Earl Grey’s Irish Famine orphans (2): Organization of the scheme


orphan corr dec1848(1)

 [National Archives of Ireland CSORP 1849/O68O8 Emigration of Female Orphans. Letter from the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners(CLEC) 9 December 1848 answering the Lords Justices’ complaint about the delay in sending orphans. There must be a new classification in the Archives nowadays? CSORP 1849/O68O8 contains both a manuscript and a printed copy of the CLEC Report used below. You should be able to access it online at http://www.dippam.ac.uk/eppi/ You may have to type that address into your browser. Look under LC Subjects page 30  and ‘Emigration and Immigration’ about six items down the list.]

Derelict farm West Clare

  The paper trail of the Earl Grey scheme is quite easy to follow in official documents, albeit written from the perspective of government bureaucrats. I’m always amazed by the amount of time and energy taken up with parliamentary enquiries and commissions; it is a Public Service being created I suppose. At least the screeds of paper allow us to follow the female orphan emigration scheme being organized and refined. And they alert us to the efforts being made to ‘protect’ the young women.

The paper trail basically runs from Earl Grey to the CLEC (see above) to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in Dublin Castle, back again to Whitehall and forward to the Irish Poor Law Commission, thence to Boards of Guardians in various Irish Poor Law Unions. Once eligible candidates were found in the workhouse, the Commissioners arranged for an officer, Lieutenant Henry, to examine them and when approved, the Guardians made arrangements to provide  clothes and boxes and arrange the orphans’ passage to Plymouth. The Commissioners were responsible for arranging the voyage to Australia. This post would become even more complicated if I was to explore fully the correspondence between different government departments in Whitehall; for example, between Earl Grey and Lord Grey in the Home Department and between Lord Grey and George Trevelyan in the Treasury. I’ll leave that to some stouthearted researcher in the future and for the moment, try to keep things as simple and as clear as possible.

In  February 1848 the CLEC reported favourably on the proposal that “an eligible class of Irish emigrants might … be obtained from among the orphans now maintained in Irish workhouses, of whom many are approaching the age of adolescence” (CLEC to Under Secretary for the Colonial Department 17 February 1848). Let me extract the salient points from that Report and the correspondence which surrounds it and add a gloss of my own. I’ll put the points in bold and my own comments in italics.

  • “1. Her Majesty’s Land and Emigration Commissioners…having been informed that an eligible class of Irish Emigrants may be found among the Orphan Children now supported at the public expense in Ireland, will be prepared to offer to such of those persons as may, on inquiry, be approved, and as may be willing to emigrate, free passage” to New South Wales and South Australia. “None will be accepted who are less than 14 or more than 18 years of age, and the nearest to 18 will be taken in preference.” There were a number of orphans outside this age range. Yet statistically the average was very close to 18. How accurate their age was to begin with, is another matter. 
  • “2. In order that the persons in question may understand the nature of the advantages thus offered to them, it is necessary…” to tell them something about where they would be going. “The climate both of New South Wales and of South Australia is remarkably healthy, and suited to European constitutions. The soil is good, and produces in abundance, wheat, maize, barley, oats, and potatoes; provisions are much cheaper than in this country; clothing may be purchased at a cost but little in advance of the retail prices here, and the rates of wages at the date of last advices, were in all cases much above those given for the same description of labour in this country. Besides the money wages, Labourers in the country are generally provided with a dwelling and the following allowance of provisions by their employers–10 lbs of meat, 10 lbs of flour, 1 and a half lb of sugar, and 3 oz of tea per week.”

(At this early stage, the proposal included both male and female orphans but by May 1848, just as the first males were being selected, the scheme was restricted to females.)

In order to persuade potential migrants exaggerating Australia’s advantages seems a perfectly natural thing for a bureaucrat to do. It is also what recent arrivals did, anxious to justify their decision to emigrate, both to themselves, and relatives and friends back home. But when the Commissioners answered a letter from Archibald Cunninghame in June 1848 and defended their choice of Irish girls by saying “It was represented to us that the orphan girls in Irish workhouses are generally well brought up, and trained to domestic service”, one has to wonder how much in touch with reality they were. The bureaucrats in Whitehall evidently had little experience of working as a domestic servant in Australia, or living in an Irish workhouse during the Famine. They cut their cloth to suit themselves.

