The ‘Woman Question’ Solved? Female Middle Class Emigration in the Nineteenth Century

Map of Cape Colony from South African Experiences: in Cape Colony, Natal and Pondoland ... Illustrated, etc by Albert Groser, 1891 via The British Library

In 1851 the census exposed the bald truth that there was an excess of 500,000 women in Britain. Not only this, but the statistics also showed that two-thirds of women aged 20 to 24 years old and one third of women aged 24 to 35 were unmarried. This fact was seized upon by many prominent journalists, including W. R. Greg, who wrote his infamous article ‘Why are Women Redundant?’ in the National Review in 1862. Articles such as this served to cast unwed middle-class women as ‘redundant’ or ‘surplus’ and framing unmarried women as an economic drain on society and a problem to be solved.

In the mid to late nineteenth century it was only socially acceptable for working-class women to work. The role of middle- and upper-class women was as homemakers; supporting their husbands’ endeavours and bringing up children. However, many unmarried middle-class women not only wanted to, but needed to work to support themselves and gain some independence. Many single or widowed middle-class women ended up existing in genteel poverty as their families struggled to support them and their role in society came under question. Unfortunately very little work was acceptable for a middle-class woman, as any sort of manual labour was seen as degrading to their class status. One of the very few options open to middle-class women who wanted to work was as a governess, a position that did not gain glowing reviews from contemporary novels such as Jane Eyre (1847) and Agnes Grey (1847). Not only were governess positions poorly paid and lowly in status but also (conversely) much sought-after, making finding a position difficult.

Painting of The Governess by Rebecca Solomon, 1851
The Governess by Rebecca Solomon (1851) – note the modestly dressed, unprepossessing governess educates the child while the gaily-dressed elder daughter of the family flirts with a gentleman.

With the ongoing debate over suitable work for women rumbling along in the background various solutions to the ‘women problem’ were mooted. From 1857 the Langham Place group, led by Barbara Leigh Smith, was active in trying to improve education and open up new working options for women. The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW) followed in 1859, set up by Jessie Boucherett, its aim was to aid women’s economic independence by providing training (in areas such as book keeping and printing) and setting up law-copying and printing businesses in order to offer respectable work to educated women. However these campaigns had long-term goals in sight, working to improve education and opportunities was never going to be an overnight solution to an entrenched problem. As a result Langham Place members Maria Rye and Jane Lewin set up the Female Middle Class Emigration Society (FMCES) in 1862 with the aim of helping middle-class women emigrate to the colonies where they might find work and independence. It was hoped by helping middle-class women to emigrate it would save the excess women from poverty and improve the job market at home.

Emigration had traditionally been reserved for criminals and paupers, the undesirables rounded up and sent off to the colonies to populate our overseas territories and remove their ilk from the motherland. As a consequence emigration had a very bad reputation. Furthermore by the 1830s the need for workers in the colonies had meant a large number of working-class men and women had been recruited, with their passage paid, to go and take on domestic work in the colonies. This had been a hugely successful scheme and domestic workers were in great need, a factor which encouraged Maria Rye to suppose that the colonies must also be in need of well-educated governesses.

The Emigrants by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). October 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 57, "The Emigrants," in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume two. Image scan by Philip V. Allingham
The Emigrants by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). October 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 57, “The Emigrants,” in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume two. Image scan by Philip V. Allingham

The press was initially sceptical of the scheme, accusing any women who volunteered for emigration of lowering themselves — not only was emigration seen as the preserve of the lower classes, it was also seen as unseemly for single middle-class women to travel alone without a male chaperone. Maria Rye took to regularly writing the the Times to publicise the scheme and attract funding. Right from the outset she was clear that although she wanted to attract educated middle-class women for emigration, they would need to roll their sleeves up and get involved in colonial life, where the average middle-class person kept chickens and churned their own butter. Rye wrote in to the Times in April 1862: ‘People are wanted here but not any sort. The people who come should be intelligent; idle people will not do in Australia.’

By December 1879 just 215 women had successfully been placed in the colonies by FMCES, a very small number which perhaps reflects not only the difficulty in persuading middle-class women that it was a viable option but also the extremely stringent parameters they had to fit into in order to qualify for assistance. They needed to be educated to a good level (therefore able to work as governesses) plus be able to cook, wash, do needlework and housework. In a sense these requirements were mutually exclusive as most middle-class women who were sufficiently educated would see it as below themselves to stoop to any sort of domestic work, and working-class women had the domestic experience but not the required level of education.

Those who applied needed to supply evidence of their educational experience and provide references to attest to their good character. If selected the FMCES would loan the women the money to pay the passage to the colonies and then assist them in finding work on arrival. The letterbook and reports of the FMCES held at the Women’s Library at LSE allows us to hear the voices of the emigrants themselves reflecting on their experience (it is worth noting that generally only the more successful emigrants wrote back to the society repaying their loan and reporting on their outcome). Miss S. E. A. Hall was one of the most successful of FMCES’s emigrants, ultimately setting up a school in the Cape Colony and employing many other female emigrants as teachers there. Despite her success, Miss Hall seemed to maintain a dislike for the colonial life and a yearning for her homeland, writing in 1877: ‘The character of the people I have more knowledge of than admiration for: as a rule it lacks those traits which we are proud to call English.’ Likewise, Lina Hastleton who took on a governess position in Cape Colony for £80 a year (a comparatively decent salary), wrote: ‘There is certainly plenty of work for any capable teacher of sound religion, and not apt to be either elated or depressed by the conduct of those around.’

