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Research Guides

More People Imperative: Immigration to Australia, 1901–39

6. Female Immigration

Image 22: Female immigrants at North Head Quarantine Station, Sydney, early 1900s.

Image 22: Female immigrants at North Head Quarantine Station, Sydney, early 1900s.
NAA: C1134, 5–56
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Although women and children are covered by the general legislation and included in immigration records as wives and families, they are rarely referred to specifically. For the purposes of this Guide, female immigration refers to the immigration of women who migrated alone in the period from 1901 to 1939, unaccompanied by either husbands or families.

Women, especially domestic servants who were much coveted owing to the high demand for them in Australia, were often sponsored by governments or voluntary organisations both in Australia and Great Britain. Non-government organisations included the Church of England Society for Empire Settlement, the Church of England Migration Council, the Church Army, the Domestic Immigration Society, the Society for the Overseas Settlement of British Women (SOSBW), and the Salvation Army. Female migration was conducted under special safeguards and conditions, often with a matron traveling with groups of single women. Great emphasis was placed upon their care, protection and control before, during and after their journey to Australia. Hostels were established in Great Britain for their training and accommodation before embarkation.

Prior to World War I, a Mrs Bingham welcomed unaccompanied women and helped place them in employment on behalf of the Victorian government. After the war, the Women's Employment Agency of the Department of Labor and Industry in New South Wales helped place women immigrants as did similar sub-sections of the Department in other states. Voluntary associations also took part in the reception of female immigrants. These included the government-supported New Settlers' League, Women's Branches in Victoria and New South Wales. The New Settlers' League often worked in association with other voluntary organisations such as the Women's Immigration Auxiliary Council in Western Australia, the Domestic Immigration Society, Sydney, and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). Some of these organisations set up low cost hostels in the major cities to which the women could go on arrival and return between situations.

Immigration policy was, and in many cases still is, gendered; with regard to married couples and families, the principal applicant in these years was always the male, with little attention paid to the role of wives and daughters in the records, except to register their presence, important in realising the aim of a higher population for Australia. Single women were encouraged to immigrate in order to satisfy perceived needs in relation to Australia's future population, both in terms of its quantity and quality. Domestic servants would release middle-class women for their primary role in society as bearers and nurturers of children; they would help overcome the isolation of wives of rural settlers and, not least, they would become future wives and mothers themselves. Their character, youth and experience were therefore important criteria in selection. Factory work was an area of employment which was becoming increasingly common for women in these years, yet it was not seen as desirable to encourage this class of worker, partly because it would boost urban settlement rather than rural.

Records discussing refugee women are included in Chapter 9 on Refugees.

Examples of Series and Items

Series descriptions throughout the Guide appear in upper case and in bold type. Note that descriptions of items within particular series are a selection only of what is held in the National Archives. All record descriptions are organised by series; items within series are listed in chronological order of the starting date they cover.

This series covers a wide range of subjects dealt with by the Prime Minister. The registry practice is at first haphazard but becomes increasingly formalised. A number of files were converted after 1917 into the first and thereafter into the second Secret and Confidential series of the Prime Minister's Department.
Series: A2
Quantity: 20.32 metres
Recorded by: 1904-11: Prime Minister's Office (CA 588); 1911–20: Prime Minister's Department (CA 12)
Prime Minister's Department, 'Immigration Encouragement. Hostels in Australia for Girls' [12 pages, 1919–20]
This file concerns the establishment by the Young Women's Christian Association of a privately financed chain of hostels in Australia for the accommodation of girls coming to Australia from England after the war. Co-operation from the Federal government and contributions towards the upkeep of the hostels was sought. Communications were sent to State Premiers, who at the time were unwilling to assist financially.
A2, 1920/541
This series consists of correspondence files covering a wide range of subjects which were submitted to the Prime Minister.
Series: A457
Quantity: 18.27 metres
Recorded by: Prime Minister's Department (CA 12)
Prime Minister's Department, 'Immigration. Women. Unmarried Mothers Policy' [22 pages, 1920–21]
This contains a letter dated February 1920, from the Australian Natives' Association, referring to a protest from one of its branches against the 'importation of unmarried mothers to Australia'. The Department of Home and Territories denied any knowledge of the matter. Other inclusions attest to a report from the commandant, Australian Imperial Force (AIF) headquarters in London, of unmarried mothers (many of whom were domestic servants or waitresses) in the United Kingdom and Ireland, whose children were fathered by soldiers in the AIF during the war. A draft by the Commonwealth asked the State governments whether they would consider including such mothers and children in their assisted immigration schemes. The Minister for Defence considered the proposals worthy of consideration but Superintendent Gullett's recommendation was that no action be taken 'owing to the difficulties involved'. Subsequently, the Commonwealth decided to take the matter up when it took over immigration in 1921 but to exercise special care that employment for the women was available and to enlist the help of charitable organisations. A report on the Administration of the General Officer Commanding Australian Imperial Forces Fund (GOC Fund), 1919, is included.
A457, 400/46
Prime Minister's department, 'Widows with more than one child' [11 pages, 1921]
This refers to applications from widows of ex-servicemen with more than one child for assisted passages, and correspondence in 1921 from the Director of Migration and Settlement, London, to the state Premiers, through the Prime Minister, inquiring as to whether they would accept them. The responses from the States, which were mostly unfavourable, are included.
A457, L400/5
Prime Minister's Department, 'Immigration Encouragement. Reception of Immigrants by Mrs S E Downes' [2 pages, 1922]
This contains a memorandum for the Prime Minister in 1922 from the Commonwealth Immigration Office, relating to the question of reimbursing the out-of-pocket expenses of a Mrs Downes, a voluntary representative of the New Settlers' League, who regularly met and advised young female immigrants on arrival in Sydney.
A457, J400/1/56
Image 23: A booklet published in England in 1929 by the Salvation Army for prospective immigrants.

