Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Dunedin Wharf from Bell Hill 1862

I haven't written too much of my Catlins novel yet, but I have done a ton of research. In the process I have learnt some interesting things about my home town. One book in particular has opened my eyes to events that were completely unknown to me.

When searching the shelves at the Dunedin Public Library I came across a booklet: "The Maid Servants Scandal," by Olive Trotter. I thought: history and scandal, I need that! Once back home I skimmed the first page intending to give it my full attention later that week, but it grabbed me for the next hour.

Here's the first two paragraphs:

"Ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-cared for, one was starved to death; others were driven to desperate courses ... Who can fail to realize the misery of these poor girls, thrust into a filthy crowded building, then subjected to slow starvation? Who can wonder that they welcome any alternative that removes them from the wretched den?"

These dramatic words appeared in the Otago Daily times of 23 March 1863. They referred to the hundreds of girls who were given temporary lodging in the Dunedin Female Immigration Barracks, until they found positions as domestic servants.

After the gold rushes of the 1860s Dunedin merchants built impressive mansions with their newly acquired wealth. And mansions need domestic servants. From late 1862 ship loads of single girls arrived from Britain. 1,220 girls arrived in the first ten months.

Until such time as they were employed they needed to be housed. The Female immigration Barracks were located on what is now Police Street. The unglazed building was cold, lacked cooking, laundry and bathroom facilities and the bunks had no mattresses or blankets. There was a public pump twenty yards away on the main street and the toilet was on a steep slippery clay bank at the harbour's edge.

In the first months they were without chaperone and left to forage for food themselves - an almost impossible task for women on their own in that time. Later, a matron was employed to care for them and they were provided with bread, butter and tea twice a day.

I was fascinated and a little shocked by what I had unearthed, but I have to say a little germ of an idea has sprung to life in a dark corner of my muse. A Scottish girl sets sail for Dunedin, an orphan perhaps. She arrives to atrocious conditions ... and what if ... ?


  1. Thats horrible! Yet it's also a great basis for a story... leading me to believe that like comedy good stories are tragedy + time...

  2. nyokodo - hi, thanks for dropping by. Yes, horrible indeed. It makes you wonder what other atrocities are buried under the blanket of time.

  3. Plenty of scope here for a great story, Sue! Lots of ideas were bubbling up in my own head as I was reading this! Go for it ...