Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (63): a couple of questions


a dog’s breakfast

I’m afraid this is just bits and pieces, some more chunky than others. I intend posing some questions,

Why is there such an interest in family history in [Australia]? Enter whatever term you wish instead of “Australia”.

What are some of the problems in identifying the Earl Grey orphans who arrived in Port Phillip?

And for those wanting more on their orphan’s Irish background, what’s available for researchers?


Over twenty years ago when researching my chapter in Irish Women in Colonial Australia, I visited the Kingston Centre in Melbourne. I was looking for records of the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum. Sadly, few records have survived. Yet the keeper of the records, Sandy Forster, told me how much family history helped with the rehabilitation and palliative care of those in the Centre. It was wonderful to hear that. I hope it still helps patients in the Hospital. That’s one good reason for encouraging family history.

For background to the Kingston Centre, see http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au/htm/article/302.htm

Why do so many people become hooked on the family history line? Is the following a major reason? A member of my own family told the story of a relative from overseas standing in the middle of a road and saying, “so this is where I come from”.  That is, the perennial search for “roots”.

What is the attraction of family history or genealogy? Not everyone is so smitten, me being a case in point. Maybe readers would share the reasons for their own interest? Or try giving an answer to the first question above? Or explain the appeal of the Irish Famine orphans?

I’ve made suggestions about writing orphans’ stories throughout this blog. You may like to refresh your memory of some of them. See the post titled ‘Where to from here?’ https://wp.me/p4SlVj-Gf

Or for some specific examples, the refulgent history of Bridget McMahon from Rathkeale, Co. Limerick, https://wp.me/p4SlVj-PV

or the story of ‘Belfast Girl’ Mary McConnell, https://wp.me/p4SlVj-LL

Maybe you can find something there to act as template for your own orphan ‘girl’?

Port Phillip arrivals: some problems

Some of the excellent research done on the Port Phillip orphans since my efforts last century can be viewed at http://wiki.prov.vic.gov.au/i,ndex.php/Irish_Famine_Orphan_Immigration

Was this the work of Christine O’Donnell at the Public Records Office of Victoria?

What’s been achieved since my own and Ada Ackerley’s efforts in the 1980s and 1990s is now on the database at http://www.irishfaminememorial.org/orphans/database/

But let me take you back to some of the issues i had when i began. Most of them are still relevant.

Without an orphan’s parents’ names, how did i know i had identified an Earl Grey orphan correctly?  When i first used Victorian birth, death and marriage records, for example, i began with what i thought were ‘distinctive ‘names; Sarah Totten, Susan Sprouls, Mary Birmingham, Arabella Kelly, Dorinda Saltry, for example. Maybe i was influenced by my own name. It’s much easier searching for trevor mcclaughlin, with the extra ‘c’, than it is for trevor mclaughlin.

Obviously other things were involved in identifying Port Phillip orphans. I looked at their place of origin, their age, the address of their employer, if their shipmates witnessed their wedding and the birth of their children, that kind of thing. How many of these could i line up? Did i have enough evidence to say i had ‘found’ one of the “lost children” or was there an act of faith involved? These are questions still worth posing, i believe, especially for anyone ‘discovering’ a famine orphan in their family tree.

Here are a couple of my research cards when i was working with Victorian vital statistics. You can imagine the ‘fun’ i had. I still believe i achieved a high degree of accuracy for the Victorian orphans especially in the first volume of Barefoot and Pregnant?

Presumably in working back through your own family history the level of certainty increases. A direct ancestral line may convince you that is all you need. But does that mean you should have no doubts at all? The sheer number of Irish women arriving in Port Phillip as assisted immigrants during the 1850s may be problematic.

Common names

Look at how many ‘Mary Howes’ or ‘Mary McGraths’ arrived in Port Phillip shortly after the orphans arrived, for example. https://prov.vic.gov.au/explore-collection/explore-topic/passenger-records-and-immigration/assisted-passenger-lists

That particular example may not apply to you personally but it surely does to many, to the Kellys, Egans, Connells, Reillys, McNamaras, Murphys, Byrnes, Ryans and Dunns to name a few?


