Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (45): B&P?, vol one, Introduction (c), pp. 12-17

B&P?1 Introduction (c)

“A way a lone a last a loved a long the” (James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake)

Next instalment, this time of pages twelve to seventeen. I’ve used some of this material in my blog, and some has remained untouched for twenty-six or so years. Readers may have noticed I’m getting my jollies by adding missing references and notes. I do have heaps of stuff that could be added–i do love a substantive footnote–but I’ll give myself  ‘a restraining order’.

As before, more notes will be added a bit later. I hope you liked the ones in my previous post.

Click on the introduction text a couple of times, or pinch and widen, and the image will be larger.





digging for potatoes



P1000137a (3)



Some notes

As mentioned in the notes to the previous post, most of the extant Irish Workhouse Indoor Admission and Discharge Registers are held in the Public Record Office in Northern Ireland. That they survived at all was thanks to the foresight and skill of a former Deputy Director, Dr Brian Trainor. We are all deeply indebted to him.

As far as I’m aware, outside of Northern Irish Poor Law Unions, and apart from North and South Dublin and Rathdrum (?) in County Wicklow, no others have survived for the years we want. Even then, not all of the Northern Ireland ones have survived. But fortunately Armagh Workhouse Registers do.

So, top of page 12

Cathy Fox PRONI Armagh Indoor Register BG2/G/2 entry 1203

I explained my method of searching for the orphans in these records, in post 5 http://wp.me/p4SlVj-4X

Have a close look there, if you will.

Anne and Jane Hunter PRONI BG2/G/1 entry numbers 3827 and 3828

The Devlin family entries are numerous. For Margaret PRONI BG2/G/1 entry numbers, 608, 1324, 2396, 3700, 5660. BG2/G/2 1507. All of these references should be on the website at www.irishfaminememorial.org

Catherine Tomnay or Tamoney PRONI BG2/G/1 456,1166, 1475, 3967, 4356.

One of the advantages of these records is that they provide information about other family members, about their age, their religion, their occupation, their place of residence, and their condition when they entered the workhouse, and the date they left.

Thus for example, Sarah Ann Devlin was a 15 year old Roman Catholic single female, thinly clothed and hungry when she entered Armagh workhouse 24 April 1847. She left three months later 29 July 1847. But she reentered 16 November the same year, this time the townland of Rathcarby being noted as her place of residence. Six months later, 24 May 1848, she left the workhouse  with her sister Margaret on her way to Belfast to join the other orphans per ship Earl Grey.

page 13   par 2,  I hope this clarifies the use of the word orphan as applied to these young women. They were “to use a modern term, wards of the State”. In the vast majority of cases both parents were dead which is the more commonly held view of ‘orphan’.

page 14 For membership of the Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide Orphan Committees see my blog post 13 http://wp.me/p4SlVj-g4

pages 15-6 Towards the end of that same blog post there is  a copy of an apprenticeship agreement for 15 year-old Anne Smith of the Digby which details the obligations of both apprentice and employer, or Master and Servant. There is another example in SRNSW 9/6193 Particulars of Orphans’ monies No.6 , Apprenticeship Agreement between Ann Deely per Thomas Arbuthnot, “now about the age of fifteen years”, and Frederick Hudson of Ipswich/Moreton Bay, dated 24 April 1850.

page 17 Details of young Margaret Devlin‘s seduction by William Small can be found in Immigration Agent F.L.S Merewether’s  correspondence. [I am unsure if the numbering system at the Archives is still the same. Their staff will be all too willing to help]. See SRNSW 4/4637, 49/672, 17 Oct. 1849, pp.294-5. And 4/4638, 50/178, 14 Feb. 1850, p.66. And 50/190, 50/469,50/762, 50/764 and 50/901, with corresponding pages, pp.76-8 (re seduction), 182, 289-90 (letter to Thomas Small re his son William), 291-2, 331-2. There is more at 4/4639, 51/6, pp.6-7, and 51/225 ‘Would Mr Small make a lump sum of £50?‘, pp.66-7. For information about Mrs Small’s (sic) child at the Protestant Orphan institution, SRNSW 4/4639, 51/354, 10 September 1851, p.104.


Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (38):some useful websites and links


Whilst I make up my mind whether to continue with this, revise what I have with a view to publication in hard-copy, or just abandon it, I thought you might like to play with some of these web links. It’s only in the last fifteen years or so that the internet has become a useful research tool for most of us in Australia. One day we may have internet access as reliable as people in South Korea and Japan. (Tell him he’s dreamin’).

As I’m sure everyone is aware, what’s available on the web is still only a tiny fraction of what exists in archives.  For instance I don’t think all the Reports of Immigrant ships into Port Jackson are digitised yet. State Records New South Wales (SRNSW) has 4/2823 (Lady Peel); 4/2907 (John Knox); 4/2914A (Tippoo Saib). Am I right or am I right? The encouraging news is how many more records are becoming available minute by minute, day by day. What I find most impressive is how easily and how quickly we can communicate with one another. There’s a downside too but we’ll not worry about that just now.

I’ve put together a selection of links I hope you’ll explore. Most of them appear somewhere on my blog. One or two do not. They are in no particular order, except that two and three tell you about the ‘Gatherings’ in Sydney and Melbourne that celebrate the Earl Grey orphans each year. Most are both educational and informative. And lots are merely entry points for you to do your own research. Happy surfing! Hope you’re waving, not drowning.






















Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (6): Hiatus- charts and family forms


(some things from the cupboard while I decide what i should do next)

Religion of inmates in 1848, South Dublin, Enniskillen and Armagh workhouses


I’ll add a couple more things from my filing cabinet  for your perusal.


South Dublin workhouse in 1848 by age and gender

Dublin, Enniskillen and Armagh workhouse populations were both bottom heavy and top heavy i.e. the largest age groups were the elderly and the young.


These were the foundation for my measure of orphans’ family size, age at marriage, age at death, marriage partners et al.

Sometimes  my family reconstitution forms proved difficult to understand. Here Allan Smith was very close to getting it exactly right.


Margaret Stack family

Sometimes I had my doubts I’d recaptured an Irish female orphan. I had doubts about this next one so did not use her in my calculations.


Charlotte Willis Family–not an orphan?

Sometimes I was fortunate enough to go back into civil registration records to check on things; I found family historians often underestimated the size of their orphan’s Australian family. Having to purchase every registration that was made was just too expensive. Here’s one that got it exactly right.






just found   http://www.slideshare.net/GeobitsLtd/mapping-the-great-irish-famine-mike-murphy

You may need to type ‘mapping the Great Irish Famine Mike Murphy ‘ into the box that appears

Earl Grey’s Irish Famine orphans (5): Who were the female orphans? (cont.)


In the last post I finished by recommending Peter Higginbotham’s website on Workhouses;  http:www.workhouses.org.uk/Ireland/ It is an essential resource for anyone interested in the female orphans.

And just in case you missed Steve Taylor’s views of the Famine  http://viewsofthefamine.wordpress.com/miscellaneous/cottage-interior-claddagh-galway/

But let me continue with what I started. First a standard account of the workhouse system generally then on to specific information about orphans and the workhouse they came from.

It was not till 1838 that Ireland had its first Poor Law with an Act ‘for the more effective relief of the destitute poor”. The Act divided the country into a number of Poor Law Unions, 130 of them in 1843, based on major towns. Each Union was to have a workhouse run by a Board of Guardians elected by rate payers in the Union. In theory, the money for the building and the running of the workhouses was to come from rates levied in each Union. By 1843, 112 of the workhouses were completed and the remaining eighteen were on their way. The more substantial ones such as those at Belfast and Newcastle West in County Limerick were built according to a standard plan drawn up by Government architect, George Wilkinson. His ground plan was for a workhouse to accommodate 800 people. Such buildings had a commanding  and unwelcome physical presence in the local community where they were built.

callan wkhse

Callan workhouse, Co. Kilkenny

       The thinking behind the Poor Law System was that conditions in the workhouse should be so unattractive that only the truly destitute and desperate would enter. There was some doubt among Poor Law Commissioners that material conditions inside the workhouse would be inferior to that of the poor but they were convinced that the strict regimen and discipline and separation of families would deter people from seeking refuge. Contemporary middle and upper class thinking was aimed at ‘improving’ and ‘controlling’ the lower orders by incarcerating them and subjecting them to close supervision in institutions such as factory and mill, national school, workhouse or if all else failed, prison.

In a workhouse, inmates were subject to minute regulation of their lives. There were strict rules for their admission, first to a probationary ward. There they were ‘thoroughly cleaned’, ‘clothed in workhouse dress’ and examined by a medical officer. They were then classified as belonging in the sick or ‘idiot’ ward, placed in the adult male or female ward or the separate yards for boys and girls or the apartments for children. Families were broken up, wives separated from husbands, brothers from sisters, and children from their parents, although those under two years old could remain with their mothers.

“Buttermilk and urine,

The pantry, the housed beasts, the listening bedroom. We were all together in a foretime…” (Seamus Heaney, Keeping Going)

Also set down in meticulous detail were ‘rules for framing dietaries’–three meals a day for children, two for adults, consisting of such ‘delights’ as bread, Indian meal, oatmeal, buttermilk and soup in what can only have been ‘mouth-watering’ combinations.

Articles 14 to 48 of workhouse regulations dealt with discipline and punishment of ‘paupers’. When they got out of bed, when they were set to work, when they had their meals, when they finished work and when they went to bed were all timed by the ringing of a bell. Prayers were read before breakfast and after supper each day. Roll call took place half an hour after the bell was rung for getting out of bed. No one was allowed any tobacco or ‘spirituous or fermented liquor’ or to play at cards or ‘at any game of chance’.

The grounds on which an inmate could be deemed ‘disorderly’ and ‘refractory’ were also set out in detail as were punishments for such misbehaviour. Anybody who used obscene or profane language or did not ‘duly cleanse his person’, for example, was disorderly. Anyone who repeated one or more of the 12 offences constituting disorderly conduct or who insulted or reviled workhouse officers or who wilfully damaged or attempted to dispose of the property of the Board of Guardians or who climbed over any wall or fence or left the workhouse in an irregular way was deemed refractory. Refractory inmates were put in solitary confinement or were taken before a magistrate. As you can see, the refuge the workhouse offered rested on the twin pillars of discipline and punishment. The intention of the framers of the Poor Law as exemplified in the prison-like conditions of workhouses, their dull work routine and monotonous food and emphasis on strict discipline was designed to deter all but the truly destitute from becoming a burden on the poor rate.

