Caroline Chisholm

In considering the contribution of women to Australian society, Caroline Chisholm must figure prominently. She was an advocate for women and prophet of the laity. 

In considering the contribution of women to Australian society, Caroline Chisholm must figure prominently. Her work as a social reformer is widely acknowledged. What is less well known is that her work was motivated by a strong sense of vocation born out of a desire to do God’s will.

Her contribution to the establishment of Australian society is well documented. She is remembered for shaping not our economic prosperity, nor our political structures, but the human face of our continent in those early days of free settlement. Henry Parkes’ Empire newspaper paid tribute to her in 1859 in the following words:

If Captain James Cook discovered Australia – if John Macarthur planted the first seeds of its extraordinary prosperity – if Ludwig Leichardt penetrated and explored its before unknown interior – Caroline Chisholm has done more – she alone has colonised in the true sense of the term. 

Caroline Chisholm’s achievements were extraordinary for a woman of her time. She was an advocate for women, awakening the colony’s conscience to the lack of dignity with which many female immigrants were treated. Caroline achieved tremendous good in her own time with her concern for the welfare of women, families and individuals. Her life and example speaks to women today as strongly as in her own lifetime. In many ways, Caroline Chisholm was a remarkably modern woman.

A study of her work and motivation reveals enduring Christian principles which are as relevant to present times as they were to her own. Caroline was a pioneer in Australian society in advocating strong social justice principles. She was also a prophet within the Church in articulating the same principles of social justice which were not articulated until the encyclical Rerum Novarum written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, fourteen years after her death.

Caroline Chisholm’s work stemmed from her own perceptions of a vocational call and the manner in which she responded to it are reflected in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and clearly articulated in the apostolic exhortation of John Paul II, Christifidelis Laici.

A Summary of Her Work

The work of Caroline Chisholm unfolded in Australia and England in the middle decades of the 19th century. The main focus of her work was to alleviate poverty and the associated moral dangers. Caroline’s most pressing and immediate concern was the well being of young unaccompanied women immigrants many of whom found themselves alone on the streets of Sydney. With no contacts in the colony, no experience, and no pre-arranged employment, they often found themselves recruited into prostitution. Many of these girls were too naïve to realise what they were being lured into, others were too desperate to offer resistance. Caroline recounted the story of one fifteen year old girl who had no idea of the nature of her employment – she had simply been told to walk between two city streets until a gentleman would approach her with an offer of money.

Caroline soon became a familiar figure on the waterfront as each ship arrived. She began taking girls into her own home, but soon realised the need for more systematic measured and lobbied Governor Gipps for assistance in establishing a home where these girls would be housed until suitable employment could be found for them.

Governor Gipps was surprised when he met Mrs Chisholm. He explained that he expected:

to have seen an old lady in a white cap and spectacles, who would have talked to me about my soul. I was amazed when my aid introduced a handsome, stately young woman, who proceeded to reason the question as if she thought her experience worth as much as mine. 

Although the Governor did not believe she would succeed, Caroline won the battle and he agreed to allow her the use of the disused immigrant barracks in Bent. These were no more than a 40 foot long, rat infested, draughty shed. It was built of slabs with a dirt floor and partitioned into several smaller rooms. Her first task was to rid the establishment of the rats which she did by laying in wait for them at night with a prepared concoction of bread soaked in arsenic. It was not long before the barracks were accommodating 100 young women.

Many of the women were too frightened to leave the city to take on work in the country. Before long, Caroline became a familiar figure on her white horse personally leading parties of young women into the interior where they would take on work as servants on country properties.

Caroline responded to the needs of those around her and very soon her role expanded to assist unemployed single men and families. In response to economic depression and unemployment in the city, Caroline was able to place many of the unemployed in the countryside where labour was still scarce.

As a result of her work with immigrant girls and immigrant families, Caroline became concerned with the conditions they had been forced to endure on the bounty ships. This included cramped and dirty conditions, lack of privacy and the sexual assault of young women. On this last count, she became the first woman in the colony to bring a case to court when she filed a case against the Captain and Surgeon of the Carthaginian for the maltreatment of a passenger. The female passenger concerned, Margaret Bolten, had spoken up against the immorality on the ship and for her courage spent the night on deck, in stocks, in a wet night dress. Caroline was outraged. She wrote:

I am ready to prosecute; I have the necessary evidence; and if it be a risk whether I or these men go to prison I am ready to take the risk. 

Caroline won the case, described as ‘one of the most significant cases in the colony so far’ by the solicitor-general Roger Therry.