Still, you may well  ask, did the orphans have a choice or were they forced to come to Australia?  The phrase “…as may be willing”  is clearly included in the first point: the Commissioners  believed the orphans  could choose or opt out if they desired. Put yourself in the position of one of the orphans, what would you do? What would influence your decision?

Our adolescent orphans were people who knew an driochsheal; they had first hand experience of the ‘bad life’, the ‘bitter time’ of the Famine. They were destitute famine victims, famine refugees, if you like. They had fallen on such hard times that they depended on the workhouse for their very survival. For them, the workhouse was the difference between life and death. They were in the care of an eleemosynary institution and hence, orphans. Three quarters of them had no parents still alive, a quarter of them still had one parent (see the dictionary definition of ‘orphan’). They were as the Sydney Morning Herald later put it “deprived by death and pestilence of their natural guardians”.  Or, perhaps like 17 year old Mary Early, from Enniskillen, you came into the workhouse suffering from fever and deserted by your widowed father?  Or 15 year old Margaret McWilliams, born in Derry, you came into  Magherafelt workhouse with your 38 year old widowed mother and three siblings, and described in the Indoor Register as “helpless”.

If the Master or Matron of the workhouse came to you and said, here’s a chance of a free passage to Australia, what would you do? Given the desperate circumstances of these young women, was it really a question of choice?

Yet it would be a mistake to see the orphans purely as famine victims. To do so, would do them an injustice. Who are we to deny them any agency? There were more than ‘push’ factors at work, ‘pushing’ them out of Ireland. Whilst the orphans were less literate than assisted Irish female emigrants generally, 59% of them could read; and where one of them could read, she could read to a number of others. She may even have read in her local newspaper the letter from a settler in Geelong–“On Christmas day I had lamb and green peas for dinner, gooseberry pie and plum pudding. My master sent two bottles of brandy and two bottles of rum amongst four of us in the kitchen”. Or the piece entitled “Life in New South Wales” (4 October 1849) in ‘The Lurgan, Portadown and Banbridge Advertiser and Agricultural Gazette’–“In another part of the country our traveller saw a girl on horseback driving cattle with a stock whip. She bestrode her steed like a man; the gay ribbons of her bonnet fluttered in the wind; and she was arrayed in white pantaloons adorned with large frills. This was ‘a currency lass’…”.  

News about the scheme, as it progressed, was also reported favourably in local newspapers. On 9 January 1849, the ‘Limerick Reporter’, for example, had the following paragraph , “This morning fifty young girls selected from the workhouse by the government agent, proceeded to Dublin, en route to Australia. They were under the charge of Mr Scott, the Master, and of the ward-mistresses,and presented a neat, trim and cheerful appearance”. In the local media, and in oral tradition to which the orphans belonged, Australia was an attractive destination. [“The Nation” objected to the young women leaving. Yet its voice was a lonely one. Be careful of a ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’ argument, as my good friend Professor Clarke used to say.]

The young women were capable of making up their own mind. Some of them no doubt discussed the matter among themselves in the workhouse. Others would have talked with their siblings and their friends. The perennial attractions for all emigrants–material considerations, the chance of employment and good wages, marriage, and the hope of familial security, better prospects and opportunities, a sense of adventure– surely played a role in an individual orphan’s decision to leave her already broken home.

  • 3…The males (see above at the end of bullet point 2) and females are intended to be conveyed in separate ships. Teachers will be appointed to them, and means will be taken to provide for the instruction of the Emigrants in conformity with their respective creeds. This took some time to implement. It was not until early 1849 that vessels carrying mainly Roman Catholic orphans  had “clergymen of that persuasion” on board “serving as chaplains as well as religious teachers”. The ‘Irish Government’ insisted that this be the case and there were the usual delays over who should pay. There was also difficulty in finding suitable and willing candidates. The books furnished to the vessels will consist exclusively of those authorized by the National Board of Education. In those of the ships which may carry Orphans,  (females), there will be a trustworthy Matron to take charge of the Emigrants, under the direction of the Surgeon, who will be entrusted with the general management of every ship.

This looks all well and good on paper. In reality, it was subject to the vagaries of the human condition viz. how strong a personality the Matron was, the Surgeon’s attitude towards the young women and the dynamics of teenage interaction between themselves and towards authority. This was noticeably problematic in the early vessels.  

