Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (13): Government preparations for their arrival

Government Preparations again

I’m not sure how best to proceed. Here’s one possible plan.

(a) Imperial and colonial government preparations

(b) arrival and early days of the young women in Australia

(c) opposition to and the end of the ‘ Earl Grey scheme’

(d) NSW government enquiry of 1858-9.

Maybe start with that.

And after that, what? I have a few ideas–maybe life stories of a number of the orphans, maybe inter-generational family histories of some of them, or an examination of orphans in different regions–the Illawarra and Hunter valley in New South Wales, the gold fields and Western Victoria, the Moreton Bay district, town compared with country, or perhaps something on the orphans in South Australia, about which I know very little. We shall see, what we shall see. Such is life, as one or two Irish-Australians once put it.

It is important that I take this one small bite at a time.

“We must work & play and John Jacob Niles

will sing our souls to rest

(in his earlier-78 recordings).

Tomorrow we’ll do our best, our best,

tomorrow we’ll do our best”.

(John Berryman, The Home Ballad.)


Depending on the sources used, the Earl Grey female orphan scheme will appear in a very different light. Here, I want to look at government’s point of view using British Parliamentary Papers, especially those available in hard copy. (I’ve used the thousand volume Irish Universities Press version, especially the volumes entitled Colonies. Australia, volumes 11 and 12. Sometimes I much prefer holding a book in my hand to reading a digitised text online). Adventurers, though, might want to explore,


Viewing the Earl Grey female orphan scheme from a government position is a very different perspective from that of its opponents in Australia, and different again from the young women themselves, or that of present-day family historians.

Government Planning

First then, a government perspective: its interest was to present the scheme as positively as it could. [e.g. Governor H.E.F. Young’s report on the Roman Emperor, 9th General report of Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners (CLEC) Appendix 18, HC 1849[1082]22 1– “the first twenty who entered into service conducted themselves so creditably as to create a feeling as much in favour of the emigrants as it had been before adverse“.]

The British Imperial government was very thorough. Its plan, instigated with the approval of its representatives in the Australian colonies, and despite a long communications turn-around time of six months or more, is testimony to its forward planning skills. Yet no matter how good the forward planning, in practice, the scheme was always a work in progress; who should choose teachers or religious instructors for orphans on board ship? should surgeons on board orphan ships be paid more? where do we get a supply of Douay Bibles? These things were all arranged in piecemeal fashion, as the scheme progressed. How well things worked out in practice, however, would not always be in control of the government.

Grey did not intend ‘imposing’ Irish workhouse orphans on the Australian colonies. His government’s representatives in Australia told him the colonies would welcome an influx of marriageable female labour. His major concern was to meet colonial demands for labour by renewing large-scale government-assisted emigration. The female orphan scheme was but a part of this. In their covering letter to the under secretary for the Colonial Department, 17 February 1848, the Colonial land and Emigration Commissioners CLEC) emphasized, re- the orphans, that “Lord Grey is well aware of the necessity which exists for preserving the proportions of the sexes in any large emigration to a new country. Single men willing to emigrate are to be found in abundance”. This too was a major concern.

Let me further illustrate just how meticulous and detailed Grey’s plan was by returning to two of my earlier posts, posts 2 and 3 in particular, where I outlined the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners’ proposal, dated 17 February 1848. (See the Eppi link above).

Some similarities and some differences between New South Wales and South Australian colonial government arrangements

Remember the colony of Victoria, as it later became, was still part of New South Wales between 1848 and 1850, i. e. during the female orphan scheme; Victoria did not ‘separate’ from New South Wales until 1851. Remember, too, that South Australia was different again: that colony had a different Governor, different laws and different ways of doing things. Grey was obliged to ‘communicate’ separately with them both.

Charles Augustus Fitzroy. Governor of New South Wales

Charles Augustus Fitzroy. Governor of New South Wales in 1855. Courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

Gov H Young1850

Henry Fox Young, Governor of South Australia from in 1850. Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia

Gov Latrobe engraving

Superintendent Charles J La Trobe, later Governor of Victoria. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria

Here is the extract from the CLEC proposal mentioned above that I posted last August. Allow me to develop these. They are worth a careful reading.

