Today’s story from Christian history

25 March 1877 • Caroline Chisholm, Australian Immigrants’ Friend

Caroline James was born in England, the daughter of prosperous farmers who were both evangelical and generous. She grew up steeped in a spirit of philanthropy. When Captain Archibald Chisholm asked her to marry him, she said she would—on the condition that he allowed her to continue her charitable works without question. She then sent him away to think it over for a week. He agreed, and she converted from her Church of England Protestantism to his Roman Catholicism.

Caroline Chisholm
Caroline Chisholm

Archibald was posted to Madras, India. Although it shocked respectable society, Caroline took an interest in the women of low-ranking soldiers and founded the Female School of Industry for the Daughters of European Soldiers. Faithful to his promise, Archibald did nothing to stop her. After a few years, the Chisholms visited Australia.

Shortly after she arrived in Australia, Caroline saw some young women standing on the shore looking confused and dejected. She went over to talk with them and learned they were orphans transported from Ireland with nowhere to sleep but in “the rocks,” Sydney’s crime district. Although they were decent orphans, not criminals, they could not find work. The Protestants of Sydney despised their Catholic faith and did not lend a helping hand and, because a few had resorted to prostitution to feed themselves, all were labeled as whores.

Her conscience stirred, Caroline inquired what each girl could do and promised to help. She placed several as servants. Those that she couldn’t place, she took home and trained. When Archibald was recalled to service, Caroline and her children remained in Australia.

She lobbied the government for an unused barracks to house these new immigrant women. She got nowhere with the governor and most of the churches, including her own, refused to help or did so with reluctance. At last she turned to God alone.

Her breakthrough came when a newspaper printed the account of a young woman who, accused of drunkenness, protested she was just wobbly from hunger. All the same, she was exposed in the stocks, and after her release was found half-dead in a ditch, having collapsed from starvation. The embarrassed governor finally gave Caroline a small space. She decided to spend the night. In the dark she heard noises, lit a lamp and discovered she was surrounded by rats. Although terrified of the creatures, she refused to run, knowing it would undermine her efforts.

Caroline devoted her life to the immigrants, even though this meant she often had to leave her own children in the care of others. She established a job registry and placed young women throughout the colony.

Caroline returned to England in her old age. She died of bronchitis in London on this day, 25 March 1877. Curiously, in light of all she had done, Australian papers printed only a paid notice from her children. Later Australia made amends for the slight by issuing a five-dollar bill with her portrait.

Dan Graves

References:

  1. Chisholm, Caroline. “Female Immigration Considered in a Brief Account of the Sydney Immigrants’ Home.” London, 1842.
  2. “Chisholm, Caroline.” Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 – 1996.
  3. “Chisholm, Caroline.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.
  4. Glimpses #135. Worcester, Pennsylvania: Christian History Institute.
  5. Hoban, Mary. Fifty-One Pieces of Wedding Cake: A biography of Caroline Chisholm. Lowden Publishing, 1973.
  6. Iltis, Judith. “Chisholm, Caroline (1808–1877).” http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chisholm-caroline-1894
  7. Kiddel, Margaret. Caroline Chisholm. Melbourne University Press, 1950.