“SINGLE FEMALE MIGRANT” The Forgotten Story of 100,000 Victorian British Women Part I – Dreams

Forgotten Histories

In 2016 I began researching and writing about the life of Sarah Marshall, a County Durham servant girl who had emigrated to Australia (by herself) in 1886. In bringing Sarah’s story to life, I stumbled upon an episode of British history which has so often been overlooked.

I consider myself fairly well-versed in the history of Victorian Britain, but neither I nor anyone else I spoke to had heard of The Single Female Migrant Scheme. It’s just not part of our popular cultural history, yet in Australia, everybody seems to know about it – mainly because it’s how so many Australians’ great-grandmothers got there in the first place.

While researching Sarah’s life, I just couldn’t fathom out why she chose to go to Australia, and Queensland in particular?  Why didn’t she choose America or Canada or South Africa?

Incredibly, I was able to locate Sarah’s immigration records in the Queensland State Archive. These recorded that she had sailed to Brisbane on the SS Duke of Sutherland. Armed with this information, I was able to track down a copy of the ship’s passenger list. The list showed that Sarah Marshall had travelled as a “remittance passenger”. In other words, her voyage was paid for and sponsored by someone else.

My immediate thought was that perhaps Sarah had met and fallen in love with a young gentleman who had travelled to Australia to make his fortune, and when established, had sent for her to be his wife. Perhaps she had answered one of those “wife wanted” advertisements, so beloved of Victorian fiction. However, I could find no evidence of this – one would have anticipated a wedding to have taken place fairly quickly after her arrival, but no nuptials occurred.

I then wondered whether Sarah had gone to join another relative, who, upon learning of the death of her father and the family’s straitened circumstances, had offered her a position in the family business or had secured employment for her with an acquaintance. Again, I could find no trace of any other family members in Australia.

Queensland had achieved separation from the colony of New South Wales in 1859. However, at that time the new state had a population of just twenty five thousand, not much more than the current population of  Sarah’s home town of Seaham Harbour, spread across an area roughly seven times the size of Great Britain. Queensland needed infrastructure, it needed people and it needed money, fast. 

“Queensland’s One Need is More People”

The new Queensland government therefore embarked upon an intensive immigration programme almost immediately. From the outset, however, immigration was tightly controlled, and the government made it quite clear that despite the best attempts of the British to clear out their workhouses, asylums and prisons and ship their inmates to the colonies, such “unsuitable” candidates would not be welcome. 

Queensland required hard working skilled people to “civilise” and tame the thousands of square miles of territory, not the poor, the infirm, felons and the destitute.

Back home, immigration was considered by many to be the last resort, due to its longstanding association with the transportation of convicts, which had ceased in 1868; however, the enterprising Victorians of the 1850s and 1860s began to see it as an opportunity for self-improvement, and the chance to seek a fortune.

The first convicts had been sent out from England in 1788; Moreton Bay, in Southern Queensland, near where the city of Brisbane now stands, was originally a penal colony for twice-convicted criminals, but was opened up after the penal colony closed down, so that anyone was free to settle there. 

In the 1850s, Queensland had no paved roads, no railways and no method of communication with the outside world apart from a very patchy and infrequent mail service. The building of the first railway, from Ipswich to Grandchester, didn’t even start until 1861 and didn’t open until 1865.  The few immigrants who did arrive tended to settle in and around Brisbane, and it was difficult to persuade newcomers to move further up the country, and in particular to the tropical far north of the state.

Rather than focussing on and recruiting the wealthy middle classes, members of the professions such as doctors and lawyers, engineers and dentists, gentlemen farmers and those with a private income, the Queensland politicians wanted to recruit the state’s new populace from farm labourers, loggers, railway workers, shepherds, and female domestic servants – in effect the government were importing an entire “working class”. Queensland needed people who, in the language beloved of modern recruitment consultants, could “hit the ground running”.

What was needed were tough, industrious people, used to hardship, with the skills to overcome whatever difficulties they might encounter. The role of the female domestic servant was crucial – there was a huge demand for their skills, but they were also needed to redress the imbalance in the male/female population, and ultimately, to breed and increase.  If it was to succeed, Queensland needed to be populated.

Of course, Queensland already had an indigenous population who had lived there for thousands of years. In a pattern replicated throughout Australia, and indeed in so many other colonies of the British Empire, the indigenous population were shamefully and brutally treated by the incoming pioneers, and in many areas, simply wiped out.  

The journey to the far side of the world was enough to deter many would-be immigrants. It’s a daunting trip now, even though it can be accomplished in a little over twenty-four hours; in the 1850s and 1860s, immigrants faced a two or three month journey by sea.

The horrors of the transatlantic migrant ships, particularly those that left Ireland for New York during the famine, were well documented in the newspapers and literature of the day. The dreadful insanitary conditions, overcrowding, terrible sea-sickness, on-board epidemics of diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera and measles, combined with badly-equipped and ill-maintained ships and poorly-trained crews resulted in high mortality rates, particularly amongst children. Tales abounded of immigrant parents burying their children at sea, one after another, as they made their way to the New World.

The Single Female Migrant Scheme

Various schemes, with varying degrees of success, were tried to entice migrants to Australia, by the governments of all states. In 1880, the Queensland parliament introduced new immigration rules designed to root out any weaknesses and corruption in the previous system, and signed an exclusive contract with the newly-formed British India Steam Navigation Company.  The age of sail was coming to an end.

