Earl Grey’s Irish Famine orphans (30): what’s involved in writing orphan stories


St Stephen's Green, Dublin: Famine sculpture detail
St Stephen’s Green, Dublin: Famine sculpture detail

I wonder why we need to assess the contribution of the orphans to Australia. Is it just something historians do, deluded fools that we are? There have been a number of attempts already. The orphans were workhouse refuse/deadwood tipped out on poor unsuspecting colonists by British imperialists. Or were they ‘mothers to the Australian character’ whose ‘descendants enjoyed opportunities unheard of in Ireland’? There’s a great array of views about the orphans’ history on the Irish Famine memorial website that are worth pondering, at http://www.irishfaminememorial.org/en/events/  I wonder if speeches made at the Melbourne annual gathering in November are also available. Does anyone know?

I’ve even dabbled a little myself in the past, in the introduction to Barefoot and Pregnant?, volume one, in the magazine, History Ireland in 2000, and in the description of the Earl Grey scheme on the Irish Famine memorial website. See for example the penultimate paragraph at http://www.irishfaminememorial.org/en/history/earl-grey-scheme I’d probably still hold to these views. Elsewhere, I’ve suggested we be wary of too sentimental a treatment of the orphans’ lives.

As Tanya Evans reminded me, I even posed one of those intractable questions a long time ago; ‘were the orphans disproportionately represented among the criminal classes, in suicide records, or among the inmates of destitute and mental asylums’? One might surmise that since the orphans lacked the same family support networks as other immigrants, they were more at risk of falling on hard times. Their demographic history, too,–many of them married older men and had long years of widowhood–may have increased their chance of ending up in an institution, later in life.

On one of my research trips to Melbourne, financed by Macquarie University, i searched for orphans among prison records. In the Public Record Office of Victoria there was a Central Register of Female prisoners at VPRS 516 and a Prisoner’s Personal Description Register at VPRS 521. They were in a very fragile condition and soon became only available on microfiche, thank goodness. Here’s the sort of thing I noted down,

PROV VPRS 521 vol 1  No 7 Catherine Ellis Lady Kennaway 1848 b. 1835 5’1″slender fair complexion dark brown hair grey eyes received into gaol 1 January-14 January 1851

ditto No 129 Amelia Nott New Liverpool 1849 b. 1827 Free three convictions drunk slender fresh complexion dark brown hair grey eyes neither read nor write two small scars on bridge of nose b Jersey RC married servant 20 October 1854 For medical treatment

ditto No 133 Susan Stewart Pemberton 1850 b. 1834 two previous drunk stout fair brown hair hazel eyes reads and writes imperfectly 5′ 2½” scar upper lip and right hand Ireland Catholic single idle and disorderly 1 calendar month 15/2-15/3/1856

ditto No 833 Mary Ann Tyrell Roman Emperor 1848 1835 once before 4″8½” Ireland Catholic married

You will appreciate the kind of problem this poses. Did some orphans deliberately provide false information or genuinely forget details of their arrival? What if we find no record of their marriage? Can we be sure this really is an Earl Grey orphan? Some of the examples above would appear to be so. But how many overall went to gaol? What percentage of the total? Were they in gaol only for a short period of their lives, or often, over the years?

If we go looking for orphans in institutions, in prisons, benevolent asylums, mental hospitals and the like, of course we will find them. But what we do here, and I think I’ve mentioned this before, is add the bias of expectation to the bias of the sources we use. We distort our view of things by focussing one-eyed on this aspect of the orphans’ history.

Still, it is important that we get an idea of how many orphans experienced such a life. I encourage anyone working in this area to continue doing so. If i remember correctly, Julie Poulter is researching orphans who went to Darlinghurst gaol in Sydney, in a thesis she is doing at the University of New England. Maybe people looking at these things will be willing to share their findings? I could include what you want to say in these blog posts. At least I think that is possible. I’m not sure how many people actually read the comments at the end of each post.


