Maria Rye’s Selection

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Florence Chuk, Presentation, Moe Seminar, 5 September 1992 (excerpts).

Edited by Dr Dorothy Wickham February 2022

Long before African slaves were taken to America, Bristol (in England) was the centre of a thriving slave trade. At the time of the Norman Conquest, Bristol was doing a great trade in slaves, particularly young women. Slavery existed all over England at that time, but Bristol was acknowledged as the centre of it all. Slave traders from all over England met in Bristol to sell or exchange their wares.

Bristol vessels ran a shuttle service to Ireland, carrying over slaves and bringing back Irish goods. ... They ensured the future of slavery by paying William the First a duty on every sale.

All good things come to an official end, and the Bishops of England denounced the trade to the King, and urged him to drop his financial interest in it. Slavery was officially sopped - but when Henry II invaded Ireland a century later, he found large numbers of English slaves. (Henry II for some obscure reason, gave the city of Dublin to the City of Bristol, and in moved the Bristolians. The Irish were forced out - but they were not easily subdued and eventually had their city to themselves again - after a massacre.

Bristol and the Trading of Slaves

Bristol people never forgot how profitable slaving had been. When settlement of North America began, a new market opened up. In 1648, during the Civil War, Cromwell took thousands of Scottish prisoners. Bristol dusted off the cobwebs and a new breed of slavers applied for the liberty to transport 500 Scottish prisoners to the plantations. Off they went, to be followed by more defeated Royalist Scots after the battle of Worcester in 1651. The Irish followed just one year later, when the Governor of Waterford was told to deliver to three Bristol merchants as many Irish prisoners as they wanted. They took 200 men - off to the plantations of Barbados. However, like all good things for merchants, the civil war came to an end.

The Bristol merchants found other fish to fry - they began to kidnap local children for the slave trade. This raised such indignation amongst parents in 1654 the Council passed a law -

to prevent the kidnapping of boys, maids and others and transporting them beyond the seas and there disposing of them for private gain

This didn't STOP the practice. The men who passed the law were amongst the greatest kidnappers in the city. However, city magistrates found another and more legal way to kidnap people - and to provide slave labour for their own overseas plantations at the same time. Sever sentences such as death could be commuted to transportation for life, particularly when the person before the bench was strong and healthy. Many petty thieves were also persuaded to plead for transportation rather than to await sentences of unknown severity.

The trading of slaves by Bristol was rather more well-known in England than the City Fathers would have liked. Nobody really mentioned it, until the year 1685.

In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth landed in the West Country, gathered an army, and was defeated by the King's Army. Rebels were hunted own, imprisoned, and executed horribly. Some 850 had their imprisonment changed to banishment to Barbados. ... Some of these sailed away on a vessel named the Happye Returne. (and a few of them actually managed to do just that, but many years later.) Judge Jeffreys was sent to try the men and women of the West Country for treason. He was a bad-tempered character, and vented his temper on his prisoners. When he arrived in Bristol, he was met by the Mayor and Corporation all in their official robes and smiling their loyal smiles ... these smiles changed to consternation when the first person to be accused by Jeffreys was the Mayor himself - on a charge of kidnapping young people and selling them over the seas. After paying a hefty fine, the rather shaken Mayor was released from the dock and the prospect of prison.

Travelling to the Barbados and the West Indies was dangerous even to free men with commercial interests in those countries. Ten years before (1675) William Dampier was offered the management of a plantation on Jamaica. he worked his passage out on the vessel Content, first having a signed and sealed agreement with the Captain that on arrival hem William Dampier, would be free to leave the vessel and travel where he pleased. Many young men in similar positions had found themselves sold to plantation owners on arrival, by the ships' captains!

An Excess of Children

Sometimes prison sentences were commuted if friends of the accused promised to have them transported at their own expense. An example in Bristol in 1689 was of two young boys, the eldest only 11, who had stolen a purse containing 40 pence. These children were reprieved when their friends promised to pay for their transportation. It is horrifying to consider the fate of such young children in a strange land. These were not the only children to travel to the Americas alone. As early as 1618 the Virginia Company in America applied to the Burghers of London to send over some of its unwanted children, and 100 such children were shipped off before the end of that year. Throughout the seventeenth century groups of unwanted children continued to be sent out to America and the West Indies. There was some loss of life during th voyage, but nobody seemed greatly concerned. These children's passages were largely paid for by the Board of Guardians, who were happy to have the poorhouses cleared of pauper children.

An excess of children continued to plague London. In 1826 a police magistrate said -

"I conceive that London has become too full of children. There has been a great deal of juvenile offences, which I attribute to want of employment for people between the ages of twelve and twenty. I therefore suggest emigration as a remedy."