Ultimately, Caroline saw the encouragement of family life as the solution to the social problems of her time. She dedicated much of her energies to reuniting the families of emancipists and free settlers by obtaining government assistance in the emigration of spouses and children left behind in England. She also assisted in the settlement of young Irish women from famine stricken Ireland. She rallied against the squattocracy for locking up the lands and making the settlement of families on small farms difficult. She opposed ‘bachelor stations’ – a policy of employing only single men because they attracted lower wages and rations. Caroline Chisholm saw immigration and settlement of families from the desperate poverty of England to the new land of opportunity in Australia as a solution to the economic problems of both overcrowded England and the shortages of labour in the Australian colonies. She returned to England for a few years and established the Family Colonisation Loan Society to facilitate the emigration of intact families.

Discerning God’s Will

From a young age Caroline Chisholm was aware of a call to serve others. When Archibald Chisholm proposed marriage she initially refused him for fear that her call would make her an unsuitable wife for an officer and an inadequate mother. She was ever ready to respond to the needs of those around her, from visiting the elderly in her village in the north of England, to establishing a school for the daughters of poor soldiers while she was a young officer’s wife in Madras. When faced with the situation of desperate young women in Sydney, she prayed and fasted in order to discern God’s will for her:

I was impressed with the idea that God had, in a peculiar manner, fitted me for this work; and yet I hesitated . . . my delay pressed on my mind as a sin; and when I heard of a poor girl suffering distress and losing her reputation in consequence, I felt that I was not clear of her sin, for I did not do all I could to prevent it.

During the season of Lent that year, I suffered much; but on Easter Sunday I was enabled, at the altar of our Lord to make an offering of my talents to the God who gave them. . . .

. . . I felt my offering was accepted and God’s blessing was on my work. 

The Caroline Chisholm story is relatively well known in Australia, but it is a secularised interpretation. Her religious motivation which she publicly acknowledged is omitted or caricatured and ridiculed as in Anne Summer’s description of women in colonial Australia as being considered either ‘damned whores’ or ‘God’s police’ the latter term specifically applied to Caroline Chisholm.  Caroline never used derogatory language to describe the women she assisted nor was she condescending towards them but always treated them with respect and understanding. She clearly understood the human condition and the doctrine of Redemption.

The Good Samaritan

Caroline recounts the story of Flora, a young woman whom she had previously warned about a relationship with a man whom Caroline knew to be married. One evening, some months later Caroline again encounters Flora:

…the ruddy rose of the highlands was changed for the tinge of rum; she had been drinking but well knew what she was about. ‘Tell me where you are going?’ ‘To hell!’ was her answer. I continued to walk by her side; she became insolent; but I was determined not to leave her. She made for Lavender’s Ferry; and said, ‘My mistress lives over there’. I said I will go to the other side with you, as I want to say a few words with you. She was unwilling; but I persisted; we crossed over; I felt certain from her manner that she meditated suicide … 

Caroline’s suspicions were confirmed. Flora was pregnant and intended to drown herself. She remained with Flora until she regained her composure and promised not to attempt self-destruction. Caroline Chisholm, reassured of Flora’s psychological state, made immediate arrangements to find her suitable accommodation.

The story recalls the parable of the Good Samaritan, recounted in the Gospel of Luke. The Good Samaritan also tends to the needs of the man beaten by robbers and pays for his care at an inn. Jesus concludes his parable by asking, ‘which of these proved himself a neighbour?’ (Lk. 10: 37) This parable in Luke follows and reinforces Jesus’ Great Commandment to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. It is precisely this love of neighbour that recurs as a theme in Caroline Chisholm’s life.

Herminie Chavanne, a young Swiss woman records her meeting with Caroline Chisholm and sums her up with:

Kindness shone from her face, with never a hint of weariness and it was obvious that God had granted her all the courage and energy she needed for this living work for her ‘neighbour’ (this simple and profound word says so much that I need say nothing more.) 

Caroline’s own understanding of neighbour extended beyond those of her own faith and culture to all humanity.

Rerum Novarum

Caroline Chisholm respected the human dignity of all she served and she understood well that human dignity was most easily respected in a society built on principles of justice. She did not limit her concern to the individuals and families she assisted but lobbied government and society to create structures which respected the dignity of the human person. Her concerns with social justice issues such as a family wage; private ownership of family farms; freedom to migrate; were yet to be articulated by the Catholic Church. Her main work unfolded in the 1840s and 1850s. The encyclical Rerum Novarum which marks the beginning of the Church’s social justice teaching for the Modern Age, and deals with such issues, was written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, fourteen years after Caroline’s death.

