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Caroline Chisholm (1808–1877)

by Judith Iltis

This article was published:

Caroline Chisholm, by Angelo Collen Hayter, 1852

Caroline Chisholm, by Angelo Collen Hayter, 1852

National Library of Australia, 9193363 [detail]

Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877), philanthropist, was born near Northampton, England, daughter of William Jones, a well-to-do farmer. Reared in the tradition of Evangelical philanthropy, at 22 she agreed to marry Captain Archibald Chisholm of the East India Co., but on condition that her philanthropic work should continue. He was thirteen years her senior and a Roman Catholic, which may have influenced her conversion to Catholicism about this time. Chisholm was posted in 1832 to Madras where Caroline founded the Female School of Industry for the Daughters of European Soldiers.

The Chisholms decided to spend leave in Australia and arrived in Sydney in the Emerald Isle in September 1838; they settled at Windsor, where Caroline remained with her three sons when Chisholm was recalled to active service in 1840. Although New South Wales was then passing into depression, rural labour was needed, but the government had no plans for dispersing the throngs of assisted immigrants who remained in Sydney without employment. Mrs Chisholm met every immigrant ship and became a familiar figure on the wharves. She found positions for immigrant girls and sheltered many of them in her home. In January 1841 she approached Governor and Lady Gipps and the proprietors of the Sydney Herald with a plan for a girls' home. In spite of discouragements and anti-Catholic feeling, she convinced Gipps that she was a disinterested philanthropist. She was granted use of part of the old immigration barracks for her Female Immigrants' Home. Entirely dependent on public subscription, it sheltered up to ninety-six women, and the only free employment registry in Sydney was attached.

Her next concern was to disperse the unemployed into the country. Hundreds of circulars were franked by Gipps and sent to leading country men seeking information and enlisting support. Throughout 1842 she was almost continually on her white horse, Captain, accompanying parties into the interior and helping to allay their fears of the bush. She soon had resting stages and employment agencies at a dozen rural centres. In her first year's report, Female Immigration, Considered in a Brief Account of the Sydney Immigrants' Home (Sydney, 1842), she was able to announce the closing of the home because her plans for dispersing immigrants into the interior had been so successful. To a select committee on distressed labourers, she outlined a scheme for settling families on the land with long leases. Her prediction of permanent prosperity for these families ensured the opposition of the land-owning members of the committee. Undaunted, she arranged at her own expense the settlement of twenty-three families on land at Shellharbour given to her by Robert Towns and told a second committee in 1844 about this experiment, but her plan was again rejected.

Captain Chisholm retired from the army and returned to Australia in 1845 to work with his wife. Denied government assistance, the Chisholms travelled throughout New South Wales and collected over 600 statements from immigrants about their lives in Australia, this 'voluntary information' to serve as a guide to those in England who wished to emigrate. By now Mrs Chisholm had been led away from alleviating immediate distress to expounding reforms and to promoting her own colonization scheme. With her husband she left for England in 1846 in the Dublin. She was already a legend in New South Wales, although her last days were clouded by a revival of religious controversy.

In London her eloquent arguments won the sympathy of Earl Grey and James Stephen and she achieved two of her objects: free passages for emancipists' wives in the Asia and Waverley, and for seventy-five children in the Sir Edward Parry. She gave evidence before two House of Lords committees, on the execution of the criminal law, and on colonization from Ireland, a rare tribute to a woman. A pamphlet letter to Earl Grey, Emigration and Transportation Relatively Considered (1847), better written than her first report, contained her first public attack on the Wakefield system. Eighteen voluntary statements formed an appendix and she published others in Comfort for the Poor! Meat Three Times a Day!! Voluntary Information From the People of New South Wales (1847). Her house became an Australian information centre and for several years she and her husband received an average of 140 letters a day.

After two years of official indifference to her principal object, family emigration, she decided to act unaided. Her first plan for a land-ticket system was defeated by the influence in London of alarmed squatters. Next she formed a committee of wealthy London merchants and, after a lecture tour of Scotland, her Family Colonization Loan Society became a reality in 1849, with Lord Ashley president of the London central committee, branch committees throughout the British Isles and agents in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. The society received the savings of intending emigrants or their colonial relations and lent them the balance of the passage money. The Australian agents found them employment and collected the repayment of the loan by easy instalments. A reserve fund bore losses through death or default. Thanks to Baroness Burdett-Coutts, remittances from Australia were received by Coutts & Co. to avoid the prohibitive charges of other banks. Mrs Chisholm's best-written pamphlet, The A.B.C. of Colonization (1850), denounced the landed interests and the renewed government scheme, describing in contrast her own society, founded in defiance of the squatters and with no official support.

