Caroline Chisholm, Sarah Goldman


Caroline Chisholm, or to give it its full title, Caroline Chisholm: An Irresistible Force, How one extraordinary woman helped shape a nation, is a new biography of the woman who single handedly changed (for the better!) the way the Australian colonies dealt with the huge influx of workers, especially women, we needed up till the gold rushes of the 1850s. The author, Sarah Goldman is a journalist – a tv news producer – who lives in Sydney with her partner, two sons and a dog. This is her first book.

Goldman believes that earlier biographers have focused on Chisholm’s work and her Catholicism at the expense of revealing her as a person. While adhering to the facts, she says, Goldman has at the beginning of each chapter “imagined scenes that related directly to incidents covered within the subsequent pages.”

Sir George Gipps, Governor of New South Wales … had been surprised when Caroline Chisholm had been ushered into the room, even wondered if he had misheard the name. Instead of the frumpy, bespectacled matron in plain gown and white cap that he had expected, he had been confronted by a handsome, even stately young matron, fashionably dressed and wearing a very fetching bonnet. [Introduction, Sydney 1841]

Caroline Chisholm was born in 1808 in Northampton, England. Her father, William Jones, by then 64, had started out as a farm labourer but was now a prosperous property owner and ‘hog jobber’. He died six years later, leaving Caroline an investment property with substantial rentals. Caroline’s mother, with a number of other children to support, promptly offloaded Caroline onto another Northampton women and then to boarding school where she seems to have obtained a good education. Later, Caroline names another (maybe the same) Northampton woman, Sarah Laws as her mother in the 1851 census.

Caroline early decided on a career in charity. In 1829 she turned 21 and became mistress of her own fortune, but only for so long as she remained unmarried. George Sand whose life we looked at a couple of weeks ago was at the same time in France in exactly the same position – the laws in both countries (most countries probably, I think this also comes up in Anna Karenina) gave complete control of a woman’s property to her husband.

A year later, thirty year old Lieutenant Archibald Chisholm, a Scotsman and a Catholic, returning home on furlough from ten years with the East India Company, met Caroline in Northampton and asked for her hand in marriage. She refused. Only relenting when he acceded to the condition that she retain the freedom to pursue her own objectives. Caroline, brought up Protestant, then converted to Catholicism.

I covered Chisholm’s life and work in some detail in my earlier review of Mary Hoban’s 1973 biography (here), but to give a ‘brief’ recap – Caroline followed Archibald to India where she established a school for the daughters, often mixed race, of ordinary soldiers; then, on his next furlough, they went to NSW, where Caroline took on the problem of female bounty migrants having no support on arrival. She stayed on in Sydney while Archibald went back for another five years in India, touring NSW extensively, escorting groups of young women to positions in the country and conducting an extensive survey into opportunities for rural labour. Here Caroline ventures into Australian Legend territory:

… travelling with the girls on the wagons or, later, riding her own horse, Captain. Her expeditions went “as far as 300 miles into the far interior, sometimes sleeping at the stations of wealthy settlers, sometimes in the huts of poor emigrants or prisoners; sometimes camping out in the bush, teaching the timid awkward peasantry of England, Scotland and Ireland, Protestant and Roman Catholics, Orangemen and Repealers, how to “bush” it.”

By the time Archibald returned, Caroline was well known and highly regarded, and her opinion was sought by – and more often pressed on – the fledgling Legislative Council.

In 1846 the Chisholms returned to England, setting up a base in the poorer part of London and Caroline began advocating for and organising female and family migration to Australia from Britain and Ireland (then in the grip of the Great Famine). There she met Dickens and elements of her survey appeared in the first issue of his magazine Household Words. He was later to satirise her unfairly as Mrs Jellyby* in Bleak House. The establishment of the Family Colonization Loan Society in 1850, and her being only the second woman ever to give evidence to a committee of the House of Lords, made her one of the best known people in Great Britain.

The Society chartered and, later had constructed purpose-built ships, including the Caroline Chisholm which was unfortunately commandeered for troop transport to the Crimean War. Archibald was despatched first to Adelaide, then to Melbourne, where he was subsequently joined by Caroline, to act as the Society’s agent. The Chisholms settled in Victoria, in Melbourne and then Kyneton, but the wave of immigration associated with the gold rushes of the 1850s meant that her work was no longer of such importance.

She was able to persuade the government to establish ‘shelter sheds’, accommodation for families walking between Melbourne and the Castlemaine/Bendigo gold fields, and continued to advocate for an Australian ‘yeomanry’ – family based farms to replace the huge runs taken up by squatters and worked mostly by single men.

Despite her Catholicism, Caroline Chisholm both advocated and practiced multi-culturalism. Attacked by the Protestant preacher John Dunmore Lang for bringing out Irish Catholic girls, Caroline retorted, “I have lived happily amongst pagans and heathens, Mahometans and Hindoos – they never molested me at my devotions, nor did I insult them at theirs; and am I not to enjoy the same privilege in New South Wales?” [reported in Sydney Morning Herald, 20 March 1846]. Later in Victoria Chisholm was to speak up in the same way for the largely reviled Chinese (I devoted a second post to Chisholm’s views on race here).

In straining to create historical women heroines we sometimes find they are given more prominence now than they were then. The reverse is true of Caroline Chisholm, and of many women authors, whose considerable reputations and influence at the time have not been brought forward by (male) historians. When you think about it, it is nonsensical that school students learn more about the failures of man-heroes Burke & Wills and Ludwig Leichardt than they do about about the successes of Caroline Chisholm, Mary McKillop or Catherine Helen Spence.