  • 4. The Emigrants’ ships will be despatched…from Plymouth, to which place the emigrants must be conveyed at the expense of the Board of Guardians. Emigrant ships can be despatched from Plymouth only, because it is only  at Plymouth (with the exception of London,) that the Commissioners have an Emigrant Depot which will enable them to collect the Emigrants previous to embarkation, and Officers under their control, who can  ascertain by inspection that the Emigrants are all in a fit state of health to embark , that their persons are clean, and their clothes clean and sufficient. The calamities which would result from the introduction of any infectious or contagious complaints on board one of these vessels, render this arrangement indispensable. 

The Commissioners’ meticulous attention to detail  was responsible for the very low death rate among the orphans. It was less than 1%. The orphans were given a clean bill of health by Lieutenant Henry in the workhouse and again in the depot in Plymouth before they embarked. They received decent food on board ship, half a pound of  preserved meat on Sunday and Thursday, half a pound  of pork on Monday, Wednesday and Friday,  half a pound of beef on Tuesday and Saturday, flour, suet, raisins, peas, rice, preserved potatoes, tea, coffee, sugar, butter, water, vinegar, mustard and salt.  On board, the surgeons supervised a regime that made sure their quarters were clean and hygienic.

It is worth emphasizing our orphans were not the victims of ‘rip-off merchants’, the runners who exploited the naivety of spalpeens and gossoons from the West of Ireland as they disembarked from their steamer in Liverpool. The orphans were not the victims of free enterprise, make as much money as you can Ships’ captains. Those captains packed as many people as they could on board their vessel across the Atlantic to North America, paying little or no attention to the emigrants’ state of health or food supplies.  The orphans’ voyage to Australia was very different from the voyage of  their compatriots to North America: Australia did not have a Grosse Isle. 

“What do you carry from Ireland

When you leave at seventeen?

                                    Lizzie brought fine linen for her wedding dress

and her mother’s lullaby.”

(Miriel Lenore,  “Lullaby’, in drums and bonnets, Wakefield Press, 2003, p.76)

  • 5. It will be necessary that each emigrant should be provided with the following articles, which compose the lowest outfit that can be admitted.  For Females:   Six Shifts– two Flannel Petticoats—six pair Stockings–two pair Shoes—two Gowns, one of which must be made warm material. As a general rule, it may be stated, that the more abundant the stock of Clothing,the better for health and comfort during the voyage. At whatever season of the year it may be made, the Emigrants have to pass through very hot and very cold weather, and should therefore be prepared for both…
  • 9. The Board of Guardians will determine whether in order to obtain these advantages, they will provide the Out-fit and conveyance to the port of embarkation on behalf of the Orphans in their respective workhouses, and on their communicating their decision to do so, to the Poor Law Commissioners, an Officer will be deputed by the Emigration Commissioners, in order to ascertain whether they contain any suitable Candidates for Emigration of the above class.  

Often one of the interesting things about a historical source is what it doesn’t say. This sort of thing is easy to miss. In this CLEC memorandum, for example, very little is said about who is going to pay for the scheme. Less than a week after the Report Earl Grey wrote to Home Secretary Sir George Grey in very clear language, “…if the Irish Govt will sanction those parts of the arrangements which require their concurrence, his Lordship will be prepared at once to assent to it on behalf of the Colonies of New South Wales and South Australia and will allow the expense of providing passages  to these Colonies for orphans properly selected in the manner pointed out by the Commrs, to be paid for out of Colonial funds”. 

This was a major bone of contention between Earl Grey and Australian colonists. Grey indeed responded positively to colonial demands for labour but he failed to resolve long standing differences between colonist and Imperial authority over how government assisted emigration be funded and run. Grey aggravated these differences by insisting that Britain retain control over Land funds and hence emigration policy. His Australian opponents would later seize on the female orphan scheme as a means of embarrassing him. In turn, “some of the odium attached to Earl Grey undoubtedly rubbed off on the female orphans”. The orphans themselves were probably unaware they were pawns in this political contest. But it is, I think, one of the major reasons the scheme was so short lived. It was to last less than two years.

Let me stop now. It’s long enough already. I’ll continue with the organization of the scheme in the next post.

Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans; Origins of the scheme

I’m very new to this so please forgive my booboos.

