Australia offered some relief for Famine orphan girls

 Earl Grey’s orphans:  the ‘morally pure’, were selected from Irish workhouses for transport to Australia (cartoon from Women’s Museum of Ireland)

Earl Grey’s orphans: the ‘morally pure’, were selected from Irish workhouses for transport to Australia (cartoon from Women’s Museum of Ireland)

The extreme winter conditions of 1846/47 exacerbated the mounting crisis that the Great Famine had already created. The number of deaths from hunger in Galway town averaged between 25 and 30 a week. As well as the main workhouse on Newcastle Road (now the University College Hospital ) auxiliary workhouses had opened at Barna, Newtownsmyth, Merchants Road, St Helen Street, and in Dangan. Six soup kitchens operated throughout the town feeding some 7,000 people a day and more as newcomers streamed in from rural districts. On one bitterly cold morning two children were found frozen to death on High Street. Another child dead nearby.

The workhouses were completely overcrowded. Confronted by the demands of a desperate people, many of whom were diseased and aggressive, the authority there was breaking down. As the workhouses became more crowded, the ratepayers of the town (who were obligated to financially support the charity ), often refused to pay more. There was a constant demand for money to meet day to day expenses. It was a burden that had become a nightmare for everyone. There were riots in the streets. Food shops were broken into leading to confrontations with the police. Within the workhouses themselves there were regular fights and quarrels among the inmates, and among the staff. A riot erupted at Dangan when the boys complained that they had not received their dinner.

Even though the sexes were kept apart, there were incidences that were frowned upon. Two boys were found locked in a provisions store with a girl. Mary Qualter, a pauper employed at Dangan to look after children, ran off with another pauper, John Keady. They were married by the Rev Peter Daly, who may have had a soft spot for the pair. John and Mary remained away for a few days, before returning to the workhouse. I am sure there was hell to pay!

‘Morally pure’

There was, however, genuine concern for the protection of vulnerable young girls, many of whom were orphans. But a saviour of sorts arrived in the unlikely guise of Earl Grey (yes, the son of the famous tea merchant ), who was Secretary of State for new British Colonies, in Lord John Russell’s Whig government, at the time. He suggested that planned emigration of these young girls to Australia, all of whom would be ‘of good moral standing’, whould go some way to redress the gender imbalance there which was at the time eight to one in favour of men.

The Australian government was delighted. It agreed to fund all transportation costs but insisted on very strict guidelines as to who would be eligible for the scheme. Specifically, the girls had to ‘be imbued with religion and morally pure’, preferably between the ages 14 and 18, in good health and possess industrial skills - the latter demand was unlikely in Galway given the education and training provided to workhouse females.

However, putting the educational aspect aside, the scheme received immediate political support because it cost the government nothing. No one asked the young women what they thought of the plan, but probably they had no choice. There was no future for them in Galway at that time. It was, however, popular with ratepayers who would get some relief as the number of dependent girls would be reduced.

‘A rocky start’

Because of the wide political acceptance of the scheme, the Poor Law Commissioners were determined to make it a success so that it could continue on into the future. Before setting sail, every female was provided with ‘an outfit comprised of six shifts, two flannel petticoats, six pairs of stockings, two gowns, and two pairs of shoes’. Protestant girls were given a Bible and a psalm book, while Catholics received a Douay Bible and a prayer book.’They were also provided with handmade wooden boxes of good quality which would hold their belongings’.

In June 1848 the first ship, The Earl Grey, carried 185 workhouse females, mainly from Ulster unions, first to Plymouth, and then on to Australia. It all got off to a rocky start. The Australian people, in their straightforward manner, were probably not that impressed with Earl Grey and his girls in the first place. When the poor girls from Belfast arrived they were quickly checked out, and dismissed as being ‘of disreputable character’. They were described as ‘beggars and prostitutes’. It was reported that they had been insubordinate during the voyage, that the girls frequently drank on board, acted inappropriately with the ship’s crew, and that one girl had even died during an attempted abortion.

The scheme was immediately put on hold.

Next week: A second phase of the Earl Grey scheme was implemented, including many Galway girls. Would they be better behaved?


There were workhouses also at Tuam, Ballinasloe, Loughrea, Gort, Clifden, Portumna, Glenamaddy, Mountbellew and Oughterard.

I am leaning heavily on Christy Kelly’s Bushypark, our people - our place, a Parish History, especially on his well researched Dangan workhouse, now on sale €20.




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