In this biography Sarah Goldman presents Chisholm as a powerful early practical feminist, making her way in a man’s world, creating opportunities for women and for families (though at the expense of some neglect of her own), with the unstinting support of her husband. I’m not sure Goldman gets very far behind the public face, though she (rightly) gets angry discussing Dickens and others dismissing Caroline as plump – as well she might be after eight children – and matronly.

The short imagined scenes are an interesting idea to provide an introduction to each chapter, but I was disappointed to find (in the End Notes) that one, where Caroline out in the bush with a dray load of women immigrants is held up by a bushranger, is totally imaginary. Overall however this is a powerful and very well documented work.


Sarah Goldman, Caroline Chisholm, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2017 (Review copy supplied by publisher)

Author interview (here)

Other biographies:

Mary Hoban, Fifty-One Pieces of Wedding Cake (1973). My reviews here and here.

Carole Walker, 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 in 2011 by Connor Court Publishing; UK edition published by Wolds Publishing, 2010)

Rod Stinson, Unfeigned Love: Historical Accounts of Caroline Chisholm and Her Work, Yorkcross, Sydney, 2008

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

M. Kiddle, Caroline Chisholm (Melb, 1957)

Eneas Mackenzie, Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm (London, 1852)  preserved by Project Gutenberg Australia as an e-book (here).

see also the website

*I originally wrote ‘Mrs Jellybelly’, a Freudian slip picked up by Professor Melanie (Grab the Lapels) below.


Caroline Chisholm, part 2

I hadn’t intended a Part 2 but a comment by ‘Learnearnandreturn’ who blogs at History is Past Caring has prompted me to look again at an important aspect of Caroline Chisholm which I had overlooked, her stance on Race. Consequently, I have gone back through Mary Hoban’s biography of Chisholm, Fifty-One Pieces of Chocolate Cake, to pull out some examples which demonstrate just how averse to racial prejudice Caroline Chisholm was.

When Caroline joined Archy – Captain Archibald Chisholm, her new husband – in Madras, India in 1832 they lived initially in Fort St George, a mile square compound built in 1640 for the protection of the European interlopers and where “many of the upper ranks of Army and commerce still had their homes”. But, for her school for the often mixed race daughters of ordinary soldiers to succeed it had to be in Black Town, to the north of the Fort. “In this part of the city lived Indians, Eurasians and the poorer whites. The whites included English, Irish, Scots, French, Armenian and Jewish people. The Indians were both Hindus and Mohametans (the latter often called the ‘Moors’)”. “Their house in Black Town was smaller and hotter, and friends explained that they couldn’t visit them there for fear of the fever…”

In 1838 the Chisholms set out on what was intended to be an extended visit to Australia. At that time the transportation of convicts was coming to an end and one of the solutions to the looming labour shortage, particularly in rural Australia, was thought to be Indian ‘coolie’ labour (as in South Africa, Fiji and Mauritius for example). So, “… among the human cargo were ten Indian coolies intended for an Australian employer… It was said among the passengers that the ten … must have been brought aboard after being given opium. They were entirely sick and miserable, and two of them ran away [when the ship called] at Mauritius. A third later died, demented with homesickness and fear.” When the Chisholms had taken a house at Windsor, outside Sydney, it was explained to Caroline that “Some of the big men who had been officers in India … had been importing coolies to work for them. These were cheap enough – they could live on a bit of rice and oil and the smell of an onion, but they had no guts and dropped like flies.”

I am pretty sure Hoban has sourced these remarks from Caroline’s letters home. In any case it is clear that the ill treatment of convict and Indian labour was the source of Caroline’s opinion that the country needed to be settled by families, not by big land holders with indentured single men over whom they effectively held the power of life and death.

On the question of Aborigines, she had less to say, and you get the impression that even as early as 1838 there was by and large no Indigenous presence remaining on the Hawkesbury. But in 1845 Caroline is travelling around NSW interviewing early settlers and old convicts, gathering evidence for her campaigns and among her concerns is that lonely men in the bush are taking to the grog, and are abusing Aboriginal women. She writes:

May many thousands yet find their way there – may British habits of industry, frugality and care find a shelter and protection in the far bush … the shepherds’ huts [will] become homes for happy men and virtuous women. The money now expended in rum and champagne will be expended in purchasing clothing for children. If the happiness of her own children does not induce England to adopt prompt measures to secure this blessing to the Colony, the gradual destruction and extermination of the Aborigines DEMAND it from her justice!!!

Finally, there were the Chinese, in Australia both on their own account for the gold rushes and imported as cheap labour. In 1857 Chisholm was moved to write to the Melbourne papers:

Relative to Immigration, I cannot help observing that it ought not be carried on with a view to making labour cheap here, but on the general principle of giving permanent homes to the distressed multitude …

Our politicians are all powerful but timid and irresolute …

As Hoban writes, “Mrs Chisholm then threw discretion further to the winds, if possible, and standing firm against the tide of public opinion, spoke in favour of the Chinese, the people who, at this moment, provided society’s main scapegoat.”

There is one great question, Sir, which at present affects us deeply, and which, I must confess, I have closely watched, and that is the question of Chinese immigration. With respect to the Chinese, I cannot help apprehending that our neglect in providing shelter of some sort for them may one day cause a sweeping calamity. The excitement against the Chinese may be looked upon in some measure as a political dodge, in order to divert attention from the land question…  there will be no rest until man is recognized as man, without distinction of colour or clime… The monopolizing spirit of capital and power has locked up India and would now shut the gates of China against the will of Providence and the rights of man; nevertheless the education of of the labourer is going on”.

Ah, they don’t make letter writers like that any more!


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)