Women in Colonial Times

From the first day of the English colony in New South Wales in 1788, European men, women and children were all represented although women and children were in the minority. For many years, male colonists represented three quarters of the colonial population in towns, and female colonists were almost unheard of in rural areas. In the 1780s the ratio of male to female colonists was seven to one.

The female colonists in Australia were of three groups. The first and by far the largest group were convicts. The new colony gave some convict women the chance to develop their skills and improve their situation.

The next group were the wives of military responsible for policing the convicts. Some military wives, like Elizabeth Macarthur, would become among the most important and successful people in the colony.

The third group, the free settlers, were enticed by the opportunity and freedom a ‘new’ country like Australia could offer. Here they could escape the problems that beset them at home and carve new lives for themselves. Despite being outnumbered, women were an influential and hardworking part of colonial Australia’s achievements.

In addition to the female colonists there were female Indigenous Australians – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women whose lives were changed when the English colonists arrived in large numbers.

Free settlers

From 1793 onwards, women arrived as free settlers. Some of them came under schemes that offered cheap passage to the colony financed by a government bounty. These schemes encouraged the migration of young married couples and single women to help satisfy the demand for labour in the young colony.

Women who arrived as free settlers often followed the lives their fathers and husbands led. As outback pioneers on selections, as squatters and drovers wives, they shaped and created Australia’s rural towns just as much as men did, working alongside them, managing homes, raising children and educating families.

The reality of life in colonial Australia often meant that upper class women had to perform physical labour and hard work for which they were little prepared. Women of social standing found themselves in the harsh, often brutal surrounds of outback Australia where they frequently struggled to build lives for themselves and their families.

The life of Georgiana McRae – an aristocratic woman in early Melbourne

Georgiana McRae was a daughter of the Duke of Gordon. In Britain she was recognised as an excellent painter and in 1820, at the age of 16, she won a silver medal from the Royal Society of Arts for her work.

In 1830 Georgiana married Andrew McRae, a lawyer who initially practised in Edinburgh. In 1838, he booked passage for them and their children to Australia, which he believed offered huge opportunities. When Georgiana arrived in Melbourne it was only five years old and was a virtual shanty town.

The cottage her husband had rented in Lonsdale Street was nothing like Gordon Castle, where Georgiana had lived in her youth. The cottage had an outdoor toilet, mud and animal faeces underfoot and a hole in the roof for the cooking fire smoke to escape. The privileged life she had led as a member of the English upper class was well and truly over.

Georgiana moved with her husband from Melbourne to a cattle run, to the goldfields, and eventually back to Melbourne. There she died in 1890 at the age of 85. Today she is remembered as a true Melbourne pioneer, an accomplished artist and brave woman.

Bounty immigrant women

Young women, often orphans, servants or factory workers, were actively recruited with low priced ‘bounty’ tickets to Australia in an effort to balance the male-female ratio in the new colonies. Many of the young ‘bounty’ girls who arrived in Sydney and Melbourne found themselves in a miserable situation, with little but prostitution and crime to sustain them.

Caroline Chisholm – friend to immigrant women

Caroline Chisholm, the wife of a British soldier, arrived in Sydney in September 1838. There she saw the misery of unemployed immigrant women who lived on the streets in the areas known as the Rocks, not far from the wharves where the ships arrived.

Caroline began helping some of these women find work and took others into her home. She taught them the basics of housekeeping and cooking so they could be employed in the homes of the middle and upper classes.

While her husband was fighting in the Opium Wars in China, Caroline convinced Governor Gipps to let her use an old shed as a welfare agency. She and her sons moved into the 45-foot long shed that was home to thousands of rats. Within a short time, it was also home to 100 women.

Caroline worked hard to educate the women and get them paid work. She expanded her welfare agency beyond Sydney, setting up sixteen emigrant women’s hostels around the colony.

Caroline died in England in 1877, recognised as leading social reformer. She is remembered in Australia today by many schools that bear her name, the Caroline Chisholm Society, the federal electorate of Chisholm in Victoria, the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics and many other charitable and social organisations, awards and foundations. For many years her image graced our $5 note.

The experience of Aboriginal women in colonial times

Aboriginal women in colonial Australia such as Truganini, Walyer, Fanny Cochrane Smith and Cora Gooseberry led lives that were very different from their ancestors’. Their challenge was to find meaning in a world where their traditional ways and lands were changed.


Truganini – negotiator, diplomat and guerilla fighter

One of the foremost Tasmanian Aboriginal leaders of the 1800s, Truganini was a negotiator and spokesperson for her people.

Truganini was born in 1812 on Bruny Island which is in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, south of present day Hobart.

Her early life was typical of many young Aboriginal women of Tasmania in the early 1800s. Before she was seventeen, her mother had been killed by whalers, her uncle had been shot by a soldier and three of her sisters had been abducted and sold to sealers (one of whom was also shot by a sealer). Her betrothed, Paraweena, was drowned in the Channel by timber sawyers.

In 1832 Truganini and her husband Wooraddy helped find the remaining Tasmanian Aborigines as part of a plan to re-settle them on Flinders Island at Wybaleena. In 1838, Truganini was part of a guerilla war campaign at Port Philip with a group of other Tasmanian Aborigines.

In 1847 Truganini and the 45 people remaining at Wybaleena were moved to Oyster Cove, Truganini’s traditional country. Truganini died in 1876.

Convict Women

The largest group of women in the early Australian colony was the convict women. The typical convict woman was in her twenties. She was from England or Ireland and had been convicted of robbery – sentenced for seven years as punishment for her crime. She was single and could read but not write.

Our story on Convict women in Port Jackson tells of the lives of some well known convict women including Mary Bryant and Mary Reiby.