Known as the “immigrant’s friend”, Caroline Chisholm was an instrumental figure in helping thousands of poor migrants to Australia find homes and work.

Born in England in 1808, Chisholm was the youngest daughter of a wealthy Northamptonshire farmer, William Jones, and raised as a Christian in the Church of England.

Caroline Chisholm, depicted in an engraving published in 1853. PICTURE: via Wikipedia

Convinced at an early age that God was calling her to help those in need, she soon revealed a strong bent towards philanthropy and when she agreed to marry Scottish Captain Archibald Chisholm, of the East India Company, at the age of just 22, it was on condition that she could continue her philanthropic work.

Her new husband was a Catholic and so it’s thought that this may have also led to her conversion to Catholicism around this time.

In 1832, Captain Chisholm was posted to Madras (now Chennai) in India and, having joined him the following year, Caroline gave birth to the couple’s first two sons. She also founded the Female School of Industry for the Daughters of European Soldiers where the girls of ordinary soldiers were taught not only academic skills but practical domestic-related skills as well.

Captain Chisholm, however, became ill and it was thought the more temperate Australian climate could be of help to him so, having obtained leave, in September, 1838, the family arrived in Sydney. When Captain Chisholm was recalled to his regiment in India in 1840, Caroline remained there – at Windsor - with what were now her three sons.

Seeing the seemingly countless immigrants who were pouring into Sydney without the prospect of employment or a stable future – and in particular the hardships faced by single young women, Mrs Chisholm soon became a familiar figure on the wharves as she met arriving ships and assisted immigrant girls to find employment and homes (many ended up sheltering in her property).

In early 1841, she managed to convince Governor Sir George Gipps to use part of a former immigration barracks for a Female Immigrants’ Home which, funded by public donations, provided a haven for up to 96 immigrant women at a time as well as Sydney’s only free employment registry.

Chisholm also spent many hours in the saddle as, assisted by letters from the Governor, she accompanied migrant parties around the country in an effort to find jobs them and had soon established employment agencies at 12 or so rural communities.

Chisholm also proposed the concept of settling new families on land with long leases to ensure their long-term prosperity – a notion not popular with land owning elites – and despite the opposition she encountered, she created a settlement at Shellharbour herself, settling 23 families there.

It is said that during these initial seven years in Australia, Mrs Chisholm helped some 11,000 to find homes and jobs.

Following his retirement from the army, Captain Chisholm returned to Australia in 1845 and, finding his wife now a well-known figure in the colony, began working alongside his wife. Mrs Chisholm, meantime, was now increasingly involved in lobbying for reforms and promoting her scheme of colonization.

She and her husband left for England in 1846 - her fourth son was born during the voyage – and once in London she continued her lobbying on behalf of poor immigrants and the idea of systematic emigration rather than forced transportation – in particular helping the families of people sent to Australia as convicts to reunite. She also testified twice before Parliamentary committees.

In 1849, she and her husband created the Family Colonization Loan Society to help families emigrate by providing loans and other support. The organisation, which operated out of the family’s home in the London suburb of Islington and a house next door which was used to accommodate families who were emigrating, had the support of, among others, author and reformer Charles Dickens (he’s said to have partly based the character of Mrs Jellyby, in Bleak House, on her).

In 1851, Captain Chisholm returned to Australia to work as an agent for the society while Caroline embarked on a tour of the UK and continental Europe (where she met, among others, Pope Pius IX). Back in England, she continued to lobby on behalf of colonial immigrants and such was her renown that she was the subject of a now lost portrait exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852.

In 1854 – her return having being delayed by the Crimean War, Caroline returned to Australia. She arrived in Port Phillip in July that year and toured the goldfields shortly after. Having seen emigrants travelling to the goldfields in rural Victoria, she proposed a scheme to build a series of shelter sheds – spaced about a day’s journey apart - to help them on their way and by late 1855, with some government assistance, as many as 10 were under construction.

In 1857, suffering from kidney disease, Caroline and her family moved to Kyneton where they ran a store before in 1859 she went to Sydney for medical care (giving lectures and continuing to lobby while there). She opened a school at Newtown in 1862 due to financial need (and to educate her two daughters) before finally, in 1866, returning to England with her family (her husband had returned year earlier with their younger children).

They lived first in Liverpool and then in London where, on 25th March, 1877, Mrs Chisholm died followed by her husband the following August. Survived by five of their eight children, both were buried in the same grave in Northampton – the tombstone bears the epigraph, ‘The emigrant’s friend’.

Caroline Chisholm, who was one of the greatest social reformers of her age, was later recognised on the calendar of saints in the Anglican Church and there are moves for her to be formally recognised as a saint in the Catholic Church. Her image was on the Australian $5 note until the change of currency in 1992.

SOURCES AND FURTHER INFORMATION:

'Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877)', Judith Iltis, Australian Dictionary of Biography

'About Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877)', Caroline Chisholm Society

Caroline Chisholm of England in Australia’, Sr Janet Fearns, Catholic Mission