Especially when we remember how iffy an orphan’s age could be. Kay Caball explains it in one of her blogposts https://mykerryancestors.com/kerry-19th-century/

“Very few Irish people knew (or even cared about) their exact year/date of birth. Even when they wrote down a definite date, that was just a guess.  They weren’t trying to fool anyone or be evasive, it was just never of any importance at home and only on emigration did it become necessary in the new country for identification purposes.”

Other tripwires

What if your orphan’s ‘native place’ recorded on a shipping list differs more than once from that recorded at the birth of her children (as in the Margaret Sheedy example below)? What if she marries more than once, or takes the name of her ‘de facto’ husband? Or constructs a new identity for herself? Or adopts an alias to escape from the law?

Now our orphan has become more elusive, raising questions and leaving us with more and more room for error. She is slipping through our fingers. We all should be willing to check the evidence we have, question ourselves, identify when we have made ‘a leap of faith’ because we want such and such to be true, or desire an Irish Orphan in our family tree. Sometimes we just do not have the certainty or evidence we would like. In the end, it is up to us to be honest with ourselves.


Irish sources

There are still an number of things keeping me close to the Famine orphans; a historian’s interest in the subject, naturally, a desire to help Australians find more about their Earl Grey orphan ancestors, and stronger than ever, an interest in helping refugees through the outreach programme associated with  http://www.irishfaminememorial.org

“Concern and fear are clear in the eyes of the young Rohingya boy. He looks around the group with his dark eyes, looks around with his almond-shaped eyes, searching for potential sanctuary in the faces of strangers”. (from Behrouz Boochani, No Friend but the Mountains, Picador, 2018, p. 87.)

Lately a number of people have approached me for help finding out more about the Irish background of their orphan. So here is a bit more of that dog’s breakfast. I’ll use examples from my research cards above. And I’ll be going back over some of the things said previously .

Here’s the first case, Margaret Sheedy from Clonmel per New Liverpool.

Margaret was to marry fellow Irishman Daniel Corbett shortly after arriving, and together they had ten children. She lived her short life as a farmer’s wife in Kilmore. She died aged 36 or 37, a month after the birth of her last child, a little boy called Thomas.

From the family reconstitution form below Margaret is listed as having come from Limerick–Tipperary, reflecting what was stated at the registration of the birth of some of her children. In the excerpt from the database, and indeed on the New Liverpool shipping list, her place of origin is Clonmel, Tipperary. If we want to know more about Margaret’s Irish background that would be a good place to start.

  • Surname : Sheedy
  • First Name : Margaret
  • Age on arrival : 15 or 16
  • Native Place : Clonmel, Tipperary
  • Parents : Not recorded
  • Religion : Roman Catholic
  • Ship name : New Liverpool (Melbourne 1849)
  • Workhouse : Tipperary, Clonmel
    Other : shipping: house servant, cannot read or write; probably sister of Ellen; Clonmel PLU 14 Apr 1849, BG67/A/9 p.257 list of 28 orphan girls about to leave the workhouse, includes Margaret Sheedy, aged 18, left workhouse on 18 Apr 1849; Empl. Henry H Nash, Stephen St., £8, 6 months; married Daniel Corbett, 23 May 1851, Melbourne; husband a farmer; 10 children; lived Kilmore; she died 12 Sep 1870, one month after the birth of her last child.

Note the reference to Clonmel Board of Guardian records. This is one of the many workhouse records held in Irish repositories. As per my last post, post 62, my first port of call is Peter Higginbotham’s great website. See http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Clonmel/

Even if Peter no longer gives details of what sources have survived, his site is still a mine of information. Click on the “Tipperary Studies” link at the bottom of that page, and may i wish you good luck with your hunting and exploring? If you are thinking of making a trip to Ireland one day, make sure you find where the records are stored, and write to the relevant library beforehand.

Clonmel Board of Guardian Minute books are exceptional in that they include the names of famine orphans who came to Australia. That is rarely the case elsewhere. Yet they will always take you into the world ‘your’ orphan occupied in the days before she left Ireland.