Image 23: A booklet published in England in 1929 by the Salvation Army for prospective immigrants.
NAA: A1, 1932/7662
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Image 24: A booklet published in England in 1929 by the Salvation Army for prospective immigrants.

Image 24: A booklet published in England in 1929 by the Salvation Army for prospective immigrants.
NAA: A1, 932/7662
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This series precedes series A461 (described earlier in this chapter) and contains general correspondence files covering the range of subjects that came to the Prime Minister's attention in this period.
Series: A458
Quantity: 49.77 metres
Recorded by: 1923–34: Prime Minister's Department (CA 12)
Prime Minister's Department, 'Immigration Encouragement Women – Domestic Immigration Society' [86 pages, 1923–24]
This contains correspondence between Mrs Beatrice McDonald, Secretary, Domestic Immigration Society, and the Graziers' Association of New South Wales in 1923 in relation to a scheme to bring in British girls, 14 to 19, suitable for domestic training who were required in rural areas of the state. The cause was taken up by the Producers' Associations' Central Council which included not only the Graziers' but the Stockowners', Sheepbreeders' and Farmers' and Settlers' Associations, as well as the Primary Producers' Union. It was later also endorsed by the Metropolitan Meat Industry Board. The history of the Society, its objects, names of women on the Executive Council, and 'Salient Points' of the Scheme are included. Following approval of the scheme by the Ovesea Settlement Committee in London in 1923, resolutions on female domestic immigration (concerning publicity, advertising at the Empire Exhibition and elsewhere, the appointment and duties of a matron, interchange of officials, a training hostel and aftercare) were adopted. The scheme was then communicated to the State, Federal and British authorities by the President, Constance Sly, and Secretary, Beatrice McDonald, a government subsidy applied for and subscriptions called for. Free passages for the girls and £1 500 for the Society to get established were requested. Widowed mothers of the younger girls were later included. Australian girls could also attend the training hostel, with preference given to daughters of ex-soldiers and sailors. As with child migration, the Federal authorities saw this as a form of social welfare and therefore a State responsibility. The state government subsequently offered a £1 000 subsidy, a decision at first opposed by the Commonwealth Immigration Office. Although a free passage was provided for a representative to supervise recruitment in the United Kingdom, the last letter in the file indicates that promised funds from non-government sources at the Australian end did not materialise and the booking was cancelled.
A458, A154/14
Prime Minister's Department, 'Immigration Encouragement. Women's Auxiliary Council West Australia' [13 pages, 1927]
This file contains a letter to the Prime Minister from the Women's Immigration Auxiliary Council referring to its work in Western Australia. The Council was formed in 1919 and was officially recognised by the government. Its work was similar to that being done by the New Settlers' League, Women's Branch, in Victoria and New South Wales.
A458, G154/14
This series consists of general correspondence files which cover the wide range of subjects that came to the Prime Minister's attention. Many earlier papers from the previous general correspondence of the Department have been top-numbered into this series. The series also contains constitutional material dating back to 1901.
Series: A461
Quantity: 143.82 metres
Recorded by: 1934–50: Prime Minister's Department (CA 12)
Prime Minister's Department, 'Immigration Encouragement. Women Immigrants. General' [2 cm, 1918–37]
This is a large and important file on government policy on female migration to Australia in the inter-war period. It contains a Report of the Oversea Settlement Committee of the Delegates Appointed to Enquire as to Openings in Australia for Women from the United Kingdom, 1920, (also a similar report for Canada, 1919); a memorandum on the Emigration of Women from the United Kingdom to the Dominions; an accompanying letter from Lord Milner, June 1920 and various press cuttings. It also contains a 1918 letter from the Secretary of State for the Colonies on the question of opportunities for British women, especially those who had worked in munitions factories or been engaged in rural work during the war. Replies from state Premiers indicate that, in