The Mission of the Laity

Similarly, Caroline Chisholm’s work echoes in the teachings of the Church on the laity as described by the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II recognised the laity’s ‘special and indispensable role in the mission of the Church’ and, noting the new challenges facing the Church, called forward an ‘infinitely broader and more intense’ apostolate.  The document on the laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem listed areas of lay activity including: the renewal of the temporal order, charitable works and social aid, the family – all areas which had concerned Caroline Chisholm more than an century earlier. The Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, expands on these concerns. It sets out areas in particular need of the attention of the laity including promoting the dignity of the human person, respect for life, religious liberty, marriage and family life, works of charity, social and economic justice and the evangelisation of culture. 

It is unlikely that the Holy Father expects an individual to engage in all these areas, yet Caroline Chisholm’s work did engage them all. If engagement in these areas constitutes a legitimate living out of the lay vocation and therefore a path to holiness, Caroline Chisholm’s life fulfils this call in abundance.

Marriage as a Path to Holiness

Caroline Chisholm did not travel her path to holiness alone. While she was aware of a call to serve others before her marriage to Archibald and had reservations about how this call might affect marriage and family life, Archibald reassured Caroline that in marrying her he would also support her work in whatever manner he was able.

It was through marriage to Archibald Chisholm that Caroline Jones, an evangelical Protestant, converted to Catholicism.

Caroline undertook her early work with the single women of Sydney while Archibald was in China in the active service of the East India Company and Caroline was responsible for the care of their three small children. She had attempted to keep the children with her in Sydney, but the conditions and the presence of diseases such as cholera forced her to send the children to their home in Windsor where she had the assistance of Miss Galvin as a nanny. This separation was heart wrenching for Caroline.

On Captain Chisholm’s return to Sydney he accompanied her on a tour of NSW collecting testimonies from happily settled immigrants with the purpose of taking these to England to encourage further immigration to Australia. A fourth child was born on board ship as they returned to England. It was a difficult birth and almost caused the death of mother and child. Another two children were born in England.

In England they established the Family Colonisation Loan Society, which brought together prospective immigrants, arranged loans, and acquainted them with information regarding their endeavours. Meetings of migrant families took place in the Chisholm family home with the assistance of Caroline’s mother and their eldest son. The Society chartered ships which were fitted out to Caroline’s specification. Unable to afford to pay an Australian agent, Archibald undertook to return to Australia to meet the ships of the Society. The family were reunited three years later and settled in Kyneton in Victoria. By this time the gold rush was underway and Caroline undertook the construction of shelter sheds along the road from Melbourne to the Mount Alexander goldfields. These were rudimentary buildings which provided shelter and cooking facilities for women and children travelling to join their husbands on the goldfields.

Caroline suffered serious kidney problems and for health reasons they were advised to move to the warmer climate of Sydney. It was here that Caroline established a school for girls as a means of gaining an income. They had sold Archibald’s commission to fund the establishment of their eldest son in business, but the business endeavour failed with the death of their son in Kyneton.

In addition to any government grants, the Chisholms used their own personal means to assist their work. At the end of their lives, Caroline and Archibald lived in relative anonymity and poverty on a pension of £100.

Caroline’s work could only have been successful with a supportive husband.


Caroline Chisholm was a prophetic voice in colonial Australia. Her concerns in the 1840s-1860s are issues that still concern church and society today, not only in Australia but universally. The principles she identified are as valid today as they were in her own time. Hers was a prophetic voice in her ability to understand and articulate an enduring Christian vision in a colonial society that was facing new and radical challenges. Much of her life and work embodied a view of the lay vocation which the Church did not articulate until a century after her death.

The 1960s and 70s saw a public discussion of Caroline’s merits as an Australian saint. The discussion began in the pages of the Bulletin magazine and continued within the Church. A century earlier, her holiness was declared by French historian Jules Michelet:

Australia has a saint, an English woman without wealth and without assistance who has done more for the new world than all the emigration societies and the British Government together – a simple woman who succeeded in her aims by force of character and vigour of soul.

Catholic Diocese of
Broken Bay

Building 2, 423 Pennant Hills Road
Pennant Hills NSW 2120

PO Box 340
Pennant Hills NSW 1715

Phone 02 9847 0000
Fax 02 9847 0001

Facebook Twitter Youtube Instagram

Login to CuriaNET