Remarks by FELIX M. LARKIN at the launch of Carole Walker’s book
A Saviour of Living Cargoes: The Life and Work of Caroline Chisholm, 1808-1877
Caroline Chisholm School, Northampton
26 January 2010
We are gathered on Australia Day, and it is indeed very appropriate to launch this book on this day. For Australia Day commemorates the establishment of the first European settlement in Australia, with the arrival of the First Fleet at Sidney Cove on 26 January 1788. And this book is about that remarkable woman Caroline Chisholm who devoted her life to improving the lot of people of European origin in the colonies – especially women who, newly arrived in search of a better life, often found themselves penniless and stranded in a pitiful situation. So, at this book launch today, we mark two contrasting aspects of the colonial experience: on the one hand, the glory and adventure of discovering new worlds; on the other, the harsh reality of the conditions that some of the early settlers had to endure.
You may well ask why I, an Irishman who has never been to Australia, should have been invited to speak on this occasion. Was it to inject a boringly predictable anti-colonial note? Not at all. There are, in fact, two good reasons why I am here. The first is because Ireland features in Mrs Chisholm’s life and work. She made a very well-publicised visit to Cork and Dublin in 1852 to encourage Irish emigration to Australia, and this is covered in Carole Walker’s book. Moreover, her work for female immigrants in Australia included the Irish, and she is honoured for this in a tableau which is part of a permanent exhibition ‘The Queenstown Story’ at the Cobh Heritage Centre in Co. Cork. Cobh, formerly known as Queenstown, was the main port from which ships left Ireland for far-distant destinations – the United States and Australia – and it is perhaps best known as the last port of call of the Titanic.
There was, however, an even stronger connection with Ireland. Mrs Chisholm had a daughter, also named Caroline, who married in 1869 a young Irishman from a prominent and wealthy Dublin family who would later become a significant political figure in Ireland and at Westminster. He was Edmund Dwyer Gray, a constitutional nationalist, MP for various Irish constituencies from 1877 until his death at the early age of 42 in 1888. Gray inherited from his father the main nationalist daily newspaper in Dublin, the Freeman’s Journal – and much of his political influence derived from the ownership of that paper. When he died, his wife effectively controlled the paper for the following four years – disastrously for the future of the paper, but that’s another story and this is neither the time nor the place to tell it. She remarried – another Irishman, twelve years her junior – and she lived on in Ireland until her death in 1927, at the age of 79.
The eldest son of the younger Caroline – in other words, Mrs Chisholm’s grandson – was also named Edmund Dwyer Gray, like his father. He was born in Dublin in 1870, emigrated to Australia in 1894 and eventually settled in Tasmania – where he became a successful politician and served as premier for a brief period in 1939, one hundred and one years after Mrs Chisholm had first arrived in Australia.
These Irish links are important, but the other reason why I am speaking here today is equally important – and that is because of the author of this book, Carole Walker. I had been working on the history of the Freeman’s Journal newspaper, and so had an interest in the daughter of Caroline Chisholm. I learned of Dr Walker’s interest in the mother and made contact with her – and that was the start of a fruitful collaboration on our respective projects which, I am happy to say, has grown into friendship. I am particularly grateful to Carole Walker for alerting me to a photograph of the younger Caroline in the Rathbone papers in the library of the University of Liverpool which I was able to reproduce in an article that I published about Mrs Chisholm’s daughter.
Carole Walker is that rare thing – a generous scholar, who is willing to share her research and her insights. She is also a woman of considerable achievement herself – who returned to further education after raising her family and obtained a BA in English Literature at Loughborough University and afterwards a Master’s degree in Victorian Studies at Leicester University, before embarking on a doctorate on the life and work of Caroline Chisholm. This book is the by-product of her doctoral thesis. It is, by my reckoning, the fourth modern biography of Caroline Chisholm – and all of them are written by women. What is it about this courageous, feisty woman that so appeals to other women? Maybe we get some insight into her appeal when we remember that the great Sir George Gibbs, governor of New South Wales from 1838 to 1846, wrote after meeting Mrs Chisholm that he was astonished to find that, and I quote, she ‘thought her reason, and experience too, to be worth as much as mine’.
In any event, what distinguishes Carole Walker’s work from the earlier biographies is the depth of its scholarship, its objectivity and its balanced conclusions. While undoubtedly written in admiration of its subject, the book nevertheless eschews hagiography and is instead concerned to reveal the truth, or at least ‘the best obtainable version of the truth’ (to quote Woodward and Bernstein, the Watergate journalists). It seeks to understand and to explain, not just to celebrate. And that is how it should be.
There is no place for hagiography in the study of history – not even when someone earns the formal title of saint, and let us not forget that Mrs Chisholm may some day be so recognised by the Catholic Church. Figures in the past were human, just like us – flesh and blood, each a mixture of the good and the not-so-good, each with talents and shortcomings, each with failures as well as achievements. We do nobody any favours by enlarging them beyond what they were in life, by turning them retrospectively into plaster saints. Our heroes are actually more attractive, and their lives have more meaning for us, when we pay them the compliment of presenting them as real human beings, in all their complexity. Carole Walker has done this with Caroline Chisholm. She herself outlined her approach when she wrote the following in the introduction to her book: ‘By portraying Caroline in her ordinariness, I hope I show Caroline’s achievements for what they are, something quite extraordinary.’
Launching any book is much less dramatic than launching a ship: there is no bottle of champagne to be broken against the hull of A Saviour of Living Cargos. This book, however, inevitably brings to mind the great sailing ships of old. It records the life of a remarkable human being who made a unique contribution to the history of Australian emigration in the nineteenth century – a phenomenon which was, of course, only possible because of those ships. Anyone who has read David Copperfield will remember the wonderful passage towards the end describing the departure of the ship that will bring Mr. Macawber and others to Australia. Dickens captured there the hope and the promise, as well as the sadness, of emigration. Caroline Chisholm helped thousands of emigrants to realise that hope and that promise. She deserves this fine biography, and it gives me great pleasure to launch it today in this splendid school dedicated to her memory.