“SINGLE FEMALE MIGRANT” The Forgotten Story of 100,000 Victorian British Women Part III – Brave New World


Like so many of the young women who arrived in Australia via the Single Female Migrant Scheme, Sarah Marshall was in for a shock.

Whatever she was expecting, whatever she had dreamed of, there’s a fair chance that the Brisbane of December 1886 fell a long way short. After disembarking with their luggage, Sarah and the other girls were shepherded to the overcrowded and shabby immigration depot at William Street for “processing” (the new immigration depot at Kangaroo Point would not open until December 1887).  There they would have remained, possibly for a few days, billeted in the packed dormitories with dozens of other new arrivals, whilst their papers were processed and employment secured, anxious, apprehensive and perhaps even frightened.

The city itself was a building site, a seething mass of humanity which would see its population more than double from a little around thirty-seven thousand in 1881 to over ninety thousand just ten years later, through wave after wave of immigrant arrivals and the drift of rural workers from throughout Queensland and northern New South Wales.  The 1880s saw Brisbane’s metamorphosis from a frontier town to a sophisticated urban city, a little bit of Victorian England recreated in the Australian sunshine.

Brisbane in the 1880s
1880s Brisbane

Back in 1817, Lord Bathurst had established an enquiry into the transportation of felons to New South Wales – the fear was that the regimes in the existing penal colonies weren’t quite severe enough, and were doing nothing to deter would-be criminals in England. He sent John Thomas Bigge to investigate; it was decided that new, more isolated, even more grim settlements were required for repeat offenders, and Moreton Bay was chosen as a possible site. Bigge “discovered” a river flowing into the bay, and named it after the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane.

The first settlement was established by the Surveyor General, John Oxley, on 28th September 1824, and the first convicts followed shortly afterwards. By the time of the creation of  Queensland as a separate state in 1859, the settlement had grown into a town of some six thousand residents. Up until the mid-1860s, Brisbane had been very much a pioneer settlement – there was no sanitation, no drainage, no proper water supply, very few roads, no lighting and no public transport. Water was drawn from fetid swamps and there was a high mortality rate, particularly amongst the under twenty-fives – deaths from malaria and typhus and other waterborne diseases were daily occurrences, a fact of life. 

Within just twenty years, the city had expanded exponentially. By the time Sarah arrived, vast improvements had been made to the infrastructure. The first Town Hall was built in 1865 and was followed by drainage and sewage systems and reservoirs to guarantee fresh drinking water. The city was illuminated by gas lighting, and public parks and recreational reserves were created. The first tramway had opened in 1885, and Central Station, which linked Brisbane with other Queensland towns, was completed the same year.

The building boom of the 1880s which created so many of the city’s grand public buildings including the Government Printing Office, Customs House, new Town Hall, together with many commercial buildings – warehouses, banks, hotels, theatres, breweries, distilleries, boatyards, foundries, brickyards and engine works –  meant that labour was always in demand.  It also led to a whole jumble of architectural styles, from neo-classical to Gothic revival and everything in between; columns, porticoes, pillars, arches and “pointy bits” appeared on these very grand buildings, all contributing to a vision of the city as being a bit, well, over the top.

The writer Anthony Trollope visited Brisbane around this time, and described it as:

“…a commodious town, very prettily situated on the Brisbane River…with Courts of Justice, Houses of Parliament, a governor’s residence, public gardens, and all the requirements of a capital for a fine and independent colony.” 

The novelist Gilbert Parker, arriving in Brisbane in 1889, was less impressed. In his travel journal Round the Compass of Australia, he remarked

“Brisbane is in appearance scraggy, low built and premature. It is far from picturesque as a whole, and the first impressions are not changed by closer inspection. There is a sense of disappointment, which grows deeper as the sojourn in the capital is continued. One gets the impression now of a town that is but half-dressed.”

What did Sarah feel? Impressed? Disappointed? Or just overwhelmed by the enormity of her new surroundings? Just weeks after her arrival, Brisbane was struck by a cyclone. The Brisbane River burst its banks and hundreds of of citizens (and thousands of livestock) perished.

Brisbane in flood 1893
Brisbane in flood, 1893

From the late Autumn frosts of a Durham mining village, where every face would have been a familiar one, to the sub-tropical heat, humidity and thunderstorms of a Queensland summer and a city where she was completely alone, Brisbane was, for Sarah Marshall, a Brave New World.