Here’s a little picture. Note the bulge in the graph, the percentage of 10-24 year old Irish female migrants arriving in New South Wales. This is explained by the arrival of c. 3,500 famine orphans from Irish workhouses who came to Port Jackson and Port Phillip between 1848 and 1850. It does not include the 600 who sailed into Port Adelaide. There were 4114-4175,  mostly adolescent  females in all, who came as part of the “Earl Grey Scheme”.

Viewing a graph like this illustrates just how remarkable a feat of British Imperial social engineering the  Earl Grey scheme was. One can imagine the conversation at the centre of power. “Do the Australian colonies need more females? Yes, well let’s send them some from our workhouses.”  Not that it was ever as simple as that.


Where did the idea come from? It was not completely new. An important precedent  was set during the 1830s when young women, many of them from both Irish and English Foundling Hospitals,  Houses of Industry and other charitable institutions, were brought into New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. The aim  of the British Imperial government,  as Lord Howick put it, was to “encourage the emigration of females“‘  “to remedy what is so very serious an evil in its present condition (the disproportion of the sexes)“. (Howick to Treasury 16 Feb 1831, quoted in British Parliamentary Report of 1835). This  motive was still very much in evidence  in 1848. As indeed was  the speed with which commentators in both Britain and Australia stereotyped such female emigration as “being injurious to the best interests of the colony”  (J. Eckfort, Surgeon on board the Duchess of Northumberland, giving evidence to  the Parliamentary enquiry in 1835). His sentiments  echoed those of the Presbyterian Minister, Reverend J. D Lang, who earlier that same week had  asserted to the Enquiry that “the female emigrants sent out by Government…although many of them have conducted themselves reputably, and are now comfortably settled, their general influence on the morals of the colony has been decidedly and highly unfavourable”.  (On the fifteen vessels which came from Ireland and England in the 1830s  see A. J. Hammerton’s essay in (Australian) Historical Studies in October 1975 and more recently,  Liz Rushen’s books. Her Colonial Duchesses,  on mainly Irish women, was published by Anchor Books in 2014. See her website www.rushen.com.au ) This early government scheme for bringing women to Australia had finished by 1836.

There was, however, an enormous influx of Irish women as Bounty migrants in the early 1840s.  Between January 1841 and June 1842 almost  17, 000 Assisted Irish immigrants arrived in New South Wales. More than half of them were female. The authorities were hard pressed to find accommodation and employment  for such a flood of people.  Caroline Chisholm, “The Emigrant’s Friend”, is deservedly renowned for her work with these immigrants. She met them at the wharves, advocated for, and set up a Female Immigrant’s Home and employment agency, promoted the establishment of depots at Liverpool, Parramatta, Campbelltown and Bathurst and travelled herself by dray, taking groups of individuals to the hinterland for employment, and supervising their terms of work agreement.  However, her ability to publicize her own good work in pamphlets such as Female Immigration:Female Immigration considered in a Brief Account of the Sydney Immigrants’ Home (Sydney, 1842) and Comfort for the Poor! Meat Three Times a Day!!! Voluntary Information from the People of New South Wales collected in that Colony in 1845-6, (London, 1847) , and before various parliamentary enquiries, has tended to overshadow the  achievement of  Francis Merewether, the New South Wales Immigration Agent (from 1841-51). He especially, was instrumental in preparing an administrative infrastructure–immigrant depots in Sydney and rural districts, making hiring arrangements– that was resurrected when Government Assisted Immigration recommenced in 1847.

Caroline Chisholm was  a strong advocate of family values and the importance of careful selection of migrants. “Under a good system the very best girls would emigrate”, she emphasized to the New South Wales Legislative Council Select Committee on Immigration in September 1845.  The very next day, 5 September, Francis Merewether also stressed how important female immigration was but it was he who suggested to the Committee, “I am informed that the difficulty of procuring female servants for the Colony is very great, and certainly those sent out during the past eighteen months were generally very inferior in every respect to the male immigrants. Some of the female orphan institutions of the Mother Country  might perhaps supply useful servants: but I am not sufficiently informed upon the subject to do more than throw out the suggestion.”  (My italics)  Merewether dealt with, cared for and distributed throughout the colony of New South Wales a much larger number of migrants than Caroline Chisholm ever did.

