Story: Crawford, Jessie

Page 1 - Biography

Crawford, Jessie

1828–1875

Barrack matron

This biography was written by Charlotte Macdonald and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

Jessie McAulay was born in Glasgow, Scotland, probably on 4 June 1828. Her parents were Elizabeth Renfrew and her husband, William McAulay, a mariner. Nothing is known about her early life. In 1849 or early 1850 she married John Mitchell Crawford, in Glasgow, but the marriage does not seem to have lasted. There were no children.

She arrived at Port Chalmers on 12 November 1862 on the Sevilla. On board was the first large party of single women recruited under Otago's special female immigration programme, launched in response to the massive influx of men to the Otago goldfields. Before the Sevilla sailed, Jessie Crawford had been appointed matron in charge of the 126 young women on board. Unlike many matrons she showed great ability in performing often onerous, unpleasant and unfamiliar duties.

Colin Allan, Otago's immigration officer, was unable to cope with the large numbers of young women, for whom few preparations had been made. In less than 10 months over 1,200 young women were to come to Otago on assisted passages. Within weeks of her arrival Jessie Crawford was appointed matron at the Dunedin barracks, to supervise the women until they went into service.

Jessie Crawford listed her duties: 'to look after the girls; to make them keep the place clean; see that they attend to the hours; to see that they get their meals at proper hours; get situations for them in so far as when persons come wanting servants I try to find the right person; and generally…to keep order in the Female Immigration Barracks'. She met parties of new arrivals at the dockside and escorted them, with their bags and boxes, to the depot in Princes Street (later moved to the suburb of Caversham). Here they were allowed two or three days to wash their clothes and tidy up before going out to work. Strict rules were set down for management of the barracks and the hours immigrants were expected to keep, though these were difficult to enforce.

The first few days in New Zealand were a mixture of excitement and confusion for the women immigrants. They were relieved to be on land, eager to find out about colonial life and heartily sick of the confinement and regimentation in the steerage deck of a sailing ship. Tensions contained aboard ship often exploded once the voyage had ended. Some young women celebrated their arrival with drunken revelries, stayed out all night or refused to take situations. Jessie Crawford had to deal with their rebelliousness, and also had to intervene when men tried to get into the barracks.

Most of Jessie Crawford's charges had no family in the colony and she provided for them a substitute home. Frequently she nursed young women who were too ill to work or were in the last stages of pregnancy. Those who were between situations and in need of accommodation also stayed in the barracks. She supplied information on where to collect mail and how to contact relatives and friends. For months and years after arrival she gave advice on situations and whether to stay in New Zealand.

In many respects Jessie Crawford's career was typical of the lives of women who served as matrons at immigrant depots, quarantine stations, gaols, hospitals and asylums. Her work and her role were similar to those of other barrack matrons, such as Canterbury's Sarah Ann Smith, Wellington's Eliza Redward and Auckland's Mary Taylor. However, Jessie Crawford was exceptional in several ways. She was by far the highest paid matron, earning an annual salary of £90. This can be attributed to the greater volume of immigration through Dunedin and also to the fact that she was the only unmarried matron. Most matrons' husbands were masters of the barracks, and the officially accepted status of the women as accessories was reflected in their salaries. Jessie Crawford's successor, Elizabeth Duke, was married to Charles Duke, the depot master in Dunedin. She drew a salary less than half that of her predecessor.

Jessie Crawford was the first contact for hundreds of settlers, and householders relied on her to find servants. Although important to women in Dunedin and Otago, she remains relatively obscure. She had no family in New Zealand. She attended a Wesleyan meeting at least once, but it is not certain that she belonged to this church. Few people chose to write about her and the evidence she gave before official inquiries records only her ideas and opinions. In 1863 Maria Rye of the Female Middle Class Emigration Society criticised the conditions in the Dunedin barracks, but apart from this incident Jessie Crawford was never in the forefront of public attention.

For 13 years Jessie Crawford served as matron of the Dunedin barracks. She was employed by the provincial government until 1872, when immigration was centralised, and then by the general government. She died on 2 December 1875, at Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, while convalescing from an illness. She was remembered as tactful and energetic. In the opinion of Jessie Drew, an 18-year-old immigrant who spent several weeks in the barracks in 1863, the matron 'was strict, but yet she was kind'.