Sunday, March 14, 2010

Emigrant Governesses

Not all emigrant females came to South Africa accompanied by a husband and children. Among the unattached women looking for better lives in the colonies were governesses. This occupation was one of the few open to educated, single women of limited financial means. 'Distressed gentlewomen' was a phrase commonly-used in the 19th c to describe this echelon.

In 1862 the Female Middle Class Emigration Society (FMCES) was founded. The Society’s goal was to provide loans enabling such women to emigrate where employment prospects for governesses were believed to be more favourable.

(Engraving shows the main room at the Female Emigrants' Home, Hatton Garden, London 1853; women would be accommodated here before embarking for the colonies.)

There was a ready response and FMCES emigrants were soon on their way to South Africa. Several went to sugar-planter families in Natal, some to Dutch farmers and others to teaching posts in schools.

The idea was a good one but the demand for governesses in the colonies had been exaggerated. The women were in debt to the Society for their fare and had to repay that money. In the 1860s, prior to the discovery of diamonds and gold, SA was in the grip of recession. Women found themselves in a foreign country where it was difficult to obtain suitable work and if they were lucky enough to find employment the salary was so low that they couldn’t afford to repay the sponsor Society.

Emigrant governesses wrote plaintively of their predicament:
‘The lady who wishes to teach in a family had better not come out – she can have no conception of what life is on a Dutch farm – a girl must have an immense amount of energy, health and spirit with inexhaustible resources in herself to be able to bear it.’

‘Governesses do not seem to be in requisition nearly as much as servants … females become delicate after having been here a short time …’
The colonies did not appear to want women of refinement, especially British females brought up in a class system and who felt themselves to be above household duties.

Some of these emigrants remained in SA, frequently becoming colonial wives (a dubious alternative though it was seen as a welcome escape) or starting their own schools. Others, overcome by heat, fatigue and general loneliness, died or eventually returned to their country of origin.

Advertisement from the Natal Mercury, 6 March 1863:


Two Ladies are expected by the ‘Durban’ who wish for engagements on arrival.
One is qualified to teach French, German and Music, besides the usual branches of an English education, and has had much experience in tuition. The other is not so accomplished, but can teach English thoroughly, and the rudiments of Music, Singing and Dancing, and is prepared to assist in Household duties if required. These Ladies bear high testimonials, are healthy, and determined to give satisfaction. Parties requiring the service of either of the above are requested to communicate with the undersigned, stating their requirements and amount of salary etc. … and on arrival of the vessel further communication will be made.
J Brickhill.

Further reading: The governesses, letters from the colonies 1862-1882 by Patricia Clarke (Hutchinson, 1985)

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