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Haphazard History: The bride ships of Europe

By mid 1859, Yale was estimated to have over 5,000 white inhabitants: less than 20 were women
(MIKAN 335228x / Library and Archives Canada)

Barry Sale

Special to the Tribune/Advisor

Recently, I just finished reading an interesting little book entitled: Voyages of Hope - The Saga of the Bride Ships, by Peter Johnson.

It delves into a fascinating and little-known part of B.C.’s history, and I thought that it would be a suitable topic for this column.

In 1858, B.C. consisted of two British colonies: New Caledonia with its capital at New Westminster, and Vancouver Island with its capital at Victoria, which served as the main shipping and entry point for both colonies.

New Caledonia had few white settlers, and its economy was based mainly on the HBC fur trade.

James Douglas, the Governor of Vancouver Island colony was also the Administrator for the new Caledonia colony, since he was the HBC’s Regional Chief Officer.

Then, in the summer of 1858, gold was discovered on the bars of the Fraser River. Almost overnight, goldseekers flooded into the area.

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By mid 1859, Yale was estimated to have over 5,000 white inhabitants, of whom less than 20 were women.

That lack of European women became a major concern. First of all, it put incredible pressure on the indigenous population, as white prospectors took their women to be wives, servants, slaves, causing major hard feelings between the whites and First Nations peoples.

Secondly, there were arguments, fights, and killings over women in the gold camps, threatening the law and order of the day. And thirdly, the Victorian attitudes towards mixed race relationships, morality and white racial superiority were sorely challenged.

So, it came about that letters were written back and forth to England, a Female Immigration Board was set up and an appeal sent out to the “deserving poor” women in Britain — those ladies who worked hard, worshiped regularly and paid due deference to the upper classes (the undeserving poor were the convicts, the prostitutes, the revolutionaries and the undesirables. These women were candidates for a one-way passage to Australia).

In England, the Anglican church became involved, and the Columbia Mission Society was set up to screen and provide passage for suitable white women.

The first of the “bride ships” to arrive in Victoria was the Marcella, a 200-ton vessel which sailed via Cape Horn to Hawaii, then across the Pacific to Victoria.

It was originally constructed to carry goods and not people, and its voyage through the equatorial seas would have been hellish for the passengers.

It took the Marcella 192 days to make the trip, and it arrived in Victoria on May 21, 1861. The press had built expectations, and about 300 young men lined the Victoria waterfront for days before its arrival.

When it did appear, some of the men couldn’t contain themselves. They rowed out to the Marcella and boarded her to meet the prospective brides.

It turned out that there were only four women and four children on board.

They were the wives and families of a few non-commissioned officers who had been unable to emigrate to Victoria with their husbands.

The British Colonist reported “When it was found that instead of 40, there were only four ladies aboard, … the assemblage disappeared from public gaze as rapidly as snow beneath the rays of summer’s sun.”

The article went on to say “The hoax was a cruel one; and the wretch who could thus wantonly trifle with the affections and feelings of our young bachelors deserves to pass a month in the chain gang.”

The next ship to set sail was the Seaman’s Bride.

It left Sydney, Australia, and on Sept. 11, 1862, the British Colonist reported that it had arrived in San Francisco on Sept. 2 with 20 women bound for Victoria.

Unfortunately, the article continued to relate that when the ship docked in San Francisco, all the un-escorted young women jumped ship and disappeared.

What the paper did not report was that the women were all convicted prostitutes who were deported from Australia to rid that colony of their negative presence.

The third ship was the Tynemouth, a three-masted barque outfitted with a steam engine.

IT was actually the first passenger steamer to travel from England to Victoria.

It left Dartmouth on June 9, 1862 with 300 passengers, 60 of whom were chaperoned “marriageable lasses” from the London area.

READ MORE: The fascinating story of Gunanoot

The ship experienced the trip from hell.

After no less than three crew mutinies, fierce Atlantic storms, a tropical hurricane, rogue waves, bad food, a lack of water, scurvy and a smallpox outbreak, the ship arrived in Victoria 99 days later, on Sept. 17, 1862.

A crowd of about 600 men had gathered to meet the ship.

The women were escorted by armed sailors up to the newly-cleaned marine barracks behind the legislative buildings.

They were available immediately as brides or domestic servants and were housed in the barracks until they found work or were proposed to.

The going rate at the time for domestic service was $50 to $60 a year, far more money than the women could earn in England.

The following incident was reported by the British Colonist: As the women were walking up to the barracks, one young lady, named Sophia, was accosted by a Mr. Poineer, a Cariboo miner.

He had been successful on the diggings and had walked many days to see the arrival of the ship.

He proposed to Sophia on the spot. She was taken aback and was speechless.

The young man then drew $2,000 in cash from his pocket, gave it to her, and told her to use it to buy clothes for their wedding.

The crowd became quiet. Sophia looked at the young man, then at the money, then again at him. Finally, she smiled and tucked the money into her apron. The crowd roared.

It was also reported that the wedding was one to remember. The dress cost $800, and the dinner $400. The wedding ball was a rousing affair at which the bridegroom became quite drunk.

Apparently, he returned to the ballroom early the next morning to see if his new wife was still there since he hadn’t seen her since the midnight feast.

Presumably, he located her eventually and they led a life of domestic bliss.

On Jan. 10, 1863, the combination sailing vessel/steamer Robert Lowe arrived from Manchester, carrying 36 young women. It took this vessel 114 days to make the passage, but compared to the Tynemouth, it was smooth sailing all the way.

Once again, several hundred men lined the water front to welcome the passengers and, as each woman walked up the path to the reception area, she was watched closely by every hopeful bachelor.

Once again, the ladies remained in the marine barracks until their situations were settled.

The program to bring women over from Britain was a contentious one, and there were arguments, debates and discussions, both in the colony and in London, about the cost, the benefits and the wisdom of funding free emigration for white women.

As a result, the program was put on hold for the next six years or so.

The final bride ship to arrive in Victoria was the Alpha, a barque which came over from Liverpool and docked on Jan. 10, 1870 after a relatively uneventful 149-day passage.

This ship carried 21 eligible young women, all of whom were snapped up for domestic service long before any bachelors had the opportunity to meet or propose to them.

The Alpha was the last of the bride ships, as official support for the program ended shortly after its arrival.

In total, then, from 1861 to 1870, a total of 116 women were brought to the colonies.

Most of them married soon after their arrival or went into domestic service. They became wives of businessmen, military men and the nouveau rich in the two colonies.

Several found shelter and service with the aristocracy in Victoria, and eventually became part of it.

Some did not marry at all, and a few became ladies of the night.

Only one or two ever made it to the goldfields.

Many of the descendants of these brave women are still contributing to the life of our province today.

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