Our Stories of Interest volunteer, Lauren Fernandes, explores the history of four women who chose to emigrate to Australia after their time at the Foundling Hospital. The Stories of Interest volunteers have been researching the little-known themes and connections between pupils at the Foundling Hospital to tell new and fascinating stories.
Historical context and Catherine’s story
In the 1830s, the British government facilitated the emigration of young women to Australia to address the gender imbalance in the settler colony there, as well as the need for domestic workers and wives. The government provided free travel on certain ships to young women who were in search of a better life and better paid work.
This was the case with four Foundlings: Catherine Cameron, Agnes Hammond, Martha Smith and Prudence Gibbs. Catherine and Prudence entered the Foundling Hospital as babies in 1815. The following year, Agnes and Martha were admitted and both baptised in the Hospital’s chapel on 7 April 1816. At the time, the Hospital only admitted children whose parents were unmarried, as in Catherine’s case, or who were orphans of British Army soldiers and Royal Navy sailors.
As teenagers, all four girls struggled in their apprenticeships, which the Hospital arranged, and were often reported for poor behaviour. For example, Catherine went through three apprenticeships and two placements, all as a household servant. Her name frequently appears in the Hospital’s Sub-Committee meeting minutes, with accusations including gross misconduct and obstinacy. She was sentenced to stints in solitary confinement and an asylum – punishments which seem disproportionately harsh to us now, but were quite normal for the time.
The Foundling Hospital gave children opportunities they would not have had otherwise. Both boys and girls were educated so that they were literate, which was not widespread at this time. The Foundling Hospital also secured work and apprenticeships for pupils when they were teenagers and supported those who faced hardship as adults and were deemed deserving. Think about what Catherine’s life would have been like had she stayed with her mother, a servant in East London who could not afford to care for her and could not work at the same time as raising a baby. Catherine’s father was a mariner who had gone to sea and whose whereabouts were unknown when she was born.
Australia – a promised land?
The struggles faced by the Foundling girls in their apprenticeships, and the punishments they received for their poor behaviour, likely made them interested in settling in Australia. This was the case with Catherine. It was reported to a Hospital committee that she wanted to go to Australia because the committee had to approve her request. All were 18 when they left, so their departure needed approval from the General Committee. The Hospital gave them a stipend, as they did for other Foundlings when they left.
Imagine how you would feel leaving the country you knew to travel 10,000 miles to a country you knew nothing about. Settlers would not have had the money to return to England on visits as they do today. The four girls would have known that they were leaving England for good, never to return, having no idea what life awaited them in a far-off country.
The Foundling girls set sail on 10 July 1834 on the David Scott, one of fourteen ships filled with unmarried women that travelled to Australia from Britain and Ireland between 1833 and 1837. The David Scott docked in Sydney on 25 October.
Work in Australia paid up to twice what they had been earning at home. For example, they could earn £12 to £14 a year as housemaids and servants. This compared favourably to the £8 a year that Catherine earnt while working in the same position for employer Mrs Yallop shortly before she left.
It is difficult to find out what happened to these four Foundlings after arriving in Australia. It was not common at the time to keep records as detailed as those of the Foundling Hospital. At first, they may have led similar lives as servants, but then perhaps they married and had children, as did another former Foundling in Australia, Sophia Foster.
The wider context
Subsidies for transport were part of the active immigration policy pursued by the Australasian British colonies, as they were ‘competing’ with North America for white, European settlers. This programme, supported by the colonial and British governments, resulted in rapid population growth in the nineteenth century. The British government had a say in the selection of emigrants, choosing to send low-income citizens and other such ‘undesirables’. This was at odds with the receiving authorities in Australia, who wanted a ‘higher class’ of settler in comparison.
While many of the girls who went to Australia would have viewed this as an opportunity for a better life, both economically and socially, the British government viewed it as a mechanism to alter the social makeup of the country. The push to send young women was a means of increasing the white population in Australia through marriage and child bearing. As historian Patrick Wolfe says, settler colonialism is foremost a project of replacement, in this case of Australia’s indigenous population. For the colonial government, migration was a nation-building project. This was increasingly true in the years following the Foundling girls’ arrival, when Australian authorities had a greater role in the selection of immigrants, a role that increased throughout the century and would later produce the White Australia policy.
The experiences of these former Foundlings are incredibly interesting, clearly placing the Foundling Hospital in its historical context. It is a fascinating part of the history of the British Empire, giving us a perspective of the colonisation of Australia through the position of working-class Britons. The Foundling girls were oppressed as women, as former Foundlings, as working class and as domestic servants. Yet, in the Australian context, they can be viewed as the oppressors, dispossessing indigenous Australians of their lands. We can see through these four girls’ histories a complex and multifaceted interaction between their individual lives and the national and international context in which they lived.
Keep up to date with our Feature Foundlings research and creative projects on our blog and social media.
The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, Jurgen Osterhammel (2014)
Migration and Empire, Marjory Harper & Stephen Constantine (2010)
Foundling Hospital Archive