Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: Part 4 - The problems of getting domestic help in early 20th century Australia

On Saturday 7th June, 1913, two weeks before Ethel made landfall in Adelaide, the Adelaide Daily Herald had carried a lengthy article entitled “Our Adelaide Women of Interest”, and coyly subtitled: The problem of domestic help – a little chat with Mrs Moore, the superintendant of the house at 5 Charles Street – the hostel where Ethel undoubtedly first lodged. The superintendent was an apparently worthy, motherly figure called Bessie Moore.

Further research turned up a letter to the Adelaide Register in July 1906, where the correspondent praised the influence of Mrs Moore and others like her, in creating positive and intellectually nourishing environments for the rising generation. She was then teaching at a school in Upper Sturt, a suburb of south Adelaide, a school which was founded in 1878 and still operates today. Bessie Moore began her teacher training in 1884 and thus had been in teaching for over 25 years before she was appointed matron-in-charge of the immigrant domestic helpers. After that scheme ended, presumably after the end of WW1, she was made officer in charge of the women’s department of the South Australian Government Labour Bureau. Her last position was as housekeeper at the Adelaide Hospital, where she died on 31st March 1923, probably only in her mid to late fifties.

The domestic helpers’ hostel in Charles Street would appear to have been in the process of preparation during 1912: it was located in a former “gentleman’s residence”, and the Adelaide Advertiser, in November of that year, describes it thus:

The interior architectural adornment of the place is in keeping with the pleasing exterior view, so the house lends itself admirably to beautification. On many of the door panels there are artistic hand-paintings. From the high balcony, which faces Charles Street, one gets capital views of the Mount Lofty Ranges. This fact specially appealed to the English girls, some of whom had expected to find Australia to be flat country. The roses and other bright blooms in the garden also appeared to give them much pleasure. The home will always be available to the girls during the intervals between changes of employment, or when they are in need of a rest.

The Adelaide Daily Herald article confirmed Bessie Moore’s bona fides as a former State School headmistress, and that the hostel had been at the Charles Street address for only seven or eight months:

Previous to this it had been located at the Exhibition, [a complex of buildings erected in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee] but it was decided to find a more suitable place to carry on the work on a more comprehensive scale, and the present building was rented by the Government for a period of three years, and if this experiment is successful, it is probable that at the end of that term the building will either be purchased or suitable premises erected to carry on the work successfully.

Ethel had confided to her Journal that she was “leaving Home and Dear Ones far behind, to commence life in a Strange Land”. It’s comforting to note that, as far as we can possibly know after a hundred years, efforts were made to make that emotional wrench less distressing for the British girls:

The home is a link in the great chain of organisation of the immigration to Australia, and its object is to provide a suitable place for domestic helpers coming from overseas where they can be provided with employment under the direct supervision of the Government. The domestic helpers are originally selected by Miss Walker in Great Britain, who interviews every candidate personally, and they are then conducted to Australia under the care of matrons fully qualified to take charge of them and deal with all the difficulties that confront the domestic helpers in their change of country and the different conditions prevailing in Australia as compared with Great Britain.

And the above extract seems to identify one of the mysterious contacts Ethel writes of in her postcard correspondence to Minnie two years beforehand. From time to time other accounts of the house in Charles Street and its occupants appear in the pages of Adelaide newspapers, and they mostly speak of positive experiences:

There is a young lady, Miss Eaton, at the Immigration Home for Domestic Helpers in Charles Street, Norwood, who came out to Adelaide in the steamer Irishman to take a position as a domestic servant, and who says she cannot speak too highly of the treatment accorded her during her residence in the State. Evidently she is the right type of girl to introduce - industrious, ladylike, and careful. She landed from the Irishman in November, 1912, a stranger in a strange land, but not altogether friendless, because she was one of a batch of immigrant girls brought out by the Government. [Adelaide Advertiser Nov. 1912]

Note from the tone of this extract how the South Australians were looking for “industrious, ladylike” girls to offer to their usually middle class clientele: they would not have wanted women of doubtful morals in any way. Of course, the authorities could not completely be sure of the girls’ backgrounds, but much care was taken to cultivate and maintain a respectable ambience, so that prospective employers could comfort themselves they were allowing ‘proper’ young ladies into their households.