Yet Caroline Chisholm undoubtedly had influence on the formulation of British Imperial government’s emigration policy in the period between 1846 and 1848,  at the very time when government assisted emigration was being renewed.  She and her family had returned to England in 1846.  She herself appeared before a House of Lords Select Committee on Colonization from Ireland in July 1847 and submitted “I should not feel the Interest I do in Female Emigration if I did not look beyond providing Families with Female Servants–if i did not know how much they are required as Wives,  and how much moral Good may be done in this Way.” Her quintessential Victorian values  coincided with those in her network of friends and politicians. She was adept at gaining publicity for herself and in promoting what we might call ‘family reunion’. She also forcefully argued the case for the emigration of single females and for the proper treatment of newly arrived migrants, no mean feat.  Yet nowhere have I seen where she  recommended sending female migrants from Irish workhouses.

However, a direct appeal was made by Archibald Cunninghame, a pastoralist  sent by his fellow colonists of the Port Phillip District to appear before that same House of Lords Select Committee on Colonisation.  On 12 and 16 July 1847 Cunninghame presented a detailed and attractive plan for the emigration of Irish orphans, both male and female.

See http://www.dippam.ac.uk/eppi/documents/12344/page/303060

While his proposal differed from the one that was eventually put forward by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners (CLEC) early in 1848, not least on the question of who was to pay, there are enough similarities between his scheme and the one that was adopted for us to realize he may have had a formative influence on what became known as Earl Grey’s Irish female orphan scheme.  “And Orphan Girls, whose fate in this Country one can scarcely think of without a Shudder, would when their Apprenticeship in the Colony had expired find a ready and well-paid Demand for their Labour as single Girls, and the Certainty, if well conducted, of soon being respectably married” (A. Cunninghame Esq., before Select Committee 16 July 1847).

In a letter to H. Merivale, Under-Secretary for the Colonial Department, a year later, dated 6 June 1848, commenting on the CLEC proposal, Cunninghame showed he was under no illusions about the importance of his own role in the affair, “As the plan for orphan emigration was, I believe, originally brought forward by myself…it will naturally be supposed that I take a direct interest in its success”.

Clearly, the idea of sending orphans from Irish workhouses was ‘in the air’ among parliamentarians in both England and Australia at this time.  Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies, had received a similar suggestion directly  from Governor Fitzroy in New South Wales and  from Governor Robe of South Australia.

According to Archibald Boyd, when he was trying to persuade Earl Grey that British funds should be used to finance emigration to Australia, “the noble lord professed to have been there and then struck with a thought…the orphan girls whom the famine of Ireland had cast upon the parishes of that part of the kingdom, it might perhaps be advantageous to have a proportion sent out to the Australian colonies, on such terms as would divide the expense between the colonies and the parishes.” (see Sydney Morning Herald 13 March 1850).

In the end, responsibility for the Irish female orphan scheme lay with Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the colonies in Lord John Russell’s Whig government. It was Grey’s decision and his responsibility to set the whole scheme in motion. The point I’m also making is that the decision to send female orphans was made by the Imperial government but it was not a dictatorial whim, something which Earl Grey plucked out of the blue as the fancy took him. He had listened to government officials in Australia, Governors Robe and Fitzroy and even perhaps, Immigration Agent Merewether as well as representatives of Australian pastoralists such as  Archibald Cunninghame.

Yet in another sense, the real architects of the scheme were the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners in London who by that stage (1847-48) were responsible for land policy throughout the British Empire. It was they who would draw up the details, and fine-tune how the scheme actually worked.

We will also need to put the scheme into historical context; the Earl Grey female orphan scheme was but one of a number of similar ‘schemes’ emerging in the late 1840s.  Other schemes included bringing out the children of earlier Bounty migrants to join their parents, if they agreed to come; bringing out members of convicts’ families, if they  desired to come, and trialling the migration of other ‘orphans’ from the remnants of Dublin and Cork Foundling Hospitals and other charitable institutions, though these last may have had less  choice. Grey even attempted to renew convict transportation, much to the ire of colonists.  But the major interest and major  push was for the revival, renewal and extension of Government Assisted Emigration, designed to supply agricultural labour and domestic servants for pastoral interests in Australia. At the same time, it was what the Imperial government believed was the right kind of social engineering. We should be aware, too, that the administrative machinery for Government Assisted Emigration (which already drew on the experience of convict transportation and Bounty migration) would be a very useful foundation for the emigration of adolescent females from Irish workhouses between 1848 and 1850.

There are, of course, other contexts, –the Great Irish Famine, the voyage, what happened to the young women in Australia– but more of that later.

digging for potatoes