‘A Mad Proceeding’: Mid-Nineteenth-Century Female Emigration to Australia

Brooke Weber

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

3375 Downloads (Pure)


This thesis explores the experiences of female emigrants from Britain to Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, a transitionary era in which penal transportation faded, gold rushes boomed, and settler colonialism fostered a new society. This society flourished in six varied, yet wholly British, settler colonies; the presence of Indigenous populations was largely ignored by emigration advocates and emigrants alike. Despite the lack of an explicit discussion about race, a study of these women is rich in themes from gender and sexuality to class and social mobility, presented within a transnational context of migration. This thesis situates female emigration in a new imperial history framework, reading against the archival grain of traditional sources such as emigration society and Colonial Office records to illustrate the emigration process while also acknowledging women’s individuality and agency as they left behind homes and families, navigated the moral concerns of ships and immigration depots, and built new lives and societies in the Australian settler colonies. The thesis also turns to non-archival sources such as women’s fictional writings to address women’s personal experiences and find their voices in an era and situation largely dominated and directed by men.

Starting with emigration society and Colonial Office archives, this thesis challenges the generalisation of emigrants as young potential brides; on the contrary, women of varying ages and backgrounds emigrated. This study also exposes the idealism and naivety prevalent among emigration advocates. Officials presented a logical system of emigration and settlement, but immigrants faced financial and physical challenges which threatened success yet were generally attributed to poor personal character. With these disparities between emigration promoters’ ideals and women’s realities in mind, the thesis turns to other sources to explore the immigrant experience. Newspapers expose colonial debates, and an analysis of fictional works by immigrant women writers clarifies the challenges women faced in settler colonies. Although female emigration has been examined in the past, this thesis demonstrates that it is still possible to enrich our understanding of imperial migration and the role of women in the empire.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Laidlaw, Zoe, Supervisor
  • Hamlett, Jane, Advisor
Award date1 Oct 2018
Publication statusUnpublished - 2018


  • emigration
  • female emigration
  • imperial history
  • australia
  • immigration
  • settler colonialism
  • australian history
  • british history
  • women's history
  • emigration societies
  • female middle class emigration society
  • maria rye
  • colonial office
  • chain migration
  • immigration depots
  • newspapers
  • women's fiction
  • australian literature
  • mary theresa vidal
  • catherine helen spence
  • elizabeth murray
  • nineteenth century
  • british empire

Cite this