The government launched a new recruitment campaign, focusing on experienced agricultural workers and female domestic servants. Sarah Marshall was one of those to benefit from a “perfect storm” for the would-be Australian female immigrant – new technology resulting in faster journey times and better conditions on board ship; a more direct route to Australasia as a consequence of the newly-built Suez Canal; and a huge demand for experienced female domestic servants.

For Sarah and women like her, there was never a better time to go.

Prior to researching Sarah’s story, I had never heard of the Single Female Migrant recruitment programme. Between 1850 and 1890, one hundred thousand single British women and girls emigrated to Australia, recruited, and passage paid for, by the colonial governments.

Recruitment Poster

Some forty-six thousand women were given free passage by the State of Queensland; twenty thousand of those left London and Glasgow in the 1880s alone, due to a desperate shortage of female domestic servants to service the burgeoning middle-class population of Brisbane, Cairns and beyond.  A fair portion of those women and girls were from the north east of England – Northumberland and County Durham.

According to leading academic Jan Gothard in her book, Blue China – Single Female Migration to Australia,  almost four times as many working-class women emigrated to colonial Australia as were sent out on the convict ships. The offer of free passage meant that very poor women like Sarah Marshall did not have to scrimp and save to scrape together their fare from their meagre wages – this in itself made Australia a more attractive proposition to the poorest emigrants than, say, America or Canada.

The fact that there was a shortage of domestic help meant that, upon arrival, employment was virtually guaranteed.  Rather than being considered the dregs of humanity in British society, the female domestic servant seemed, on the face of it at least, to be valued and sought after in the Colonies.

Selling the Dream

But how would Sarah have known about Queensland and the promise of a new life there? As part of the recruitment programme, the colonial government established a network of agents and publicists throughout Britain and Ireland. These agents toured the country giving lectures in churches, village halls, sporting clubs, workers’ associations, and at fairs and festivals.  Advertisements were published in both national and local newspapers, in journals and periodicals, and posters appeared in every town and city.

Of course, the more people who migrated, the more information about life in Australia made its way home to their friends and relatives. Migration was nothing new – many County Durham miners had sought out new lives abroad in the aftermath of industrial unrest in the county’s collieries, and this was even reflected in the street names of the pit village of New Seaham, with miners and their families occupying cottages in California and Australia Streets. There is even a Seaham in New South Wales, not too far from Newcastle.

The publicity campaign for the scheme emphasised the excellent climate, the higher wages and the better living conditions and opportunities which awaited the young women on arrival in Queensland. So many girls dreamed of a better life on distant shores, away from the dirt, the drudgery and the poverty of Victorian Britain – and who could blame them?

The “Right Stuff”

Due to the Queensland government’s stringent criteria for their recruitment programme, acceptance was by no means guaranteed. There was a rigorous and lengthy application process. Sarah would have first completed an application form, with details of age, occupation and providing the names and addresses of three referees, including her local religious minister, her doctor and her most recent employer. All references were always followed up, with particular attention paid to checking that an applicant was of good “moral character and sober habits”.

Any young woman with an illegitimate child, a criminal conviction, a fondness for strong drink or a “colourful past” would not be considered. A poor reference from an employer could ruin a would-be migrant’s plans. Likewise, any health problems, past or present, would automatically have ruled her out.

Jan Gothard describes in Blue China how moral fibre was given equal weight alongside domestic skills, experience and physical condition. Emigrating domestic servants were looked upon as a commodity, as precious cargo. Soiled goods were not wanted. A young woman would be expected to conduct herself with the utmost integrity both before departure, during the voyage and upon arrival in the colony, and strict measures were put in place to ensure that she did not stray from the path of righteousness at any time during the process.

To modern eyes, the Victorian obsession with morality appears very old-fashioned, however, it underpinned the Single Migrant Recruitment programme for two very good reasons. Firstly, these young women from the lowest strata of British society would be welcomed into the middle class homes and families of complete strangers in Queensland, and had to be completely trustworthy. Secondly, they had to be “wife and mother material” to fulfil their subsidiary role of increasing the population of the colony.

Fortunately, in the opinion of the agents of the government of Queensland, Sarah Marshall appears to have been well thought of by those who provided her references. She possessed the “right stuff” and she was accepted onto the programme in 1886 as a remittance passenger, her fare paid for by the state.

The winter of 1886 was a particularly harsh one. Snowdrifts six and seven feet deep were reported on the roads of Seaham and Seaton Village. On a bitterly cold morning in late October 1886, Sarah said her goodbyes to her widowed mother and younger sisters and boarded the train at Durham station, bound first for London. Even in the 1880s, London could be reached easily in the course of a day by steam-train.

View of Durham Cathedral and Castle from Durham Station
The view from Durham Station – little changed in over 100 years

The view from Durham station remains one of the most magnificent from any station in England. Did she look back from the station high above the city, one last glance down over the ancient jumble of medieval, Georgian and Victorian rooftops to the towering Cathedral and princely Norman castle keep beyond?

Sarah’s ticket to Australia, like that of every other young woman who travelled to Australia under the Single Female Migrant Scheme, was one-way only. She would not see the beautiful city of Durham, her village home, the mining folk of Seaham, nor her family, ever again.

Next: Part II – Journeys. Read about the experiences of Sarah Marshall and other migrant women on the long sea voyage to Australia.

You can read Sarah Marshall’s story in The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (Matador, 2017), available here.

(The above article is adapted from Ch 7, The Long Goodbye )


Rights of Passage–Emigration to Australia in the Nineteenth Century, HR Woolcock (Tavistock Publications Ltd), London 1986.

Blue China – Single Female Migration to Australia, Jan Gothard (Melbourne University Press) 2001.

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

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