In August 1847 an Irish Poor Law Commission took over from the English one. It now had to contend with the Famine. The number of Poor Law Unions was increased from 130 to 163. Existing workhouse buildings were extended and temporary fever sheds erected or rented in a forlorn attempt to deal with the crisis. By the end of 1847 it was officially estimated 417,000 people were being relieved inside workhouses in Ireland. At the end of 1848 that number had increased to 610,000 and was to increase again to 923,000 in 1849. [These figures do not include the number of people on outdoor relief.] In the midst of crisis the Poor Law system was asked to reorganize itself and deal with catastrophe on a horrendous scale, a scale  for which it was not designed and for which it was ill-prepared.

The extra demands the famine placed on workhouses relegated the aim of disciplining and punishing to a secondary role. In fact discipline became harder to maintain. Rebellion was sometimes a very personal even existential thing. In September and December 1847, James McMahon, Betty Hill, Jane Campbell and Eliza Dawson were thrown out of Newry workhouse, James for refusing to eat his supper, Jane and Eliza for quarrelling and Betty for giving cheek to the Master.  At other times, shortage of food led to full blown riots, many of them led by women, as in William Street Auxiliary workhouse in Limerick in 1849 and one week later, at the Barrack Street workhouse in Nenagh in Tipperary, where the women “broke in the door of the dining hall and threw the tins and other vessels within their reach about the floor, yelling fearfully all the time”.

Overcrowding and epidemics of disease strained even the biggest and best organised workhouses to breaking point. Cashel workhouse rarely had enough space or temporary fever sheds for the victims of dysentery, fever, measles and cholera. In January 1848 the Cashel Medical Officer P. Heffernan reported to the Board “Your Hospital is crowded to excess and the paupers are falling sick in dozens. I cannot admit anymore into the Hospital for want of accommodation”. The Guardians were later dismissed that year.

In Belfast the medical officer complained he could not contain the spread of contagious diseases unless he could treat patients in separate wards. Smallpox patients were put in a small bathroom, those suffering from ‘erisipilas’ went to the straw house but he still lacked a separate ward for dysentery patients. He said “…treating several contagious diseases in the same place is attended with very great risk to the patients”, not to mention workhouse officers. In 1847 the wards master, the schoolmaster and schoolmistress caught ‘famine fever’ and in June of that year Patrick Boyce the workhouse bookkeeper died of typhus. In 1849 the Belfast Board complained “that the practice of waking the bodies of the Dead from cholera prevails to a considerable extent, thereby exposing the people who assemble on such occasions to the risk of disease and causing alarm in the neighbourhood”. They asked  they be allowed to bury bodies with haste, compulsorily if necessary.

There is a rich archive of material relating to Irish workhouses, not yet fully tapped which helps us place female orphans in a specific local context in the period before they left for Australia. What their workhouse was like may be depicted using both Indoor Admission and Discharge Registers and Board of Guardian minutes. For example, here’s a chart I drew some time ago, relating to inmates’ length of stay in 1848 in a selection of workhouses for which evidence was available. Overwhelmingly for most, their ‘length of stay’ was less than three months. There was little time for them to be ‘institutionalised’.  At least 42 % or more of the orphans entered their workhouse on more than one occasion before leaving for Australia. [Please forgive my amateur attempts to insert these charts–I think we may be listing. I’ll not bore you with the statistical tests I used, except to say both the median and mode measures of central tendency lay in the first category i.e. less than three months. I am open to correction.]



 Or again, a chart showing what percentage of inmates gave “Union at Large” (i.e. Poor Law Union) as their place of residence in 1848. That is, they were homeless, and probably mendicants.


 These charts are interesting in light of Dympna McLoughlin’s chapter on “Subsistent Women” in the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine where she draws attention to women living ‘a hand-to-mouth existence, with no secure employment’. They included, Dympna says, “petty traders, tramps, peddlers, petty criminals, dealers, beggars and a high proportion of labourers”. (p.255) These were women who were geographically mobile, who used the workhouse for their own ends, coming in in winter and leaving again in  spring. But they were hard hit by the Famine and being without ‘respectability’ and ‘reputation’ in society had little option other than assisted emigration. I am inclined to give some weight to her argument since I found only a handful of references to female orphans’ families in land records such as Tithe Applotment Books and enumerators’ returns for Griffiths Land Valuation. Only infrequently did they appear in baptismal records. I know too that a number of orphans gave ‘Union at large’ as their place of residence and that many of them entered and left the workhouse on a regular basis.  Most of them certainly belonged to the labouring class. The argument is certainly worth exploring further.  At the very least it helps underscore just how destitute the orphans were and how difficult it was for them  to escape their poverty trap.

Note, however, fewer than 20% of Workhouse inmates gave ‘Union at Large’ as their ‘residence’. They may have been homeless but they still claimed they were from a particular Poor Law Union.

