In the autumn of 1621, fifty-six young women travelled to Jamestown, Virginia, in the hope of finding a husband. These were the forerunners of the better-known ‘fishing fleet’, who later sailed east instead of west, angling for officers of the Indian Civil Service, all knobbly knees and sola topis. The shareholders of the Virginia Company, established in 1606, believed that their enterprise would flourish if its settlers were tied to the land with wives and families. They organised a shipment of ‘maids for Virginia’: respectable girls, vetted by company administrators. Their fares across the Atlantic were paid on the understanding that when they married, their Virginian husbands would pay a bride price for them of 150 pounds of tobacco, then worth about £22 (perhaps seven years’ salary for a domestic maid). It was to be a win-win-win situation: the girls would find husbands, the settlers would get wives and, potentially, families, and (most importantly) the shareholders of the Virginia Company would make money, first from the bride price and then from the growing yields of more productive tobacco farmers.
At first the Virginia Company had hoped to augment the colony’s population by rounding up London’s poor and shipping them off to the New World. In 1618, a hundred ‘vagrant children’ from the streets of London and boys and girls from poor parishes whose parents were ‘overcharged and burdened’ with