Sarah may well have felt alone upon arrival but in fact she was far from it, being one of 10,631 emigrants who came ashore in Brisbane in 1886. In today’s anti-immigration political climate, the scale of migration to Brisbane is almost impossible to comprehend. A total of 79,251 emigrants entered Brisbane between 1880 and 1890; this figure does not include the thousands who disembarked at the more northerly Queensland ports.  The vast majority of these souls were English, Scots and Irish, with smaller numbers of Welsh and German.

Then, as now, immigration was a thorny subject, with some of the “established” population objecting to what they saw as an influx of the dregs of British and Irish society – unskilled labour. A chap by the name of Henry Jordan, ironically a former government immigration agent, wrote to his local newspaper:

“For the last 16 or 17 years we have been expanding enormous sums of money in sweeping together… the poorest of the people of England … and bringing them out to this colony. I protest at the importation of mere labourers, who come in shiploads, month after month, year after year. To that kind of immigration is to be attributed the larrikinism in our streets.”

It wasn’t just the “mere labourers” who faced criticism either. In some quarters the young women who poured into the city under the Single Female Migration Scheme were viewed with hostility. The Northern Argus newspaper featured an article on the 23rd February 1881 which viciously portrayed these young women as harbingers of crime and vice:

“…many of whom have shewn directly upon their arrival that they have come direct from the streets; from reformatories, without reformation; or were girls from country towns and villages, who, having made themselves disagreeably conspicuous in some shape or other, were packed off to London to a labour agent…it is not necessary to insist upon what is known to be a fact, namely, that many of our female immigrants become charges upon the public, either by their being compelled to seek assistance from the Benevolent Society, or by becoming inmates of our Hospital or Gaol.”

Although there was always the odd “bad apple” who slipped through the system, and no doubt a few unfortunate women who fell upon hard times on arrival and into prostitution, particularly during 1883 when there was a massive influx of migrants and the supply of workers briefly exceeded demand, these were certainly a very small minority. The opinion expressed in the Argus was, quite simply, based upon prejudice and not fact. The Queensland government imposed strict criteria upon the selection of would-be immigrants, and it is very likely that most of those considered “unsuitable” or of “questionable morals” would have been weeded out by the immigration agents back in England.

Streets Paved with Gold

Fortunately for Sarah, she arrived at the height of the boom years of the 1880s, when the demand for experienced domestic servants was at its peak. The Daily Observer newspaper reported in March 1886 how: “Every servant, good or bad, is snatched up the moment she offers”, which of course meant that wages were relatively high.

General servants could expect to earn a weekly wage of around ten to fifteen shillings, housemaids ten to twelve shillings, domestic cooks fifteen to eighteen shillings, and cooks in the larger hotels as much as twenty to twenty five shillings.  For some reason hotel barmaids were paid particularly well, perhaps because they were hard to come by, it being considered “inappropriate” employment by many young ladies.

Massive population increase in a very short space of time meant a shortage of housing. While Brisbane’s elite could afford to build grand villas, the majority of the populace was crammed into simple wooden cottages. Just because a domestic servant could earn a relatively decent wage, she was not guaranteed adequate living accommodation. Generally, she would have “lived in” with the family or provided with quarters if she was employed in a hotel.

One well-off lady complained that: “Many, very many indeed, of the rooms reserved for servants in this colony are totally unfit to be occupied by any human creature as often as not the servant’s room is some outhouse or a room next the stable; I have even known of a girl being put to sleep in the saddle room.” 

It wasn’t just the living conditions that were problematic; the working conditions were appalling, especially for women working in the factories who did the same work as their male counterparts, for incredibly long hours, for a fraction of the pay. In this respect, the working environment differed little from what might have been encountered by workers in the industrial towns and cities back home in England.

Unskilled workers were particularly vulnerable, and the horrors of child labour loomed as large in the colony as they did back home in the factories, mines and mills of Victorian Britain. An article in the imaginatively-titled newspaper The Brisbane Boomerang in January 1888, described how working conditions for women in the city were deteriorating year after year:

“They are becoming herded in stifling workshops and ill-ventilated attics; they are dragged back to work late on summer nights; and they are forced to stand all day behind the counters of the large emporiums that are the boast of great towns. They are ‘sweated’ by clothing factories and boot factories; they are housed, when servant girls, in disgraceful kennels; they are used in this fair Australian land, well-nigh as badly as they are used in the modern Babylon of Wealth and Want…And the children too are being dragged into the slave-houses of toil; little ones who should be at school, or at play, are working in the factories and shops, and the law, instead of rescuing them…stands by to ply the whip on their backs if they revolt.” 

