Caroline Chisholm


The first (white) Independent Women in Australian literature – fiction or biography, Mary Reibey (1777-1855) and Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850), were a widow and grass widow respectively, who carried on enterprises begun by their husbands. My favourite Independent Woman was also married, even much-married. Daisy Bates (1859-1951), having actively engaged with her husband and son in a failed attempt to become a cattle queen in the Pilbara, then abandoned them both to pursue her vocation as a self-taught linguist and anthropologist.

But by and large, my IW’s up to the 1950’s were determinedly single, women like Miles Franklin who knew they could not function autonomously while also shouldering the burdens of wife and/or motherhood. Very few women had the luxury, as Henry Handel Richardson famously did, of operating behind the shield of her childless marriage to John Robertson. In passing, I should say that a few weeks ago I mentioned the almost complete absence in the literature of this period of unwed mothers (here). I should have mentioned in this context Ernestine Hill (1899-1972). Hill makes no mention of her son Robert in The Timeless Land (1937), the account of her journey around outback Australia in 1931-2 when he would have been about 7, although her ADB entry says, “Robert grew to be a partner in the restless travels on which she based her life’s work.” I must discover if there is a memoir – hers or his – which includes him.

A couple of years ago Annabel Crabb posited a different solution in The Wife Drought; reviewed by MST at Adventures in Biography (here), as Women Need Wives. As Michelle writes, “If women in senior positions were blessed with wives in the same way that men in senior positions frequently are, we might see a participatory uptick, because women wouldn’t have to choose between having a career and having a family.”

Just one woman I know of fits the bill, had a husband who followed and supported her when she took the lead, Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877), the woman on the $5 note. The biography I have is Mary Hoban’s, Fifty-One Pieces of Wedding Cake (1973).

Googling Mary Hoban brings up her being awarded the Inaugural Hazel Rowley Memorial Fellowship (in 2012) and an ADB entry for an earlier Mary Hoban who appears to be our Mary’s aunt, but no other books. In her Introduction she writes:

When such an excellent biography as the late Margaret Kiddle’s Caroline Chisholm exists, it seems some special reasons are needed for attempting the subject again.

This book aims to include more details of human interest than might have been possible, or advisable in a work submitted as a history thesis. It also aims to present Caroline’s thinking expressed in her own language.

It is not clear what her sources for this are, in one place she mentions a diary that was subsequently lost, but I can only imagine there must be a trove of letters home to her mother and siblings, as well as published letters and pamphlets.

Caroline Chisholm was born near Northampton, England to a relatively well-off farmer, maybe the fifth or sixth in a large family.

Caroline’s earliest memories were happy ones – loving parents, bright fires and warm beds, dogs and chickens, great trees and clouds, church bells and market days, sheds full of apples, stables full of horses …

Hoban goes on in this way throughout the book, and imagined or not, it certainly makes for readablity.

Caroline’s father died when she was 6, but this occasioned no change in her upbringing and she continued to be brought up and educated in prosperous, middle class style in preparation for entry into County society. When she was 21 she met Archibald Chisholm, a Scot and a lieutenant in the Indian Army (the army of the British East India Co.), and about 10 years her senior, at a dance and they were soon married. Chisholm was a Catholic, and soon after their marriage Caroline converted as well.

In India, the Chisholm’s lived initially in Madras, in Fort St George, a mile square compound, and Caroline, with a servant for every need, lived an easy life socialising with the other wives. This soon palled and Caroline began a school ‘for the daughters of European soldiers’. It is a measure of Chisholm’s devotion to his wife that when she suggested the school would be better outside the Fort, and despite already being an outsider as a Catholic, he gave her his full support and they moved into premises in the mixed-race quarter.

After 5 years the school was a success, and Caroline was the mother of 2 sons, but Archibald, now Captain Chisholm, was due for furlough. England was cold and expensive and it was decided to give New Holland a try. In March, 1938 they sailed for Sydney, and when Chisholm returned to India in 1840, Caroline stayed on.

