Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans; Origins of the scheme

I’m very new to this so please forgive my booboos.

Here’s a little picture. Note the bulge in the graph, the percentage of 10-24 year old Irish female migrants arriving in New South Wales. This is explained by the arrival of c. 3,500 famine orphans from Irish workhouses who came to Port Jackson and Port Phillip between 1848 and 1850. It does not include the 600 who sailed into Port Adelaide. There were 4114-4175,  mostly adolescent  females in all, who came as part of the “Earl Grey Scheme”.

Viewing a graph like this illustrates just how remarkable a feat of British Imperial social engineering the  Earl Grey scheme was. One can imagine the conversation at the centre of power. “Do the Australian colonies need more females? Yes, well let’s send them some from our workhouses.”  Not that it was ever as simple as that.


Where did the idea come from? It was not completely new. An important precedent  was set during the 1830s when young women, many of them from both Irish and English Foundling Hospitals,  Houses of Industry and other charitable institutions, were brought into New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. The aim  of the British Imperial government,  as Lord Howick put it, was to “encourage the emigration of females“‘  “to remedy what is so very serious an evil in its present condition (the disproportion of the sexes)“. (Howick to Treasury 16 Feb 1831, quoted in British Parliamentary Report of 1835). This  motive was still very much in evidence  in 1848. As indeed was  the speed with which commentators in both Britain and Australia stereotyped such female emigration as “being injurious to the best interests of the colony”  (J. Eckfort, Surgeon on board the Duchess of Northumberland, giving evidence to  the Parliamentary enquiry in 1835). His sentiments  echoed those of the Presbyterian Minister, Reverend J. D Lang, who earlier that same week had  asserted to the Enquiry that “the female emigrants sent out by Government…although many of them have conducted themselves reputably, and are now comfortably settled, their general influence on the morals of the colony has been decidedly and highly unfavourable”.  (On the fifteen vessels which came from Ireland and England in the 1830s  see A. J. Hammerton’s essay in (Australian) Historical Studies in October 1975 and more recently,  Liz Rushen’s books. Her Colonial Duchesses,  on mainly Irish women, was published by Anchor Books in 2014. See her website www.rushen.com.au ) This early government scheme for bringing women to Australia had finished by 1836.

There was, however, an enormous influx of Irish women as Bounty migrants in the early 1840s.  Between January 1841 and June 1842 almost  17, 000 Assisted Irish immigrants arrived in New South Wales. More than half of them were female. The authorities were hard pressed to find accommodation and employment  for such a flood of people.  Caroline Chisholm, “The Emigrant’s Friend”, is deservedly renowned for her work with these immigrants. She met them at the wharves, advocated for, and set up a Female Immigrant’s Home and employment agency, promoted the establishment of depots at Liverpool, Parramatta, Campbelltown and Bathurst and travelled herself by dray, taking groups of individuals to the hinterland for employment, and supervising their terms of work agreement.  However, her ability to publicize her own good work in pamphlets such as Female Immigration:Female Immigration considered in a Brief Account of the Sydney Immigrants’ Home (Sydney, 1842) and Comfort for the Poor! Meat Three Times a Day!!! Voluntary Information from the People of New South Wales collected in that Colony in 1845-6, (London, 1847) , and before various parliamentary enquiries, has tended to overshadow the  achievement of  Francis Merewether, the New South Wales Immigration Agent (from 1841-51). He especially, was instrumental in preparing an administrative infrastructure–immigrant depots in Sydney and rural districts, making hiring arrangements– that was resurrected when Government Assisted Immigration recommenced in 1847.

Caroline Chisholm was  a strong advocate of family values and the importance of careful selection of migrants. “Under a good system the very best girls would emigrate”, she emphasized to the New South Wales Legislative Council Select Committee on Immigration in September 1845.  The very next day, 5 September, Francis Merewether also stressed how important female immigration was but it was he who suggested to the Committee, “I am informed that the difficulty of procuring female servants for the Colony is very great, and certainly those sent out during the past eighteen months were generally very inferior in every respect to the male immigrants. Some of the female orphan institutions of the Mother Country  might perhaps supply useful servants: but I am not sufficiently informed upon the subject to do more than throw out the suggestion.”  (My italics)  Merewether dealt with, cared for and distributed throughout the colony of New South Wales a much larger number of migrants than Caroline Chisholm ever did.

