Due to a shortage of females in British Columbia, Canada, in the 1860s four ships were sent out from England to Victoria carrying, among other things, a cargo of young women.
The four ships (the Tynemouth, Robert Lowe, Marcella, and Alpha) became known as “the bride ships” and arrived as a result of the Columbia's Emigration Society’s initiative to send women to help populate the colonies with British citizens.
The most well-known of these ships was the S.S. Tynemouth, which arrived in September of 1862, a year of great change in Victoria. Included in her cargo were 60 women aged between 14 and 20 who traveled to the new world in unimaginable, horrific conditions in steerage.
Throughout the mining camps, there was a surplus of men anxious for female companionship! The hope was that these women would marry and settle north of the 49th parallel. But their journey to the west coast was horrendous.
Only half of the 60 young women aboard the Tynemouth have been officially traced. After all, these were the frontier days of British Columbia and few records of their whereabouts were kept.
However, Frederick Whymper, an artist, wood engraver and travel writer, traveled aboard the S.S. Tynemouth and kept a journal of the events that took place. Today a mountain on Vancouver Island is named for Whymper.
Many of the women aboard the Tynemouth did eventually marry and have families, and we have learned their names and future whereabouts from the passenger list.
For instance, Mary Macdonald, a musician, later married Peter Leech, a one-time gold miner and then Victoria’s city engineer; Jane Saunders married extremely well and helped turn her late husband James Nesbitt’s biscuit company into something of an empire; and Isabel Curtis married at fifteen and went to live in what is today the town of Chemainus on Vancouver Island.
On the other hand, some of the women ended up in the mining camps along the Fraser River and made a living as prostitutes. But some did work at other things and became midwives, governesses, and teachers, thereby bettering themselves and the lives they had left behind them in the old country.
The emigration of young women was taken over by the Salvation Army in the late 1800s and after that by the YWCA. The sponsoring of British women to the west coast of Canada did not, in fact, end until just before World War II.
Although many of the so-called “brides” did well for themselves, there remained something of a stigma attached to the women sent out aboard these ships. This may have been simply because their origins were often unknown, ranging from orphans and the working poor to prostitutes.
Peter Johnson’s book Voyages of Hope, tells the story of these bride ships. It is well worth a read.
In my soon-to-be-released novel Providence, I have placed my heroine among these women. I think you will enjoy her fictitious story as she journeyed to the new world in search of a better life.