Image from the book 'Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm. Book is part of Project Gutenberg a public domain publication.

Image from the book 'Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm. Book is part of Project Gutenberg a public domain publication.

Caroline Chisolm: a notable Australian woman

One of Australia’s most notable women was Caroline Chisolm (say chiz-m). She was born Caroline Jones in 1808 near Northampton, England. At the age of 22 she married Captain Archibald Chisolm.  He worked for the British East India Company, which sent him to Madras, India in 1832. She joined him a year later. While there she started a school for daughters of European soldiers, teaching them practical skills.

In 1838 Captain Chisolm became ill and while he was on sick leave the Chisolms came to Australia, which they felt offered a better life for their family, and settled in Sydney Town. At that time Sydney was a convict settlement. Mrs Chisolm was shocked at the situation of many immigrants, particularly women, who had come to start a new life, but without jobs or money, many lived on the streets. Captain Chisolm returned to work in 1840, though his wife and their three sons (they eventually had six children)  remained in Sydney where Caroline Chisolm set about assisting the needy. She even sheltered some of them in her house.

A home for immigrant women

In 1841 she approached the governor, Sir George Gipps, to ask for help in finding a place to house immigrant women. Eventually he agreed and gave her an abandoned, rat-infested army barracks.  Caroline Chisolm got to work setting up a shelter that housed 96 women. She established a free work registry through which people looking for female workers could find them from those Caroline had listed. She began meet ships that came into Sydney carrying immigrants, and took the women to the shelter. In the first two years alone, she found jobs for more than a thousand women. She helped men and families also, but the single women were the most in need of help and protection. She also organised family reunions so that convicts who completed their sentences could stay on in the colony and bring their families to Australia to join them.

While Sydney was full of unemployed immigrants, country areas that were beginning to be opened up and settled were desperately in need of workers. With the support of the governor, she sent information to hundreds of country landowners to encourage them to employ immigrants. People who had just come from Europe were afraid of the bush, so all through 1842 Caroline Chisolm, riding her white horse, led groups into the bush to help ease their fears. She set up rest stops and employment agencies in a number of remote country places. This scheme was so successful that she was eventually able to close the home for women she had set up in Sydney.

Captain Chisolm retired in 1845, and the Chisolms went back to England, where Caroline Chisolm continued to work for her schemes, raising money and promoting immigration to Australia.

Refuges for women

In 1854, the Chisolms returned to Australia. The Victorian gold rush was in full swing, and they lived in Kyneton, a rest stop for people travelling to the goldfields in Castlemaine and Bendigo. There they set up refuges for women who needed help, and safe, cheap family accommodation along the road to the goldfields, each about one day’s comfortable walk apart.  Caroline Chisolm enlisted the help of the Victorian government to build these shelters. A manager was installed in each of the ten, and the cost of one night’s stay was one shilling for adults and sixpence for children.

Caroline Chisolm helped thousands of immigrants in many ways, even teaching English to local Chinese people while she lived in Kyneton, in Victoria.  She set up a scheme that assisted families to migrate to Australia, organising loans to help them travel and get started on small farms. Once she decided on an action, she was tireless in working to make it happen. She cared passionately about people’s needs and dignity, and felt very strongly about the promise that Australia held for hardworking people to live good, productive, healthy lives.

The Chisolms returned to England in 1866, poor but satisfied that much of their work and beliefs had come to pass.  Caroline Chisolm died in March 1877, and her husband a short time later. He was buried with her in Northampton, and the headstone reads ‘The emigrant’s friend’.

How Caroline Chisolm is remembered?

The $5 note showed Caroline Chisolm's portrait, with a background of Sydney Town, immigrant women and the ships they travelled on.

The $5 note showed Caroline Chisolm's portrait, with a background of Sydney Town, immigrant women and the ships they travelled on.

Caroline Chisolm is remembered in many ways in Australia, buildings and institutions named after her, statues, and at times on postage stamps

Caroline Chisolm's portrait was for many years on the Australian $5 note. It is customary for the lowest value note of Australian currency to have a portrait of the monarch, so when the $2 and $2 notes were replaced by coins, the Queen’s portrait had to replace that of Caroline Chisolm.