Map of Cape Colony from South African Experiences: in Cape Colony, Natal and Pondoland ... Illustrated, etc by Albert Groser, 1891 via The British Library
Map of Cape Colony from South African Experiences: in Cape Colony, Natal and Pondoland … Illustrated, etc by Albert Groser, 1891 via The British Library

Some of the emigrants clearly felt that they had been misled about the availability of work and how hard it might be to secure a good position: J. Caldwell wrote from Melbourne in July 1880 ‘I am sorry to say that everything here is so dear and bad for governesses that several have said to me that you and Miss Lewin ought to be told not to send any more ladies at any rate for a year or so, for there is some difficulty finding engagements.’ Elizabeth Long wrote from New Zealand in May 1880: ‘[New Zealand is] undoubtedly the paradise of servants; I am afraid the paradise for governesses has yet to be found.’ These then were girls who had emigrated seemingly unprepared for life to be equally hard in the colonies, they were surprised to find the promised jobs unforthcoming and unwilling to surrender their gentility to take on lower grade work. Miss Fanny Grofs wrote from Dunedin in July 1880 that she had struggled to find a proper position and did temporary work as a dressmaker and in houses: ‘The people are very rough and actually governesses are going out as nurses in Dunedin. There are a great number out of employ and it is pitiful to hear of the number of young women who degenerate so on account of the scarcity of situations and no home influences to keep them… I do not think I am better off here than at home.’

Others, however, were more able, or more prepared, to adapt and took to their new life and position more readily. Mary Long wrote from New Zealand in 1880: ‘I have two little girl pupils, in a clergyman’s family. I get very small pay only £30. I do a great deal of needlework and housekeeping as well as teach … But in spite of it all I would rather be a governess here than in England.’ Eleanor Blackith, also in New Zealand (and also only earning £30) wrote in 1881: ‘I am very happy out here and like N. Z, life in the summer… since I came here I have become quite clever in the art of cooking.’ Miss Barlow wrote from Melbourne: ‘I am getting quite a Colonial women, and I fear I should not easily fit into English ideas again, can scrub a floor with anyone, and bake my own bread and many other things an English Governess and School mistress especially would be horrified at.’ These letters appear to show that women who were ready to take on more traditionally working-class duties and adopt the role of a ‘colonial woman’ were more likely to find happiness and even contentment. For someone who had been made to feel redundant and unwanted in England and perhaps struggled to find any work, the opportunity to work and make a living, even if it meant surrendering ideas of English gentility, could be worth it.

The official reports of the FMCES reveal short vignettes on the fate of some of their emigrants. The 1868 report reflects on the first seven years of work, revealing a list of emigrants, ranging up to 158. The list reveals the destination, date of sailing, salary obtained in the colonies and remarks. The vast majority went to Australia c.86, with 32 to New Zealand, 20 to Africa, 9 to America, 8 to Canada and 1 to India. The reports indicate that women who were perhaps not quite up to scratch to make it as a governess in England were successful in the colonies. One emigrant to Australia in 1861 gained a £60 salary there but ‘Had failed entirely to obtain employment in England, from inability to teach music.’ – this implies the colonies were more accepting and prepared to take less qualified women. A further note reported on another emigrant who got a post in Australia for £60 a year but ‘Had experienced great difficulty in obtaining employment in England, on account of slight deafness.’

As further letters and reports on the success, or otherwise, of the emigrants reached the FMCES back in England the emphasis on recruiting the right type of candidates increased. The 1880 report stated that it was useless sending half-trained women out to the colonies as the competition there was now as fierce for governess positions as it was back home in England. They stressed that the society should be ‘strongly impressing on possible emigrants the facts proving that the distress occasioned by the keen competition among half-educated women-teachers is as extreme and despairing in the large and old-settled towns of the Colonies as in England … if teachers want work they must go “up country,” must accept the life of the family without other society, and must share the household work with the mother and family.’ The FMCES although keen to stress the importance of adaptability was also clearly unhappy that their vision for opportunities for educated middle-class women in the colonies was not playing out as they hoped, there was obviously some difference in their minds between being versatile and being reduced to unsuitable work as evidenced by this slightly shrill extract: ‘Complaints have been received also from Auckland this year of the hopelessness of obtaining  situations, reporting an excess of teachers of music in that town alone, and telling of one governess having gone into a factory, another as a servant in a shop, a third as housekeeper and only servant in a widower’s family.’ Despite this, the report goes on to a more upbeat tone: ‘It must be stated that the greater number of those who have been sent out write grateful acknowledgements to the Secretary for “the fresh start in life,” and when once they accommodate themselves to the customs and needs of the country and follow the heads of the family in readiness to give a hand in every sort of work, they soon share in the interest and happiness of life.’

The FMCES Letterbook at the Women's Library, LSE. Photo by author.
The FMCES Letterbook at the Women’s Library, LSE. Photo by author.

Ultimately between 1861 and 1886 the FMCES helped 302 middle-class women to emigrate to the colonies – a relatively minor amount compared to the thousands of working-class women who made the same trip. Maria Rye herself became disillusioned with middle-class emigration and by 1868 left the work of the FMCES to her colleague, Jane Lewin while she focused on assisting working-class children to emigrate to Canada, for a better life. By the 1890s the FMCES had ceased to exist, in part due to the improved prospects for women to find work in Britain. Although emigration did not prove a viable large-scale solution to the problem of ‘surplus’ women, the efforts of the FMCES did shine a light on the lack of opportunities for women at home and the greater need for women’s education. By giving young women agency to emigrate and seek a better life elsewhere the FMCES acted as a sort of test-bed, allowing women greater opportunity to work in the more class-flexible colonies, and opening up the conversation on improving women’s rights and access to education back home.

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