–1850, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1984, p119.
A place for the friendless female: Sydney’s Female Immigration Depot | Hyde Park Barracks Museum |10 September 2005 - October 2008