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Victorian Bride Ships

There wasn’t much Victorians thought they couldn’t do; they had a remedy for most everything. I discovered the truth of this when I came across an intriguing reference to bride ships.

During Queen Victoria’s long reign thousands of British men set off around the globe., establishing new colonies, exploring new lands, fighting decisive battles, engaging in mammoth enterprises, and chasing after gold. Most left Britain willingly, but thousands of ‘undesirables’ and indigents were put on ships and sent to remote colonies. By the 1860s, scores of unattached males were living in Australia, New Zealand, and British North America. When proper British society heard tales of these men engaging in morally objectionable behaviour and excessive drinking, they were appalled.

In true Victorian fashion, they immediately devised a remedy: what these hard drinking, hard living men needed was marriage. Get them married to good women and they would settle down to become model citizens of which the Empire could be proud.

A grand delusion? Perhaps. But in the 1860s, English social reformers and religious leaders held this belief so strongly they formed societies for the purpose of offering marriageable women free passage to the colonies and the prospect of marriage.

As it happened, economic disaster played into the reformers’ hands. Across the Atlantic the Civil War had brought American shipping almost to a halt, and shipments of raw cotton to mills in northern England had slowed to a trickle. Thousands of women mill workers in England suddenly found themselves thrown out of work. Many drifted to London, but jobs were scarce and wealthy Londoners disinterested in their plight. A great many ended up plying that most ancient of trades.

The reformers had no trouble attracting hundreds of marriageable women willing to sail to the colonies. The first bride ships went to Australia, and the success of these ventures led to ships being sent to New Zealand as well. Popularly called bride ships, there was nothing romantic about them. Life on board was hard, and the voyage to the colonies was long and dangerous. Sickness was a constant threat and over-zealous chaperones made the women’s lives miserable. Many prospective brides didn’t live to reach their destination.

It is less well known that bride ships sailed to the British Colonies on the west coast of North America. Following the discovery of gold in 1858, tens of thousands of miners, along with hundreds of prostitutes, rushed to Victoria on Vancouver Island and to the lower Thompson River in what is now British Columbia, Canada. Wild tales of immoral behavior and drunkenness prompted a group of influential people, including Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale and Mrs. Twinning of the tea company, to establish the Columbia Emigration Society in 1862.

In June of that year the S.S. Tynemouth set sail from Britain with 60 young women recruited by the society. Reports indicate the voyage to Victoria was bedeviled by violent storms and episodes of mutiny. The women lived for 99 days in appalling conditions without proper access to the upper deck, fresh water, and medical assistance. Thankfully, the ship arrived in Victoria several weeks early.

Dozens of local men turned out to greet the brides in a welcome so jubilant a marine escort was required to see the women safely to an old marine barracks. One enthusiastic miner is said to have grabbed a girl out of the lineup, planted $2,000 in her apron, proposed, and when she accepted, made off with his prize.

The reform societies were confident that introducing brides into the colonies would achieve the goal they had set, but others gave the ventures mixed reviews. Many brides did marry soon after arrival in a colony or went into service, but a sizeable number joined the prostitutes in the streets. It appeared that many of the women had been there before. Nevertheless, many brides with their husbands established families whose members would play a key role in their colony’s development.

If this topic interests you, I suggest The Bride Ships: Experiences of Immigrants Arriving in Western Australia 1849-1889. By Rica Erickson. Hesperian Press, Carlisle, 1992. ISBN: 0859051625.

Cheers, Mave

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3 Comments

  1. Jenn says:

    Ah well, the truth of the situation. Ahem, I must say I liked Deborah Hale’s “The Bride Ship” better than the reality seems to have been. Although Hale does hint that perhaps all the young ladies weren’t pure as the driven snow, she doesn’t dwell on the fact. Heck, I just liked her book!

    I wonder if the descendents of the brides who did marry and raise a family know what they went through?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Please acknowledge the author of the work from which you are paraphrasing.

  3. Mave says:

    This past December, I was pleased to read a longer, more detailed article on the Canadian bride ship experience, written by Terri Hunter for The Beaver, Canada’s History Magazine. If this interests you, go to the History Society of Canada website (www.historysociety.ca) and search the December 2007 edition for Ms. Hunter’s article, entitled “Crinoline Cargo”.

    For a more detailed, in-depth study, Peter Johnson has written an excellent book: “Voyages of Hope: The Saga of the Bride-Ships”, published in 2002, in which he answers the question: why would these women leave everything behind in England and travel such a great distance to an unknown colonial community? You can obtain a copy from any of the major online booksellers, including Amazon.com.

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