In the 1830s, Port Phillip was growing at a startling rate, and female convicts and free settlers were sent to Victoria in response to the resulting labour shortage. Outnumbered by almost seven to one, women made up a small and often vulnerable proportion of the population.
The majority of Port Phillip's women were initially unmarried free settlers. Single women were in demand as house servants, and the government paid for them to travel to Victoria safely, with married couples or families:
£19 would be allowed for every unmarried female domestic or farm servant, not below fifteen, nor above thirty years, coming out under the protection of a married couple, or forming part of a family [...]
– Garryowen, Chronicles of Early Melbourne, 1888
Finn, E 1888, The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, centennial edition, 1976, Vols 1–3, Heritage Publications, Melbourne Vic.
However, even the female free settlers lucky enough to gain employment were still vulnerable, as they had to support themselves financially. If they fell pregnant or lost their job, they were out on the street, or forced to rely on charitable organisations.
For the few female convicts sent to Port Phillip, the situation was even worse, with prostitution often being an unspoken condition of their sentence:
Both male and female prisoners were commonly forwarded together: the officers and soldiers selected companions for the voyage and a sentence of transportation included prostitution. It is not incredible that modest women rejected life on these terms, or preferred a public execution to the ignominy of a floating brothel.
– The Reverend John West, 1852
Teale, R 1978, Colonial eve: sources on women in Australia, 1788–1914, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Vic.
Most sources from before Separation in 1850 – such as this one – combine information from Port Philip and New South Wales, so it can be hard to work out exactly what was happening in Melbourne.
On arrival, life wasn't much better – convict women were handed over to settlers' households as domestic servants, at their master's mercy. Some convict women were lucky enough to marry and make new lives for themselves, but many others fell victim to Melbourne's underbelly of crime and prostitution.
For many women, marriage or de facto relationships ensured they were provided for and protected from the rougher elements of society, but security came at a price. Alcohol was all too common in the settlement, and women often had to deal with the verbal and physical abuse of drunken partners.
Despite these hardships, some women made a success of their new life in Port Phillip, with a rare few achieving financial independence. But for many women – particularly convicts – life in the colony was one of hardship and struggle.