We work under splendid conditions, I think because everyone is only too pleased to do everything possible to make our attempts a success. We have a strong committee of ladies, representing every religious denomination, with Mrs. Nutter Thomas as president, [Staffordshire-born wife of the Bishop of Adelaide] and on the first evening of arrival they come in to see the girls and find out which church they attend, and so forth. Then when the girls find situations they find her church and write to the ministers, and perhaps put her in the care of other church friends, and so give her an atmosphere of friendliness and welcome in her new sphere. Every Tuesday evening Miss Boyer, B.A., gives us a talk on literature and books, on Wednesday we have a dressmaking class, and on Fridays a musical evening. [Adelaide Daily Herald June 1913]

Curiously, the article from which this last extract is taken, Our Adelaide Women of Interest: a little chat with Mrs Moore, goes on to state the following:

One very sensible thing I was quite glad to hear about – the girls are allowed and encouraged to bring friends of the opposite sex to spend afternoons or evenings at the home. They gladly avail themselves of this privilege, and spend the evening playing games or chatting over the fire. There is little need to enlarge on the value of this.

This would seem to have been designed to stop the girls from venturing out alone of an evening, and to cater for the natural urges of young people far away from familial influence. Even more curious, however, is the conclusion of the article which sees the worthy Mrs Moore confiding to the interviewer that she was:

a student of many occult sciences, deeply interested in the great questions of the day, which no open mind can afford to leave undiscussed with its fellows. As we turned over magazines and books concerned with psychic matters and talked of experiences that transcend the common daily round, we drifted far away from the solution of the domestic problem.

Perhaps those sentiments merely reflected nothing more sinister than the turn-of-the-century fascination in western society with spiritualism. The movement appealed to women, and to those who supported specific causes such as suffrage. But well-known figures, such as the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had also taken it up to console themselves in bereavement. There was another surge in the popularity of spiritualism during and after the approaching World War, of course. Anyhow, from these accounts we can be fairly certain that Ethel met Mrs Bessie Moore, was welcomed and advised by her, and was sent out to her first position.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: Part 3 - The Voyage to Australia

On Thursday 15th May Ethel took a bus, then a train, crossing London to the Albert Dock, from where a small steamer took the passengers out into the Thames to board the SS Beltana. As can be seen from the photograph below she was not a glamorous vessel, but she was sturdy and serviceable enough for a tricky voyage to the Antipodes. She had been launched on 24th January 2012, so was relatively new. Her maiden voyage came just over six months later on 9th July, and it seems she had always been intended for the UK to Australia emigrant service. She was over 500 feet long and 62 feet wide, and was owned by P & O. After the outbreak of WW1 she became a troop transport, and in 1917 was requisitioned to ferry munitions and supplies across the Atlantic. By 1919 she had been superseded by larger and more economical ships, but nevertheless carried on serving a useful purpose until 1929. Having cost £179,365 to build in 1912, she was rather ignominiously sold for a mere £27,000 to a Japanese company, whose intention was to convert her for the whaling trade! However, and happily in a way, she was laid up and never used as such, finally being sold to another Japanese firm for demolition in 1933. But, in that May of twenty years earlier, she and Ethel were at the start of exciting adventures.