6. The Governor will be directed on the arrival of these Emigrants in the Colony to make such arrangements in regard to their employment as may be most to their benefit, according to their age and circumstances.

7. Every pains will be taken to find the Emigrants respectable Employers– when their age and circumstances render it fitting, they will be bound Apprentices, under Laws which are in force in the Colonies. It will be stipulated that fair wages shall be paid by the Employers, according to the current rate prevailing in the district; and after deducting such portion as may be required to pay for clothes, and other current expenses, the remainder of their wages will be reserved, to be given to them at the expiration of the Contract, or…at their marriage, provided it be approved by the Government, or by the Committee appointed to act on its behalf. A power will be retained of forfeiting the reserved wages of any of the Children who may abscond, or whose indentures may be cancelled for misconduct. 

8. The Governors of New South Wales and South Australia, will be directed to appoint a Committee in each Colony, at which they will request the cooperation of the Bishop of Australia and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, and in South Australia, of the Bishop of Adelaide and the Roman Catholic Bishop, to see that these stipulations are duly observed by the Employers… This might appear to be wishful thinking i.e. giving such Committees  powers which  in practice they could never police to the full. How could they, once the young women went into the hinterland? But they nonetheless went to great lengths to make it work. In a Despatch (Earl Grey to Sir C. A. Fitzroy, Governor of New South Wales, 28 February 1848, even before the Irish Government approved the scheme) Grey expressed his hope that not only prelates of the Anglican and Catholic churches would consent to serve on the Committee “but also some of the leading clergymen of the other denominations”. In addition, he suggested the Committee ask for applications for servants from “the most respectable persons in different parts of the colony”, things which did indeed occur. (I’ll let this earlier comment of mine remain).

Fitzroy reported to Grey in a Despatch of 1 December 1848 that he “lost no time in forming a Committee in Sydney, and desiring Mr La Trobe to form one in Melbourne, composed as nearly as possible upon the principle and for the purpose suggested by the Commissioners”. (BPP Colonies Australia Sessions 1849-50, vol 11, p. 29).

Things were similar in South Australia. Lieutenant-Governor H. E. F. Young forwarded a South Australian Government Gazette to Earl Grey in a Despatch dated 10 September 1848 naming the members of the Irish Orphan Emigration Committee in Adelaide…”in pursuance of the instructions conveyed to me in your Lordship’s despatch No 28 of the 28th February last“. (BPP ibid., p. 330/208). Young was quick to emphasize “the emigration of orphans to South Australia…should include a due proportion of English and Scotch orphans.”  Enquiries were later made in Britain about this but the suggestion was rejected as impractical, for a variety of reasons. 

Things were not totally the same in South Australia. The day before, 9 September, Young told Grey that, on the suggestion of the Orphan Committee and the advice of the Executive Council, he had provisionally appointed Captain Brewer as Emigration Agent for South  Australia. The Executive Council drew up specific instructions for the Emigration Agent that included, “You will consider yourself the guardian of the immigrants; and it will be your duty to advise and assist them in finding suitable employment, taking care, more especially, as far as lies in your power, that the young females do not make any agreements with those who may be known to you as persons of bad character. 

Single unmarried females, without natural protectors on board, and without offers of employment can be provided with lodgings and rations for a short time at the Native Location, where they will be under the care of the matron…”.  Captain Brewer was not a member of the Adelaide Orphan Committee. Note, however, he was told he should consider himself guardian of the immigrants.

10. This Emigration will be watched with the utmost interest by all who are concerned in the Colonies to which it is to be directed; and upon the manner in which it is conducted will depend the power of the Government to encourage its continuance.

The Colonists are desirous of adding to their body, not the idle and worthless, but those whose education and moral and religious training afford a reasonable guarantee that they will become active and useful members of a Society which is in a state of healthy progress; and it will therefore be imperative on the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners to select those young persons whose education has been attended to, and of whose conduct they receive a satisfactory report from the competent authorities. This is a clear statement of the social engineering in which the Imperial authorities were engaged.

Orphan Committees

Let me describe the composition of Orphan Committees in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide; it is basically the same as suggested by Earl Grey and the CLEC. The committees were made up of lay and clerical dignitaries who had a wealth of experience in political, religious, legal, police and immigration matters.

