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Miss Rye immigrants: 19th Century female immigrants with a challenge ahead

By Stephanie Ryan, Research Librarian | 19 October 2020

When Miss Maria Rye advertised for a copywriter to work in her London law stationer’s business and on one occasion received 810 applicants for one position at £15 /year, she was prompted to explore employment opportunities for a group of “distressed gentlewomen.”

These women needed to work but had basic education. Miss Rye saw emigration as nursery governesses or superior servants as a solution to unemployment and sliding down the social scale. She set up the Female Middle Class Emigration Society with Jane Lewin to provide loans to assist women to emigrate and outfit them for the journey. The emigrant women were provided with letters of introduction to ease their way into the colonies both socially and in terms of employment.

A family group reading books and looking at pictures at a table

Frederick Walker, National Gallery of Victoria

Who were these women?

In England these women had limited marriage prospects because of their economic status and the scarcity of men resulting from the effects of war deaths and the increase in male emigration. The interest‑free loan to pay for emigration with the option of travelling in a 2nd class cabin and the offer of introductions to appropriate people was attractive to many.

They expressed their views on their experience when they wrote to the society repaying their loans. Most of the female immigrants of the time were poorly educated domestic servants. However, the articulate opinions of the “distressed gentlewomen” on the voyage out and their experiences of employment and Australia are an interesting contribution to the historical record.

What did people in the colonies think of them?

Before the people and press in Brisbane had even sighted the 140 “distressed gentlewomen” on the Conway in 1862, the Courier (18 December 1862) referred to their “ ’high respectability’  but no means” and the idea of “finding husbands awaiting them,” with disdain. The Queensland guardian (18 December 1862) mocked the idea that “the bachelors on this side of the world are in an utter state of destitution as regards eligible partners” or that the women will be “hailed on landing by crowds of bucolic suitors, rich in sheep and cattle.”

A picture of a ship at sea

Harper`s Story Books, Jacob Abbott, 1854. 

For 19th Century women who arrived in Australia, this journey was the prelude to a very different life.          

How did these women fare?

Were these women different from those who were anticipated? Did these women find satisfying lives in Australia? How effective was the Society in helping them? There is much discussion about how successful the Middle-Class Emigration Society was.

Find out about some of these individual women including some who came to Queensland and what they thought of the emigrant journey, their work and issues of social class, age and the Australian bush. How did their lives change? Where can you find out more about them?

Find out more

Register for our free online webinar.
The special letters of Miss Rye immigrants in the 1860s
Wednesday 25 November, 10.30am-11.30am.


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