Caroline Chisholm: Advocate for women and prophet of the laity

Advocate for women and prophet of the laity

(Member -Friends of Caroline Chisholm and Co-Director – Siena Institute Australia)

CAROLINE Chisholm’s work unfolded in Australia and England in the middle decades of the 19th century. Her main focus was to alleviate poverty and the associated moral dangers. Caroline’s most pressing and immediate concern was the well being of young unaccompanied women immigrants many of whom found themselves alone on the streets of Sydney. With no contacts in the colony, no experience, and no pre-arranged employment, they often found themselves recruited into prostitution. Many of these girls were too naïve to realise what they were being lured into, others were too desperate to offer resistance. She began taking girls into her own home, but soon realised the need for more systematic measured and lobbied Governor Gipps for assistance in establishing a home where these girls would be housed until suitable employment could be found for them.

Governor Gipps was surprised when he met Mrs Chisholm. He expected:

to have seen an old lady in a white cap and spectacles, who would have talked to me about my soul. I was amazed when my aid introduced a handsome, stately young woman, who proceeded to reason the question as if she thought her experience worth as much as mine.

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Sceptical of her success, he conceded to give her access to the disused immigrant barracks in Bent Street. These were no more than a 40 foot long, rat infested, draughty shed. Soon they were accommodating 100 young women.

She also became concerned with the conditions the girls had been forced to endure on the bounty ships including sexual assault and was the first woman in the colony to bring a case to court against the Captain and Surgeon of the Carthaginian for the maltreatment of a passenger. The female passenger had spoken up against the immorality on the ship and for her courage spent the night on deck, in stocks, in a wet night dress. Caroline was outraged. She won the case, described as ‘one of the most significant cases in the colony so far’ by the solicitor-general Roger Therry.

She worked at reuniting the families of emancipists and free settlers by obtaining government assistance in the emigration of spouses and children left behind in England. She also assisted in the settlement of young Irish women from famine stricken Ireland. Caroline Chisholm saw immigration and settlement of families from the desperate poverty of England to the new land of opportunity in Australia as a solution to the economic problems of both countries.

From a young age Caroline Chisholm was aware of a call to serve others. When Archibald Chisholm proposed marriage she initially refused him for fear that her call would make her an unsuitable wife for an officer and an inadequate mother. Archibald reassured Caroline that in marrying her he would also support her work in whatever manner he was able. Through marriage to Archibald Chisholm. Caroline Jones, an evangelical Protestant, converted to Catholicism.

She was ever ready to respond to the needs of those around her, from visiting the elderly in her village in the north of England, to establishing a school for the daughters of poor soldiers while she was a young officer’s wife in Madras. When faced with the situation of desperate young women in Sydney, she prayed and fasted in order to discern God’s will for her.

The Caroline Chisholm story is relatively well known in Australia, but it is a secularised interpretation. Her religious motivation which she publicly acknowledged is omitted or ridiculed as in Anne Summer’s description of women in colonial Australia as being considered either ‘damned whores’ or ‘God’s police’ the latter term specifically applied to her.

Caroline undertook her early work with the single women of Sydney while Archibald was in China in the active service of the East India Company and Caroline was responsible for the care of their three small children. She had attempted to keep the children with her in Sydney, but the conditions and the presence of diseases such as cholera forced her to send the children to their home in Windsor where she had the assistance of a governess.

On Captain Chisholm’s return to Sydney he accompanied her on a tour of NSW collecting testimonies from happily settled immigrants with the purpose of taking these to England to encourage further immigration to Australia. A fourth child was born on board ship as they returned to England. It was a difficult birth and almost caused the death of mother and child. Another two children were born in England.

In England they established the Family Colonisation Loan Society, bringing together prospective immigrants, arranging loans, and acquainting them with information regarding their endeavours. The Society chartered ships fitted out to Caroline’s specification. Unable to afford to pay an Australian agent, Archibald undertook to return to Australia to meet the ships of the Society. The family were reunited three years later and settled in Kyneton in Victoria. By this time the gold rush was underway and Caroline undertook the construction of shelter sheds along the road from Melbourne to the Mount Alexander goldfields. These were rudimentary buildings which provided shelter and cooking facilities for women and children travelling to join their husbands on the goldfields.

In addition to any government grants, the Chisholms used their own personal means to assist their work. At the end of their lives, Caroline and Archibald lived in relative anonymity and poverty on a pension of ₤100.

Caroline’s work could only have been successful with a supportive husband.

Caroline Chisholm was a prophetic voice in colonial Australia. Her concerns in the 1840s-1860s are issues that still concern church and society today, not only in Australia but universally. The principles she identified are as valid today as they were in her own time. Hers was a prophetic voice in her ability to understand and articulate an enduring Christian vision in a colonial society that was facing new and radical challenges. Much of her life and work embodied a view of the lay vocation which the Church did not articulate until a century after her death.

The 1960s and 70s saw a public discussion of Caroline’s merits as an Australian saint. The discussion began in the pages of the Bulletin magazine and continued within the Church.


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