Today in the Calendar of Saints in the Church of England we commemorate –
Caroline Chisholm (30 May 1808 – 25 March 1877) was a progressive 19th-century English humanitarian known mostly for her involvement with female immigrant welfare in Australia.
Born on the outskirts of Northampton, the first stop on her way to Australia was in India where her husband, Capt Archibald Chisholm, was stationed. She found that conditions in Madras were appalling for the wives and daughters of the ordinary soldiers. They were wandering the streets involved in crime and prostitution, while the officers had schools for their children and educated wives who moved in elite social circles.
Caroline appealed to the Governor of Madras for help in starting a school for the poorer women.
Once the school was started she imposed strict discipline but got the girls to form committees so that they were self governing even though there was an official governing body. She encouraged the youngsters to think for themselves.
She also started the world’s first ever crèche by inviting mothers to bring their children in to the school so that the girls who were studying there could learn mother craft while the parents enjoyed some much needed time away from their offspring.
She then went on to Australia because her husband was given furlough and everyone was going to Australia because it was the new place to go.
She arrived in Sydney, still a convict town, and found the women in similar conditions to those she had witnessed in Madras. Girls who had gone to Australia in search of a new life in a new world found themselves instead in dire poverty and need with no home or jobs. Many had resorted to prostitution, others were convicts with no hope of a future who had returned to crime in order to survive.
Caroline decided to set to work and do something. She finally got the government on her side and took over a former immigration hostel which she renamed the Female Immigrants Home, where the girls were able to live. She set up an employment office, developed work contracts, and eventually found work for the girls or placed them with established families so that they didn’t starve.
The proportion of men to women in the colony was colossally out of balance. The British Government encouraged girls to emigrate from England to redress the balance. Caroline made sure that when the girls arrived in Australia they were treated well and formed a sort of marriage agency to help ensure that they would be looked after and cared for by their prospective husbands.
When she returned to England in the mid 1840s, Caroline campaigned to allow the families of convicts free passage to Australia and also for improvement to the conditions they had to endure during the journey. She also set up a loan scheme for those not able to gain free passage. She returned to Australia to set up shops in the outback for the gold diggers during the gold rush and also started schools and hospitals throughout the country.
Caroline was also a water diviner. Settlements developed near water sources she discovered, so many towns and villages in Australia owe their origins to Caroline and named streets and roads after her.
Caroline returned to England where she died in poverty and obscurity on 25 March 1877, while her work in Australia earned her continued fame.
She is buried in Billing Road Cemetery, Northampton, alongside her husband, Archibald. The inscription reads “Caroline Chisholm, the Emigrant’s Friend”.