The Hyde Park Barracks, a former convict dormitory, was converted to Sydney’s Female Immigration Depot in 1848, and in 1862, the top floor of the building housed the Government Asylum for Infirm and Destitute Women.
The Female Immigration Depot was set up to temporarily accommodate, protect and process women until they found work in the colony.
Until 1886, it processed about 40,000 mostly working-class women and girls, including around 4000 orphaned girls who had escaped the Irish potato famine.
From 1862 and 1886, immigrants shared the barracks with the women of the asylum — a government institution for impoverished and sick women.
Sadly, some of these were immigrant women who returned to take refuge in the Hyde Park Barracks after experiencing the early colony’s brutality.
Records show that many immigrant women who experienced domestic abuse, poverty and illness became alcoholics or petty criminals or were forced into prostitution.
The asylum provided some shelter from this.
The immigration depot was a temporary home for two main groups of people: working class and impoverished single young women from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, often with no family in Australia; and, from 1848-1850, Irish orphans under the Earl Grey Scheme — a British government scheme aimed at allowing young healthy women in Irish workhouses the opportunity to escape the potato famine and abject poverty.
These single young women, called “friendless females”, were considered vulnerable and in need of moral guidance by the ruling classes of colonial Sydney.
Women were encouraged to emigrate to Australia because capitalists needed them to stoke and maintain the growing colonial economy. The colony was in short supply of domestic labour and females could fill this gap.
The term “immigration depot” is as clinical as it is inhumane: women were literally “processed”; it acted like a meat-market for the social reproduction of the colony.
Female stock of “good character and health” was imported not only to provide domestic servants for the colonialists, but ultimately to “restore the equilibrium of the sexes” and provide wives and mothers “for the labouring classes”.
Women had to be of child-bearing age to qualify for assisted passage, and prospective migrants needed to be single and aged between 18 and 35 years old. They were subjected to medical examinations and “moral character” assessments before any assistance was granted.
Convict transportation to New South Wales ended in the 1840s. Migration was now promoted as desirable for free settlers and the gold rush of the 1850s ushered in new waves of migration.
The British working class, rural and urban, faced shocking conditions. There was not enough work to go around and unemployment was high. Young women, in particular, were often forced to work in inhumane workhouses and factories.
Australia was promoted as a place where they could find jobs and enjoy a higher standard of living.
Some women came to be reunited with family already living here. A new law in the mid 19th century allowed government-assisted or free passage to the colony for many families of ex-convicts between 1847 and 1852. Since the 1830s, convicts had petitioned to have their families sent out from Britain. Caroline Chisholm played an important role in lobbying for the reunion of convict families.
Women stayed at the Barracks until they found adequate employment, or were collected by their families.
Hiring days (a market where middle and upper classes came to choose a maidservant or other domestic worker) were held regularly, not long after immigration ships had arrived.
The days were advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald. Their ugly market-like nature was captured by the following report by the Australian Town and Country Journal: “There had assembled outside the door about 200 ladies in want of servants, and when 12 o’clock came round the rush made by the fair employers for ‘fist pick’ was so eager … that after all there might be something in the much-vexed, and as yet, apparently unanswerable question of how to get a good domestic.”
This brings us to an important point about the designated roles of women within colonial capitalism.
The British government’s establishment of NSW and other states as penal colonies led to an abundance of male convicts. The colonies required women to redress the gender imbalance; they were required for reproduction, but also for domestic and care-oriented work.
Thus, the gendered division of labour began from the early colonial days, as women’s roles were tightly restricted to either the domestic space or in low-paying roles, such as nursing, child-care and teaching.
This striking early gender division of labour has led to an alarming and entrenched wage gap, a disparity that is worse in Australia compared with many other industrialised nations. Today, men earn on average 14% more than their female colleagues.
Slaves in the asylum
Matron Lucy Hicks ran both the depot and the asylum. Married, she was considered a model of middle-class morality. Under her guidance, female inmates undertook all the domestic labour, including cooking and cleaning, laundry, making and repairing clothing, and even nursing. They were slaves.
Hicks imposed the ideology and welfare policies of the colonial rulers, implementing strict rules about how to behave. Curfews were enforced, as well as a prohibition on drinking alcohol.
Historical records show Hicks was particularly vigilant about hygiene; ensuring inmates were bathed regularly, had clean clothing and ate well. This did not however stop inmates from smoking: thousands of clay tobacco pipes have been found under the floorboards of the barracks.
The Matron became well regarded for taking steps to isolate the women of the depot and asylum against an outbreak of smallpox in 1881. She quarantined the Hyde Park Barracks for around nine months. It proved to be a highly effective strategy that ensured no inmates contracted the deadly disease.
Unfortunately, like so many other women working in nursing, health and other public services at the time, Hicks was later vilified for her progressive ideas on hygiene.
Finally, a word about racial and class tensions in the depot and the colony.
There was significant anti-Irish, anti-Catholic and anti-working class prejudice among the middle- and upper-class colonists, who argued that Irish women were rough, hot-tempered and unable to learn, and that they were unsuited to domestic service in middle-class homes.
Racist colonialists argued that the “genetic purity” of colonial Sydney would be tainted by the influx of Irish immigrant women who supposedly had “stunt, squat figures”, “thick wrists” and “thick ankles”.
A lesser-known fact of the time is that Irish girls and women were also attacked on account of their limited ability to speak English. Most Irish girls spoke only Gaelic and were prohibited from, or bullied, for speaking their language.
[This article is based on a presentation Dr Markela Panegyres gave to the inaugural Green Left Feminist Walking Tour in Sydney in 2020.]