Most of our orphans were from among the unemployed and destitute cottier and agricultural labouring classes. They were from families whose economic strength was extremely fragile at the best of times and who were periodically thrown on the charity of good neighbours when illness, death and the uncertainty of employment destroyed their fragile cohesion. Tragically, the charity of good neighbours, any reluctance they may have felt about joining public works schemes or accepting food hand-outs or entering the workhouse was destroyed by the calamity of the Famine.


One of the most important collections of workhouse records that have survived are the Indoor Relief Registers, sometimes known as Admission and Discharge Registers. Thanks to the wisdom and foresight of the former Deputy Keeper of Public Records Northern Ireland Dr Brian Trainor, many of these Registers have survived for Northern Irish Poor Law Unions. It is these and the Registers for North and South Dublin workhouses that I’ve studied, alas, all too briefly. The Registers record a number for each person entering the workhouse, their name, their gender, their age, whether they are single, married or widowed if they have reached adulthood i.e. usually 15 years of age and whether they are orphaned, deserted or a bastard, if they are children. Then follows details about their occupation and religion and more columns headed ‘if disabled, description of the disability’; ‘name of wife or husband’; ‘number of children’; ‘observations on condition of pauper when admitted’; ‘electoral division and townland in which resident’; ‘date when admitted or born in workhouse’; and finally, ‘date when died or left the workhouse’. It’s an amazing piece of recordkeeping.

In practice there existed a wide degree of latitude in the keeping of the Registers. At worst, details are often missing and the information we gain about individual orphans is sparse indeed. Thus, for an orphan who came by the Derwent to Port Phillip in 1849-50 from Ballymena, the record is No. 4115, Betty Hamilton, female, 15 years old, single, no employment or calling, Presbyterian, residing in Ballymena, admitted 14 June 1849, discharged 25 October 1849. At best, the information is extensive, not only about personal and family history but also about occupation. A plainmaker, helper in stable, brush maker, bootbinder, pinmaker, fustian cutter, fringe and tassel maker, ribbon weaver and woollen winder were among those entering South Dublin workhouse in  1848. Their place of origin is recorded in the North Dublin Register; born in Kilkenny county, County Louth, Cavan, Donegal, Derry, native of Dublin, demonstrating the pull of Ireland’s major city at the time of the Famine. And in Enniskillen Register at the beginning of 1848 we read of the condition of ‘paupers’ when admitted; ‘in great want’, ‘in great distress’, ‘orphan, father and mother died on the road’. ‘had to sell the coat off her back for food’, ‘in a starving condition’, ‘lying in the quarry starving’, ‘husband deserted her, to be prosecuted’, ‘beggarman, nearly blind, dirty and sickly’, ‘wandering about from place to place’, ‘beggar girl, deserted by mother’, and the mother of two young orphans, Mary Love, ‘widow disabled from dropsy’, a reminder that these are records of destitute people, victims of the famine who were yet fortunate enough to gain entry to a workhouse.

The one major deficiency is that Indoor Registers have survived for only a small number of workhouses; outside Dublin they are mainly from the North of Ireland. The evidence is thus weighted in that direction. But they allowed me to identify at least some female orphans in their workhouse.

Identifying the female orphans

The key is record linkage, in this case linking Australian shipping lists with Irish workhouse Registers. The names of the orphans who travelled  to Australia as part of the Earl Grey scheme appear in shipping lists held in archives or State records in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Most information is available from the Board of Immigration shipping lists for arrivals in Port Jackson. Those in Melbourne tend to provide less information about their Irish background but more easily accessible information about their first employer in Australia. Adelaide records I am glad to say now include the shipping list for the first vessel to arrive, the Roman Emperor which had been missing for some time. From British Parliamentary Papers I also knew the names of the  Poor Law Unions providing orphans for each vessel: this was a third link.

In the mid 1980s armed with this information and knowing the date of departure of each vessel I was able to spend some time looking for orphans in Dublin and Northern Irish workhouse Indoor Registers. For example, knowing the first vessel in the scheme the Earl Grey left Plymouth for Port Jackson on the 3rd June 1848, I looked for the names of individual adolescent females who were discharged from their workhouse in Belfast or Antrim or Armagh  et al. on the same day, about a week or ten days before 3rd June. I applied the same method to the two vessels that carried Northern Irish orphans to Port Phillip, the Diadem and the Derwent. They were to leave Plymouth 13 October 1849 and 9th November 1849 respectively. The same method was used for the vessels with Dubliners on board. And voilá, in the massive Dublin Registers,

North Dublin No. 14737 Maria Blundell female 10 yrs old no calling RC delicate after fever native of Dublin returned from fever hospital, North City entered 11 March 1846 left 20 October 1849

North Dublin No. 22543 Mary Dowling female 14 yrs old no calling RC born in Dublin ragged and dirty Union at large entered 9 July 1847 left 20 October 1849 [she was listed alongside her 10 yr old  brother Michael who was later discharged 26 July 1850]

South Dublin No. 1013 Marianne Howe female 16 yrs old no calling Protestant very old clothes South City Kevin St. entered 10 October 1848 left 13 January 1849

South Dublin No. 1079 Mary Bruton female 17 yrs old single servant RC old clothes S. City Engine Alley entered 16 October 1848 left 13 January 1849.