In her Journal, optimistically entitled “Items of my 1st voyages”, Ethel sadly neglects to provide us with many details of life on board the Beltana over the ensuing six weeks. It has only been within the last year that my sister Terri and I have discovered the name of the captain – W.G. Lingham.  Ethel tells us he conducted the morning act of worship on their first Sunday at sea, after an unexpectedly calm crossing of the notorious Bay of Biscay. More puzzling, however, is Ethel’s omission of the briefest description of her fellow passengers. Naturally there were other young women destined for domestic service in Australia. But an Australian genealogy site tells us there was also a large group of British youths who were heading out to Australian farms as labourers. I first thought that they may well have been part of what has more recently been revealed as a pernicious trade in disadvantaged or orphaned children carried on by Britain up to the 1960s. But an article in the parish magazine of the East Yorkshire community of Snaith, home of two of the lads in that group, reveals a more worthy purpose and destiny for them. How sad that Ethel could not give us some insight into their voyage together. History has recorded that:

They were part of a group of 35 Boy Scouts who sailed on the SS Beltana in June 1913, on the scheme supported by Lord Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scout Movement. The boys had to be between the ages of 15-19 and would be apprenticed to farmers within South Australia. The Scouts were from various parts of the UK with three being from Yorkshire. They formed themselves into a troop while on board ship and named it after the ship, becoming the Beltana Troop.

On Wednesday 21st May the SS Beltana arrived at “Las Palmas situated in the Country of Spain” according to Ethel’s journal. In fact they had arrived in the Canary Isles, a province of Spain off the west coast of Morocco, which had been finally settled by the Spanish in the last quarter of the 15th century.

The port’s full name was Puerto de la Luz de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, at the time one of the busiest in the world. The above image shows it in 1910, as Ethel would doubtless have experienced it. The “many small boats around the Beltana” that sold goods to passengers are known as bumboats, a sometime feature of many ports around the world, but now most usually found in the Far East.

The voyage had so far been blessed with fine weather, but, as they sailed on down the African coast, the ship encountered its first storm at sea between May 24th and 26th. Ethel’s journal describes the effects this had on the passengers, many of whom were sleeping on deck. Perhaps this had been to lessen discomfort from the increasing heat as the ship approached the Equator, but Ethel does not reveal this, only to say that, on top of a drenching, they had to cope with the inevitable sea sickness. The seas calmed down, and in the afternoon of 4th June the Beltana docked in Cape Town.

South Africa probably posed the most significant cultural shock of Ethel's journey so far. In her Journal she reports that she found it "strange to see the many dark Natives about", which revealed, perhaps, her unconscious assumptions about the white British Empire. White Europeans had exerted their influence over the area since 1647, the British since 1814. And Ethel had arrived here in the same year the Natives Land Act was passed, limiting land ownership for blacks to black territories, a precursor to the apartheid system that operated for so long in South Africa. Above are views she would doubtless have seen from her electric car trip around the Lion's Head, a 2000 foot sugar-loaf peak, supposedly named after the last peninsula lion shot there. The second image shows the city and the bay, the panorama that had been described in the 16th century by Sir Francis Drake as:

          The most stately, the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.

The YMCA hostel where they all took tea had been a feature of Cape Town since the 1860s. Below is an image from 1905 showing a typical street view of the Cape Town around which Ethel and the intrepid Boy Scouts would have strolled. The passengers returned to the Beltana around eight that evening, and set sail for the last stage of the voyage at 4 am on Thursday 5th June.

The Final three weeks of the voyage would take Ethel and the Boy Scouts round the Cape towards Durban, then on across the vast expanse of the Southern Indian Ocean towards Australia. It was winter in the southern hemisphere, and strong winds began to blow. As the season progressed, so Ethel's journey became first uncomfortable, then dangerous. Five days out of Cape Town she records fearful storms, merciless waves and even damaged steering gear on the ship. Were the Beltana Troop among the panic-stricken passengers she writes of, or had they taken to heart Baden Powell's philosophy and prepared themselves for all eventualities? The Snaith Parish magazine assures us that:

       Captain Lingham of the SS Beltana spoke highly of their conduct during the voyage. They                  were under the charge of Assistant Scout Master Howell and had provided a number of concerts         for other passengers.

