Intelligent, Informed, Independent and (occasionally) Irreverent

Caroline Chisholm
200 Significant Australians
White Hat

Skip Navigation LinksHome > Australia > 200 Significant Australians > Caroline Chisolm

White Hat's 200 Significant Australians

Caroline Chisholm

The White Hat Guide to

Caroline Chisholm

"I promise to know neither country nor creed, but to serve all justly and impartially."
Caroline Chisholm

Caroline Chisholm is one of those remarkable women that most Australians admire but are probably secretly pleased is no longer with us.

Why do we admire her? Australia is a practical country. We admire people who roll up their sleeves and do things. rather than those who make a big fuss saying "'they ought to do something about it". When Caroline Chisholm arrived in your office or workplace it wasn't to say "You must do something about this!", it was to say "I have already done such and such and if you were to do so and so we could achieve even more."

Why are we a little relieved that she is no longer around? We realise that if we came within her sphere we would probably be bullied or charmed or shamed into doing something for 'the cause'. What excuse could we put up? We could hardly claim lack of time or resources because in front of us was a mother of five (later six) children without a lot of money in a rough and ready colony already doing significant things. Even her husband, who is buried with her, is probably a little relieved. He was a competent army officer, and spent much of his life and energy in the services of the colonies and with Caroline's causes. His name doesn't even appear on their tombstone, and he probably died of exhaustion just trying to keep up with her. He is still possibly resting uneasily in case he hears the words "Archie, what are we going to do about this?"

Caroline Chisholm and Bank Notes

For many years, Caroline Chisholm's face was on the $5 note.  She has been displaced by Queen Elizabeth - not through any sinister colonial designs but because it has been an Australian convention that the monarch's head should appear on the lowest denomination banknote. Over time the $1 and $2 notes were removed from circulation so the mother of six had to make way for the mother of the British Commonwealth

Caroline Jones was born in England in 1808 and in 1832 married Captain Archibald Chisholm of the East India Company converting to Catholicism in the process. Archibald was soon transferred to Madras and before long he and Caroline had set up the Female School of Industry for Daughters of European Soldiers.

When they arrived in Sydney in 1838, Caroline was shocked to find the situation of immigrant girls. Most had come to Australia seeking a better life but found themselves with no job, no food, living in shocking conditions and numbers of them turned to prostitution. She took some of them into her house and set about establishing the Female Immigrant Home. She was able to enlist the support from various people and organisations culminating in Governor Gipps. Caroline set about finding employment for the girls. Where possible she checked on the working conditions involved and travelled to country areas of New South Wales to seek out or generate employment. Within two years she had found employment and accommodation for over a thousand women and girls.

In 1846 Caroline returned to England and set about becoming a one-woman 'Australia House'. She promoted Australia as an ideal place for hard working people to start a new life but also made sure that people were well informed about the conditions they would face. Caroline was a strong advocate of the civilising effect of a family, and arranged free passage for emigrants' wives and children. She established the Family Colonisation Loan Society and worked for improved conditions on board ship. In the end she decided the best way to ensure this was to charter her own ships and appoint a doctor to oversee the diet of the passengers. If you embarked on one of Caroline's ships you could feel confident that she poked her nose in every corner and cross examined many of the crew as to procedures to be used on the journey. In five years she managed to send many thousands of well prepared emigrants to Australia.

The fluctuating popularity of Caroline Chisholm

She died in 1877 - poor and almost unknown. Although this was a sad end she would probably be quietly satisfied. She would not want to have held on to money that could do good for others, and she had scant regard for the 'conspicuous compassion' of those who did good works just so that they could be liked or gain recognition as a good person.
After her death her fame gradually rose and was probably at its height during the 1960s when Australia was welcoming a new wave of immigrants. From the 1980s onwards she began to fall out of favour on many fronts. Many NGOs and agencies did not want to draw attention to Caroline's ability to achieve large results with little government funding. Her 'can do' approach did not fit well with the prevailing victim social philosophies, and her ability to get everyone pulling in the same direction did not sit well with those promoting class struggle. 'Look-at-me-activists' preferred to lionise figures like Vida Goldstein who were loud, in-your-face but largely ineffectual. A century after her death Caroline was again starting to be seen as politically incorrect.
Regardless of how she is currently viewed by others, Caroline Chisholm was one of the first onto the White Hat list of 200 Significant Australians and, dare we say it, well ahead of Saint Mary MacKillop.

By the 1850s, Caroline was sending out so many small families and farmers that it was starting to worry the squattocracy.  The squattocracy and the establishment contained many Scottish Presbyterians, including the Governor of New South Wales - Mr John Dunmore Lang. They were concerned at the prospect of pressure on the squatters' land and increasing numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants. But in the end Caroline Chisholm prevailed. Even though she was a Catholic, she obviously displayed a Protestant work ethic and knew how to wring the maximum good out of a dollar (or sovereign). She also recognised that proper economic management of the colonies could produce much more wellbeing than just well-meaning grass roots work. Here was a woman who could create a business plan and could oversee every step of its successful implementation. What was a Scotsman to do in the face of such a formidable woman?

In 1851 Caroline despatched Archie to Australia so they could coordinate the whole process from despatch to placement in Australia. This vertical integration of the whole immigration process was a remarkable achievement  and governments were virtually 'shamed' into adopting numbers of the practices initiated by Caroline and Archie. They could hardly claim that reforms were too difficult when they observed what could be done by two individuals with little personal monetary resources.

She became concerned about the effects of gold discovery. She feared that 'money for nothing' would undermine many of the qualities she felt Australia needed (see her letter to the newspaper at that time) . (Those observing the effects of the introduction of widespread legalised gambling in Australia at present share many of Caroline's concerns.) She continued to achieve improved conditions for emigrants in areas such as travelling conditions and postal services 

In 1854, she was well known in England, and came back to Australia. However, later, as her health deteriorated she returned to England. She continued to work despite increasing sickness and poverty. She died in 1877 - poor and almost unknown.

Some of her ideas were of their time and place. For instance, she believed that Australia was best served by having a large number of small farmers - an idea that is no longer current. The 'tough love' encountered in some of the hostels - don't make yourself too comfortable, get looking for a job - would not sit comfortably today and could be seen as lacking compassion.

However, many of her initiatives proved particularly prescient. She founded the Family Colonisation Loan Society to help break the cycle of dependence and poverty. Were she alive now, she would be pleased (but not surprised) to see that microbanking loans have quietly become one of the most effective forms of breaking the poverty and dependence cycles of third world countries. (She would also be pleased that an Australian businessman was instrumental in creating one of the most successful of these - Opportunity International.)


Copyright © 1995 - 2024 White Hat.

Some attractions and events related to Caroline Chisholm: