In the middle of the 19th century orphan girls and single ‘unprotected’ women were assisted to travel to Australia to find work and husbands.
The last convicts had left Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, transportation to New South Wales had ended and the convict dormitories had closed in early 1848.
Hyde Park Barracks became a Female Immigration Depot.
Between 1848 and 1886 thousands of single working-class Irish, English, Welsh and Scots girls and women arrived in Australia and were temporarily housed at Hyde Park Barracks.
The Australian colony had always had far more men than women. If the colony was going to survive it needed more women of child-bearing age. It was also thought that women would have a ‘civilising’ effect.
British and Irish workhouses were full of unmarried women and orphan girls. Many working-class women were unemployed and feared the workhouse. Wives of convicts wanted to travel to Australia to be reunited with their husbands. Some women were tempted by a new life in Australia as opinions changed and the colony was promoted as an attractive place to live.
There is an unlimited demand for wives of all ranks, from the shepherd to the gentleman squatter, with his 1,000 head of cattle, and 20,000 sheep. The Colonists, as a body, whether emigrants or native born, make good husbands, kind, indulgent, and generous. They are all rather rough in their language to each other, but no one ever heard of a Bushman beating his wife...
...The Bush huts have not generally been very comfortable: but there is no reason why they should not be as well built and furnished as in English farm houses. Young widows and orphans of small means will find themselves in reality much safer in an Australian town than in any of the great towns of Europe, better protected, and with better prospects.
(Sidney's Emigrant's Journal, 1848)
The journey to Australia took around three months. The girls suffered from seasickness and were usually infested with lice. Rations were meagre and conditions were in many ways little better than they had been aboard the convict ships. Many girls fell ill; some died and were buried at sea.
At Hyde Park Barracks the women and girls were given food and a place to stay until they found employment or were reunited with their families.
Every week there were ‘hiring days’ when ladies would come to find a domestic servant from among the new arrivals. The women and girls became household servants, laundresses, maids, needlewomen, cooks and farm servants. Between hiring days they would practise needlework and other domestic skills, write letters and receive religious instruction.
The immigrant women and girls would often hide things beneath the floorboards at Hyde Park Barracks. Rats, which infested the barracks, would also steal small items and add them to their nests. In the 20th century archaeologists investigating Hyde Park Barracks discovered all kinds of objects hidden under the floorboards and in the Barracks' walls:
The archaeologists at Hyde Park Barracks also found mummified rats under the floorboards.
Most of the girls and women that came to Australia as assisted single women found work and husbands. They became wives and mothers, and lived very different lives from the ones they left behind.