In August,1832, two hundred and two unmarried young females arrived in Sydney, Australia aboard the Red Rover. This ship had sailed the long journey from Cork in Ireland to bring female immigrants to the British colony at the other side of the world.
These young women, all young and of childbearing age were part of a plan to balance the male dominated colony and address the need for domestic servants. They were given free passage on the ship and a promise of a new life away from the poverty of Ireland. For the colony they were a much-anticipated delivery. For the women it was a brave new start.
Immigrant Women to Balance the Gender Ratio
The gender balance was six to one, male to female, in nineteenth century Sydney. Young men needed wives, established homes needed servants. Gender equality was not an issue back then. Women and girls were commodities to be used like any other product. Admittedly, some men would treat the women well, but many would not.
The girls arriving had cast their fate to the winds. These were the strong, dangerous winds and seas that had carried them far to this god-forsaken foreign continent, four months by ship from home in the Irish Sea.
A Brave New Start after a Dangerous Journey
The Sydney Gazette, at the time, reported the females as arriving ‘in the most perfect state of health and aged between 16 and 24 years.’ There was no mention, it seems of the two children who also arrived, one born during the journey. But I am sure these women had endured a worrisome voyage tossed about on the oceans and even though they had arrived safely, must have had some trepidation about their future.
Australia at the time, even now, is very different from the UK and Ireland. No green rolling hills, just brown plains and grey eucalypts, no established towns or familiar sights. A vast brown land, a scorching sun, not a soft misty Irish landscape awaited these fresh young colleens from Ireland. But perhaps the harbor itself buoyed their spirits. Sydney Harbour is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world, especially when the sun shines.
At least it was August, not the height of summer and at least some of the men and women in the colony, spoke with the familiar Irish lilt. Until the girls found employment, they would stay in a disused lumber yard at 13-15 Bridge Street, where today, city office workers rush by. There is still a small green plaque there to mark their previous existence, thanks to the Australian Historical Society. What happened to these women?
Employment and Marriage
The answer is life happened. Some girls adapted well to their new home and went on to marry local men and be happy, raising a batch of future Australians. I read Mercedes Maguire’s article published in the Sydney Weekend, August 13, 2022, giving details on some of the women. (Article read is by subscription only.) I include some of the content below.
Mary Downey, 18 years, earnt 9 pound a year as a servant to Anna Maria Bourke, a daughter of Governor Richard Bourke who had accompanied her father to welcome the convoy of women on the Red Rover. Interestingly, this Governor Bourke was the man who declared Australia, terra nullius, Latin for uninhabited land. This was a mistake and insult to the indigenous people, many of whom still lived in Sydney environs at the time. Only in 1992 was this statement of an empty continent corrected.
Oblivious to this connection with future politics, Mary Downey slept in an attic above the kitchen with other servants at Government House, in Parramatta, Sydney. She later married a convict, also transported to Sydney from Ireland. They had two children, a son and daughter, but when Mary was pregnant with her third, in 1839, her husband committed suicide due to the loss of his job.
Mary was now desperate with no husband or income to sustain herself and three young children. She married again quickly in 1840. Mary had six more sons, lived a long life, and died in 1896.
Another woman, worked as a lady’s maid to Lady Dumaresq in Musselbrook, a country area in NSW. The Dumaresq family were also well-off with links to Governor Darling.
Or Court and Prison
But some women, according to searches, had a rougher time of adjusting. They ended up in court and/or prison for neglect of duty and insolence to employers. The claims were usually made by employing women not men.
Sarah Coxen made complaints about her servant girl, Mary Hall who engaged as a yearly servant, kept disappearing to the barn with a male prisoner servant and neglecting duties. Feistily, Mary refused to stay more than two weeks and refused to be treated ‘like a factory woman’. The business was taken to court and Mary’s fine was docked wages on account of her neglect to duty.
Another girl, Jane Landford was sentenced to 120 hours in Newcastle cells for drunkenness and neglect of duty. Not all the women immigrants fared well in the colony.
Eighty Years Later (while Eating Fish and Chips)
Eighty years later, in 1912, my own grandmother, Winifred Dora Reeseg emigrated from London to Sydney, Australia. She and her sister, Francesca, just young women at the time, made the still perilous but improved journey across the oceans on the Rangatira steamship. They wanted a brave new start after the younger had suffered a romantic tragedy. They left their parents and three sisters and three brothers behind.
While eating their fish and chip dinner, the sisters noticed an advertisement for female workers to come to Sydney. They decided to make a brave, new start. This adventure across the oceans must have seemed either very brave or foolish as the Titanic had sunk on a voyage across the Atlantic a few months before. There are icebergs in the southern oceans as well and the trip to Australia is vastly longer than the Titanic’s trip from Southhampton to New York. By 1912, the trip was not four months as it was in 1832 but half, six to eight weeks.
Sisters Whispering Through Time
You can read about this true and fascinating story in my historical novel, Whispers through Time soon to be followed by the publication of the sequel, Time, Heal my Heart. This next novel chronicles the lives of the sisters during the Great War of 1914 to 1918. If you enjoy history and stories about women, then why not escape to the past and inhabit another life. You can read about adventurous young women who made a brave new start.
You will realize that if they could, you can. Life is short. Live it to the full. There’s nothing as exciting as exploring and seizing new opportunities.
Joni Scott co-hosts a women’s blog: https://whisperingencouragement.com/ She also writes short stories and has two published novels. Visit her on website; https://joniscottauthor.com. Book trailer
Read more posts about women on our blog, Whisperingencouragement.com