and in Northern Irish Registers. [ In some of these I was able to trace the number of times female orphans entered and left the workhouse, when their mother or father died and what happened to their other siblings, the Devlin and the Littlewood families being two such examples. To describe just one of these, in April 1842 shortly after it opened and three years before the Famine struck, a 39 year old widow Rose Devlin came into Armagh workhouse with three of her children, Margret 9 years old, Patrick, 6, and Bernard, 4.  After four months stay she and her children left, only to  re-enter three months later but this time her fourth child, Sarah Ann, 12, had joined them. On nine different occasions throughout the 1840s this little family group re-entered Armagh workhouse, sometimes for as short a period as a month, at others as long as six or ten months, until two of their number Sarah Ann and Margret left to join the Earl Grey in Plymouth. Ten years later Sarah was to sponsor her brother’s immigration to Australia.  Ideally I would have liked a lot more time to examine different volumes of the Registers and thereby do a more thorough job tracing the workhouse history of Earl Grey female orphan families. Maybe some of you could do so for your orphan ancestor?]

Here is a little family akin to the Devlins in that they were a-typical long-term residents of Armagh workhouse. They appear in the first volume of Armagh’s Registers.

Armagh No. 12 Charlotte Wilcocks female 10 yrs old deserted by father no calling Protestant no disability healthy resides Armagh entered 4 June 1842 left 4 October 1849

No. 13 Jemima Wilcocks female 9 yrs old deserted by father (the rest ‘as above’ when the two sisters left to join the Diadem in Plymouth)

No 14 Edward Wilcocks  male 13 yrs old (as above) totally disabled left the workhouse 17 November 1842.

(Here’s a little appetiser for later posts, should I ever get that far. It’s a family reconstitution for Charlotte in Australia. About 300 of these reconstitutions are the basis of the demographic information I’ve written about elsewhere. Workhouse Register reference numbers that I’d found appear alongside an orphan’s name in Barefoot, information which was later uploaded to the first version of the following website. The new version of the website continues to be improved and developed all the time. www.irishfaminememorial.org  Keep watching there.)


Magherafelt  No 1900(?) [my research notes are not as legible  as they should be] Cathy Hilferty female 17 yrs old single never in service RC with fever clean Ballymeghan entered 3 April 1846 left 19 May 1846

No. 2080  Cathy was back in again less than a week later, this time described as a servant but ‘out of service’ having entered 22 May 1846 and left 11 June 1846.

She came into the workhouse later that year described as a 16 yrs old labourer who was out of employment but clean from Ballymeghan, entered 13 November 1846 left 4 August 1847.

Then in 1848 she came back in with her widowed mother and siblings. Ellen Hilferty was described as a 50 year old widow mendicant RC healthy 2 children (in fact 4) no means of support Killyfaddy entered 18 November 1848 left 15 August 1849.

Cathy this time was 18 yrs old and her siblings William 15 yrs, Nancy 11 yrs and John 9 yrs. Like Ellen they entered 18 November 1848. William left 4 December 1848, Nancy and John 15 August 1849 with their mother. Cathy left 30 October 1849 en route for Plymouth to join the Derwent.

Enniskillen No 2065 Letitia Connelly 14 yrs old orphan RC Ballyreagh Salry entered 2 February 1848 left 26 October 1849 to join the Derwent. Letitia did very well for herself marrying a store-keeper and astute business man, William Hayes.

Enniskillen  No. 3048(?) Alice Ball 15 yrs old Protestant Enniskillen 4 July 1847 left 1 march 1848

No 3078 Alice Ball  14 yrs old orphan Protestant Enniskillen 30 August 1848 left 3 October 1849 (to join the Diadem). Alice was later to commit suicide in Melbourne.

My hope is that further local studies of workhouses may be realised; there are already good examples–Roscrea, Cork and Lurgan– in the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine as well as excellent local studies for the four provinces of Ireland. Perhaps these might be used as models? National School records might help us understand the local area too.

Post Script

Perhaps someone can help?

Were these vessels part of the female orphan scheme?

  • There are a number of vessels carrying a small number of female orphans which are not officially recognised as being part of the Earl Grey scheme viz. the William Stewart,  Mahomet Shah and the Martin Luther (?) to Port Phillip and the Subraon to Port Jackson.  At least three of them sailed before the scheme was officially underway. Are they easily identified on the shipping lists of these vessels? Were they from Irish workhouses or other charitable institutions and houses of industry? I wonder if  authorities in London and Dublin sent them by subterfuge, as it were, testing the waters for the later female orphan scheme. It certainly didn’t work in the case of the Subraon.

Why did so many come from Enniskillen workhouse?