Here is what appears on that page (257) in the Clonmel workhouse Board of Guardian Minute Books,

“Names of twenty-eight females who have emigrated from this Union on the 18th April 1849,

Ellen Sheedy 16 years, Katherine Dunne, 16, Margaret Walsh, 16, Margaret Greene, 17, Margaret Sheedy, 18, Mary Ann Butler, 17, Bridget Gearon, 18, Mary Goggin*, 18, Catherine Ryan, 18, Catherine Hickey, 19, Bridget Flynn*, 18, Margaret Purcell, 18, Mary Murphy*, 19, Margaret Dyer, 18, Ellen Preston*, 18, Anne Gillard, 19, Ellen Nugent, 17, Mary Ryan, 16, Mary Noonan, 17, Margaret Dempsey, 19, Katherine Castell*, 16, Margaret Hughes, 17, Bridget McDermott, 16, Mary Grady*, 18, Honora Farrell, 16, Ellen Fraher, 17.

NB. Number 28 on this list Ellen Fraher is the person to make up the twenty-eighth emigrant to go. Her certificate has already been sent amongst the thirty two. I now send a certificate for Mary Murphy to replace that of Mary Farrell the latter having declined to go and Mary Murphy being now sent in her place. The general certificate of health will be taken tomorrow by the Ward Master in charge.

The six marked with an asterisk had smallpox. The rest were vaccinated. Thomas Scully, Medical Officer.

Names of female emigrants approved of to go from Clonmel Union workhouse by the next opportunity: Bridget Farrell, age, 18, Alice Crotty, 15, Judith Crotty, 17, Margaret Long, 19, Mary Crimmin, 17, Katherine Ryan, 17, (Mary Ann Willis*), 15, Judith Shugrue, 18.

There are several other females in the workhouse eligible and wiling to go, and for whom the guardians are satisfied to defray the expenses of outfit etc when sanctioned by the Commissioners”.

What I’d do next is have a look for Margaret’s baptism in parish records. Maybe she was born in Clonmel St. Mary’s https://registers.nli.ie/parishes/1102

or in Clonmel Ss Peter and Paul. But alas the baptismal records that survived for this parish begin in 1836.

Or try contacting a local historical society to see if anyone might help. They’d be only too willing I’m sure and would be a great help in finding out more about the Famine in Clonmel and surrounds. That workhouse.org website mentioned above will direct us to the excellent Tipperary Historical Society for example.

That is enough for now. I’m tempted to put this in the rubbish bin. I’ll continue another time.

Btw, The featured image of this post is the cover of The Great Famine. Irish Perspectives, edited by John Gibney, Pen & Sword History, 2018, isbn 9781526736635. They’ve given me a promotion.

18 thoughts on “Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (63): a couple of questions

  1. Hi Trevor. In regards to your first question, I think you are either born curious about your heritage or you are not – the world seems to be (unevenly) divided between those two groups. And trying to convey your excitement to a family member who isn’t at all interested is generally a pointless exercise. In regards to the orphan’s parents, I was so lucky to have my Margaret Ryan’s (Pemberton) exact age, in years, months and days written on her death certificate, and her parents names, that when I went to Dublin a couple of years ago, I was able to find her birth certificate quite easily. Turns out she was born in Roscrea, one of twins, her brother being called Patrick. Just very lucky having that information available.


      • Yes Trevor. Kevin has done some great research on the Murray line. Thanks for the tip on Roscrea – I will chase that up. Thanks for all your great work too.


  2. I think the need to discover my history comes from the fact that in Australia our history is short. Anglo Saxon history that is. 200 years is not long. When I went to England and I couldn’t believe the history and how far back it went and I wanted to find the place where I could belong. Not sure if that exactly makes sense but I think we’re made up of people here who came from all corners of the Earth and when they came here they seemd to leave the past well and truly behind.. and so we know little of what their lives were before and it intrigues me to know where did I really come from? what were the people like and how did I come to be who I am?
    Unfortunately for me my Irish orphan ancestor supposedly came from Tipperary and yet is not mentioned in any of the documents above or any that the Tipperary Historical Society could share with me so I still wonder about her life and I guess I always will.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kaye, Did you ask the History Society what life was like during the Famine in Tipperary town and in the countryside around? you may be able to build up a picture of conditions that affected people generally, was it a fertile area? what kind of housing was there? what work did people do? that kind of thing, that is, to construct a context into which your imagination can place her. You might even think of a fictional account that is based on a historical reality. Unfortunately Paul Lynch’s “Grace” goes nowhere near Tipperary but you might find it inspirational nonetheless. best of luck with it.


