Are you researching:

  • women in Victoria?
  • the lives of Victorian settlers?
  • Aboriginal/settler interactions?
  • women’s experiences of migration?

A little-known treasure is full of useful clues for people investigating the lives of women in colonial Victoria. Records of the pioneer women of Victoria is a fantastic resource which includes the biographies of hundreds of women who arrived in Victoria between 1835 and 1860. Some of the entries are autobiographies; while others are biographies written by family descendants. The majority of the life stories recorded are of British or European women, although Aboriginal Australians are regularly mentioned. The book was compiled by Historical Committee of the Women’s Centenary Council in Melbourne in 1937.

A drawing from the mid 1800's showing a woman on the deck of a ship.

[Woman on deck of ship, mountains in the background], H15347

Many of the women recorded had tough or tumultuous lives:

  • Annie Carter (née Robb) was born on board a ship in September 1849, off the coast of Africa, en route to Australia. During the voyage the ship was threatened by pirates and the women, including Annie’s mother, had to dress up in men’s clothes and parade on deck, to dissuade the pirates from boarding! Annie’s parents gave her the middle name Tasman, the name of the ship.
  • Emily Julia Bennett survived a mutiny on board her husband’s ship, but her young son died during the voyage ‘through nicotine poisoning induced by the sailors allowing him to suck their pipes’.
  • Eliza Jane Barkell was an enthusiastic participant in the 1873 Clunes riot, attacking Chinese strike-breakers who had been carted in from Adelaide to work in a local mine. She pelted the workers ‘with missiles of all sorts’.

A wood engraving showing from 1873, showing the riot at Clunes.

The riot at Clunes, A/S27/12/73/169

The women’s encounters with Aboriginal Australians are regularly mentioned; illustrating a wide range of attitudes and interactions:

  • Elizabeth Ann Irenya Andrews (née Higgans) celebrated Victoria’s separation from New South Wales in 1851 by attending a corroboree
  • Flora Buchanan (née Walker) recalled that the local Indigenous people would tell settlers, ‘white man, go home’
  • Lavinia Zenobia Hazel Bennett (née Brodribb), the first woman settler in Gippsland, ‘learned from the blacks how to make baskets’
  • Frances Anderson (née Backer) lived in Brighton where ‘blacks were numerous’ and ‘would throw their boomerangs for the boys to watch’
  • Margaret Alexander Cooper (née Bissett) was terrified when, as a young bride, she found Aboriginal women pressed up against her window, curious to see a white woman
  • Frances Campbell Elliot (née MacWhirter) was the first white woman the Indigenous community near her new home had seen – they called her ‘the mother of all the white men’.

This book, and several accompanying indexes, are available on microfiche in the reference collection in the La Trobe Reading Room. The indexes offer you the opportunity to browse:

  • an index to married names (not maiden names), with page references
  • a chronological list of births/arrivals of the pioneer women named in the records
  • lists of names grouped by the ship that the named people arrived on
  • an index to subjects mentioned, for example ‘Aborigines’, ‘Bush-fires’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Dingoes’, ‘Gaelic’, with page references.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Thank you very much for posting this. My ancestor had a child die, and she also gave birth, on the one voyage out to Australia. These stories are often overlooked.

  2. Lesley Burgoyne

    These records of our pioneer women need to be digitalised and available on line. Such great stories and history. Can a grant or something or volunteers be encouraged to do this. Women are so ‘invisible’ in the 1800s. Lets celebrate them.

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