Chaperone's diary of the 1857 Fitzjames voyage to Sydney

Matron Susan Austen was chaperone to 98 single women travelling as assisted immigrants onboard the Fitzjames, which arrived in Sydney on 1 April 1857. Her diary provides a glimpse of what it was like for young women to make the voyage from Plymouth to Sydney in the 19th Century. The voyage included sea-sickness suffered during stormy weather, tantrums, fights, theft and aggressive behaviour.

Matrons were chosen by the British Ladies Female Emigrant Society (founded in 1849) with the aim to assist young women emigrating to the colonies by improving their social and moral condition [1]. The matron was responsible for supervising the young women for the duration of the voyage and was expected to make daily diary entries of the work given out and completed by the women, as well as her observations of the behaviour and general conduct of the young women. The diary, from NRS-5239 [9/6212] also shows the despair Austen felt at the bad conduct of the women.

Instructions to matron and list of passengers under her charge

December 1856

December entries include: the departure from Plymouth; the number of single women under the Matron's care and their levels of literacy; a brief outline of a particularly quarrelsome young woman; bickering; a bout of sea-sickness and genreal hysteria one night as the ship was thought to be on fire. On the following night the sounds of wind and water and an unexpected outage of lights caused mayhem and confusion as the passengers believed the ship to be sinking

...every man and woman I believe were calling on their God and declaring that if spared they would never do as they had done before.

January 1857

January entries include: sun protection in the form of bonnets and needlework was distributed "...The girls are walking on the Poop most of them with their new bonnets on". One female was abusive towards a sub-matron and caused much trouble. With daily theft and arguments occurring the Matron wrote that looking after a large number of young women was a difficult job

...Their tempers talents religion & disposition are so varied that it requires something more than normal strength to keep any order among them.

As the voyage continued Austen despaired of the behaviour of a few of the young women, one of whom threatened her, arguments erupted between the Irish and English women and the sub-matrons were afraid to get involved in disciplining the young women after witnessing their treatment of the matron.

Spoiler alert: towards the end of January, Matron discovered that the young woman she felt sympathy towards for being mistreated by the other young women is, in fact, the instigator of many dramas and later she wrote of the hate, distrust and suspicion amongst the group.

February 1857

Entries in February are brief and mention the good health among the young women. Group morale is still low and behaviour is erratic

...the young women have one great fault which I have not named before that is of laying in bed mornings and staying up late at night shouting dancing & etc...

March to arrival on 1 April 1857

In March all religious services were cancelled due to rivalries between the Catholics and Protestants and some rations were withheld due to poor conduct. One young woman was insolent towards the Matron

...I insisted on her going to her berth she refused to do so and called me a Dirty Old Bawd made a disgusting noise with her mouth

and another hides in wait to ambush those who use the water closet after dark. Matron announces

I will just name those who have given no cause of complaint & those who have given the most that is those who are very Bad indeed.

At the end of March all women were reported to be in good health after a severe storm passed over. Not even the impending end of voyage stopped the bad behaviour and Matron wrote

I have had no rest for several nights some of the young women get out of bed after the lights are out and pull each others hair causing them to scream from pain & fright. The whole room is then in confusion and I cannot find out who are realy the guilty parties.

On 30 March, having concealed her preganancy as much as possible during the voyage, one of the young women gives birth. Matron writes a wailing had been heard which was first thought to be caused by cats I soon found that Mary O’Neil had been delivered of a child...I had for time suspected that she was pregnant but did not suppose that she was near her time. She had always studiously concealed her figure ever since she came onboard by wearing shawls or a cloak...

On 1 April the ship finally arrives at its destination

We are now at anchor and have had a safe passage and all have been well cared for, having been on board 15 weeks.

Browse the digitised diary

Read the full transcript


[1] The Charities of London, by Samuel Low, Jun., London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, Milton House, Ludgate Hill.1861.

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