The plight of the city’s working poor led both to a Government Commission in 1891 (and subsequent legislation to reduce working hours), and a burgeoning labour and trade union movement. Skilled and unskilled workers alike began to organise, campaign and in some cases strike. The bakers of the city, after striking and with widespread public support, managed to negotiate a reduction of their working hours to ten a day (fourteen or even sixteen hour days prior to this was not uncommon). Very slowly, over subsequent decades, conditions for the workers of Brisbane began to improve.

On Turbot Street

In 1887, Sarah found herself to be one of almost three thousand domestic servants in the city. I wondered what had become of her. Did she find employment straight away? Was she snapped up by some respectable family with a nice home, well treated and well looked after? Or did she end up as a “slavey”, the Australian equivalent of the maid-of-all-work, the lowest of the low, working herself into the ground, ten thousand miles from home and wishing she was back there?

No record of her employer exists, but after much searching, I managed to find a record of Sarah living in Turbot Street, in the commercial heart of Brisbane. Because of this, I believe it is likely that Sarah found work in one of the many hotels which lined that street.

Turbot Street Brisbane
Turbot Street Brisbane today

Turbot Street then, as now, is one of the city’s main thoroughfares; then, as now, it was lined with business premises and hotels, and was home to Brisbane’s market. Farmers from all over Queensland would bring their fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy, to the indoor warehouse market on Roma Street, which ran parallel; their produce would then be set out on the many market stalls on both sides of Turbot Street, ready for sale.

The street would have been full of stalls and barrows, market traders calling out to passing customers, ponies and carts, the air heavy with a heady mixture of fruit and horses, as servant girls and housewives moved from stall to stall amongst the hustle and bustle to purchase the provisions for their mistresses or families.

There were other new arrivals on Turbot Street in January 1887 too. At the corner of Turbot and George Street, roughly where the Friendly Society dispensary building stands, there appeared an establishment by the name of Higgins’ Menagerie. This was a small, private, travelling zoo which took up residence in Brisbane, much to both the consternation and fascination of the city’s residents. This was no small collection of half-domesticated farm animals and pets. Higgins’ Menagerie boasted African lions, Bengal tigers, assorted monkeys, snakes and other exotic animals. 

These unfortunate creatures were kept caged and chained for the amusement of passers-by in what are described in local newspapers of the time as “ramshackle, dangerous and stinking premises”. Sarah must have walked past the Menagerie every day on her way to the market, perhaps pausing to look at the forlorn animals and chatting to their tormentors.

The tigers, however, had the last laugh. Or rather, the last bite. During a busy lunchtime on Wednesday 21st October 1888, the residents of George and Turbot Streets were somewhat alarmed when one of the menagerie assistants, a chap by the name of Peter Bertram, came hurtling out of an alleyway, covered in blood and screaming, hotly pursued by Sammy, a full grown male Bengal tiger.

Sammy had mauled the unfortunate Bertram in his cage. The local newspaper describes how Bertram, trying to escape, had fled the menagerie, unsurprisingly not pausing to close the gate, and Sammy gave chase down Turbot Street.

Equally unsurprisingly, Bertram soon discovered that tigers can run faster than people – Sammy, “his vast frame flying through the air as if propelled from a catapult …felled him to earth with one blow of his terrible paw.” Sammy attacked his victim once again, shaking his body in his jaws like a rag doll. He then dropped poor Bertram, who somehow managed to get up and try to escape, only to be pounced upon and seized a third time by the enthusiastic Sammy.

The beast had Bertram completely pinned down, and he was only saved from a grisly end when the proprietor Higgins and the beautifully-named Valentine Spendlove intervened. After turning on his master, Higgins, and taking a fair chunk out of his arm, Sammy eventually got bored, and, “by the dint of much flogging”, was finally driven back into the menagerie and chained up again.