The Sydney committee consisted of

    • George Allen, Solicitor and Member of the Legislative Council and Honorary secretary to the Benevolent Asylum in Sydney
    • Reverend Robert Allwood, incumbent of St James Anglican Church in Sydney
    • Hutchinson Hothersall Browne, Water Police Magistrate and from 1851 Immigration Agent
    • Alfred Cheeke Esq., Barrister and Commissioner of the Court of Requests
    • William Harvie Christie, Agent for Church and School Estates and Secretary to the Denominational School Board
    • The Very Reverend Henry Gregory Gregory, Roman Catholic Vicar General
    • George P. F Gregory Esq., Prothonotary and Registrar of the Supreme Court
    • Joseph Long Innes Esq., Superintendent of Police
    • The Very Reverend John McGarvie D. D., Minister of the Scots Church of St Andrew in Sydney
    • Francis L S Merewether Esq., Immigration Agent
    • Charles Nicholson Esq., Speaker of the Legislative Council
  • Arthur Savage Esq., R. N.,  Health Officer for Port Jackson

If anyone is so inclined, the Australian Dictionary of Biography, will provide more information about some of  these gentlemen. It is available online. It is a great research tool.  Not everyone on the Committee will appear. See for example, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gregory-henry-gregory-2122  and http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/merewether-francis-lewis-shaw-4189 Some of these probably also need updating.

Another great research tool is http://dictionaryofsydney.org/browse/people

The Melbourne committee comprised

  • The Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Melbourne, Charles Perry (Anglican)
  • The Right Reverend Dr Goold (Roman Catholic) http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/goold-james-alipius-3633
  • Edward Carr Esq.
  • The Very Reverend P. B Geoghegan, Vicar General (Roman Catholic)
  • The Reverend Irvine Hetheringon
  • Wm Lonsdale Esq., Sub-Treasurer
  • Dr John Patterson, Immigration Agent (former naval surgeon from Strabane)
  • Robert W Pohlman Esq., Chief Commissioner of Insolvents’ Estates
  • James Hunter Ross Esq.
  • Andrew Russell Esq.
  • James Simpson Esq.,  http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/simpson-james-2665
  • The Reverend A C Thompson
Collins St, Melbourne, S T Gill C. 1853  State Library of New South Wales colletions

Collins St, Melbourne, S T Gill C. 1853 State Library of New South Wales collections

The Adelaide committee included

  • The Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Adelaide, Augustus Short (Anglican) http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/short-augustus-4577
  • The Right Reverend Dr Murphy, Roman Catholic Bishop
  • The Reverend Mr Haining, Presbyterian Minister
  • The Reverend Mr Draper, Methodist Minister
  • The Honourable the Advocate General, Member of the Legislative Council
  • Hon Jacob Hagen Member of the Legislative Council( MLC), merchant, landowner, and member of the Society of Friends
  • Hon Captain Bagot MLC, retired Military officer, landowner, member of the league for the preservation of religious freedom
  • Samuel Davenport Esq., Congregationalist, landowner, supporter of civil and religious liberties
  • William Giles Esq., manager of S.A. Company and treasurer of the League for the preservation of religious freedom
  • Wm Younghusband Esq., Anglican,
  • Matthew Moorhouse Esq., Fellow of Royal College of Surgeons,Congregationalsist, Secretary to the Children’s Apprenticeship Board , ‘protector’ of Aborigines, Adelaide Native School http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/moorhouse-matthew-4239

Any three of whom will be a quorum to transact business.

There is a very good chapter (chapt. 6) in Richard Reid’s book, Farewell my Friends, Anchor Books, 2011, describing the function of these committees. Dr Reid (pp.144-6) concentrates on the Sydney Committee and says it “had wide powers relating to employment, wages, discipline and general moral guardianship over the orphans”. The Sydney Committee took its duties seriously, vetting prospective employers, overseeing orphans’ indentures, providing protection if they went into the country, approving their marriage, protecting them from ill-usage, disciplining them by confining them to ‘pick oakum’ in a special room in Hyde Park Barracks, or  banishing them to work in the hinterland.