their view, the major opportunities were in domestic service. Much correspondence relates to the preparation for the Delegation and its activities. A response to the report of the Delegation from the Australian Government was drafted by H S Gullett, Superintendent of the Commonwealth Immigration Office, who was requested to provide periodic reports on the working of the arrangements for the absorption and welcome of female immigrants. The rest of the file contains correspondence relating to a deputation in 1923 from the New Settlers' League, Victorian Division, on the selection and training of women migrants in the United Kingdom and the appointment of matrons on ships carrying female migrants; resolutions of the National Council of Women of Queensland, 1923, and the Queensland Women's Electoral League, 1924, relating to the selection of girl migrants by Australian women; a resolution adopted at the Imperial Economic Conference of 1923 that an additional woman be included with any nominated family; a resolution by the Women's Service Guild of Western Australia in 1929 that women be appointed to all special commissions arising out of the Migration and Development Commission which affected women migrants; and an article by Florence Borradaile, 1937, on the Redistribution (within the Empire) of Educated Girls
A461, G349/1/6
Prime Minister's Department, 'Immigration Encouragement. Domestic Servants – General, Part 1' [1920–38]
This is a large file, covering a variety of matters concerning the immigration of domestic servants in the inter-war period. Correspondence relates to domestic servants and the Contract Immigrants' Act, requisitions for servants from the states, passage rates and assistance, 'lady helps' for Queensland, training, reception, after-care, wages, alleged competition with Australian girls, problems of recruitment and publicity, Schemes and Agreements under the Empire Settlement Act, the Market Harborough Training Centre for Domestics in England, demand and supply issues, the resumption of migration in 1936 and its relation to domestic workers, various suggestions, resolutions and representations from individuals and associations, the possible extension of assistance schemes to Northern Europe, and departmental memoranda.
A461, H349/1/6 part 1
Prime Minister's Department, 'Immigration: Training of Women. Domestic Duties [68 pages, 1927–30]
This contains correspondence and information on the Domestic Training Hostel at Market Harborough, England, and government support, the training of women for domestic service, the notice of a resolution from the Australian Women's National League to extend the assisted passage scheme for domestic servants in existence in Britain to young women from Northern Europe, a copy of the assisted passage agreement, the suggestion by the Prime Minister that training centres for women in Australia be established along the lines of Market Harborough to relieve unemployment amongst women, and replies from state Premiers.
A461, I349/1/6
Prime Minister's Department, 'Immigration Encouragement. Domestic Servants – General. Part 2' [24 pages, 1938–40]
This file contains individual applications, and various correspondence relating to a Church of England Council nomination for 10 domestic servants per month to Western Australia, a query about the number of domestics amongst refugees, and a proposed reduction of passage rates for household workers.
A461, H349/1/6 part 2
This series was the main correspondence file system of the agencies shown above. The subject matter includes administrative and personal matters as well as the following functions administered by the agencies from time to time: immigration and emigration, 'aliens' registration, naturalisation, passports (except 1916–18), influx of criminals, indentured coloured labour, people of races for whom special laws were thought necessary, external affairs (1903–16), Pacific islands (1903–16) as well as other matters not relevant to this Guide.
Series: A1
Quantity: 184.92
Recorded by: 1903–16 Department of External Affairs, Melbourne (CA 7); 1916–28 Department of Home and Territories (CA 15); 1928–32 Department of Home and Territories (CA 24); 1932–38 Department of the Interior (CA 27)
Department of the Interior, File of Papers, 'Women's Immigration Advisory Council' [8 pages plus booklets, 1929–32]
This contains two booklets on the Women's Immigration Advisory Council, its constitution, a letter referring to an address given to the Council's monthly meeting in July 1929 by E G Mulvany, a member of the Development and Migration Commission, and various press cuttings.
A1, 1932/7507