Family Names

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Applying to Emigrate to the Australian Colonies

“The method adopted by all the Australian colonies in the nineteenth century to meet the need for paid domestic labour was to establish extensive programmes of assisted immigration aimed at offering very cheap or free passages to single British women, preferably those with some experience as paid domestic servants.”[1]

The decision to join one of these programs and travel to Australia in 1889 would be one of the pivotal points in my great Grandmother Martha Sarah Ellis’s life. If she had stayed in London her life would have been very different.   

Martha was 18 years old when she migrated to Australia.  She travelled with her sister Kate (aged 16). At the tender age of 18 Martha was a spinster as she had reached child bearing age and was of marriageable age.[2] During the Victorian era, most women married between 18 and 23. 
What prompted her to go is not clear, there were competing tensions.  On one hand, there was a lot of poverty and industrial unrest. Demographically there were also far fewer men than women.  The opportunities for woman earn to earn a wage to become independent and self-supporting were thin and often frowned on by Victorian society. The Australian colonies offered much-needed hope including higher wages for women (due to labour shortages) and a source of plentiful men, making marriage a much more likely scenario. A new land offered new possibilities.

The opportunities for emigration were advertised in posters which were distributed by the Emigrants' Information Office to every Post Office in the United Kingdom.  The aim of the advertising was to inform people giving them details as to possible Australian colonial destinations, passages, and demand for labour ect.[3] Circulars were issued regularly to those interested and considering applying for free, assisted or unassisted travel to the West Australian Colony by the same office which was “established under the supervision of the Colonial office for the purpose of supplying intending emigrants with useful and trustworthy information respecting emigration to the British Colonies.”[4] 

Figure 1 Western Australia Handbook, with Map / Issued by the Emigrants’ Information Office. Handbook. Australasian Colonies, no. 6. London: Printed for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office by Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1888.

A domestic servant either worked as either a live-in servant or they lived outside of the employer’s home.  

British Women's Emigration Society, (BWEA) Preliminary application Form

To qualify for free passage Martha and Kate the colonial government required the BWEA, to provide 3 certificates as part of their application one from her employer, a certificate from a doctor [akin to a medical certificate of fitness], and evidence of general capacity.[5]  In addition as part of the application process, an applicant had to fill out a "British Women's Emigration Society, Preliminary application Form"
Based on a newspaper report I have reconstructed what Martha’s completed form may have looked like, see below[6]

"Martha Sarah Ellis aged 19, no mother, only situation at home"
"10. Give name and address of following persons to whom you will refer,
  • ·         “a Minister of religion” — she gave the local minister’s name (not that she really knew him after all she had been 10 when she had been baptised.)
  • ·         "Two householders” —

o   “Mr. Smith” — although she wasn’t able to give any address for him
o   “Elizabeth Mary Ellis” - her step mother’s name     

"M. E. Forster" (Mrs.) may have signed the paper and recommended her as an applicant, although she may not have known her a year, however as often was the case she met Mrs. Forster shortly before embarking when she had gone to make inquiries about immigration.  Mrs Foster often signed the girl’s application to help expedite their application. Mrs Foster was the wife of Mr. Foster who was the Secretary of the Bristol Emigration Society, a branch, of the British Women's Emigration Society.
The selection process seemed to be fraught with problems, with the insinuation that many of the answers given by the applicants were “cooked”.[7]

Once this application was submitted to the BWEA a selection process would take place and successful applicants would be informed.  Qualifying for the program was not automatic "Elizabeth Quinn was refused passage on the steamer Port Pirie, on Mrs Joyce's instruction, as a result of her 'disobedience' and 'insubordinate behaviour'”[8]

Further reading & to learn more

  1. United British Women’s Emigration Association
  2. The Ship that Martha came out on the ss Nairnshire
  3. Travelling on the SS Nairnshire in 1889


  1. Gothard, J. “Protecting Labour. Carrie Hall and the Master and Servant Act.” Papers in Labour History, no. 6 (1990): 41–53.
  2. Canot, Coralie. “The Undesirable Spinster: The Organised Emigration of British Single Women, 1851-1914.” (PhD), University of London, 1999. HAL.
  3. Great Britain. Colonial office. Combined Circulars for Canada, Australia, and South Africa. Vol. Circular 2 page 1. London: Printed for H.M. Stationery off., 1890.
  4. Great Britain. Colonial office. Combined Circulars for Canada, Australia, and South Africa. [London, Printed for H.M. Stationery off.], 1890.
  5. Anon, 'CORRESPONDENCE - THE METHODS OF EMIGRATION SOCIETIES.', The West Australian, 8 February 1890, p. 4, Col.3. [, viewed 13 Feb 2017]; Anon, 'Anglo-Australian.', The West Australian, 9 February 1892, p. 2, Col.4 ,  [, viewed 13 Feb 2017]
  7.  “Local and General.” The W.A. Record. February 13, 1890. TROVE.
  8. Gothard, J. “Protecting Labour. Carrie Hall and the Master and Servant Act.” Papers in Labour History, no. 6 (1990): 41–53. P.47


  1. That makes my head spin!
    Nothing good is ever easy, right?

    Your link works perfectly!
    Co-Host, 2017 Blogging from A to Z April Challenge

    1. Thanks Heather, I hope your head is spinning in a good way! I'm learning a lot by participating in the 2017 Blogging from A to Z April Challenge, learning the art of blogging is a real skill, and way beyond just content. Thanks for all that you and the 2017 Blogging from A to Z April Challenge do.
      Cheers Sandra

  2. Hi Sandra - thanks for dropping by to my blog . I enjoyed reading your post about emigration and look forward to your AtoZ posts. 18 is very young to take such a massive step isn't it ?
    You comment on most women marrying age 18-23. I used to think that too but haven't been able to find any research to back that up. When I have analysed my own family's experience i had found the average age of marriage is older. Too small a sample of course! Have you found something that suggests the average age of marriage is 21; full age = 21 but that isn't the same thing of course.

  3. I was surfing the Internet for information and came across your blog. I am impressed by the information you have on this blog. It shows how well you understand this subject. NIW


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