Yet Caroline Chisholm undoubtedly had influence on the formulation of British Imperial government’s emigration policy in the period between 1846 and 1848,  at the very time when government assisted emigration was being renewed.  She and her family had returned to England in 1846.  She herself appeared before a House of Lords Select Committee on Colonization from Ireland in July 1847 and submitted “I should not feel the Interest I do in Female Emigration if I did not look beyond providing Families with Female Servants–if i did not know how much they are required as Wives,  and how much moral Good may be done in this Way.” Her quintessential Victorian values  coincided with those in her network of friends and politicians. She was adept at gaining publicity for herself and in promoting what we might call ‘family reunion’. She also forcefully argued the case for the emigration of single females and for the proper treatment of newly arrived migrants, no mean feat.  Yet nowhere have I seen where she  recommended sending female migrants from Irish workhouses.

However, a direct appeal was made by Archibald Cunninghame, a pastoralist  sent by his fellow colonists of the Port Phillip District to appear before that same House of Lords Select Committee on Colonisation.  On 12 and 16 July 1847 Cunninghame presented a detailed and attractive plan for the emigration of Irish orphans, both male and female.

See http://www.dippam.ac.uk/eppi/documents/12344/page/303060

While his proposal differed from the one that was eventually put forward by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners (CLEC) early in 1848, not least on the question of who was to pay, there are enough similarities between his scheme and the one that was adopted for us to realize he may have had a formative influence on what became known as Earl Grey’s Irish female orphan scheme.  “And Orphan Girls, whose fate in this Country one can scarcely think of without a Shudder, would when their Apprenticeship in the Colony had expired find a ready and well-paid Demand for their Labour as single Girls, and the Certainty, if well conducted, of soon being respectably married” (A. Cunninghame Esq., before Select Committee 16 July 1847).

In a letter to H. Merivale, Under-Secretary for the Colonial Department, a year later, dated 6 June 1848, commenting on the CLEC proposal, Cunninghame showed he was under no illusions about the importance of his own role in the affair, “As the plan for orphan emigration was, I believe, originally brought forward by myself…it will naturally be supposed that I take a direct interest in its success”.

Clearly, the idea of sending orphans from Irish workhouses was ‘in the air’ among parliamentarians in both England and Australia at this time.  Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies, had received a similar suggestion directly  from Governor Fitzroy in New South Wales and  from Governor Robe of South Australia.

According to Archibald Boyd, when he was trying to persuade Earl Grey that British funds should be used to finance emigration to Australia, “the noble lord professed to have been there and then struck with a thought…the orphan girls whom the famine of Ireland had cast upon the parishes of that part of the kingdom, it might perhaps be advantageous to have a proportion sent out to the Australian colonies, on such terms as would divide the expense between the colonies and the parishes.” (see Sydney Morning Herald 13 March 1850).

In the end, responsibility for the Irish female orphan scheme lay with Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the colonies in Lord John Russell’s Whig government. It was Grey’s decision and his responsibility to set the whole scheme in motion. The point I’m also making is that the decision to send female orphans was made by the Imperial government but it was not a dictatorial whim, something which Earl Grey plucked out of the blue as the fancy took him. He had listened to government officials in Australia, Governors Robe and Fitzroy and even perhaps, Immigration Agent Merewether as well as representatives of Australian pastoralists such as  Archibald Cunninghame.

Yet in another sense, the real architects of the scheme were the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners in London who by that stage (1847-48) were responsible for land policy throughout the British Empire. It was they who would draw up the details, and fine-tune how the scheme actually worked.

We will also need to put the scheme into historical context; the Earl Grey female orphan scheme was but one of a number of similar ‘schemes’ emerging in the late 1840s.  Other schemes included bringing out the children of earlier Bounty migrants to join their parents, if they agreed to come; bringing out members of convicts’ families, if they  desired to come, and trialling the migration of other ‘orphans’ from the remnants of Dublin and Cork Foundling Hospitals and other charitable institutions, though these last may have had less  choice. Grey even attempted to renew convict transportation, much to the ire of colonists.  But the major interest and major  push was for the revival, renewal and extension of Government Assisted Emigration, designed to supply agricultural labour and domestic servants for pastoral interests in Australia. At the same time, it was what the Imperial government believed was the right kind of social engineering. We should be aware, too, that the administrative machinery for Government Assisted Emigration (which already drew on the experience of convict transportation and Bounty migration) would be a very useful foundation for the emigration of adolescent females from Irish workhouses between 1848 and 1850.

There are, of course, other contexts, –the Great Irish Famine, the voyage, what happened to the young women in Australia– but more of that later.

digging for potatoes