  • If I might refer you to the map at the beginning of the previous post, have a look at Enniskillen. It is second only to Dublin and Skibbereen in sending the largest number of orphans to Australia. How do we explain this? Was the region particularly hard-hit by the Famine? Did the workhouse accept young women from surrounding areas in Donegal, Tyrone and Leitrim? They aren’t very close and entry to a workhouse was usually only open to inhabitants of the local Poor Law Union. Names of townlands and electoral divisions were painstakingly recorded when entering a workhouse.  Maybe the answer is in the administration of the workhouse itself? Late in 1846 and in March 1847 reports from visiting Poor Law Commissioners castigated Enniskillen workhouse for its ‘miserable state of filth and irregularity’. In 1847 the death rate was 95 per thousand and may have been higher since no books were kept for eight weeks when fever was raging in the house. In 1848 the death rate dropped to approximately 10 per thousand and by 1849 had fallen to 2 per thousand. In March 1848 the elected Board of Guardians of Enniskillen Poor Law Union were dismissed and two professional Vice-Guardians appointed, Messrs John Gowdy of Monaghan and Edward Hill Trevor of County Down at a salary of £250 per annum. Before long the effects of the new broom were in evidence; inefficient officers were dismissed, doctors were appointed as vaccinators for various districts; new arrangements were made to improve the cleanliness of the workhouse; inmates were given a change of bed sheets every fortnight and a clean shirt each week. In the months following the appointment of Vice-Guardians the administration of the Union was put on a sound footing; cooked food was substituted for meal ‘in the several relief districts throughout the Union’; workhouse schools  became part of the National Schools system and £800 was borrowed from the government for a new workhouse building. Was it this that determined so many orphans originating in Enniskillen? Sufficient numbers of the right age, an efficient administration with money for orphans’ clothing and transport to port of embarkation, at just the right time.  All the orphans from Enniskillen left towards the end of 1849. What do you think? Maybe a reader has more information or another explanation?

Just a couple of family reconstitutions to finish, Jane Hogan and Cathy Durkin. There must be a way to improve the quality of my family reconstitutions. These two are ok.


Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (4): Who were the female orphans? Their Origins.

Who were the female orphans?

FOsirelandmap[My thanks to Kathie Smith, now Kathie Mason, who drew this map for me in c.1989]

See www.irishfaminememorial.org/en/history/ which will allow you to zoom in on the map. And see http://www.irishfaminememorial.org/en/orphans/database/

for all the orphans who travelled by the Earl Grey scheme 1848-50.

A good while ago, in 1985, I expressed the hope that the story of the female orphans might be written from the orphans’ own point of view. A colleague pointed out to me I was still saying the same thing last year, in 2013, when I gave an address to the International Irish Famine seminar in Sydney. I’m afraid this is not my attempt to do just that. In spite of my own misgivings, I’ll try to put the young women in some kind of context. In this case an Irish one–Irish women and emigration, the Famine tragedy and the workhouse, that kind of thing. It is the background they came from; it’s what made them orphans. My big fear is that I won’t come even close to answering who the young women were. That’s a philosophical question in itself. Maybe it’s best to write something down; it can always be reworked at some future date.

I mentioned before there were precedents for the Earl Grey female orphan scheme, for example, the young women who came to Australia from Foundling Hospitals and other charitable institutions in Cork and Dublin in the 1830s or the eight thousand(?) or so who came as part of the ‘vast’ influx of Bounty migrants in the early 1840s. Uniquely among Australia’s immigrants in the nineteenth century, the Irish were to achieve a gender balance, that is, as many females came to Australia from Ireland as did males. Any shortfall was always made up by transfusions of female blood such as the 1830s women, convicts to Tasmania in the 1840s or the 5 thousand women who came to South Australia in the 1850s. (See http://tintean.org.au/2014/03/06/irish-famine-women-a-challenge-or-three/ Maybe one day we can pay equal attention to these others.

Why were Irish women so willing to emigrate? If strong family ties and the attractive image of Australia current in most Irish circles ‘pulled’ women to Australia, what were the things pushing them out of Ireland? What encouraged them to leave? In contrasting post-famine with pre-famine Irish society, some historians have argued for a greater degree of economic independence for women in the earlier period: their work in agriculture and domestic industry was so very important to the household economy. In summer months, women helped in making hay and digging turf and digging and picking potatoes. The wives of labourers and cottiers may have kept hens, ducks and pigs which they sold at profit. Their children, if they worked at all, worked on the family’s potato ground. Women were involved in domestic industry, making coats, breeches, stockings and petticoats for family use as well as the domestic putting-out system, mostly as spinners of yarn. But from the 1830s on, a downturn in economic fortunes and a lessening of economic independence must have persuaded more and more of them to leave. It is important, too, to recognize differences within Irish society and economy, between different parts of the country, between urban and rural districts, between the social classes, and between those who participated in a market economy and those confined to a subsistence  economy.

Economic conditions for those at the vulnerable end of the social hierarchy deteriorated in the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of the Famine: agricultural prices fell; the population continued to grow from 6.8 million in 1821 to 7.8 million in 1831 and 8.2 million in 1841. There was fierce and sometimes brutal competition for small plots of land upon which cottiers and labourers might eke out an existence. The domestic textile industry which had provided families with supplementary income, fell into decline.

Domestic industry was an area where females contributed to family income, as spinners of coarse yarn in the West, in Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim, and as spinners of linen yarn, especially in Ulster. But the heyday for domestic industry was over by the early 1830s. By that date, it had disintegrated in the West and in Ulster, home-spun yarn was already being replaced by mill-spun yarn. In Ulster, some women did indeed find alternative employment as handloom weavers but wages were low and falling as power looms became established in the hinterland of Belfast. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s many a single young woman left her home in Cavan or Monaghan or Louth to seek work in the mills of Dundee and Paisley in Scotland.

