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Emigration and
the Foundling Hospital

London Metropolitan Archives, Issue 31, No. 4, December 2017

Eighteen year-old Abigail Glover from the London Foundling Hospital migrated to New South Wales in 1833 under the auspices of the London Emigration Committee. The Bussorah Merchant was the first of fourteen female emigrant ships sent to the Australian colonies by the Committee appointed by the Colonial Office under a scheme to encourage women to migrate to the colonies in response to the overwhelming disproportion of sexes there. Between 1833 and 1837, the Committee enabled nearly 3000 single women, accompanied by 4000 family members, to migrate to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Foundling Hospital Research Forum Member, Dr Liz Rushen, has written extensively on the emigration of single women to Australia and here examines more closely the case of foundling Abigail, her background, her reasons for migrating and what happened to her once in Australia.

Philanthropic, enthusiastic emigrators with an evangelical bias, the members of the Committee saw opportunities in emigration for distressed women in the transitional period coinciding with the amendments to the poor law. They were strongly influenced by Malthusian theories of over-population and Wakefieldian theories of planned colonisation and believed the major benefits of emigration were dual: greater employment and marriage possibilities for the women and benefit for the colonies through the injection of a considerable number of free women who would be a stabilising influence on the predominantly male-dominated population of the colonies.

On the other hand, there was widespread anxiety in Britain about social unrest and the distress caused by large numbers of unemployed people in the newly industrialising towns. Seeking to address this imbalance, British and colonial activists lobbied the British government to assist impoverished and displaced labourers and particularly women to migrate to the colonies. By such processes, it was argued, British population pressures would be relieved and the Australian colonies would gain a settled, gender and socially balanced population to develop its resources and stimulate economic development. The Committee saw its role as a channel between the wishes of the home government, the wants of the colonists and the needs of the women themselves and advertised their first ship with a poster addressed to Young Women desirous of bettering their condition by an Emigration to New South Wales.

Criteria for emigrating

The Committee investigated the backgrounds, employment history and motivations of each candidate and chose only the women they felt would have the best opportunity of capitalising on their emigration experience. The women emigrating from institutions underwent particularly rigorous selection procedures to ensure that only the most suitable candidates were successful. The governors of institutions may have used emigration subsidies as a means of rewarding their ‘deserving poor’, but tight scrutiny prevented wholesale eviction of paupers to overseas destinations. Thus it appears that Abigail Glover was the only girl from the Foundling Hospital to emigrate on the Bussorah Merchant.

Abigail’s background

Two months before migrating, Abigail had written to Miss Sparrow at the Foundling Hospital stating that she had left her place of employment and the Saint Pancras parish overseers had sent her to a farm where she was unhappy. Although she was grateful for a place to live, she appealed to Miss Sparrow to find her another place of employment, even though she admitted that she had been foolish as she had not obeyed her employer. Rather than finding her further employment at home, Miss Sparrow and the governors of the Foundling Hospital supported her application to emigrate. However, Abigail’s emigration expectations were cut short by her early death at the age of only 23 and she was buried from St James Church of England, Sydney in July 1837. Abigail was unable to make the transition from institutional life to one of undreamed of freedom in the colonies.

Despite the Committee’s assurances that the women were chosen for their potential usefulness to the colonies, many of the women found difficulty in making the emigration transition. It was painful to part from friends and leave everything that was familiar, to suffer the ‘little death’ of emigration. It was difficult enough for women who had not been institutionalised, but the women who migrated from institutions had left behind a life where their every movement was controlled. In contrast, they had to make their own way in the colonies and many women were simply unable to do this, particularly as there were no supports in place to assist women who were experiencing difficulty in settling. There was no reception home, no employment bureau, not even a reception officer to assist the women when they first arrived.

The women who migrated in the 1830s were courageous in freely undertaking the long journey to Australia. The pain of leaving their homes was offset by the excitement of forging a new life. While some women like Abigail were unable to make the transition to colonial life, many did extremely well. Their stories are fascinating - each one different - but revealing the contribution these women made to the development of Australian society in the early years of free settlement.

Original sources from the Foundling Hospital archives at London Metropolitan Archives

Letter from Abigail Glover to Miss Sparrow, Founding Hospital, Lambs Conduit Street, 12 February 1833 (LMA reference A/FH/A/06/001/091/007, Administration, Secretary’s Correspondence, Surnames starting with G).

Further reading

Elizabeth Rushen, Single & Free: female migration to Australia 1833-1837, Anchor Books Australia, 2016, ISBN 9780980335460

Elizabeth Rushen and Perry McIntyre, The Merchant’s Women, Anchor Books Australia, 2010, ISBN 9780980335415

About the author

Foundling Hospital Research Forum
Member Dr Liz Rushen is Chair of the History Council of Victoria and an Adjunct Research Associate in the School of Historical Studies at Monash University.


08 November 2017

Last Modified:

24 November 2017

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