I was recommended this by a friend who was raving about how Caroline Chisholm is her new “heavenly” best friend, and a great inspiration to her. I was intrigued as I didn’t know she was Catholic, or anything about her except for her rather unusual hairstyle as depicted once upon a time on our Australian 5 dollar note:
Mmmm… not sure who the hair stylists were in those days. Looks like it would have worked ok with a bucket on your head. Actually, those ladies to the right of Caroline are wearing bonnets that have suspiciously bucket-like characteristics to them.
Not that I can really comment as mostly my hair is in an appalling pony tail (thank God for the industrial age and invention of hair elastics.. the salvation of suburban mothers worldwide.)
The point, however, is not to let this put you off getting to know her better. Caroline is well worth finding out about, and thanks to Joanna Bogle this highly readable biography of her life, charting her course from a happy childhood in Norhamptonshire, U.K. through to India and then Australia is fascinating.
If you were a single woman arriving in Australia in the 1840’s, life was very tough.
“Around the port area, especially at night, there gathered the people who were the unfortunate reminders of a sad underworld. Here were the ex-convicts – some still bearing the marks of hideous floggings on their back – down on their luck and without hope of a passage home. Here were the newly-arrived emigrants who had found no work or lodgings, or who had been robbed of the savings and possessions with which they had hoped to start their new lives. Here – perhaps the most pitiful group of all – were young women who had travelled out from Britain on their own, hoping to escape from the workhouse or from the bitter poverty of an orphan’s life in a grim city. They had no jobs awaiting them – they were not wanted for casual labour on road-building or unloading ships and could not find transport out to the bush areas to seek out farms where they might find shelter. Too often, their best chance for survival lay in various forms of prostitution – finding a male ‘protector’ who would offer food and shelter or ending up in a brothel under the vicious direction of a woman who had appeared to offer friendship and ‘regular work’.” p. 47
If I was looking for a modern parallel, I would say it sounds a lot like those today who are caught up in human trafficking and the sex trade.
Into this scene, Caroline and her husband Archibald take on a daunting task of providing genuine help to those young girls in the greatest need. They start to place them in employment with families who will take genuine care of them, not cruelly using them as slaves. She starts a centre in an abandoned rat-infested government building, cleans it out and begins to offer real hope to these girls. She travels on a horse with wagonloads of girls to country areas where there is a desperate need for domestic help and also, as she discovers, for decent wives for many farmers. Australia at the time had a male:female ratio of 10:1. These men were able to make a good living, but unable to find a wife to share this with and raise a family. This was coupled with an active government and private policy of discrimination against wives and especially children. Jobs were advertised and only given to those who were “unencumbered” (not married, or if you were, only if you had no children. Children were seen as a burden and contributing nothing to the economy.) Ruthless utilitarianism was well and truly alive in colonial Australia long before its modern counterparts emerged.
How interesting that Caroline had a real heart for the needs of the emerging Australian nation to invest in its greatest wealth – families. She actively lobbied the British government for many years to change their emigration policies and the methods of transportation by sea to allow whole families to travel together, and for families who had been separated through the penal system to be reunited.
One of the most notable moments for me was the story of how, at the beginning of her apostolate, a despondent Caroline was questioning whether she should continue with the cause she felt so passionately about. She had just missed the ferry she was due to take to stay with some friends to do some “thinking”. She came across a girl whom she had tried to help but who had refused. The girl decided instead to become a mistress to a man who showered her with gifts. This girl had been bragging on the streets of Sydney about the benefits of her arrangement with this man, flaunting the many gifts of clothes etc. that he was giving her. When Caroline came across her, however, she was unkempt and drunk and in a very unhappy state. After spending some time with her, Caroline discovered this girl was about to commit suicide due to the man having left her and gone off with another woman. The girl was on her way to throw herself into the water from the place where she and this man had often walked together. Caroline immediately helped the girl find safe shelter for the night with a family she trusted, and the next day went and helped her into better lodgings. This began a new chapter for this girl who would otherwise have ended her life that night. It was this incident which encouraged Caroline not to stop doing the work she believed had been entrusted to her by God.
In addition to taking on the massive task of assisting those in great need, Caroline raised a large family of her own. She embraced her personal family life through a loving relationship with her husband and children, as well as embracing the concept of fostering family life for others. She is definitely an advocate for the family, and I would highly recommend this book as a doorway into discovering more about her as well as this fascinating chapter in Australian and world history.
There have been those who have spoken of putting forward her cause for canonisation, and it may be something that we see in the years to come. The friend who recommended this book is already speaking of making a movie about her life, so you never know, we may see this happen one day.
If you are looking for a worthwhile addition to your home library, or perhaps for a book to suggest a local library or school library purchase, I would definitely recommend this one. My copy was obtained second hand online, and even came with an extra surprise – it has been signed by the author!
Enjoy the read!