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.


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