Cargoes of Women: The Undocumented

As I slowly trawl through the pages of the Scottish press, I now and then come across a humorous anecdote, a winking satire, or a ludicrous lampoon. For the most part, I have shared these as research notes. Yet, as my folio of absurdities grew, a curious trend began to manifest; the marriage and migration of British women appeared almost exclusive in satirical form. Accounts of the migration of men or family groups were occasionally the target of a mischievousness rub, but single women departing Britain were rarely discussed in a serious tone.

As fortune would have it, this realisation coincided with a seminar on the 'surplus women problem' within my department's core module on Victorian Britain. As students debated the truth and consequences of Britain's surplus middle-class spinsters, I began to ponder my Georgian lassies. Could the humour of their departure have a similar cause? Several satirical accounts had made woeful references to the 'latest census returns' at home and abroad. Having already obtained a familiarity with the literature surrounding the Victorian 'women question', I endeavoured to discover its Georgian predecessor; I could not.

Although anecdotal accounts of single-female emigration from Georgian Britain are seemingly available, in correspondence, newspaper accounts and civil documents, a wider, quantitative view of the process, especially those traits which distinguish it from single-male or familial migration, is less forthcoming. Nor is this necessarily a disciplinary failing. On the contrary, sociologists have in the past praised historians for their active re-inclusion of women within a 'gendered' conception of emigration. Nonetheless, our selection of primary material has had a seemingly profound effect on the direction and focus of our historical enquiry.

Scholarship on gender within nineteenth-century British emigration tends to focus upon two interrelated opinions. The first was that certain colonies, namely the Antipodes, had a deplorable paucity of women; the second, seemingly fortuitous opinion, was that Britain suffered from an equally deplorable surplus of women. The curiosity of this problem, however, is not the seemingly obvious solution—the practicalities of which rendered it far from obvious—but rather its inexorable link to 1851 Census.

In the last sixty years, much had been posited, calculated and written about the movement of Britain’s imperial population. Passenger lists, immigration records and colonial censuses provide the raw data for a rich and detailed (if sometimes impressionistic) image of nineteenth-century migration. Despite this, discussions of gendered migration pathways tend to actively avoid the demographic debate. Instead, they centre on the rise of female emigration societies, such as the Female Middle-Class Emigration Society, the Women’s Emigration Society, and the British Women’s Emigration Association. These societies arose, in part, in response to a mounting debate over a seemingly surplus female population and the legitimacy of women’s rights—a debate engendered by the 1851 British census.

The existing literature on Victorian female migration speaks strongly to the resilience and passion of these groups, who, in the face of ridicule and complaint, attempted to redress gender imbalances through the selective migration of respectable British women. Historians thus frame the surplus women problem as an ideological choice between literally balancing sex-ratios through emigration–and a reallocation of unmarried Jills to needy Jacks–and a more abstract re-balancing of gender norms through education and vocational training within Britain. This uncomfortable dichotomy led contemporaries to blame continuing gender gaps on 'over-educated spinsters' who could not, or would not, contribute to domestic or colonial society and the emigration societies who thrust them unwanted upon their colonial cousins. But our focus on this post-1851 employment-emigration debate obscures the relationship of the Victorian surplus women problem with a much a wider and older discourse.

Alongside this British over-abundance, changes in economic and demographic structures–similar but not identical to those in Great Britain–were prompting significant numbers of unmarried Irish women to emigrate in the decades following the Great Famine. Like the surplus women of Britain, Ireland’s unneeded spinsters appear quite miraculously at mid-century, their biographers abstractly referring a very different, if un-described, demography in the first half of the century. Driven by the source material, both contemporary commentators and their historians have seemingly fixated on the Victorian age as a sea-change in female migration. Yet, the issue of female migration, of surpluses and scarcities, goes back much further. The stability of Georgian (and indeed Stuart and Tudor) colonial endeavours had often been threatened by gender imbalances, and seemingly redressed through dubious reallocations of undesirable, or simply unneeded, British women.

Thus, we are left with cargoes of women who exist only as satirical shadows—comedic commodities whose only purpose, it seems, was to fill empty space in Scottish periodicals. But perhaps, upon closer examination, these lampooned lassies can tell us much more.

To be continued next week with…Cargoes of Women: The Maids


Questions to be explored…can you help?

  • To what extent have earlier gender imbalances been recognised as prompt British emigration?
  • Is there any recent scholarship, or current research, on the gender composition of British emigration prior to 1840?
  • Is the perception of a post-1851 shift an accurate reflection of the existing historiography?


**Image courtesy of drharoldland, provided CC-BY-SA


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