My own impression is that there is something ‘pro forma’ or ‘legalistic’ about the Imperial government’s bureaucratic aims. Its concern with establishing an appropriate legal structure for the Earl Grey female orphan scheme was paramount. This is apparent in its directives for establishing local Orphan Committees and in ensuring colonial government Master-Servant legislation was appropriately modified for orphan apprenticeships.

I very much agree with Dr Reid when he claims the day to day running of things devolved upon local colonial government officers; F.L.S. Merewether in Sydney, John Patterson in Melbourne, and Matthew Moorhouse in Adelaide, in particular. No Orphan Committee minute books have survived, to the best of my knowledge. What does survive is a large archive of Francis Merewether’s correspondence as Immigration Agent: it is a tribute to his diligence and his ‘sympathy’ for those in his charge. Readers may have noticed in the case of the Adelaide Committee, any three members formed a quorum. It looks as if this also applied elsewhere.

Matthew Moorhouse, South Australia

Matthew Moorhouse, South Australia Courtesy of State Library of South Australia

F L S Merewether NSW Immigration Agent until 1851

F L S Merewether NSW Immigration Agent until 1851 Courtesy of State Library of NSW

Indenturing orphans

Let me fasten down this interpretation  by looking at the arrangements for indenturing the orphans.

South Australia

The South Australian government took to heart clause 7 (see above) of the CLEC proposal of 17 February 1848  “…they will be bound Apprentices, under Laws which are in force in the Colonies…”, Governor Young issuing an Ordinance ‘with the advice and consent of the Legislative Council’  “to provide by Apprenticeship for the Protection, Guardianship and advancement in Life of Emigrant Orphan Children…”. It is interesting they used the word ‘children’; the Earl Grey orphans all travelled as adults, they being over 14 years of age.

The Ordinance gave the Children’s Apprenticeship Board (three members of which constituted a quorum) power to bind “poor children” in apprenticeships until they reached nineteen years of age, or until they married. It specified in detail what masters and mistresses should provide for their servant–food, lodging, bedding, clothing, medicines–allowing them to attend church service, and depositing a proportion of their wages in the South Australia Savings Bank after two years of service. It permitted servants to be transferred “to any other fit and proper person” with the consent of the Board. If there was no such consent, the master or mistress could be fined £10.  One or more Justices of the Peace could hear complaints from either master, or servant apprentice, and was given the power to fine masters £10 or  send any misbehaving apprentice to a gaol or House of Correction, “there to be kept in confinement on Bread and Water for any time not exceeding Fourteen Days”. The Ordinance made the Children’s Apprenticeship Board the legal guardian of the orphans, with the ‘same power as any guardian lawfully appointed in England’. It is a detailed and comprehensive document covering all the eventualities they could foresee. Appended to it was the “Schedule” or form the apprenticeship should take. (The Ordinance was printed in the South Australian Government Gazette, 24 August, 1848 No.8. It is also available in BPP. Colonies Australia, vol.11, pp. 333-36/211-14).

Máire, Máire Healy, Eliza Roe, céard a dhéanfá? What would ye do?  Holy Mother of God, what does this mean?

“In consideration whereof, the said…executors and administrators, doth by these presents, covenant, promise and agree to and with the said Board and every of them, and their and every of their successors for the time being, and their assigns…”.

Would ye listen to that? Do they not even speak English, Eliza Lynch?

You have to take the job Biddy Kelly. You’re not allowed, you aren’t allowed to say no.

adelaide hindley1849

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

New South Wales

17 August 1848, the CLEC advised Grey that some adjustment to the New South Wales Apprenticing Act may be necessary. They suggested amendments such as the following,

  • that two Justices of the Peace be required to give their consent to any apprenticeship and at least notifying his or her guardian(s)
  • that some money taken from the apprentice’s wage be placed in a Savings Bank on her behalf
  • and that some provision be made should the master die or become incapacitated.

The Commissioners politely added that these were merely suggestions and they, of course, would defer to colonial authorities, whose ‘ability and local knowledge’ would allow them to do what is best.