The Chisholms had taken a house at Windsor (and there she had a third son), but on her visits to Sydney Caroline had become aware of the problem of young women brought out from England and Ireland but unable to find positions on arrival. She began in an informal way taking girls into her home and having her housekeeper train them up for domestic service and then finding them employment. “At one time she had ten living at the house, but housemaids and nursemaids were always in demand.”

By 1841 transportation was coming to an end and the old Immigration Barracks were standing empty. Caroline began campaigning to have the Barracks used for women brought out under the bounty system, who were accommodated in tents and provided with minimal sustenance if they couldn’t find work. She also began looking into the imbalance between unemployment in Sydney and labour shortages in the country.

Mrs Chisholm became a familiar figure on the wharves in Sydney, meeting every immigrant ship, finding positions for immigrant women and sheltering many of them in her home. In 1841 she established the Female Immigrants’ Home housing up to 96 women and was soon overwhelmingly successful in assisting immigrants to find work in rural NSW, making many trips herself and establishing employment agencies in a dozen centres.

In 1845 Capt Chisholm retired from the army and returned to assist Caroline with her work. The following year they moved to London where Caroline lobbied parliament for family emigration and, in 1849, established the Family Colonization Loan Society, which funded shiploads of intending settlers. In 1851 Capt Chisholm left for Australia to act for the Society there while Caroline continued her work in Britain for another three years, before joining him in Melbourne in 1854, by which time they had assisted over 3000 emigrants.

Caroline Chisholm began a tradition of tireless work by women for the needy in Australia, a tradition carried forward by Mary McKillop, Catherine Spence and many others, but which, at least until recently, rarely received the recognition afforded to (male) business, political and military leaders.


Mary Hoban, Fifty-One Pieces of Wedding Cake, Lowden Publishing, Kilmore (Vic), 1973

Other biographies:

M. Kiddle, Caroline Chisholm (Melb, 1957)

Walker, Carole, A Saviour of Living Cargoes – The Life and Work of Caroline Chisholm, (first published in Australia in 2009 by Australian Scholarly Publishing; republished in Australia 2011 by Connor Court Publishing; UK edition published by Wolds Publishing, 2010)

Chisholm, Caroline, ed. by John Moran, Radical in Bonnet and Shawl: Four Political Lectures; and Little Joe. (Australia: Preferential Publications, 1994 and 1991)

see also the website

Added 26 Feb 2016: I have just come across another Caroline Chisholm biography, preserved by Project Gutenberg Australia as an e-book – Eneas Mackenzie, Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm, London 1852 (here)

22 thoughts on “Caroline Chisholm

  1. Great post Bill. Two other interesting independent women of Australian literature, but seemingly less well known are Charlotte Barton, who apparently wrote the first Australian children’s book (1841), and her daughter, Louisa Atkinson (who lived much of her life in the Berrima-Bowral region!) a respected naturalist, journalist, botanical illustrator and novelist.


  2. Thanks Sue, and I’ve added those two to my list. And to add to my comments on your Gerald Murnane post, yes, visit Warrnambool and nearby Tower Hill – the volcano in a volcano – and if you go by the Great Ocean Road then you have all my favourites covered, Western District-wise. When I said Bowral I guess I was thinking about the colours and the Englishness. Goroke in the Wimmera is much more plains-ish, but see for yourself!
    ps. if you really like driving do a side trip to Mt Eccles and on to the Grampians, had many happy camping holidays, in both, sans parents, in my schooldays.


