Escaping Poverty through Arranged Marriage: The Mystery of the Missing Brides

Guest blog by Carmen Radtke

case of the missing bridesAs Queen Victoria’s empire grew and with it the wealth of the nation (mainly of the upper class), the colonies became a beacon of hope for the poor as well as the struggling middle class. In the 1850s and 1860s, New Zealand offered land for farming, and the former convict-colony of Australia promised gold, trade, and a society that was British without the entrenched class structure.

In Australia, the gold rush that effectively ended its times as a penal colony lured tens of thousands of people. Melbourne alone grew from 29,000 non-indigenous inhabitants in 1851 to 155,000 by 1854. Rents skyrocketed.

Then the gold ran out. Businessmen struggled to repay their loans, but it was the women and children who suffered the most. Men could “go bush” and try their luck elsewhere, but wives, widows, and daughters stayed penniless behind. They had to make money any way they could, legal or not.

So it must have been a god-send when in 1862 a group of young women without families were offered a chance to emigrate as brides to Canada through the joint efforts of a Reverend Brown and Maria Rye, the head of Female Middle Class Emigration Society in England. Rye was only too aware of the dangers the journey entailed. Therefore, the women were met at Melbourne harbor and housed – a level of protection most females could only dream of. Rape (or seduction) were constant dangers, and so were abduction and sale to brothels.

Why the first brides selected for the journey to Canada were sent from Melbourne instead of England is unclear. What is known is that the twenty three Australian girls never made it to British Columbia. The Canadians blamed it on brash Californians charming the girls during a stop in San Francisco. Other theories blame the ship’s atrocious conditions and the captain, or describe the women as being of low moral standards, fleeing the ship to turn to prostitution.

There never was a second bride-ship from Australia to British Columbia, but Maria Rye’s society sent out three groups from England.

I believe the missing brides were abducted. In my novel I try to give them the lives they should have had.

carmen Carmen Radtke is a journalist turned novelist and screenwriter. She writes mostly historical fiction under her own name and the pen name Caron Albright. The Case of the Missing Bride was a Malice Domestic finalist and is nominated for a CWA Historical Dagger.

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