  3. That’s interesting that the Benevolent Asylum records were looked for. I have a second great uncle who died in Cheltenham. He’s actually the son of my Earl Grey ancestor. I can’t find where he was buried.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Kel and Trevor. Access to 19th century Melbourne Benevolent Asylum records in State Library Victoria is restricted because they are fragile and arranged in a complex way which requires some expertise to search. Library staff can conduct a search for a person if you give as much information as you can, including name, any alternative names (e.g. aliases, variant spellings, etc.), date and place of death. If the death certificate states that the person died in the Asylum make sure to mention this. Send your enquiry online: go to http://www.slv.vic.gov.au , click on the Ask A Librarian link at the top of the homepage and fill out the enquiry form. Expect to receive a reply in about two weeks. The admission and death registers in the collection give basic details about inmates, including the sort of information required for death certificates. They will not help with finding burials. They are not detailed case histories but they may add a little colour to your story. Good luck! Cheers Shona

        Liked by 1 person

      • Many thanks Shona. That’s great. Tanya Evans made excellent use of the Sydney Benevolent asylum records in her “Fractured Families”, and Julie Poulter did so also for her own orphan ancestor and her work on Orphans on the streets of Sydney. Maybe one day there will be a copy (photographic and digital) of the Melbourne records too. We can only hope. Thanks again. I’ll alert people to the Chris Walsh link you’ve provided, if that’s ok. Thanks again. Best wishes for the new year.


  4. Indigenous inhabitants History notwithstanding, all other Australians are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants from elsewhere within the last 230 years. I think we’re all just trying to answer the one question, “Where do we come from?” For me, combining a sourced and documented Paper trail (accumulated over the last 30 years), with DNA matches, gives me a greater chance of pinpointing individuals or family groups to a particular region at any given point in time. Sometimes amazing things are discovered. Recent DNA testing of a group of 4 persons found in a grave on a farm at Sílastaðir in Iceland (discovered quite some years ago) found that I am directly related along the Y-DNA Male line to one of the Male “specimens”, and the Isotopes of that individual indicates they were born in either Scotland or Ireland (a Viking Settlement most likely) approximately 1,000 – 1,100 years ago. My Mum was adopted, but we managed to find that her direct descendant, Ellen Hurley came to Australia on the Eliza Caroline in 1850. History in itself is fascinating; to know that your flesh and blood passed through these places at those distant times, absolutely blows my Mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My GG Grandmother, Margaret Hill came to Adelaide in 1849 on the Elgin. She stayed n South Australia for 7 years then travelled to Melbourne on the coastal ship Burra Burra where she married my gg grandfather Patrick McGrath and bore him 6 sons, I have the marriage certificate. She left them and worked for farmer Wise at Black Dog Creek near Rutherglen where she took arsenic and died. I have her death certificate and a copy of the inquest into her death. I do not know why she did this. Pauline Haldane.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps one of the reasons why Australians pursue their Ancestry is because so many of us came as refugees, migrants. We often had to cut all ties with our homelands and families due to all sorts of extenuating circumstances including war. There was also the simple fact that those of us with parents who had fled war found it impossible to ask about the lives they had left behind; my own mother’s family were a prime example – when Ceylon became Independent in 1949 Europeans who had been there for some 400 years were made to feel unwelcome. By the 1950’s and 60’s they knew they had to ‘move on.’ They left but with the barest minimum (100 pounds sterling and a few possessions) emigrating mostly to Canada, America, Australia and England; life in these countries was so terribly different from what they had been used to they simply ‘shut the door.’ In applying to emigrate to Australia we had to prove we were ‘five generations white’ to comply with the white Australia Policy. The distinction was ridiculous because although not in my family but a friend’s, in spite of them proving they were ‘white enough’ she was accepted because she was blonde, fair skinned and blue eyed, her brother was refused because he had brown hair, eyes and an olive skin. my generation, Baby Boomers are seeking our history but our parents are almost all gone; anyone born in Sri Lanka since 1949 is Sri Lankan; anyone, like my son born in Australia, Canada etc are ‘natives’ of their birth country. Once my generation of those born in Ceylon dies the ‘Dutch Burghers’ which is what the British termed us when they invaded Ceylon in 1796 will no longer exist….. As a 70+ Dutch Burgher myself I find this extremely poignant

        Liked by 1 person

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