Captain Brenton, a retired naval captain, was so concerned by the plight of the unwanted children of London that he set up two homes for them in the 1830s. His object was to teach the children self-discipline and self-reliance. Many of Brenton's children later went to South Africa, with a committee set up in Cape Town to oversee them. on arrival and to watch over their welfare in the households to which they went. This was a measure largely disregarded by later organisations connected with child migration.

However, Brenton's scheme was very small compared to the great migration of children from Britain later in the nineteenth century. Instrumental in beginning this wave of child migration was Maria RYE.

White Slavery & Miss Rye's Selection

Maria Rye played but a small part in female emigration to Victoria in the late 1860s. Almost 600 women and girls came out under one of her schemes: which would leave use with a sizeable number of descendants today. If a person has one of Miss Rye's Selection in their family, a not on Miss Rye herself and her emigration schemes could add interest to a family history.

Maria Rye was born in 1829, the eldest of nine children of a London solicitor. she was educated at home in her father's extensive library. As a girl of sixteen, she came under the influence of the Reverend Kingsley, the vicar of her parish, and became deeply interested in social conditions and charitable works. She grew up a devout Protestant Christian, but unfortunately a bigoted anti-Catholic.

She became deeply interested in the Women's Movement of the day, and for a time was a campaigner for votes for women. After a time she turned to other problems faced by women, for she saw that the vote would be granted to women eventually, as inevitably as the dawn follws the darkness of night.

One great problem of her day was the aimless life to which many middle-class women were condemned. young men of the middle and upper classes could join the army and spend time overseas, they could engage in overseas trade, they could emigrate to the colonies. Middle-class girls could stay at home and merely exist, waiting for a marriage that never was to come their way. Middle-class young men were trying to marry girls a class above themselves, and succeeding, as the current shortage of men in Britain made such alliances possible. Middle-class girls could not marry beneath their own class without some trauma and perhaps complete expulsion from the family. The enormous numbers of unwed middle-class women led to England being described as 'the largest and coldest convent in Europe'.

Maria set out to address this problem. Since her father was a solicitor, she had access to friends in his profession, and she began by setting up a law stationery and copying firm in London. She was besieged by young women wanting this respectable employment, far more women applied for work than she could provide for. This was great step forward, as in later years women were regarded as suitable to become clerks in offices, such work became respectable for women and not merely the prerogative of men. When telegraphy was introduced, young women were regarded as suitable to use the machines. In this, Maria's pioneer efforts in bringing women into office work was important.

However, her law copying business could employ but few women. She turned to the problem of other unemployed but educated middle-class women, and decided that many could become governesses. They had the educational qualifications, but since most had themselves been taught by governesses at home, it was a step downwards for them. At this time many tradesmen's daughters had received an education and were themselves actively competing for positions as governesses. Since they saw it as a step up in the world, they were perhaps at an advantage compared to women who saw becoming a governess as a step downwards.

The Female Middle Class Emigration Society

Maria turned her attention to the Colonies. they were, she believed, sadly in need of culture. She wrote to various Colonial officials including the then Bishop of Melbourne, and received assurances that governesses were indeed needed.In 1861 she set up The Female Middle Class Emigration Society. A young woman's passage out would be paid as a loan, that his loan would be guaranteed by a person in Britain, and that the young woman would repay the loan from her wages during her first years in the Colony. Maria insisted that these young women should travel first class, as cabin passengers, in accordance with their social status, thus adding to the cost of repayment. This scheme was not a success. While some of these girls found suitable employment as governesses and music teachers, others found themselves in very difficult circumstances. One such girl, unable to obtain work as a teacher, advertised in a newspaper as an evening piano player for hotels. Others found themselves doing domestic work, and never having done housework, were indifferent servants. Some became saleswomen or milliners.

Even those who gained positions as governesses found conditions very different from those in England. There, a governess in a large household would have her own personal maid - unheard of in the Colonies! As well, many of these lonely women suffered terribly from homesickness. Much of their passage money was never repaid.

Maria was undeterred by her governess scheme's failure. Colonial governments had let her know exactly what they needed - sturdy young women and girls to become domestic servants and later wives and mothers. Now interested in the colonies, Maria set out to promote the emigration of women. North America was closer to Britain than the other colonies, so she began to choose and accomapny groups of young women across the Atlantic and to chaperone them as they chose employment. In the Family Herald of December 1868 there is a paragraph:

Miss Rye arrived in Toronto with a second batch of female emigrants from England on November 6. The passag out had been very stormy, but the girls all looked well, and by the 9th only a few were left without situations. General servants were most in demand. For these there were seventy more situations vacant than Miss Rye could fill up ...

