Cargoes of Women: Ill-Repute

This is part four of ‘Cargoes of Women’.
For part one, please click here. For part two, please click here. For part three, please click here.

Georgian Britain suffered from a surplus women problem. With each passing census, its inhabitants grew increasingly concerned about the poor distribution of the fairer sex within their empire and proposed a number of methods for a more equitable distribution. Yet, however tempting it may be to describe it so, the relationship between colonial demand and metropolitan supply was not a simple numbers game.

Although these women were almost universally stripped of personality, of identity, there were aspects of their character that remained. Despite robust encouragement for the emigration of eligible maids, some contributors to the Scottish press made a clear differentiation between women and wives.

In the early nineteenth century, this dichotomy existed primarily in Britain’s antipodean colonies, namely New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. In the 1820s and 30s, their demand for female companionship had prompted a number of government emigration schemes, including the provision of free passage to unmarried ladies and the offering of an £8 bounty to the head of their family—their father, brother or employer&mash;or to the captain of the ship that took them thither. These bounties were surely a powerful incentive for men to escort their daughters or unmarried sisters around the Cape, but prospective grooms were clearly not as satisfied with the scheme.

In 1829, a Tasmanian correspondent noted mournfully that free female servants, a sought-after replacement for untrustworthy convict labour, were ‘scarcely to be had’ in the colony. More than a mere labour shortage, this paucity of young, reputable working-class women meant that ‘Mechanics and tradesmen cannot get females of this description for wives, and mostly all of them remain unmarried in consequence.’ It is here that the correspondent makes his opinion of the bounty-scheme clear. Although the raw number of unmarried women entering the colony had increased in recent years, ‘those who get free passages are not the caste’ for marriage.

The notion that government was shovelling out the prostitutes, as well as the paupers, was deeply ingrained in the British conception of single-female migration, both historically and in literature. In the seventeenth century, Virginia, suffering from a similar paucity of eligible maids, had received significant numbers of female convicts—many of whom had a history of prostitution—to serve as companions and wives. Despite their questionable past, redemption of these so-called fallen women was a documented reality, leading in part to Virginia’s ‘widowocracy’ and inspiring Defoe in his creation of Moll Flanders. Thus, the idea that female migrants were women of ill-repute became a trope of colonial settlement

More importantly, despite the apparent social mobility of female convicts within North American colonies, the idea of contamination haunted efforts to transport free and convict women to Australia. According to Tait’s Magazine,

female convicts are, with hardly a single exception, the most drunken and abandoned prostitutes; and so great is the dread of contamination to the children from such wretches, that it is usual to employ men in the performance of duties fulfilled by women in this country, and to dispense with servants altogether as much as possible.

Even free servants were suspected of depravity, the bounty system having seemingly led to questionable recruitment practices. Although advertisements for respectable, hard-working women were issued, if ‘a sufficient number of these to fill the ship does not come forward, a supply of sweepings is taken from a workhouse! Here, then, is such a mixture of good, bad, and indifferent, to the amount of two hundred and upwards, that there is enough of evil to corrupt the good.’ Indeed, even reputable women, left unprotected on their journey or upon arrival in Tasmania, had ‘been irrevocably consigned to prostitution, and that such as obtained services found themselves placed among a very different class of persons to that which they had been accustomed to mix with in this country.’

What we must take away from this dichotomy of demands is that, as ludicrous as the gender imbalance had become, as ravenous as settlements were for female companionship, they still had standards, and would not simply accept what they felt was the refuse of England’s workhouses.

In response to these fears, discussions of female migration, especially that of young servants and eligible maids, began to describe in detail the particular care that should or would be taken in their reallocation. In 1836, the Emigration Committee stated that they could no longer ‘conscientiously recommend to the Government to encourage the further emigration of single females, however well selected, unprotected by parents or near relatives, to Sydney.’ Likewise, it was the advice of experienced travellers that

should you bring a servant girl with you, you should have her in the same berth with yourselves […] to take a steerage passage for their female servant, is just using her as bad as they possibly can do–let her character be never so good before she left home, it would be a wonder if she reached N. S. Wales much better than a common prostitute, at any rate she could never prevent language of the most filthy and disgusting kind being addressed to her both by night and day.

When family could not provide the necessary protection, it fell to the colonial companies to ensure their cargoes reaches the antipodes unspoilt. Women travelling to New Zealand in 1841, for example, were said to be ‘under the superintendence of a matron, and there is a doctor on board to attend upon them during their long voyage to the new colony’ and protect them from disreputable influences. Maids, it appears, were a delicate commodity, in need particular care in their transport.

Although the debate surrounding their character seemingly re-humanises these cargoes of women, the continuing lack of specific detail, of names and histories, of dates and trajectories, seems to return them firmly to the realm of trade goods; in every cargo, after all, some hogsheads must needs be tipped overboard to save the rest. This point was, indeed, rather cruelly made by the Sydney Gazette of 17 January 1818:

On Tuesday arrived the ship Friendship, Captain Armet, with 97 female prisoners, having lost four on the passage, Anna Beal, Sarah Blower, Martha Thatcher, and Jane Brown, the last of whom, from a sudden irritability of temper, threw herself overboard, and was drowned.

In some strange foreshadowing of Project Mayhem, it was only in death that these women had a name.

To be concluded next week with ‘Cargoes of Women: From Marriage Ships to Women’s Rights


Questions to explore…can you help?

  • To what extent are single-women migrants in literature represented as fallen women—redeemed or otherwise?
  • How often did the charge of prostitution actually lead to the migration of single-women?
  • How common was redemption and conjugal acceptance for women of dubious reputation in the Antipodes?

If you have any thoughts or comments on this developing research, please share them below, via twitter or email.


**Image courtesy of William Hogarth (via Wikipedia)

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