In the rest of the country, especially in the West and South-West, conditions for those in the bottom half of the social scale became decidedly worse. Agricultural productivity may have increased between 1815 and 1845 but falling agricultural prices and increasing population pressure pushed more and more of those at the lower end of the social scale to the margins of existence. Less and less land was available for those who wished to set up an independent household, and full-time employment for an agricultural labourer became a pipe-dream.

Allow me to turn this argument a little. If economic conditions were deteriorating for those at the vulnerable end of the social scale in the decades immediately before the Famine, then women’s contribution to the family’s well-being became commensurately more important. Their psychological support and the nurturing and protective qualities they brought to the family became crucially important. As Lyn Hollen Lees put it, “under conditions of poverty, male underemployment, and seasonal migration, a family’s survival depended on the strength and resilience of the wife and mother”.

And then came the Famine and that fragile world burst asunder.

Let me say a few words about the FAMINE. I’ll begin with a couple of quotations. The first two are from an American visitor to Ireland at the time of the Famine, Asenath Nicholson, who published an account of her travels as Light and Shades of Ireland. They are quoted in Margaret Kelleher’s great work,  The Feminization of Famine. Expressions of the inexpressible? The first is her response to an encounter in Kingstown/DunLaoghaire, near Dublin.

…and reader, if you have never seen a starving being, may you never! In my childhood I had been frightened with the stories of ghosts, and had seen actual skeletons; but imagination had come short of the sight of this man…[he] was emaciated to the last degree; he was tall, his eyes prominent, his skin shrivelled, his manner cringing and childlike; and the impression then and there made never has  nor ever can be effaced.

The second occurs late in Ms Nicholson’s account,

Going out one day in a bleak waste on the coast, I met a pitiful old man in hunger and tatters, with a child on his back, almost entirely naked , and to appearance in the last stages of starvation; whether his naked legs had been scratched, or whether the cold affected them I knew not, but the blood was in small streams in different places, and the sight was a horrid one.

The third quotation is from The London Illustrated News of late December 1849.

Sixteen thousand and odd persons unhoused in the Union of Kilrush before the month of June in the present year; 71, 130 holdings done away in Ireland, and nearly as many houses destroyed in 1848: 254,000 holdings of more than one acre and less than five acres put an end to between 1841 and 1848; six-tenths, in fact,  of the lowest class of tenantry driven from their now roofless and annihilated cabins and houses…The once frolicsome people–even the saucy beggars–have disappeared, and given place to wan and haggard objects, who are so resigned to their doom, that they no longer expect relief. One beholds only shrunken frames scarcely covered with flesh–crawling skeletons, who appear to have risen from their graves, and are ready to return frightened to that abode.

 It is not my intention to be melodramatic. But sometimes I wonder if family historians understand what exactly their female orphans were fleeing.

For some images see http://viewsofthefamine.wordpress.com/

The history of the Great Irish Famine is a massive and controversial subject, made all the more so by excellent works of scholarship that have appeared in the last twenty years. I don’t wish to become embroiled in these, just now. Let me instead try to identify some things historians agree on.

    • In the autumn of 1845 Ireland’s potato crop was partially destroyed by blight, phythophthora infestans. The potato was the staple foodstuff of a large proportion of the population, particularly the cottier and labouring class. [I remember reading in Salaman’s history of the potato, I think it was, of the adult Irish labourer who ate a stone (14lbs or 6.3 kg) of potatoes per day. That and a glass of buttermilk was all he needed nutritionally. Some even allowed the nail on their thumb to grow long–as a tool for peeling potatoes.] In the harvest of 1846 and 1848  destruction of the potato was widespread. In 1847. there was partial failure but so few potatoes had been planted that year the effect was catastrophic. Two or more harvest failures in a row, and there were more partial failures in 1849 and 1850, brought unspeakable misery and death. [In my last years at Macquarie University I and a colleague directed a reading course on comparative famines for M.A. students. Central to the course was the work of the Nobel prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, particularly his theory of entitlements. I won’t go into that here. But do have a look at his Poverty and Famines. You can download it here https://www.prismaweb.org/nl/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Poverty-and-famines%E2%94%82Amartya-Sen%E2%94%821981.pdf  Suffice it to say that for Sen, and for nearly everyone nowadays, famine is  about more than absence of food and starvation.
    • The biggest killer was not so much starvation as diseases of one kind or another–typhus, dysentery, relapsing fever, scarlatina, scurvy, tuberculosis, secondary infections like measles and smallpox, and from 1849 cholera as well. Given the squalid living conditions of so many living in ‘fourth-class’ housing (a one room mud-walled cabin), overcrowding, poor hygiene, and the the lack of running water and sewerage system, it is not surprising that contagious diseases could spread with such deadly effect. Gathering in crowds at soup kitchens, at the gates of a workhouse, at a port of embarkation or on a public work scheme only made that contagion easier. Relapsing fever and typhus, for example, though it was not known then, spread by means of body lice. Dysentery and diarrhoea which killed so many in 1847, 1848 and 1849 are spread by direct contact with a sufferer, by water polluted faeces and by vectors such as flies. Historians estimate that between 1 and 1.2 million people died in the famine years before 1851 and about 1-1.4 million emigrated.  And they continued to emigrate thereafter; the famine had opened the flood gates of Irish emigration.
    • The response of the British government was inadequate.  Soup kitchens, the importing of Indian corn or maize, comparatively little financial aid (9 million pounds as against 55 million pounds for the Crimean War a few years later) was never going to be enough.  Seemingly pointless public work schemes for the listless and hungry who were paid a pitiful wage, the introduction of the quarter-acre clause to an amended Poor Law in June 1847 (anyone holding more than a quarter acre of land would be ineligible for poor relief) with its concomitant increase in evictions only compounded the problem. Government was prepared to sacrifice vulnerable people on a callous ideological altar. [Perhaps readers may not put it quite so starkly as this. Others may reflect upon governments claiming they are Christian yet willing to lock asylum seekers in a concentration camp/aka detention centre.] The apportioning of ‘blame’ and assessing the responsibility of the British government is one of the most hotly debated areas of dispute. Like most other Irish historians, I would not use the term ‘genocide’. In my view there is not enough evidence to show there was an ‘intention’ to commit genocide. Still, it’s worth having a look at the final chapter in David Nally’s Human Encumbrances.
  • Historians do agree the impact and effects of the famine varied greatly from region to region (and indeed class to class). The basic, rather crude fault line is between West and East. Where exactly it lies depends on what you are examining; the distribution of fourth class housing (one room mud-walled cabin), death rates during the Famine, which Poor Law Unions received most from soup kitchens and outdoor relief, which Board of workhouse Guardians were dismissed during the Famine,  etc. etc. For more information on this and a more nuanced identification of fault lines, see the wonderful Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, edited by John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy, Cork University Press, 2012, ISBN 9781859184790. I would recommend anyone interested in the Great Irish Famine have this work in their library. Generally speaking, it is clear that Mayo, Galway, Clare,  or the provinces of Connacht and much of Munster were most affected by the Famine.

