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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A study of middle-class female emigration from Great Britain, 1830-1914 Hammerton, Anthony James


The plight of the impecunious unmarried gentlewoman is a familiar theme in Victorian social history. Historians have ransacked literary sources to demonstrate the misery of the Victorian governess and the depth of a dilemma that was sufficiently serious to generate the feminist movement. Yet there has been no systematic study of the changing fate of the Victorian "distressed gentlewoman" in the face of all the attempts by reformers and philanthropists to improve her position during the nineteenth century. The problem of writing a social history of the Victorian middle-class spinster has been aggravated by the paucity of appropriate sources. This study is based on the records of contemporary female emigration societies and Colonial Office emigration projects, and on the personal correspondence of some emigrants. It investigates the position of distressed gentlewomen from 1830 to 1914, and explains the results of one popular remedy for their dilemma: emigration. Only in the latter half of the nineteenth century did voluntary organizations establish facilities expressly for the emigration of middle-class women. Yet some early-Victorian gentlewomen were sufficiently hard pressed to use the facilities of working-class organizations to escape from difficult circumstances in Britain. The emigration records permit a closer analysis of the social backgrounds and careers of some Victorian gentlewomen than has hitherto been possible. Throughout the nineteenth century in Britain there was an increasing surplus of women of marriageable age. This intensified the problems of middle-class women who were without any means of financial support. The Victorian social code stressed marriage as the most respectable career for women, and for those unable to achieve that status the employment field was confined, in large measure, to the overcrowded and exploited occupation of the governess. For women with only mediocre qualifications for teaching who were accustomed to the relative leisure of the middle-class home the need to find employment could come as a rude shock, and usually involved a certain loss of caste. The economic problems of distressed gentlewomen are familiar, but it is not generally recognized that many of them suffered from what we today call alienation. Emigration, more than any possible occupation in Britain, was able to alleviate this sense of alienation by providing remunerative work in combination with secure social relations, a combination rarely enjoyed by the working gentlewoman in Britain. In the British colonies a gentlewoman could safely become a domestic servant without losing social rank and the companionship of her employers. Yet several factors prevented large numbers of distressed gentlewomen from taking advantage of emigration. The early-Victorian prejudice against female emigration, the preference of the colonists for working-class women, the rigid principles of the feminists and the insistence of British emigration organizations on expensive preliminary domestic training raised formidable barriers against the emigration of most impecunious gentlewomen. When, in the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods, voluntary organizations used the rhetoric of the Victorian feminine civilizing mission to encourage large numbers of educated women to emigrate, it was well-trained lower-middle-class women seeking professional work who benefited most, and not the less qualified distressed gentlewomen. The latter had not profited from the late-Victorian advances in female education; rather, the resulting competition worsened their relative position in the search for employment. Neither emigration nor the achievements of the feminists could solve the problem of the distressed gentlewoman, a problem which remained acute while the Victorian social code survived. Only the decline of that social code and the mass-mobilization of the female labour force during the First World War eliminated the existence of distressed gentlewomen as an important social problem.

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