The Lost Children of the Empire

This visit by Miss Rye to North America was to have enormous consequences, and to result in what we know now as the Lost Children of the Empire. After placing her girls in satisfactory employment, Maria learned of a scheme in progress in the United States. This was a plan to rid the streets of New York of street children and to make them into worthy citizens by changing their environment. An American philanthropist, Mr Van Meter was engaged in removing destitute children from the vicious streets of New York and transporting them to the Far West. This would remove them from crime and temptation, and allow them to develop into strong and hardy American citizens. This appealed immensely to Maria. On arrival back in England Maria wrote to the Times describing Mr Van Meter's work. It is not surprising that within a month the Family Herald was noting that:

Miss Rye has propounded an exceedingly well-meant scheme for freeing the London gutters from the swarms of girl-children who infest them. She is ready to make arrangements for the emigration of a number of female 'gutterers' from our great towns to Canada and the United States, and 'permanently to settle them in comfortable homes'. She proposes to start with a party about August. Only female Arabs between five and ten years will be of the party, and they are to be orphans - children who have been deserted for five years - foundlings who have been deserted. Miss Rye wants a thousand pounds in order to accomplish this noble task.

In general, the British Government approved of this scheme. It would partially solve the growing problem of street children, whose lives could only be bettered. Optimistically, Miss Rye saw these children as being welcomed into homes as children of the house, even to benefitting from the wills of their foster parents. She set up a home at Niagara to receive them - it appears to have been an old court house an her helpers fond the condemned cell an ideal place to store perishables such as meat and butter. Advertisements in Canadian newspapers attracted people wanting to take children into their homes - these persons had to produce references of suitability but it was impossible that all of these be checked out.

This scheme cost money, being entirely dependant on charity for support. Almost immediately however, the orphanages of England got in on the act, so to speak. The cost os sending an orphanage child to Canada with Miss Rye was considerably less than the cost of maintaining that child in an orphanage for a year, and soon orphanages were sending off their little charges to Canada - where they could be forgotten. Orphanage children quickly took the place of street children in Miss Rye's child migration scheme. Some societies began their own schemes.

Members of Parliament became concerned about these children and their futures. One Member cried out, in the House of Commons, 'We should not be exporting children like bales of cloth!' Maria's shipments were even stopped by law for a time, because of her total lack of supervision after placement of the children, but she was soon busy once more. Some parish workhouses decided to send unwanted female children to Canada with Miss Rye, but after one depressing shipment of adolescents who 'fell almost immediately into sin' she restricted her activities to much younger children.

Maria Rye's child migration was only one of a number of such projects, although she was the first of her time to take child migrants to be placed in foster homes. She was personally responsible for taking some 4000 children to Canada, a small number considering the total of 150,000 estimated to have left Britain over the years. other schemes followed her example fairly closely. many of these children so transported - their only 'crime' being poverty - became virtual slaves and skivvies to their foster parents. There are some success stories where they were loved and treasured. The tragedy was in the number of children transported as orphans who were actually the victims of 'philanthropic abduction'. such children were sent overseas without consent of close relatives because those in charge of the Child Migration Scheme believed it 'better for the child'. ... Quarrels broke out ...

The Australasian colonies had steadfastly refused to take such child migrants in the early years, although a New Zealand project accepted some adolescent boys from schools in London in the early fifties.

Miss Rye's Selection

Miss Rye appears to have visited Melbourne about 1865-66. it would seem that she was considering sending young women out and wished to ascertain the type of woman most needed in the Colony. The Assisted Emigrant Lists of 1866-1868 list a number of young women as being of Miss Rye's Selection, all being precisely what was needed in the Colony, decent healthy girls with domestic skills. About 600 women came out as Miss Rye's Selection and are listed as assisted emigrants on the Red Jacket 1866, the Underley 1867, Atalanta 1867, White Star 1867, John Temperley 1867, Donald McKay 1867, Canterbury 1867, Queen of the North 1868, and Southern Cross 1868. This venture was far more successful than Maria Rye's attempt to settle governesses in the Colony, or her mission to settle guttersnipes and orphans. in Canada. The girls sent to Victoria were exactly what the Colony needed, old enough and independent enough to asset themselves. They middle-class girl might have the confidence of her education, but her natural sense of superiority was a grave handicap in the Colony. The domestic servant girls in Miss Rye's Selection knew their worth and were proud of it. Victorians were fortunate in their only encounter with the formidable Miss Rye.

  1. Florence Chuk, Excerpts from the Moe Seminar 5 September 1992.