A similar caveat applies to my own painstaking family reconstitutions. They are weighted towards the orphans who generally lived in stable, life-long relationships here in Australia. That too may be a distortion of how we perceive the orphans’ contribution to Australian society. Nonetheless I shall continue using them. I intend appending more to this post. They are an important means of helping us write orphan family histories. And the more family histories we have, the greater the empirical data we have to assess what happened to the Earl Grey orphans in Australia. They will ‘thicken’ our description, an anthropologist might say.


The common ground between family historians, professional genealogists and academic historians is sometimes a tricky one to negotiate. I particularly admire those who treat each other with tact and sensitivity. And worry that my own steel-capped boots will damage too many metaphorical shins. Yet for Earl Grey orphan histories to flourish, may I suggest cooperation is essential? Tanya Evans treats some of the issues I have in mind in her recent Fractured Families, and resolves them with what she calls ‘shared authority’. Do have a look. Yet surely we also need to identify where the professional historian’s advice influenced your personal family history?

Let me outline some of my own concerns.

  1. What’s the best way to ask family historians how they confirmed there is an Irish female orphan in their family? There was, after all, an enormous number of young Irish females arriving in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in the early 1850s. Are you sure ‘your’ Mary Kelly, Cathy Kennedy or Mary Ryan  is the one who came to Port Phillip in 1849 on the Pemberton, and you’re not just making a leap of faith?

And to extend this a bit further, how do we know that this second or third or fourth marriage is our orphan’s? Can we be sure that this is her changing her name more than once? Reading orphan descendants write about frequent remarriages and name changes has really interesting implications. Did women at the exposed and vulnerable end of Australian society in the nineteenth century have to use these survival strategies, or life strategies, in order to get by? What kind of life must they have led? My not having read much about this sort of thing before is simply a fault of my own. Has much/anything been written about it already, does anyone know? The work of Shurlee Swain comes to mind.

    2. What if I discover something a family historian may not like to hear, that that orphan descendant beat his wife relentlessly, that that one molested children or that daughter was locked away in a mental institution for more than forty years? What other disturbing factor could there be…that she was constantly drunk and abandoned her children to an Industrial school?…that she committed infanticide…that she was found lying drunk, her baby on the floor crying, neglected, hungry, lying in her own excrement? Maybe you can accept and acknowledge these things. Or maybe you are tempted to leave it out of your family history. As Alison Light put it, we don’t have to like our ancestors. But what if one person in the family objects to such things being publicized in their family history? Or perhaps there is disagreement over an interpretation you’ve made. Does that mean it should be censored, or even shelved? I’d love to hear your view.

The opposite is also the case. Let’s say you wish to extol the virtues of your pioneering family. It may be unintended but the word ‘pioneer’ carries with it a triumphalist view of history, and a tendency to ‘write Aboriginal people out’ of the story. See the essay by J. B Hirst in Historical Studies in 1978.

  3. Or what if it is as simple as someone objecting, “You can’t say that. No ancestor of mine was ever in a workhouse.” It has happened before.  It may even be an objection to something you include about the Famine. “The charge of culpable neglect of the consequences of policies leading to mass starvation is also indisputable.” (Peter Gray quoted in  D. P. Nally’s Human Encumbrances, p 226). Should one therefore cut that bit from the family history?

‘On you go now! Run, son, like the devil

And tell your mother to try

To find me a bubble for the spirit level

And a new knot for this tie.’  

(Seamus Heaney, The Errand in The Spirit Level)

I saved some material on my computer sent to me by orphan descendants some years ago. I must try getting in touch again, if they are still with us, D.G., as my friend Tom Power would say. I could begin by putting together a draft of a family history, ask for their input, and  show them the draft. If they gave their consent, I could then put it into the blog. I have a sense of these orphan family histories as more of a beginning than an end.

In the meantime I’ll put up some more FAMILY RECONSTITUTIONS. I’d like to return to them at a later date to suggest ways they can be used in a family history. I’ve made a selection of orphans who went to South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. And in order to emphasize the need for cooperation, I’ve gone back to some originals where orphan descendants filled out one of my forms as best they could, and I was able to add a bit more information, having worked in BDM records.

