In my last parish, in Edgbaston, we were incredibly fortunate in having professionally produced transcripts of all of our parish registers, recording baptisms, marriages and funerals, dating back to 1635. They were a fascinating set of documents, and just occasionally stories would come to light, sometimes completely unexpectedly, about the people whose names appeared in them.
On one occasion I was contacted by an Australian man, who was researching his family history. It turned out that one of his direct ancestors – a woman by the name of Jane Davis, had been married at my church at the end of the 1700s.
I looked her up, and there she was – married on 28th August 1796. And her story was a remarkable one. Because about ten years after her wedding at my church, she was arrested, put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to transportation to a penal colony in Australia on one of the first all-female convict ships. And her crime, believe it or not, was highway robbery. She, together with a man whom I note was not in fact her husband, were holding up coaches on the road between Birmingham and Worcester. (Well, if you are going to be sent down, it might as well be for something colourful, I suppose!)
I was so interested and intrigued by her story, that I ended up doing quite a bit of reading around the subject – and particularly researching the plight of those women who were sent out to Australia during that period. Under the convict system about ten times as many men as women were transported, which meant that there was a dire shortage of women. So in an attempt to try and redress the gender imbalance, shiploads of young women and girls who were usually poverty stricken but not actually convicts, were also sent out – whose plight ended up being just as bad as those who were actually there for punishment. Because on arrival they were generally met by men who would board the ships and promise them employment, but who in fact simply took them to brothels.
It was this appalling situation that inspired a remarkable British woman, who was already a committed social reformer, to take action. Her name was Caroline Chisholm, and I mention her this evening because tomorrow,16th May, is the date on which she is commemorated in the Church of England calendar.
Caroline was born in 1808, and married a Roman Catholic man named Archibald Chisholm, and was herself received into the Roman Catholic Church. She travelled with him first to India, and then in 1838 to Australia, where she was profoundly concerned by the plight of poor women arriving in Sydney. She set up an office to help them to find legitimate work, and a refuge where they could stay in safety, and she campaigned tirelessly on their behalf. And all this despite the personal prejudice she encountered amongst the authorities, not only because she was a woman, but because of her Roman Catholicism.
Chisholm herself describes how she tried to ignore this sense of calling, but she felt compelled to do something. As she put it: ‘On Easter Sunday I was enabled at the altar of our Lord to make an offering of my talents to the God who gave them. I promised to know neither country nor creed, but to serve all justly and impartially.
By all accounts her achievements were absolutely phenomenal. Despite having few resources, and no official authority, it is estimated that she settled no fewer than 11,000 people, and reunited 600 families. She transformed conditions and attitudes. She was fearless in confronting injustice, getting more politically radical as she grew older – but she was also a woman of generosity of heart, charitable, and supportive and encouraging of those who needed it. One of her contemporaries described her ‘admirable obstinacy in doing good – a sublime stubbornness.’
I love the notion that ‘sublime stubbornness’ might be a recognised as a gift of the Holy Spirit – but of course, as exemplified in the life of Caroline Chisholm, it was stubbornness in support of the vulnerable, and in pursuit of social justice. And there can be few more noble manifestations of the quality of admirable obstinacy than that.