Saturday, October 8, 2016

Single women storm the colonies


The Rona, formerly the Polly Woodside, considered to be the ship most similar to the Harpley, though the Harpley was smaller by 20%.  Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria Collection. H99.220/4357.

Susan Rochester and George Griffith may well have been on the ocean at the same time, heading towards the same destination where their paths would cross and merge.  Their early lives were quite different.  While George came from the bustling maritime city of Liverpool, Susan was born in the  quiet rural community of Chipstead in Surrey, the daughter of George Rochester, an agricultural labourer and his wife, Elizabeth Killick.

By the 1851 Census the Rochester family unit had dwindled from earlier years, and now consisted of the father George, a 50 year old widower, Edward, 22, also an agricultural labourer, Elizabeth 16, Susan 14 (a scholar), and Henry 9, (also a scholar). Another son, John, was either away on census night or living elsewhere.

St Margaret's Church of England, Chipstead.    The Rochester children were baptised in this church in the 1820s and 1830s. Photo:  Lenore Frost, 1983.

St Margaret's Church and Lytchgate, Chipstead. Photo:  Lenore Frost, 1983

Part of the Lytchgate and graveyard of St Margaret's Church, Chipstead.  Photo:  Lenore Frost 2013.


In later years, censuses show the brothers John and Henry Rochester still in Chipstead and still agricultural labourers.  Edward died in 1853, also still in Chipstead and still an agricultural labourer, but by that time the girls had taken off for Melbourne.

Between 1841 and 1851, the population of Chipstead had declined from 666 persons to 505, for reasons not yet clear to me.   The real rush to the Victorian goldfields didn't get going until 1852, and it is a reasonable assumption that the population continued to decline for the next few years.

In 1853 the English newspapers were full of emigration stories and overpopulation stories reflecting particularly on the difficulties for unmarried women in England who would find it difficult to find a marriage partner as the balance of the sexes was already well out of kilter.  It was being made worse by the exodus of men for the gold rushes.  It was found from the 1851 census that single women outnumbered single men to the tune of 545,742.  It was a bleak prospect for girls in depopulated farming communities who could only hope for farmwork or general servant work for the rest of their lives if they failed to marry, at a rate of pay which would not sustain them without family to support them in their old age.

On the other hand, the emigration stories were mainly about the success of single female emigrants who found work or husbands in Victoria.   Letters from young women mentioned their high wages and several offers of marriage from men with good incomes.  Mrs Caroline Chisholm spoke to a packed audience in Liverpool on emigration in January 1853, and it was reported in newspapers right round the country. 

The discussion everywhere would have been about emigration and gold, and there were incentives for those without the wherewithal to go.  The country wanted them to go.  The mystery is why the Rochester boys stayed.  George was too old to attract a subsidized passage, and Henry too young, but Edward and John might have gone, and Henry in later years, but they didn't. 

How or when the girls applied for an assisted passage I have not discovered, but a notice appeared in  The Cheltenham Chronicle referring to the Harpley being chartered by the Emigration Commissioners to leave from Southampton.  The ship departed Southampton on 9 April, and arrived in Melbourne on 17 July 1853.

The Cheltenham Chronicle and Parish Register and General Advertiser for Gloucester (Cheltenham, England), Thursday, March 03, 1853; pg. 4; Issue 2269. British Library Newspapers, Part IV: 1732-1950.

The vessel carried only families and 137 single women.  In total 45 males, 163 females, and assorted children - 268 souls altogether, which made up 236½ statute adults. The maximum allowable number of passengers for the Harpley was 237, plus crew and captain.


The Salisbury and Winchester Journal (Salisbury, England), Saturday, March 26, 1853; pg. 1. British Library Newspapers, Part III: 1741-1950.


Keith Pescod,  in his publication Good food, bright fires an civility (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2001) on British emigration depots, recorded that the first emigrant ship from Southampton chartered by the government Emigration Board left in January 1853, and continued at the rate of three or four a month thereafter. Private emigration schemes often provided the finance.

Pescod also describes the conditions and rules relating to emigration depots, which basically consisted of large barracks holding several hundred passengers in narrow berths which conditioned them to some extent to the cramped conditions on board an emigrant ship.   The intending emigrants were usually described as cheerful and excited, and we can imagine the Rochester sisters approached this big adventure with mixed feelings of excitement and anxiety.   They may have been travelling in the company of other folk from their village, but the shipping register does not specify a place of origin for the passengers, and there are no known relatives amongst the surnames.

The History and Voyages of the Migrant Ship Harpley 1847-1862 by Rolicker Chandler (the author, 1996), describes in detail the journey of 1848 from Deptford to Adelaide, based on the journal of an ancestor, with mainly details from shipping manifests for the other voyages. The 1848 conditions were not typical of later voyages as regulations were introduced to enforce adequate provisioning for the passengers.   The 1848 trip suffered from a shortage of good food and good water.

The ship was built on the Tamar River in Launceston especially for the emigrant trade, though the the timber they used was poor. For its second voyage it was sheathed in brass.  From the description of the Harpley, Chandler felt that the ship was very similar to the Polly Woodside pictured above, though 20% smaller.  The similarity lay in the three masts using square sails, a bowsprit and no figurehead.  The Polly Woodside was later renamed the Rona and used as a coal hulk for many years before being rescued from the ignominous fate of most hulks (usually sunk), and restored to her glory days as the Polly Woodside, now a National Trust tourist attraction in the Melbourne docks.

Let it be said that the Polly Woodside is by no means a large ship, so conditions on the Harpley must have been very cramped indeed.

After a voyage of 110 days the Harpley entered Hobson's Bay in July 1853, a very great relief for all concerned. The arrival was notified in the Melbourne newspapers which enabled friends and relatives to meet the ship at the dock, and prospective employers to seek servants. The passengers could be employed directly off the ship and over the next few days they accepted offers and moved on to begin their new life.

Susan and Elizabeth were both described in the Harpley 'Register of Assisted Migrants,  Book A Page 209' as Farm Servants, Church of England, could read and write.

The second I find my photocopy of the Register of Assisted Migrants I will be able to report on the contract conditions and how long it took to get it. Check for updates.

Susan took a contract with Dr Hunter of Brighton, and Elizabeth with Mr Livingston of Deep Creek.  For those unfamiliar with these places, Brighton was a seaside village on the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay, and Deep Creek fifty kilometres away to the north of Melbourne - a considerable distance apart for two unaccompanied teenage girls in the days of horse (if you were lucky) or foot traffic.

In the next post, 'Susan Gets Her Man'.  Stay tuned.

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