First some family reconstitutions from New South Wales and South Australia. More to follow. Double click or pinch to make these larger.

fomarymcconnellearl grey

To be continued…

key to blogs is at http://wp.me/p4SlVj-oE

15 thoughts on “Earl Grey’s Irish Famine orphans (30): what’s involved in writing orphan stories

    • Hi Trevor.
      Thank you for this blog. It is very informative.
      One of the records you have included on this post is of Jane Bell who (if records are correct) is my 3rd great grandmother.
      There is an historical fiction book written by a descendant (No time for tears by Alan Watchman) but I a not sure how much of that is correct. For example the book has Jane raised in Co Fermanagh, whereas the monument in Sydney and related database has Jane coming from Co Antrim?
      Either way it is a great tale.


      • Hi Damon,
        My first reference to Jane was in vol 1 of Barefoot & Pregnant? (1991) It was from information supplied by Ann Watchman in the late 1980s and i suspect that family reconstitution form in the post was from Ann as well. She must be some relation of Alan’s. On the form she says Jane was born in “Ulster, Northern Ireland”. Maybe ask Perry where the info about Jane on the database came from? There’s a contact link on the website. I haven’t seen Alan’s book. Does he say where the info about Jane being raised in Fermanagh comes from? Officially there were about 15 orphans from Clogher on board the Roman Emperor. Looks like you may have a bit of sleuthing to do. Best wishes, trevor


  1. Trevor, Your project and questions have a lot in common with my thesis about unemployed people. Mine is not a public document so I don’t have the issues about relatives (although many have helped me with information) but I have grappled with many of your questions about representation, and the fact that those with the worst lives and outcomes feature heavily in the archives, but those who had uneventful or ‘good’ lives tread lightly on the historical record. It’s not right to represent ‘my’ unemployed with the stories of the bad and the ugly, just as it is not right to whitewash their lives or portray them as all being radicals. The fact is that they were all individuals, not a homgeneous group “the unemployed” as they have been portrayed for over 120 years. In the end I have taken the approach of using life stories – good and bad – to represent different aspects of life (religion, family, work, community connection etc) and portray them as people who exercised a great deal of agency and engagement within their communities in negotiating unemployment and poverty and taking into account whether that was a success or a failure. I have kept away from hard and fast findings that pigeon hole people as there were general trends, but in the end I was dealing with 400 individual families, not just the generalised “working-class” or the “poor”. Specific findings regarding representation are difficult to make unless you have a comparative database of non-orphans or a really detailed census. In my case I couldn’t argue from a negative as I had no corresponding database of employed people as I couldn’t prove that someone was never unemployed and it wasn’t possible to set up another database of 400 families to use in comparison. The trends and general findings were only able to be found as I used the 1891 census as a comparative aid. It’s a pretty big call to “assess the contribution of the orphans to Australia”. Perhaps a gentler approach could be considered as I feel that you will find it difficult to find direct association between being an orphan and any life events. Of course you can make lots of suggestions regarding lack of family support etc as I have done but that’s what I mean by a gentler approach. I was lucky with many of my findings as it isn’t difficult to say e.g. unemployment=poverty=pauper burial. Other things were more difficult. Was it the 12 months of unemployment and subsequent poverty, the lack of skills and education, or the drunkard husband that caused a woman to take her own life or end up in a benevolent asylum? I think it’s not as much to do with a person’s situation (unemployed or orphan) but what they do with that situation. If we don’t take that view we assume that being an orphan or being unemployed defines and controls a person’s entire life. I’ve found that was rarely the case as there were always other factors involved and things like unemployment or lack of family support don’t exist in isolation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Trevor, a timely post, I’ve been asking myself the same question lately – why tell these stories? I keep going back to a quote of yours that I have on my website, that they’re “a group of underprivileged and destitute young women whose voices are so rarely heard on the historical stage”. I just think it’s important to tell their stories. But yes, you have to tread lightly and respect descendants, but at the same time be as accurate as you can, and slso examine documents for what they don’t state explicitly – something you’ve also written about before. I’m really trying to make sure that any connections/stories I find are correct – but often a lingering doubt might still exist. Examining girls from a geographical area has certainly revealed the full range of experiences – from those who fell through the cracks, to those who had long lives and many descendants – and of course so many that are still so elusive whose stories I’m still to uncover. It’s a fascinating journey. Thanks again for your blogposts, they always give me plenty of food for thought. Regards, Barbara

