Throughout much of the early 19th century, emigration assistance for women was directed almost entirely toward women working in domestic service. Domestic working women were in high demand throughout the colonies, thus, emigration societies and organizations largely focused their efforts on “matrimonial colonization”, helping women who fit this domestic profile.
There were, however, a substantial number of women in England who had a decent education and were suited for more than basic domestic labour. Unfortunately, these educated women were finding employment opportunities scarce at home. In the colonies, however, there was a dire need for such women. By the middle of the 19th century, emigration societies began to realize that this neglected group of women was in need of help.
The need came to the foreground when a Miss Maria S. Rye published a paper entitled “The Colonies and their Requirements.” She drew attention to the serious plight of young, educated women who were consigned to English workhouses for want of more appropriate employment. She posed the poignant question, “Are women to perish simply because they are women?” Her viewpoints were soon republished by The English Woman’s Journal, and then printed in pamphlet form by Emily Faithful.
With the help and support of friends, Maria Rye began to act on her convictions. She sent her first group of educated women to Melbourne, Sydney and Natal, where they were met by local supporters and settled in posts of employment. These early emigrants were soon publishing letters of their own in The English Woman’s Journal, pointing to the great success of Maria Rye’s initial venture.
The small success so bolstered Miss Rye’s convictions that she began to appeal to the general public for funds to establish a larger permanent emigration scheme. An appeal was published in The Times, and soon Miss Rye had received over £500 in public support. With the funds raised, Maria Rye launched “The Female Middle Class Emigration Society” in May of 1862.
The Society opened its first and only office at 12 Portugal Street, sharing a building with the offices of The English Woman’s Journal. To approved applicants, the Society offered interest-free loans that could be repaid over a period of 28 months. Correspondents were set up in the various colonial ports where young women might choose to travel, so that wherever the women went, there would be someone there to greet them.
Maria Rye joined the first party which set out for New Zealand in late 1862. She dedicated the next couple of years to studying the conditions in greater depth, leaving her friend, Jane E. Lewin in charge of the Society. By the time Miss Rye returned to England in 1865, she had set her sights on the emigration of children; thus, Miss Lewin ended up running the Society for the duration of its existence.
While the FMCES never became a large or wealthy organization, it did assist quite a number of middle class women in their emigration efforts. In 1886, the FMCES was officially absorbed into the Colonial Emigration Society.