If any of the Beltana's complement were recalling the horrifying disaster of the previous year when the Titanic went down in the North Atlantic with the loss of 1500 lives, Ethel was certainly not letting on in her Journal. The Titanic's Captain Smith was said to have delivered a last order to "Be British!", as the ship's bandsmen played 'Nearer, my God, to Thee'. But Beltana did not go down to meet the waves, which simply came on board and flooded some cabins. However, fate had one more shock three days later, significantly Friday 13th June, when the ship, according to Ethel, was nearly capsized and people almost flung from their berths. 

They survived, and six days later Ethel notes the Great Australian Bight to be "beautiful and calm". When Ethel eventually docked in Australia on the 23rd June, after 6 weeks at sea, her world had turned topsy-turvy. She had voyages around Africa and across a stormy Indian Ocean to find that an English summer had become an alien winter, having left "Home and Dear Ones far far behind, to commence Life in a Strange Land". And the Beltana Troop, younger and more vulnerable, bravely disembarked and was: 

           met by the Adelaide Boy Scouts where greetings by bugle were exchanged. These were the first            Boy Scouts introduced to the state.

as Ethel and her female companions made their way to Charles Street, Norwood, a suburb of the city of Adelaide, South Australia.

Friday, 3 October 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: part 2 Emigration Societies

So, what of these emigration societies and the ladies who operated them? There had been government assisted passages to South Australia up until the late 1880s. These began again during the early 1910s, and this must have been the chance that Ethel took. Young boys, who were destined to work as farm apprentices, often shared the sea voyages with the many hundreds of British women who sailed away to become ‘domestic helpers’ until the start of the Great War. One of the first stopping-off points for those who sailed to Adelaide was the Domestic Helpers’ Home at 5 Charles Street, Norwood, in the suburbs of the city. Fortunately there is a wonderful on-line historical resource called Trove[1] which has allowed me to discover how these emigration societies worked, and the motivations and attitudes of those involved, even down to interviews with the young émigrées themselves. A word of warning, however – these contemporary accounts seem to have been written with the aim of bolstering the emigration schemes supported by the South Australian government: it would have been regarded perhaps as disloyal to the ‘new’ Australia for the press to paint in all the ‘warts’.

Australia in 1913 has been described as a land of tremendous optimism. It was a pivotal year in its development, progressive and free, embracing the new technologies of motor and air transport, the culture of cinema, and was a country where women could express themselves politically: the state of South Australia had enfranchised them as early as 1895, and the entire adult female population could vote by 1911. Of course some of the prejudices of the previous century were still in evidence, but women were not afraid to speak out and work towards further change. The South Australian women who were looking to employ the British domestic helpers were generally married and comfortably off, but did not see wedlock and families as the be-all-and-end-all of their destinies: they wanted to go out into society and work for the good of their country. Women like Ethel Shorthouse would help them achieve their goals. This is, of course, ironic in that Ethel had been doing much the same at home in England. The difference for Ethel may have been that she could realise some goals of her own in a more socially mobile environment.

Australia’s exciting, emerging society, often anxious to break from the influences of the Old Country, nevertheless needed the services of Britain’s Christian maidens to help it on its way. Newspaper articles of the time emphasised the scarcity of domestic help. Large numbers of British women were leaving for such work in Canada. It seems that a keen sense of competition between the Dominions spurred South Australia into reviving the assisted passages scheme of the late 19th century in order to relieve its hard-pressed mothers. Committees were formed, Ministers lobbied, letters written to the Press. It also appears that the Australian government not only encouraged applications from adult females, but were not averse to plundering British orphanages for willing sixteen year olds. A name that occurs most frequently in discussions of the problem is that of a Mrs Maud Hume Lindsay, the globe-trotting agent for the British Women’s Emigration Association, and an associate of the Royal Sanitary Institute of London. It seems likely that it would have been one of Mrs Lindsay’s colleagues who met Ethel after her arrival from Tamworth at the hostel in Victoria, London, on that Wednesday in 1913.