Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (11): Family reconstitutions

Family Reconstitutions

One of the research tools I used for the Earl Grey Famine orphans was a modified form of what demographers know as ‘family reconstitution‘. There is an accessible description of the technique in E. A. Wrigley’s Population and History, London, 1969, if you’re interested. It literally transformed historical demography.

Reconstructing a young orphan’s family in Australia can be a time-consuming task. How can I be sure this the correct person? Is the bride (the mother or the deceased) ‘our’ orphan, Jane Clarke or Margaret Ward or Mary Coghlan, and not another woman of the same name? Sometimes the evidence is purely circumstantial, age corresponds, birthplace generally corresponds, witness to the marriage was also on the same ship, place of residence is close to where she may have been. If precise information is available so much the better. We’re nearly home if we have something like parents’ names–and parents’ names for the orphans who disembarked in Port Jackson is exactly what we have. Even then, despite our collection of vital statistics being among the best in the world, especially for Victoria and New South Wales from 1853 and 1856, there are plenty of pitfalls– a husband can give the wrong information at the birth of a child, memory fails, information is unknown, the person providing information for a death certificate is unreliable. If we are fortunate, other sources can point us in the right direction.

Here’s an extract from my research notes to illustrate this. It’s for Margaret Williamson by the Earl Grey. Please excuse the scrawl. The numbers refer to State Records of New South Wales records.’Register’ is ‘Register and applications for orphans’. The second card refers to Birth, Death and Marriage records. Note the different spellings of her husband’s name.

fomargt williamson


Below are some examples of reconstituted orphan families. I put together nearly 300 of these and I believe, had a very low margin of error. Yet, as noted in Barefoot, my results were weighted towards arrivals on the early vessels, and indeed, towards Protestant Northerners; they happened to be easier to find. Another limitation is that in making certain x or y really was an Earl Grey orphan, I searched and used birth records of their children. That tended not take account of childless couples, and hence our measure of the orphans’ fertility was biased. On the other hand, one could argue that after such a cataclysmic disaster as the Famine, the number of childless couples would be small anyway.

Have a look at these examples and see what kind of information can be extracted. There’s demographic information, of course– age at marriage; birth rates; age-specific marital fertility; completed family size; ‘illegitimacy’ rates; age-specific death rates and like. Is there more to see?

The first two examples are courtesy of Margaret Trotter of Wauchope. She sent it to me some time ago; my family reconstitution form was slightly larger in the early days–too big now for my scanner.

Frances Patterson



The second form tells us more about the origins of Frances and her husband.


Frances Patterson per Digby

Robin McNamara has kindly sent some corrections to Frances Patterson’s family reconstitution. Frances died 5 February 1917 aged 83. She has in her records but is unsure of the provenance that a daughter Elizabeth M was born and died in 1855. She will add a comment to this post to clarify things further. (See her comment added to post 8.)


I’ll add these next examples at will. They are in no special order. They should be legible.

 Ann Gordon


Ann Gordon per Pemberton

 Cathy Durkin


Cathy Durkin per Panama

 Dorinda Saltry


Dorinda Saltry per Lady Kennaway

Jane McConkey

fojanemcconkeyearl grey

Jane McConkey per Earl Grey

Cathy Kennedy


Cathy Kennedy per Thomas Arbuthnot

 Margaret Dempsey


Margaret Dempsey per New Liverpool

Mary Casey


Mary Casey per Thomas Arbuthnot

Sarah Devlin

fosarahdevlinearl grey

Sarah Devlin per Earl Grey

There’s also information here that was used for maps that appeared in Barefoot  2 and in the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, pace cartographer Mike Murphy.  Anyone like to try their hand at a bit of demography?

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