The year 1855 saw 'excessive female immigration' in the colony of South Australia, with shiploads of single women from the British Isles travelling as assisted migrants in search of employment and husbands. At the same time the depressed harvest meant settlers were unable to afford domestic labour. The colonial government dealt with this increase in the number of unwanted single women by establishing servants depots in Adelaide and around the colony, an innovative measure which at times caused unrest and even scandal.
The vast majority of these girls were Irish Catholic and single, one as young as 15 years. Two-thirds of all so called domestics had a farming background and were totally ignorant of the duties of what was expected of a domestic servant. The establishment of Servant Depots, to find accommodation and employment was strongly supported by the recently appointed Governor Richard Graves MacDonnell.
Towards the end of 1855 more than 4000 had arrived and even MacDonnell requested an end to it. Unfortunately communications at that time took many months. There were so many girls that they had to be accommodated in the Female Immigration Depot, the unused German Hospital and the Police Barracks.
To solve the problem of overcrowding and over supply in Adelaide several country depots were opened. The first one at Willunga followed by Clare. Others were later opened at Kapunda, Robe, Gawler, Encounter Bay and Mount Barker. Willunga operated for some 6 months before being closed in December 1855, after which the building became a police station. Among the first girls to be sent to Clare were many who had travelled the Nashwauk, which had been wrecked off the coast at Moana, luckily without the loss of life.
Conditions at the Depots were certainly not what they should have been but often much better than those experienced by the girls at home. With limited resources the government continuously tried to improve the facilities but could not prevent major problems or disturbances such as unruly girls and incompetent police, wardens or matrons.
The girls, mostly aged between 17 and 25 experienced many problem in finding and keeping their jobs. Most settlers preferred English or Scottish servants in preference to the 'ignorant and coarse girls sent from Ireland. The Irish girls often encountered interference with their religion.
Other general problems faced by the new migrants were low wages, short time employment, after which they often could not return to the depot, dismissal after the harvest, unfair dismissal and no payment of wages. Fortunately Matrons were sometimes able to recover unpaid wages. Most of these problems occured in the country. There was even the problem of transport, both of the girls and their belongings. On a trip to Mount Barker one of the carts had a nasty accident and one girl broke her leg, which later had to be amputated.
Sometimes though, dismissal was justified as some were just not able to do the kind of work expected or misbehaved. One girl from the Gawler Depot was employed by the Rev John Parker Buttfield at 7 shilling a week but dismissed within a week for 'dirty habits, obscene language and habitual lying'.
Because of these, and other problems, it is understandable that the Adelaide Depot found it increasingly difficult to get girls to accept employment in the country. The depot in Mount Barker was the largest and most successful. More than 230 girls found work. Some as far away as Lobethal and Langhorne Creek.
By the end of 1856 excessive female immigration was no longer a problem and all depots were closed. Servants Depots in Colonial South Australia is a fascinating and highly readable account into the day-to-day running of the depots and their management by a Female Immigration Board. The book reveals much about the condition of women in colonial South Australia, the role of the Governor, the diligence of the Board members and the social and industrial relations of the period in which they operated.
Although the depots were not unique to South Australia, one had been operating at Hyde Park in Sydney since the late 1840s, their establishment reflects a paternalistic and enlightened approach on the part of the government in dealing with the women's unexpected predicament. The book conveys a vivid impression of a pioneering colonial settlement trying to find its feet and a government who took its duty of care seriously.
The book is well referenced, has an extensive bibliography and contains some interesting information and points of view from G.S. Kingston, Major O'Halloran, Moorhouse, Dr Cotter, Gov MacDonnell, Dr William Gosse, Father Michael O'Brien and Rev Buttfield as well as detailed accounts of the experiences of 162 young Irish girls, who were passengers on the Nashwauk, and those from some of the country depots.
Written by Marie Steiner, the book @ $29.90 is available from