    • Actually, we had two. (We owned a car wrecking and repair business for a while, and it specialised in Renaults and Peugeots so yes, we had very nice cars then). The Florides were both open-topped, but one had a lid that you could fold back to enjoy the breeze and the other was more risky in Melbourne’s weather, because you could take the lid off altogether and leave it in the garage. Alas, I learned to stop driving in an open-topped car one warm summer evening when I pulled up at the lights, doors locked for safety out of habit, when some yobbos in a Holden pulled up alongside me and began offering their “services”. That’s when it dawned on me that I was incredibly vulnerable in that car because they could simply jump into it. I left them in my wake when the lights changed but it ruined my pleasure in driving that car, and it wasn’t long before I switched to a nice Peugeot 504. It was yellow like a bee, and the loveliest car I ever owned…


      • Sad that you were made to feel unsafe. A different feeling altogether in a pug! My Triumph was kept on the road by the boys at Hillman Auto Spares who bought all the stock from the old AMI factory. But my sexiest car was a HK Monaro which I drove to WA all the better to woo (the soon to be) Mrs Legend.

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      • Our business began as a hospital for old Austin 1800s but we realised not long after we bought it that impecunious owners of Renaults (who for some reason were mostly university students) were more likely to keep the business afloat than a few Austin aficionados. And so it proved to be until Renault pulled out of Australia…


      • The Austin 1800s! I got my licence on one of those in the early 1970s. Weren’t they the cars with the engine facing a different direction? And when they got wet they’d stop? It was a joke in our family that we had an English made car that would stop in the rain. We had two in a row. Tanks, but very safe for new, young drivers!


      • Well, they did *feel* safe because they were so solid, (and yes, the engine did cut out during the rain…) but they were actually quite dangerous to drive though you might never find that out until you had to make a forced stop. They didn’t have the ABS braking system, and if I hadn’t been taught how to handle a skid, I would have had a very nasty accident one day in the rain near the level crossing in Kensington. I had The Offspring in the car, and I’d borrowed the Austin because my Renault was in for a service, but I refused ever to drive it after that!


      • Oh good – at least, oh good that my memory was correct about them and the rain! They were certainly sold looking. Was the ABS braking system common then? Anyhow, I’m very glad you managed that dangerous situation.


      • No, I don’t know either – I certainly learnt a lesson about a skid in one of our cars (I’m sure it had ABS brakes but it was a taking-off skid not a slowing down one). I was glad I had some understanding of skids, but I also learnt how to judge certain situations better to avoid such a skid in future!

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  3. I found the Caroline Chisholm in 51Pieces a bit too domesticated for me! Maybe because at my girl’s school, we had 4 ‘houses’ – Chisholm, (Jane) Franklin,(Elizabeth) Macarthur and (Lucy) Osborne – all of them portrayed as ladylike and virtuous – just like we were meant to be 🙂

    I loved Caroline Chisholm’s more radical persona in her own speeches – especially when she went in to bat for the Chinese during the anti-Chinese frenzy on the goldfields. It hadn’t occurred to me before to link that back to her early years in multi-racial Madras.


  4. It’s a shame that school so often puts us off people (and books) we might otherwise admire. And I do admire CC, I think she was brave, determined, and efficient, a formidable combination. Hogan wishes to emphasise her virtues from a Catholic point of view, hence the domesticity I suppose but I still think she does a good job. CC herself seems to have been totally colour blind. In 1838 she was worried about Indian ‘coolies’ being sent out to replace convicts.


  5. Catherine Helen Spence. Another literary, independent woman and (according to Wikipedia – so it must be true) also featured on an Australian $5 note. I read her ‘Clara Morrison’ at uni and was told it was the first Australian novel. Don’t know if that’s true either, though.


    • It’s not the first, not by 20 years I shouldn’t think (I’ll look it up when I get home later this week) but I have it and will read it “soon”. Big admirer of CHS and she’s on my list. I wanted to look at an independent married woman this time, I think CHS was single and lived with a companion, a subject for another day

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    • Clara Morrison first published 1854 (I actually had it in my head that it was of the feminist novels of that time that was refused publication, but not so, and I may have been thinking of Spence’s Handfasted, or just suffering a brain fade). The first Australian novel was Quintus Serviton by Henry Savery, published 1830 and the second was Ralph Rashleigh although it was not published until well into the C20th, but of course you knew that from reading my review (


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