Review Blog

Sep 23 2009

Servants depots in colonial South Australia by Marie Steiner

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Wakefield Press,2009. ISBN 9781862548053.
(Ages: Senior secondary). A sliver of history in the broad sweep of South Australia's 180 or so years, is taken up in this slim book, to show us how women were treated in early SA, and what part the government played in their protection. In 1855, shiploads of single women were in assisted passage to SA, to find employment and husbands. Surprisingly to me, many were Irish. When these women arrived, a depressed harvest in SA meant that there were few jobs available and so the government stepped in and provided depots in Adelaide initially and then Victor Harbor, Clare, Gawler, Robe, Kapunda, Mt Barker and Willunga. These places boarded the women with a matron, and helped them find employment. Steiner goes through the running, maintenance and success of depots, devoting a chapter to each.
One particular ship, the Nashwauk, which foundered at Moana Rocks in 1855, and held 163 Irish girls is given close attention. We are told about the women, and what happened to each in turn as they found employment and/or husbands, or travelled on to Melbourne, hoping for better prospects.
It seems that the government at the time felt that some care should be taken with these girls, lest they fall into bad company and prostitution, so set up these depots where people wanting employees could come and talk to the girls. The strict 'boarding house' regime reflected the life in the ships they came in, and so I imagine many were very happy to get work. But some came back within a few weeks, either the pay was poor, or not as much as promised, or the work far too hard, or they found they were in a place with no other woman. Many reasons for returning are explained, and it is interesting to see the lengths the board (Female Immigration Board) went in checking their stories, and in the case of several of the matrons, retrieving moneys owed to the girls by employers who dismissed them. A fascinating look at a small part of our history, this book would be particularly useful to students of women's studies or the history of South Australia.
Fran Knight

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