“For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”
Caroline Chisholm took these words of our Lord seriously and devoted her entire adult life to helping those who could not help themselves. She became known as the “Emigrant’s Friend” even in her own day. Thousands of emigrants owed their new lives to her.
Caroline Jones was born on a farm in Northampton, England in 1808. Her parents were godly people and her father was known as a man who was generous and kind. When Caroline was only five years old, her father helped a refugee priest from France who was being abused by the villagers. This was during the time of the Napoleonic War and many Christians had to flee from France where religious people were being severely persecuted. Though Caroline’s family was Protestant, her father treated all people with equanimity. While the priest lived with them he told Caroline many stories about France and other far away lands. Caroline loved these stories and was impressed with the humble character of this man. Later, she would become a Catholic, but more importantly, she would desire to carry on her father’s tradition of helping others.
So firm was she in her resolve to make her life’s work one of helping others that she told her fiancé, Archibald Chisholm, a Lieutenant in the infantry, that she would not marry him unless he was willing to let her have the freedom to do the works of service that she desired. She asked him to part from her for one month and think about it. Thirty-one days later, he came back to the Jones’ home and asked Caroline to marry him. From then on they had an understanding about what really mattered in life. They were able to build their marriage on trust and friendship while maintaining their dignity and individual personality. In fact, Archie would support Caroline’s ventures later in their lives when he retired from the infantry.
In the early part of their marriage, Archie was sent to India. Caroline had a hard time fitting in with the other officer’s wives. She did not want to live their life of ease and frittering away their time with gossip. She noticed that the children of the poorer soldiers were mistreated. She went to work starting a school for them. Besides teaching them to read, write, and do sums, she gave them a practical education. They learned cooking, housekeeping, and moral values. In 1838, when Archie was transferred to Australia, she was sad to leave her school, but she had established it well and others were able to take it over and run it successfully.
It was in Australia where Caroline really came into her own. She noticed that the young immigrant girls who arrived in Sydney would stand around at the docks, lost and lonely. She tried to find a place for them to work and succeeded in locating homes for many of them where families needed help. This helped a few girls, but shipload after shipload arrived with young women and the government was doing nothing to help them.
Caroline began to study the immigration problem. She gathered and compiled thousands of pages of statistics, evidence, and personal stories to give to the British government in an effort to get them to help with the problem. The government’s policies for immigration were abysmal. They basically ignored their penal colony in Australia.
There were so many more girls than Caroline could find places for in the short term, that she set up hostels for them. In Sydney, she fought for and finally obtained an old building to house them in.
A story that illustrates her determination, her love for the girls, her humility, her genius, and her strong courage is the story of the night she spent with the rats.
Caroline was determined to show that her work among the homeless immigrant girls could be successful. When she finally obtained a small space from the Australian government to house the young women, she spent much of her own time cleaning it up. Then she decided to spend the first night there alone. Well, she thought she was alone. Eventually she shared her space with about thirteen rats!
Just as she was beginning to fall asleep, a large rat jumped up on her shoulder. Then two more quickly followed. She shook them off, got out of bed and went to look for something to distract them. She had some slices of bread and butter with her. She put them on the floor with a dish of water and watched as they and ten more rats devoured the food. She sat up reading and watching the rats until four in the morning.
The next day she obtained some arsenic. When she went back to her little room, she put out more bread and butter laced with this rat poison. Again she watched as the creatures devoured the food. In this enterprising way she rid herself of the rats.
Caroline was able to open the barracks to ninety women after this. Her problems did not end there. She had to protect the reputation of the girls, and insisted that no men be allowed. In order to ensure their safety, she lived with them for a year. How she missed her own children, but the Lord blessed Caroline’s sacrifice. In that year she cared for over 1000 immigrant girls.
With the laws in England for immigration being so bad, Caroline knew that there was only so much she could do. So she and Archie moved back to London where she could lobby for improvements. The work was slow and took a few years, but finally the government came around to a more humane way of thinking about the emigrants.
Caroline also wrote many pamphlets that included the stories of the people who had moved to Australia. By personalizing the situation in that far away land, she also won the hearts of the public. Many began to see emigration as a real possibility for a better life. This was especially true for the Irish. The potato famine was going on at this time. Many Irish had moved to England looking for work and sustenance. The hope of possessing their own land and being free appealed to them.
In order to help these desperate people, Caroline developed a plan whereby the émigrés could borrow the money to take the ships to Australia and pay it back later. They borrowed enough to purchase land and get the supplies they needed to be successful. Here is one place where Archie showed how much he meant it when he promised Caroline his love and support. Even though they had seven children by this time, he moved to Australia, taking their oldest son with him, to manage the collection of the money at the other end. Eventually he would return to England, leaving their “bank” in capable hands.
In her old age, Caroline suffered from several severe ailments, including a bad heart. By this time, Archie had moved back to England to be with her. They had given away a lot of their own money to help others. They did have a small pension but it only kept them in modest circumstances. They did not complain. To her dying day, Caroline thought only of the plight of the poor.
Caroline succumbed to bronchitis in March 1877. It is a shame that only a few English papers noted her death. The Australian papers would not have printed a notice at all if her children had not paid for it. She was forgotten by society, but only temporarily.
In the 1960’s, it was decided to depict her on the 5-dollar bank note, where her picture remained for over twenty years.
Many women recognized the valuable role Caroline played in reforming society, including Florence Nightingale, who later wrote that she modeled herself after Caroline Chisholm. Caroline is an inspiration for women today. There is a renewed interest in courageous, historical, under-recognized women who made a difference in the world. Caroline Chisholm’s story deserves to be taught to all of our daughters as a shining example of faith, strong family values, determination in the face of opposition, and a love for justice.