Between 1848 and 1850 more than 4,000 adolescent female orphans emigrated from Irish workhouses to the Australian colonies arriving in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. Their emigration become known as the ‘Earl Grey Scheme’ after its principle architect, Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies at the time of the Great Famine, suggested the move, and organised its operation.
The Australian authorities welcomed the injection of young marriagable women into a society spread over a vast continent, that was, in many places, rough and hard edged. Women were scarce. Coming from workhouses, which contained the genuinely destitute of Irish society at the time, these girls were penniless and very likely poorly dressed. Many of them were orphans, or had but one parent living. Others had been abandoned by fathers and mothers who were no longer able to feed them. There were little or no prospects of a decent life before them. It took decades for Irish rural society to recover from the ravages of the famine.
The prospect of Australia must have been appealing. Girls from the ages of 14 to 18 years were eligible. They were required to be ‘imbued with religion’ and to be ‘morally pure’. They were supplied with an extensive wardrobe, including new underwear, gowns and shoes; a Bible and a prayer book, and a good quality wooden box for their own use. They were brought by carriage to Dublin, by steamer to Plymouth, from there they set sail for Australia.
Unfortunately the first arrivals in the summer of 1848, mainly from Ulster unions, were maligned by the cynical Sydney newspapers as being ‘of disreputable character’. It was reported that during the four month voyage the girls had misbehaved, drank and carried on with members the crew. One girl died during an attempted abortion.The scheme was temporarily halted while the authorities reconsidered its next move. Two years later a second wave of orphans, many of whom came from Galway set sail on the Thomas Arbutnot. This time the surgeon on board, Charles Strutt, accompanied 105 of the young women on their southern journey to the Yass and Gundagai districts of New South Wales. He waited until they all found employment.
I get a very clear picture of how these girls got on thanks to the research by Christy Kelly in his just published history of Bushypark, an attractive suburb east of Galway, which contained an auxiliary workhouse.* Many of the girls could neither read nor write; but it appeared that once in Australia, they quickly got work, mainly as domestic servants. They earned good wages, and, it appears that between six and 12 months they left their employment, usually to be married.
There is however, at least one example of one of these girls, having earned some decent money for the first time in her life, who simply walked out on her employer, and went on a bit of a tear. Few, who knew the circumstances of her famine experience could blame her, but the self-righteous newspaper of the day expressed its horror at such a deed (See newspaper cutting on this page ).
A few examples from Christy Kelly’s book, however, gives us the picture of the fate that befell most of the girls: Ann Bohen, aged 16 native of Galway, a Roman Catholic, arrived in Sydney, could not read or write, was employed by KM Laughlin at £8 per annum, and worked for one year. She married John Kenny, St Augustine’s Yass on January 29 1852, and had three children. She married secondly Michael Cusack on July 30 1857, and had a further 10 children She died in 1896.
Sisters Mary Hart, 16, and Catherine, aged 17, Roman Catholics, worked as house servants, until they married. Mary married twice and had 11 children. She lived for a time in Van Diemen’s Land, and must have prospered as she was able to return to Galway on a holiday. She died in 1903 in Beaconsfield, Tasmania.
Margaret Holmes , aged 16, was employed by B Rail, Killmicat, New South Wales, at £8. She worked for one year before marrying John Gallagher, also at St Augustine’s, Yass. Her marriage was witnessed by a fellow orphan Ellen Tully from Ennis. Margaret had two sons. Teresa Nevin, 16 years, could read and write, worked as a house servant, before marrying Henry Rann and had seven children.
Love did not always run smoothly: Mary McCarthy, 18 years of age, worked as a house servant, could not read or write. After one year she left to marry George Cooper in 1851, and later married Edward Joseph Young. They had 11 children. But ‘during a violent argument’, Mary stabbed and killed her second husband. She was sentenced to six months for manslaughter. Later she raised her children alone. Sadly aged 55 years took an overdose and died.
Altogether Christy traces the lives of 87 girls from Galway who emigrated on the Earl Grey Scheme.
But as I can judge from the angry tone of the newspaper cutting, it is clear that the scheme was not popular with native Australians. First impressions were the hardest to erase; and the reputation of the first arrivals seemed to have lingered. While lack of skills and ‘morality’ were issues, Christy suggests that the reason for the ultimate failure of the scheme was religion. Prejudice against Catholics was levelled by Scottish and Northern Irish Presbyterians who had already settled in the host country, along with other Protestant emigrants who arrived later. They brought their prejudices with them from Ireland. The Earl Grey scheme ended in 1850. Today these young women, vunerable and inexperienced as they were, are acknowledged by the Australian government as worthy pioneers; whose descendants number in the many thousands today.
NOTES: *Bushypark, Our People - Our Place, A Parish History by Christy Kelly on sale €20.