Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (73): Addendum, South Australia.

South Australia, some additional material.

 I have just found some more of my research on the orphans sent to South Australia.  You may remember from earlier posts that the Imperial authorities in Britain, recognizing the difference between the colonies, dealt with South Australia separately from New South Wales.  See for example my posts 13 earl-greys-irish-famine-orphans-13 and 16 earl-greys-irish-famine-orphans-16

It looks like my newly surfaced folder consists mainly of British Parliamentary Paper photocopies, and my notes from South Australian archives. A quick glance shows nothing particularly new, just a lot more detail. If you want to search for yourself, your State Library should have copies of the Irish University Press 1,000 volume edition of British Parliamentary Papers. See BPP Colonies Australia vols.11-13. Volume 11 covers Sessions 1849-50, and volume 13 Sessions 1851-2.

You may be able to find the same records online via http://www.dippam.ac.uk/eppi/ or via Trove. Trove, for instance, has put up all the records from AJCP (Australian Joint Copying Project) https://trove.nla.gov.au/result?q=AJCP

Good luck with your search.

It sometimes is forgotten that South Australia dealt independently and directly with the Imperial authorities in Britain. Governor Robe (1845-48) may have been in favour of receiving female orphans from Irish workhouses but his successor Governor Young easily gave way to pressure from locals wanting to end the scheme. Support was only ever reluctant anyway. In reality, Adelaide’s trajectory regarding the Irish workhouse orphans was much the same as Sydney and Melbourne. Though it must be said they were usually quicker off the mark with their initiatives,

such as,

lobbying for an equal, or rather ‘appropriate’, number of ‘young lassies’ from England and Scotland:

registering the complaints from Surgeons on board the orphan ships about their difficulties in dealing with these young women:

“…they were governed by their passions and impulses hence I experienced much difficulty in preventing moral degradation and in establishing and preserving good order”.

SAA GRG 24/6 1848/1763, Col. Secy. Letters received, Eades to Munday, 25 October 1848

showing concern for the interference from the local self-appointed guardians of public morals, who described the ‘Government Location’ (Adelaide depot) as a ‘ Government Brothel’ and whose gossip about the unhygienic or dirty habits or rowdy behaviour of the Irish orphans spread like wild fire in such a small place.

“I allude to the depot at the Native Location for the reception of the female orphans landed upon our shores, where the most disgusting scenes are nightly enacted “.

The South Australian Register, 21 January 1850, p.3.


South Australia differed from the others in deciding it was inexpedient, or too expensive to apply, and police, their newly enacted arrangements for employing the Irish orphans. Thus leaving themselves open to the young women working the system, returning to the Adelaide depot more frequently than might have been the case otherwise. Given that we are talking about a relatively small number of orphans, it astonishes the modern reader to find so much paper, and so many enquiries generated by the Earl Grey scheme.

Adelaide from the South East c.1849 courtesy State Library New South WalesAdelaide 1849a

At the behest of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners and Secretary of State for the colonies, Earl Grey, the Children’s Apprenticeship Board, the South Australian body responsible for the orphans sent circulars to Police Magistrates in 30 different districts asking about the conduct of orphans in their area. Were their orphans good, bad or indifferent? Only fifteen Magistrates replied, and even without allowing for their prejudices, the number described as badly behaved was very small indeed.

A similar survey of prostitutes in and around Adelaide found only 39 prostitutes from the Roman Emperor, the Inconstant and the Elgin, much less than 10 % of the Irish orphan arrivals.

“Kitty unpins her hat and sets it down calmly, patting her henna hair. And a prettier, a daintier head of winsome curls was never seen on a whore’s shoulders”.

(James Joyce, Ulysses)

Despite the results of such surveys, Governor Young’s Despatch (BPP Colonies Australia, vol.13, p.292) dated 2 November 1850 (received 27 March 1851) repeated earlier advice from the Children Apprenticeship Board, “that the labour imported from workhouses is costly, inefficient, and inferior in point of morals and character“. Indeed, South Australia may have led the way in bringing the Earl Grey scheme to an end.

Yet, the Imperial government had begun ending the scheme even before these particular Despatches (2 November and 8 March 1850) from Governor Young  were sent.  As per usual in such cases, Whitehall had passed the buck to the  Irish Poor Law Commissioners and they, somewhat miffed, replied, in their own defense,

…The Commissioners are not prepared…to ascribe these results to the previous defective training of the girls while inmates of the workhouses in Ireland…This emigration commenced in the early part of the year 1848, before the passing of the Act which authorizes the taking of 25 acre farms for the instruction of workhouse children in an improved system of agriculture….in truth, the only knowledge of household work which would have been acquired by girls in those establishments consisted of washing and laundering the workhouse linen, and scouring and dry-rubbing the floors of the dormitories. (BPP Colonies Australia, vol.13, p.349).

It never fails to astonish me how little reference there is to Famine on the pages written by government officials concerned with the Earl Grey scheme. Why was that, i wonder?