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Trevor, I have been on a bit of lazy holiday since I completed my history degree last May and have not done any further research on the orphan girls but do plan to in the near future. Please let me know how to contact you via email and I can send you the information I gathered during my research project on the girls who were sent to Darlinghurst gaol. Cheers, Julie

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Greetings Trevor

    Winifred Callaghan (ship Maria, 1850), Mrs R P Burgess, was apparently after his death “in gaol at Wellington” according to the Orphanage records for her younger children. I can’t find a paperspast record of this, but occasionally I do another trawl of the Internet. (Winifred remarried, and didn’t reoffend.)

    So it is unsurprising that her daughter Gertrude, b 1860 and 3.5 years old when her father died, then reared in the Orphanage system where life was tough, if not as bad as the childhood her mother had, stole brooches and the like and saw the inside of cells herself, before dying at 20 of Tuberculosis.

    Statistically, this is almost unavoidable. “The law, with magnificent impartiality, forbids rich and poor alike . . .”

    NB: the first lot of orphanage records are missing, and the information I have starts from the move to another building in 1870. I don’t know how long the children were with their mother before they went into the Orphanage(s), but there are charity handout records for some months. An admission date of 1868 is possible, from correspondence re Gertrude going out to work.

    Also: Win remarried to Sydney Dyer in November 1868, and in mid 1870 is living in Napier (North Island) with her second husband and last child Elizabeth (not his). The dates don’t work for me. It’s possible she never was in gaol . . . At some unknown date they all three move to Australia. Elizabeth has HORDES of descendants.

    Winifred is my Grandfather’s grandmother. If you need any bits of information for your continued work in this area, I’m happy to help. And re your thoughts on how many toes to tread on, I believe a context is all that’s needed. “Because they were poor . . . . “ “Because she had no family nearby to help her . . . “


    (Long time fan, first time responder.)

    Migs (Margaret) Eder

    A nation is an association of reasonable beings united in the peaceful sharing of the things they cherish; therefore to determine the quality of a nation, you must consider what those things are.” – St Augustine, in The City of God XIX, 24.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Migs I’ve recently sent you a message asking if you have taken a DNA test on Ancestry.com, if you are margieeder and you have, please let me know asap. Would be very interested in learning more about all of this. any responsie is appreciated. I am in the U.S. my family tree originated in Pennsylvania, in the 1700 and 1800’s


      • Greetings Bobry – I’ve recently taken a test on MyHeritage, very interesting. My email has never been margie, sorry. But you’ll get a lot of payoff from your test, it;’s just a question of how soon. best wishes – migs


  5. Congratulations Trev, you are a bundle of energy. I hope you put all this in a book soon.

    Thanks for the visit last Sunday. Very entertaining,

    Love to you both


    Liked by 1 person

  6. The contributions of the orphans to Australia is much more than the lives they themselves lead, and should be measured over the many succeeding generations, up even until today. I am a descendant, and in my family line as descendants there have been people who have made significant and important contributions to Australia, and have become notable people in their own right, and there are others who lived quite ordinary and yet productive lives raising families and enhancing the communities in which they lived, loved and ultimately died. There were low points as well, and yet the sum of the contributions is immeasurable because each descendant has in some small way played a part in shaping Australia and its society. If we value what we are today, then all of the orphans, good and bad, deserve some of the credit.

    Liked by 1 person

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