I mention this last point for a number of reasons.  The Famine was indeed a national tragedy but its harshest impact was reserved for cottiers, labourers and some of the small  farming class. It was also regionally selective. Conditions in Sligo and Ballina, Tuam or Loughrea were different from Nenagh, Tipperary and Cashel and different again from Antrim, Ballymena or Carrickmacross. The memories and experience of the 110 orphans from Skibbereen in West Cork,  (85 of whom went to Adelaide on the Elgin in 1849 and 25 to Melbourne on the Eliza Caroline in 1850) or  the 30 from Kilrush in County Clare (who went to Melbourne on the Pemberton in 1849)  would have been very different from the young women who left workhouses in Antrim, Belfast or Banbridge (who went to Sydney on the Earl Grey in 1848 and the Diadem to Melbourne in 1850.  A  female orphan who came from Skibbereen  (Ellen Fitzgerald) or Kilrush (Bridget Miniter) or Ennistymon (Ellen Leydon) or Enniskillen (Alice and Jane Byng),  or Armagh (Mary McMaster)  obviously had  different experiences of their workhouse and of the Famine.  In some workhouses and Poor Law Unions, demands proved too much of a strain, rates were not collected, officers emigrated, died, were corrupt or inefficient and dismissed, the administration of the workhouse all but collapsed. In others, medical attendants, nurses, chaplains, Matrons, porters and Masters worked tirelessly, often at great personal cost, to combat the effects of famine and disease as best they could. Let me say some more about workhouse experience in the next post.

old chapel lane skibbereen

[Ideally, and in the long run, I’d like to see more stories of individual orphans which compared their detailed Irish experience at a very local level with their detailed similarly ‘local’ Australian one. Many of the public records that have survived reflect the managerial concerns of those required to administer British Imperial policy. To the extent we identify with those concerns we place ourselves at some remove from the female orphans themselves and thus may be less inclined to see things from their perspective.]

Another reason to stress regional differences and to recommend the Atlas is that they remind us our map showing the origins of the orphans (see the start of this post) is not necessarily a reflection of the severity of the Famine. There is some evidence in the map to indicate the depths of the catastrophe among cottiers and labourers in the infertile West and the high incidence of disease and calamitous mortality or the prevalence of eviction and excessive destitution in the same Western districts. Some of the orphans did indeed come from Sligo, Ballina, Tuam, Loughrea, Newcastle, Kanturk , Killarney and Skibbereen. But given the severity of the Famine in the West we may have expected more orphans to have come from there.  Perhaps our map is more likely an indication of Poor Law Guardians’ willingness to avail themselves of the opportunity presented by Earl Grey and the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners.  I’ll keep an open mind about this. The cartographer in the Atlas, Mike Murphy,  presents the map of the orphans’ origins in a different way from the one in this post. From his map it is clear the majority of the orphans came from Connacht and Munster.

 Let me try to come a bit closer to the female orphans by way of general background to their Workhouse experience. Later I’ll be more specific; I’ll place some of them firmly in a particular workhouse.

[The best place for your researches, I would suggest, is Peter Higginbotham’s great website  http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Ireland/ Start there, then click on “Workhouse Locations” in the left hand column and a Summary list of Unions appears. Beneath it is a list of Irish counties. Click on the county you want and the names of workhouses in that county appear. Among the brilliant things the website contains is an indication of the records that have survived and a bibliography of works to consult. For example, http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Enniskillen/  or http://www.workhouses.org.uk/DublinNorth/ This last one actually has Workhouse Registers for the period we want, though specifics aren’t mentioned on the website.]

to be continued