Amazingly, all the participants in this sorry episode survived – not least poor Sammy, who miraculously escaped being shot. After much campaigning by citizens and businesses in the immediate vicinity, the menagerie was eventually sold and Higgins and his animals moved back out to Toombul, (where they had originally been bred by Higgins at the Toombul Tiger Farm). The tigers were apparently kept on long chains just two hundred metres from the Toombul Railway Station, pacing up and down, growling and snarling at the terrified passengers.

Brisbane offered many other diversions and entertainments to occupy Sarah in what little leisure time she had available to her. Perhaps she visited the Gaiety Theatre, the Opera House, the Theatre Royal, or maybe the Town Hall which catered more for “working class tastes”, with boxing matches and hypnotists. Opera and classical concerts were very popular, and there were regular variety performances at the Oxford Music Hall.  There were all sorts of sporting activities available, such as rowing, cricket, cycling, football, rugby, swimming and sailing, though it’s not clear to what extent these pastimes were considered suitable for young ladies.

Sarah may have had her portrait taken by one of the fifty-two photographers’ establishments operating in Brisbane at the time – if she did send any photographs back home to her family in County Durham they have disappeared or been lost or destroyed. I have photographs of Sarah’s sisters, her mother, her brother-in-law and her nieces. Sadly, not a single photograph of Sarah still exists.

Boom and Bust

In 1887, Queensland was at its zenith.  The Brisbane building boom of the 1880s was at its peak, and in rural Queensland the farmers were thriving too. By the end of the decade, the number of sheep in the state had increased from seven to twenty million, and heads of cattle from three to six million.  The sugar cane industry was proving lucrative, and new technology in shipping and refrigeration meant that Queensland’s meat could be more easily transported around Australia and exported abroad. There was a lot of money to be made by the enterprising, the inventive and the hard-working, and much of that new money was spent in Brisbane. Land in the city became phenomenally expensive, with prices peaking around 1890.

1887 also marked the Golden Jubilee of the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne. Across the British Empire, this momentous event was marked with festivities and civic events, from Canada to New Zealand, and many places in between. Brisbane marked the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation with the creation of a new housing development, the Jubilee Township Estate, out towards Bardon. Plots of land were auctioned off to purchasers wishing to live at such eminent addresses as Empress Terrace, Queen Street and Sceptre Row, and various events took place across the city to honour Her Imperial Majesty.

The Brisbane River today…a Brave New World

Victorian Brisbane was at the height of its commercial success in 1887, but the spiraling property prices and building boom couldn’t last, and by 1890 Queensland and its capital were plunging into a deep depression.

The document I discovered which records Sarah’s residence as Turbot Street is dated 7th December 1887. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give the name of the establishment where she worked, nor a house number to pinpoint her precise location. There is no clue as to the identity of her employer, nor a specific description of her duties. She is described simply as a “domestic servant”. However, it does reveal other intriguing and crucial information about Sarah and her new life in Brisbane. The document is Sarah’s Marriage Certificate.

For so many of the Single Female Migrants who arrived in Australia, marriage was the only possible means of escape from their lives of servitude. Sarah’s husband was a farmer by the name of William Campbell, at least 20 years her senior. Was it a love match? Or simply a marriage of convenience? As it turned out, the greatest hardships of Sarah’s life were yet to come.

You can discover what happened to Sarah Marshall in The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (Matador) 2017.

The Horsekeeper's Daughter book cover


(This article is adapted from Ch 9, Brave New World, of The Horsekeeper’s Daughter)

“Occupations of the People of Brisbane: An Aspect of Urban Society in the 1880s”, DP Crook, Journal of Historical Studies: Australia and New Zealand Vol.10 Iss.37, 1961, www.tandfonline.com

Australia & New Zealand Vol I  Trollope, A(George Robertson) Melbourne 1873 p 41.

Round the Compass in Australia  Parker, G (EW Cole) Melbourne 1892 p 213.

Northern Argus, 23rd February 1881, cited in DP Crook, ibid.

Daily Observer, 9th March 1986, cited ibid p. 44.

Brisbane Boomerang, 7th January 1888, cited ibid p. 41.

The account of Higgins Menagerie and the man-eating tiger appears in a web article from The McWhirters’ Project, 22nd March 2013, www.themcwhirtersproject.com, and is based upon a news report of the day.

The Horsekeeper’s Daughter Jane Gulliford Lowes, (Matador) Leicester 2017

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