17/02/2017 10:16 AM AEDT | Updated 19/02/2017 7:09 PM AEDT

Taxidermists, Ironmongers And Butchers: NSW Colonial Businesswomen

These women were prolific in the 19th century but forgotten in the history books.

Madame Dutrac ran a Sydney business teaching French.
Madame Dutrac ran a Sydney business teaching French.

When historian Catherine Bishop began her PHD, she had to find a topic which had something to do with gender and the 19th Century. She decided to investigate the myth that all women were wives and mothers with multiple children, having to look after their families and nothing else.

"But the more I searched, the more I found all these fantastic women running all sorts of small businesses, so I got hooked by the story. These women were taxidermists, butchers, iron mongers and while they were recognised at the time, they've been neglected by history," Bishop told The Huffington Post Australia.

Bishop's book Minding Her Own Business:Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney brings the stories of these entrepreneurial women to life, with details of their successes and failures, their determination and wilfulness, their achievements and their tragedies.

Catherine Bishop

"The only way I managed to find these businesswomen was through Trove, the National Library online. I was able to search for milliner and every single mention of a milliner for the 1850s would pop up."

History House
Minnie Beattie was a well-known costumier who ran a dress making business that was started by her mother in Londonderry. Beattie was identified as the wife of James Beattie and her popular business was forgotten in family history.

"And then I could track women from being a single woman in business in Pitt street, to being a married woman in business in George Street, to being a widow, to being married elsewhere in Sydney."

Bishop was expecting to find that the businesswomen were single or widowed. Instead, she found many married women running businesses. This wouldn't have been easy because, according to the law at the time, women couldn't do much without a husband.

This photo is from 1858 and shows Wiley and Sons, on the corner of Pitt and Park Streets, Sydney. It was run by Hannah Wiley, a mother of four. She most likely ran the business with her husband David as he is also mentioned in the advertising.

"Women couldn't own property and couldn't go into debt. Women couldn't write contracts or chase debt without a husband's support. These are all things you need to do when you're running a business. So a married woman could do that, so long as her husband was counter-signing everything. If they didn't have a husband they'd just have to carry on and run the business," Bishop said.

National Library of Australia
The cover of Australian Ballroom Guide. Eliza Read was a dancing teacher for 40 years but her guide never identified her as anything except Mrs C Read. Other businesswomen often used their own initials.

The women in the most unusual business were usually widows who inherited their husband's businesses.

"The woman who ran the iron monger business - I don't think she actually did any iron mongering but she inherited it from her husband and had a son who was an apprentice. He would have done the labour while she managed the business but she was in control for 15 years before she passed it onto her son," Bishop said.

Catherine Bishop
The current Arthouse Hotel on Pitt Street was once the 'School of Arts' where Cora Anna Weekes spoke in 1858 She was a conwoman essentially who started 'literary' magazines, collected subscriptions in advance then skipped town. She was last heard of travelling to India.

"As for the taxidermist: she was trained and then her husband got into some kind of trouble and ended up disappearing. Because she was trained she was able to work in her own right. Taxidermy is something that women were allowed to do. It's so gruesome but it was seen almost as an art. Another thing I found fascinating is I think women were a lot less squeamish in the 19th century."

22 Horbury Terrace, Macquarie Street, Sydney. Frances White ran a respectable boarding house here advertising views of the harbour.

Wine Odyssey Hotel in the Rocks, Sydney, was once the King's Head Inn, owned by wealthy businesswoman Rosetta Terry.