Minding Her Own Business

From mid winter till late spring, the Blackheath History Forum holds fortnightly talks on a wide range of Australian history topics. The talks are usually held at the Blackheath Primary School hall, the backdrop featuring six stunning scenes in mixed media, highlighting some of the local views and including a vibrant red waratah.

The introduction to the talk outlined how history leaves an imprint on the present, and the importance of understanding the role of history as it shapes the present and our future. There was also commentary on the importance of trade and commerce: this isn’t always a focus of conventional history texts but it provides us with our daily needs and has much to tell us regarding what matters at a particular point in time. This weekend’s talk was given by Dr Catherine Bishop on the topic of colonial businesswomen in Sydney, with the focus on the period from the 1830s up until the 1880s.

Dr Catherine Bishop is an engaging and often humourous speaker, bringing to life aspects of everyday existence from over 150 years ago in a relatable manner. The topic, colonial businesswomen of Sydney, formed part of her doctoral thesis. The thesis also covered their counterparts in New Zealand.

There are no memorials to the colonial businesswomen of Sydney, despite the important role that they played. A common perception is that women were engaged in trades primarily to supplement the household income, to help provide for children, often in the absence of a male breadwinner. But this is only a fragment of the reality of the times. Women used their skills across a wide range of industries to create businesses which were sometimes later subsumed into their husband’s name upon marriage.

Bishop cited several businesses that continued to trade over decades, and sometimes evolved into large family businesses across generations. The starting point for her research was the Mitchell Library with its large collection of diaries and letters. Despite an extensive search, there was barely a record of any businesswomen of this period to be found. Bishop had to look further afield. Using a wide range of records including Trove, insolvency files at the State Records, Westpac Archives (bank account registers) and other tools such as the Sands Directories, Bishop has been able to unearth a rich chapter of colonial history.

The scope of businesses owned and operated by women was extensive. Bishop used Castlereagh Street in Sydney as an example, and women were running various businesses including bonnet cleaning, butcher shops, a cab operator, dressmakers and a hotelier in this street alone. Other businesses included milliners, fruit sellers, umbrella makers, grocers, a servant registry office, boarding and lodging houses, pawnbrokers and a haberdashery. You can get a taste of this in Bishop’s entry in the Dictionary of Sydney under Women of Pitt Street 1858.

The talk included snippets of the lives of several women who not only survived but thrived whilst operating their own businesses. This is seldom reflected in their obituaries, where women are usually described as wife of X, mother of Y, mother of daughters who married well, rather than as a successful woman in her own right.

For me the talk was a starting point for further reading, including Bishop’s book Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney. I am particularly intrigued by Elizabeth Cadman (wife of John Cadman of Cadmans Cottage) and some of the female proprietors of The Belgravia Hotel, which was later bought by Mark Foy and included in the extensive grounds of the Hydro Majestic Hotel.

You can find out about upcoming history talks here.

[Photo: front of the Blackheath Public School hall]

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2 thoughts on “Minding Her Own Business

  1. I had no idea women formed such an important part of the business scene that long ago! Here in the US, we also learn much more about the historic contributions of men than we do women, although that is slowly changing. Thanks for helping to spread the word!

    • My pleasure. It was a revelation to me too. It is relatively easy to rattle off prominent businessmen of the past but I would have struggled to name more than a couple of women. It is great to have some of these stories come to life.

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