Catherine Bishop, Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney

New South, Sydney 2015, pp1-302, RRP $39.99

MindingHerOwnBusinessContemplating the life of women in Sydney in the nineteenth century one might think about them as daughters, wives, mothers, lovers, sisters, spinsters and widows. Or of their domestic roles which made them responsible for child rearing and running the private world of the home. You might rue their lack of legal and political rights, or wonder about women of the lower orders who often worked long hours as domestic servants, laundresses, poorly paid piece workers or indeed as prostitutes. Or you might read the many memoirs and diaries which endure today that chart the lives of privileged upper class women, which suggest a rather different existence; the pleasures of elegant colonial drawing rooms where hours were spent engaged in piano playing and embroidery as a pastime, the endless round of society balls and dinners, perhaps a philanthropic interest in a church or charitable organisation. Yet in between traditional prescribed gender roles and the disparities of class, there was a whole other layer of female experiences going on at the same time.

In Minding her Own Business Colonial Business Women in Sydney, historian Catherine Bishops adds to her wonderful Dictionary of Sydney entry Women of Pitt Street 1858 and reveals more of the forgotten history of a colourful army of nineteenth century businesswomen who played a vital role in the development and growth of colonial society from a small convict settlement into the commercial city of Sydney. They were a diverse and varied crew and included ex-convicts, free immigrants, colonial born and a few more ‘exotic’ types from France and other British colonies. Indeed, though they have left few tangible traces in the street scape today, the streets of Sydney were vibrantly alive with the hustle and bustle of many busy women ‘minding their own business’ in the colonial era.

These entrepreneurial business women were diverse and eclectic, earning their livings in a variety of small and sometimes surprising ways. Some were hugely successful, others less so; some ran their single businesses for years whilst others went from one business enterprise to the next with fluidity and a great deal of resolve and determination; some were backed by successful male relatives, others had hopeless husbands and partners and found themselves doing whatever it took to earn a crust. Other businesswomen were entirely independent of male influence, good, bad or indifferent.

So what sort of businesses did women own in Sydney in the nineteenth century? Catherine Bishop introduces us to a wide variety of female entrepreneurs. Those handy with a needle were to be found amongst the many milliners and dress makers, bonnet makers, staymakers and drapers who clothed the people of Sydney; some worked from home, others opened shops in the busy thoroughfares of George and Pitt Streets. Educated women often opened ladies schools and academies and worked as teachers or private tutors. Their target market was Sydney’s growing middle classes who were keen for their daughters to be educated in suitable ‘feminine’ subjects such as art, music and languages. Many women ran boarding houses, hotel bars and brothels providing accommodation, food, conviviality and sometimes company for single men newly arrived or passing through the busy port town.

There were also female butchers and bakers, market stall holders, grocers and fruiterers, confectioners and dairywomen who fed the populace. Women worked as private midwives and nurses and some established employment registry offices to match up female workers with employers who required their services. Other women contributed to the cultural and social life of the city; they set up bathing facilities for women and children, ran circulating libraries and private museums, gave public lectures at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts in Pitt Street, and organised regular concerts and plays. Others worked as writers, artists and illustrators such as the formidable Scott sisters, Harriet and Helena. Upon widowhood women often carried on their deceased husbands business; they ran ironmongers, jewellery shops, tobacconists, breweries, garden nurseries, taxidermy shops and salt stores.

Few of these enterprising women have left behind letters or diaries to reveal their voices, or their thoughts and feelings about their business lives. Yet the reader nevertheless gets an intimate sense of their lives through the deft and admirable manner in which Bishop has used the available sources to retrace their many and varied lives. From shipping arrival lists, to trade directories (such as Sands), to colonial newspapers advertising their shops and services and the many court cases which some business women found themselves in times of bankruptcy or disputes over customer payments, the archives have been deeply mined and some real treasures have been found.

Minding Her Own Business is an accessible and yet deeply engaging read. It is an entirely new and insightful history of the economic development of Sydney. At the same time, it breathes life back into the many women who played a role in this development. There is a little bit of scandal, infamy and naughtiness in here too. The book is also beautifully illustrated with sixteen pages of fabulous photographs of nineteenth century Sydney. As such, it will appeal to a wide audience of readers interested in the history of women, colonial Sydney and the economic development of the city.

Catie Gilchrist June 2016

Available from NewSouth Books, or from your favourite bookseller!

 

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