What however was reasonably to be expected in the conduct of such an experiment…the Irish Poor Law Commissioners continued …the Irish orphan girls, being naturally quick and apt to learn, would, with patience and forbearance on the part of their employers, acquire a knowledge of their duties, and that if left to feel dependant on their own obedience and good behaviour, they would hold steady to their engagements with their employers… (ibid.)


the depot system set up by the Children’s Apprenticeship Board in Adelaide, the commissioners argued, allowed the orphans to return to the depot too easily, at their own whim and fancy,

It is not to be regarded with surprise that the worse disposed among the emigrants should choose to resort to the society of their companions in an asylum of this nature, rather than submit to the drudgery and the loneliness of a servant’s life in the family of a settler; that they should refuse eligible situations, pleading inability to work; that having gone into service they they should behave themselves insolently and disobediently, and show an unwillingness to learn and perform their duty; and that on remonstrance from their employers they should throw up their service and repair to the asylum with their wages already earned in their possession…(ibid.,p.350)


What the Irish Commissioners recommended was a return to the ‘most rigid principles of workhouse management’! They concluded,

…the experiment of sending Irish orphan girls to the Australian colonies has not received a fair trial in that part of those colonies of which Adelaide is the metropolis; and that while the costliness complained of in the conduct of this experiment was ascribable altogether to the proceedings of the Apprenticeship Board itself, to the same cause also, in a very great degree, must be attributed the inefficiency of the labour imported. (ibid.,p.351)


Ha. It’s your fault, they said, not ours. How mature.

Adelaide West End Hindley St. 1849 courtesy State Library of New South Wales

“My colonial, wardha bagful! A bakereen’s dusind with tithe tillies to boot”.

(James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake)

A reader today may admire public servants’ control of the English language, their wordiness, some might say their logorrhoea, but surely he or she will also ask why did they make no reference to the Famine? Did they think it had no relevance to what they were doing? Were they unaware of what was happening around them? Just how widespread was this lack of awareness about the Famine among different levels of Irish society? Any ideas?

The other thing that strikes a modern observer is that whilst authorities would get into a lather about the instauration, the management and workings, and the effectiveness of the Earl Grey scheme, the young women themselves probably remained unaware of that. They took no notice of such politicking and went about their business as best they could, their own interests being their paramount concern.

Here is an extract of an orphan story taken from my Barefoot vol.2, pp.131-2. It concerns Annie Moore per Roman Emperor. Note she doesn’t mention the Earl Grey scheme at all.

You can find the rest of Annie’s story using trove.nla.gov.au It is available in the Adelaide Observer 15 March 1924, p.46, which has a picture of Annie herself. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/170492644

fyi there is another interesting orphan story drawing attention to the usefulness of DNA testing in the June issue of tintean.org.au


It is called ‘Jane Feeney and DNA’.

9 thoughts on “Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (73): Addendum, South Australia.

  1. Hi Trevor
    Thank you for your amazing site and your decades of research! I’ve been researching my ggg-grandmother Rosina Lynch who was born in Dublin and arrived aboard the Himalaya in Port Phillip (from Plymouth) on 30 September 1840. She was recorded as 20 on embarking and 21 on disembarking, but other later documents suggest she was probably 16/17. She came as a bounty passenger and the bounty passenger rules meant she couldnt come unaccompanied if she was under 18 – so she is recorded as Rosanna Lynch with the older ages. Was it possible she was from a workhouse? Was it likely she was an orphan? I can’t imagine what might have possessed such a young woman to come so far from home otherwise. She married within weeks of arriving, to a man who was not a convict and who appears rarely in records i’ve managed to find so far. His name was Elijah Ealden (Ealden is one of those names that can be spelled many ways). She has a baby with another man several years later and re-marries, declaring her first husband dead. He reappears in the record at Paramatta, destitute and elderly many years later. Do you know about the bounty passengers? could she have been sponsored by her husband to be? Men/soldiers were rowing out to the ship before the quarantine inspectors had been aboard, to get first pick of the most attractive ‘servants’. Was she scooped up off the ship on arrival? Any ideas you have would be really appreciated.


    • Thankyou Michelle.The workhouse system wasn’t established that early in Ireland but it is possible she came from a precursor to the two Dublin workhouses. I doubt that is likely myself.There are literally thousands of young Irish women who came to NSW (which includes Port Phillip in 1840) as Bounty migrants, some sponsored by the Australian Agricultural society, some by large landowners, some by other individuals. They usually had to promise to work for a period of time so Rosanna/Rosina was lucky to escape that obligation , and marry so quickly. May i suggest getting help from your local genealogical society? Lots of people there will be only too willing to help. Some of the books by Liz Rushen, R. B Madgwick, Michael Cannon and the like will have something on the Bounty system. Hard to get to the library in these difficult times? But there is a lot on the web. Best wishes, trevor
      P. S. just noticed your WordPress site Michelle. You are a dab hand at this sort of stuff. You’ll know the importance of having reliable evidence yourself. Best of luck with it.


      • Thank you for taking the time to reply Trevor. I suspected as much but wanted to check in with you. Thanks for your suggestions. I’ll follow them up. I’m in WA which presents it’s own difficulties but I might be able to get to the library. Best wishes. Michelle


  2. Are you able to supply information on the Immigration Depot at East Maitland – or suggest where I might find that information.


    • Steve,
      Did you try typing Maitland Depot into the search box at the end of any post? I seem to remember mentioning something about depots when talking about Immigration Agent Merewether’s correspondence which is in NSW state records. That’s where you might find something. Otherwise try Trove.


      • I have found mention of ‘Immigration Depot, East Maitland’ etc but nothing relating to its location, street or building.
        I am trying to find out where it was situated specifically. No luck with Trove yet so State Library might be my next point of call.
        Also trying to establish location of and whether ‘Moontown’ East Maitland has any relevance to the Immigration Depot.


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