29 August 1848, Grey forwarded the CLEC suggestions to Governor Fitzroy and inquired if the existing NSW Apprenticeship Act needed improving, now that so many juveniles were soon to arrive. (BPP Colonies Australia vol 11 pp. 72-3/194-5)

Pitt St1851

Pitt St Sydney 1851 courtesy of the State Library NSW

New South Wales circumstances were more complicated than South Australia. Here, there was a long legal history relating to apprenticing orphans and regulating disputes between masters and servants: Acts of 1828, 1834, 1840, 1844, 1845, ’47,’50, ’52 and ’54 were on the statute books until 20 Vic 28 appeared in 1857, an Act which lasted until 1902. Changes to the legislation had occurred as required, and to correct the mistakes and carelessness of earlier drafting of the laws.

In 1845, for instance, the NSW Legislative Assembly printed the Report of its Select Committee on the Masters’ and Servants’ Act, with minutes of evidence. The sort of thing they focused on included breaches of contract–servants’ “absenting themselves without reasonable cause”, servants’ being “guilty of disobedience or other misconduct” which covered “insolence“, servants’ ‘wilfully damaging property‘. Breaches by employers were also covered; non-payment of wages, failure to provide proper rations, failure to provide a certificate of discharge, for example. But the dice, i believe, was loaded in favour of Masters.

Servants would have been justified in questioning the impartiality of the courts appointed to resolve disputes. Magistrates who sat in judgement were employers themselves and too easily identified with fellow employers. Women proved something of a problem for them. At least they recognized that a female servant might be provoked into being insolent. And generally, law makers were loathe to punish female servants with imprisonment.

The special provisions for the Earl Grey orphans suggested by the CLEC came into force via the Orphan Committees or the members delegated to apply them–have prospective employees apply for a servant beforehand, and their applications vetted; if an employee was out of town then two Justices of the Peace  should oversee her assignment; put part of the servants’ wages in a Savings Bank– for as the CLEC had suggested “the accumulated payment would operate as a great inducement to work out” her “period of service faithfully“.  On the other hand, whether wages paid to the orphans were as fair as originally intended (see clause 7 again) is debatable.

Still, both Imperial and Colonial governments did their utmost to provide a legal framework for the guardianship and employment of the orphans.

Here is an example of an indenture between Anne Smith per Digby and her employer. Take a close look if you can.  [I hope that by clicking on the image it will become larger for you. You may be able to make it even larger by clicking again. If you are using a phone, clicking on the image opens it. You can then pinch zoom to make it larger. Thanks Siobhán.] There is also another original apprenticeship agreement between Anne Deely per Thomas Arbuthnot and Frederick Hudson of Ipswich, in the Moreton Bay District, in State Records of New South Wales (SRNSW) 9/6173. I tried finding an original in South Australia State Records in 1995 without success. Considering there were three copies, one for the orphan, one for the employer and one for the government, I’d hoped for a better result. Maybe one has come to light since then? But see what i have to say in post 16.

Anne Smith's apprenticeship indenture

Anne Smith’s apprenticeship indenture

The interesting thing is the orphans accommodated themselves to work within this system and to work the system to their own advantage. (Here’s an interesting research project for someone: ‘Irish Famine orphans and the Law’. There would certainly be enough material for an Honour’s or Master’s thesis, should anyone be looking for a topic).

In Barefoot 1 (pp.16-18) I suggested that both master and servant were able to ‘work the system’. Masters knew it was a government-run project and thought they could return unruly servants to the Immigration Depot willy-nilly. The young women, learning of better conditions elsewhere–higher wages, a kinder master or mistress, being closer to a male friend–understood that marriage, backchat, or neglect of their duties were a ‘legal’ means of ending their apprenticeship agreement. They might even try to arrange a ‘transfer’. Or, aware that cancellation of their indenture would mean a return to the Depot and the likelihood of their being sent ‘up country’, away from the town, they were still willing to take the risk, anything being preferable to their current position. But more of this further down the line.

More than twenty years ago, Libby Connors said, “perhaps it is time…to take the debate beyond the ‘victim’ stage…We need to start acknowledging and analyzing the extraordinary success of the Irish at thwarting racist migration policies and their achievements in British and colonial politics, whether in the realm of the masculine public world of official policy, or at the personal level of young Irish women defending themselves in their personal relationships”. (Papers at 7th Irish-Australian Conference 1993,  ed. Rebecca Pelan, p.179).

Some of us may need to catch up…


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.