Women on the Land
October 15 is the United Nation's International Rural Women's Day, designed to bring awareness to women working and living in rural communities across the world. In our part of the world, there is a strong history of women engaging with the rural environment, and there are innumerable examples right through the BRAC and PROV collections. From rural publicans in the Licensing Registers, grieving mothers in the Inquest deposition registers and women petitioning council for better roads in Shire Correspondence records, our shelves are full of the footprints of rural women.
One place you will find many references to rural women are Shire Rate Books, where it doesn’t take long to find multiple entries for women farmers and rural landholders in the 19th century. Just one of many examples is Irish-born Bridget Gill, a farmer from Shelbourne, south of Marong.
Bridget appears across the Shire of Marong Rate Books up until her death before the age of 50 in 1897. As you can see, she is listed as a farmer, with 134 acres and a dwelling at Shelbourne:
Excerpt from 1890 Shire of Marong Rate Book (Shelbourne Division)
Public Records Office of Victoria, VA 2464 Marong Shire, VPRS 16266 P01, Unit 27, 1890
Bridget McGillicuddy appears to have arrived in Victoria at the age of 17 with her brother Thomas in the year following the death of their parents 1. On the manifest of the Royal Standard, they are recorded as being Irish, and Bridget lists her occupation as ‘dairy maid’. Thomas and another sibling, Catherine, met and wed partners at St Killian’s in Bendigo, and in 1870 Bridget herself ties the knot with John Gill.
As their family started to grow, John took up property in the Shelbourne district (south-west of Bendigo), purchasing several blocks of land between what is now McKenzie and Meudell Roads. Nine years after their marriage, and with Thomas, 8, Dennis, 6, Bridget, 3, and infant twins John and Catherine under foot, John died suddenly, leaving Bridget to manage not only five young children but significant tracts of land.
In 1881, toddler John became ill and quickly expired; Bridget stated at an inquest that he was otherwise a ‘strong, healthy child’ but had been taken with an attack of vomiting. She administered soda, water and milk with a view to taking him to Sandhurst the following morning but he died early in the morning. Dr James Boyd agreed that the little boy had been ‘well-nourished and healthy’, and that if Bridget had been able to get to a doctor sooner, it would have been ‘to no avail’.
Excerpt from Bridget's deposition at the inquest for baby John Gill
Public Records Office of Victoria, VA 862 Office of the Registrar-General, VPRS 24 Inquest Deposition Files P0, Unit 422, Item 1881/556 John Gill, 1881
The following year, Bridget purchased further blocks of land, a large block closer to Marong, and another with frontage to McKenzie Road adjoining three blocks inherited from John, which is where she looks to have resided with her little family in a small, weatherboard house. The farms were mostly under cultivation, with post-and-five-wire or post-and-two-rail fences, a couple of small dams, a stable with four stalls, sheds and a stock yard. The point where McKenzie and Meudell Roads meet was referred to in Marong Shire meetings as "Mrs Gill's corner" 2.
Excerpt from Marong & Shelbourne Parish Plans
Public Records Office of Victoria, VA 3972 Department of Natural Resources & Environment, VPRS 16171 Regional Land Office Parish & Township Plans Digitised Reference Set, P01, Unit Plans S-Ti Shelbourne Parish Plan
Public Records Office of Victoria, VA 3972 Department of Natural Resources & Environment, VPRS 16171 Regional Land Office Parish & Township Plans Digitised Reference Set, P01, Unit Plans L-Me Marong Parish Plan
She appears to have kept cows, perhaps enough for milk and to sell a little, and chickens, but the land was mostly for cropping.
Upon her death in 1897, only in her 40s, Bridget’s possessions reflected those of any other farmer and the inventory in her probate record shows us that the land was used largely for oats and hay. As well as gathered crops of both, she had three horses, harness, a plough, reaper and binder, chaff cutter, scarifier and harrows.
Excerpt from the inventory of Bridget Gill's probate papers
Public Records Office of Victoria, VA 2624 Master In Equity Supreme Court, VPRS 28 Probate & Administration Files P0, Unit 852, Item 66/771 Bridget Gill 1898
Bridget was buried in White Hills with John. Her personal property was sold up by executors and neighbours, Patrick Keating and John Slattery, with the proceeds paying off the small mortgage remaining on her seven allotments of 350 acres. The land was then to be let until Kate reached the age of 21 in 1900 at which point, she directed it be sold and the proceeds divided between Kate, Thomas, Denis and Bridget 3.
Bridget is far from being unusual in being recorded as an active farmer in the Rate Books - in Marong in the same year we have Amelia House and Catherine Mahaer, also at Shelbourne, Sarah Underdown at Axe Creek, Elizabeth Meurillion, Bridget Wall and Catherine McColl at Dead Horse Flat in the 1890s, Annie Mulvahill at Campbells Forest in the 1950s. The United Nation's theme for this year's International Day of Rural Women is 'building resilience' and we're certain - as always - there's much to be learned from the past when it comes to building ways forward for women in rural communities in the future.
BRAC’s suggestions for areas of further research:
Extent of farm ownership by women in northern Victoria
Management practices used by women on 19th century farms
Divestment of women-owned farm property upon their death
The role of widowhood in women taking up farming
The experiences of fatherless children raised on farms by farming women
Interested in reading about other extraordinary women in the Sandhurst area? Take a look at our online exhibition from March 2020, Locating the Women of Bendigo.
1 Public Records Office Victoria, Series: VPRS 7666; Series Title: Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (British Ports), Microfiche Copy of VPRS 947
2 Marong Shire Council, Bendigo Advertiser, 7 May 1880, p3
3 Public Records Office Victoria, VA 2624 Master in Equity Supreme Court, VPRS 7591 Wills P02, Unit 272, Item 66/771 Bridget Gill 1890
First published 15 October 2020