Charles Dickens gave the society powerful aid and in 1851-52 advertised the society in Household Words, although his unsympathetic portrait of Mrs Jellyby (Bleak House) was partly drawn from Mrs Chisholm. When the first chartered ship Slains Castle sailed on 1 October 1850, she personally supervised the embarkation of passengers, placing friendless girls with families and the aged with the young. A reliable surgeon was appointed and he, not the captain, issued the rations. The Blundell and the Athenian followed, before news of the gold discoveries reached England to stimulate emigration and give the society financial security; in 1852 they dispatched six ships. Yet Mrs Chisholm feared that gold seekers would neither produce colonial stability nor create an environment suitable for her young females.

In March 1851 Captain Chisholm left for Australia to work gratuitously as colonial agent, leaving Caroline with the increasing duties in Britain. In 1852 she toured the British Isles and later Germany, France and Italy, where she visited the Pope. She agitated with some success for lower colonial postage rates and the introduction of colonial money orders. Her comments on shipboard conditions ensured the passing of the Passenger Act of 1852. A shipowner, W. S. Lindsay built for the society the Caroline Chisholm, and on her maiden voyage in September 1853 the passengers included a party of girls from the Jewish Ladies' Benevolent Society. Mrs Chisholm was now one of the most famous women in England; her portrait by Angelo Collen Hayter, of which the original was lost, hung in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1852, a panoramic picture 'Adventures of Mrs Chisholm' 'sold by the thousands', and she was the subject of many poems, articles and cartoons.

When Caroline Chisholm sailed for Australia in the Ballarat in 1854, her departure was widely reported and over £900 was subscribed as a testimonial. The society then had more than £15,000 in hand and had sent out over 3000 emigrants. She arrived in Port Phillip in July: at one welcome meeting tribute was paid to Captain Chisholm, who almost alone in Australia had ensured the success of his wife's scheme. The Victorian Legislative Council voted the Chisholms £5000 and another £2500 was privately subscribed. The family was in desperate need and opened a store with some of this money, although Caroline accepted it with reluctance.

In October 1854 she toured the Victorian goldfields, and at a meeting in Melbourne in November proposed a series of shelter sheds along the routes to the diggings; with some government help ten were under construction by the end of 1855. Because of her passionate belief in the beneficial effects of a small farmer class, she agitated in support of unlocking the lands. She developed a kidney disease in 1857, and in November the family moved to Kyneton, where Archibald Chisholm, who had been promoted major on the retired list in November 1854, sat on the magistrates' bench and their two elder sons ran the store. Later Caroline had to go to Sydney for medical attention but she also gave public lectures there on the land question in 1859-61. Financial necessity forced her in July 1862 to open a girls' school at Newtown, later moved to Tempe.

Caroline Chisholm's scorn for material reward and public position contributed to the obscurity of her last years in Australia. Yet, although almost unknown to the new population of gold seekers, she saw many of her earlier aims accepted by the new society. In June 1866 the Chisholms left for England. Granted a pension of £100, they lived first in Liverpool, then in dingy lodgings at Highgate, London. Mrs Chisholm died on 25 March 1877. Her husband died next August and was buried in the same grave at Northampton; it bears a headstone inscribed 'The emigrant's friend'. They were survived by three of their four sons and two daughters.

Russet-haired, tall and sweet-voiced, her serene face lit by grey eyes, Caroline Chisholm began her work accepting established conventions, but when she encountered the obstruction and indifference of officialdom, her attitude began to harden and she became an uncompromising radical, expounding her belief in universal suffrage, vote by ballot and payment of members. Herself a devoted wife and mother, she helped to give dignity to woman and family in a harsh colonial society. Her achievement was made possible by her idealism and courage allied to her executive ability and personal charm, and by the presence and unwavering support of her husband.

Select Bibliography

  • M. L. Kiddle, Caroline Chisholm (Melb, 1957), and for bibliography
  • E. Mackenzie, The Emigrants' Guide to Australia (Lond, 1853).

Additional Resources

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Judith Iltis, 'Chisholm, Caroline (1808–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Caroline Chisholm, by Angelo Collen Hayter, 1852

Caroline Chisholm, by Angelo Collen Hayter, 1852

National Library of Australia, 9193363 [detail]

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Jones, Caroline

30 May, 1808
Northampton, Northamptonshire, England


25 March, 1877 (aged 68)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death

cerebral softening

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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