Lost Children?

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2000), The Famine, Volume 8

Honora Walmsey née Shea-typical of the many Irish Famine orphans who endured a prolonged widowhood.

Honora Walmsey née Shea-typical of the many Irish Famine orphans who endured a prolonged widowhood.

Readers of Joseph Robins’ Lost Children will be familiar with the story of Irish female orphan adolescents who were sent from the workhouses of Ireland to the Australian colonies at the time of the Great Famine. Between 1848 and 1850 over 4,000 young women between the ages of fourteen and twenty arrived in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, some of them street-wise kids from Dublin, Belfast and Cork, others from famine ravaged rural districts around Skibbereen, Ballina, Roscrea and Loughrea. Their emigration was the brain-child of Earl Grey, secretary of state for the colonies, and primarily designed to meet an Australian demand for domestic servants and marriageable young women. Grey’s own Irish connections may also have prompted him to do something, however small, for famine-stricken Ireland.

Closely regulated

Unlike the Irish who fled from the Famine in ‘coffin’ ships to North America the death-rate among orphan girls to Australia was very low—less than 1 per cent. Their emigration was closely regulated and watched over by government institutions such as the Irish Poor Law Commission in Dublin, the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission in London, and by immigration authorities in the Australian colonies. Behind it lay the experience of many years of convict transportation and bounty emigration, a tradition that had lowered the death rate to minimal levels by 1848. The experience of the Irish who emigrated to the Antipodes in the nineteenth century was very different from those who emigrated to North America. Australian historians, but perhaps not the readers of History Ireland, will know of the unfavourable reception given these orphan girls in the various Australian colonies. Such was the clamour of opposition to their immigration that Earl Grey’s scheme was short-lived. It came to a premature end scarcely two years after it began.
The orphan girls became caught up in a political contest between imperial and Australian interests; Australian money was being used to finance the immigration of Irish paupers. No doubt, also, the fact that the immigration scheme was perceived as Earl Grey’s, a secretary of state who was attempting to renew convict transportation, contributed to the hostile reaction to the orphans in Australia. But there was more involved than this. Other issues quickly came to the surface as well. Anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, and anti-female prejudice reared its head in a number of quarters. Just as in recent times certain sections of the Australian community thought Asian migrants were overwhelming them (Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party comes to mind) those in 1850 saw themselves being overwhelmed by Irish female orphans.

Condemned as ‘workhouse incapables’

The young women were condemned in the colonial press, and by upper and middle-class opinion, as immoral, useless and untrained domestic servants, a drain upon the public purse, a financial liability, who, being blindly devoted to their religion, threatened to bring about a Popish ascendancy in New South Wales and Victoria. These were improper women, ‘workhouse incapables’ who were not carefully chosen migrants and were ill-suited to the needs of the Australian colonies. In the newspapers the orphans became the butt of prejudice and scorn. They were ‘Irish orphans, workhouse sweepings’ in the eyes of the South Australian Register; they were ‘hordes of useless trollops, thrust upon an unwilling community’, according to the Melbourne Argus. And in March 1850, the conservative Sydney Morning Herald complained, ‘instead of a few hundreds, the girls are coming out by thousands. Instead of mere orphans, we are being inundated with Irish paupers’. The most strident criticism came from the Melbourne Argus reflecting the sectarian colour of local city politics:

It is downright robbery to withhold our funds from decent eligible well brought up girls, to lavish it upon a set of ignorant creatures, whose knowledge of household duty barely reaches to distinguishing the inside from the outside of a potato, and whose chief employment hitherto, has consisted of some intellectual occupation as occasionally trotting across a bog to fetch back a runaway pig. Our money ought to be expended upon the rosy cheeked girls of England, upon the braw lassies of bonnie Scotland, instead of being wasted upon these coarse, useless creatures who, with their squat, stunted figures, thick waists and clumsy ankles promises but badly for the ‘physique’ of the future colonists of Victoria. (January 1850)

(Matthew Stout)

(Matthew Stout)

With opposition such as this the scheme was doomed. Imperial authorities soon gave way to colonial pressure and ceased sending Irish orphan girls to the Australian colonies.
So much for their immediate reception but what became of them in the long term during their lives in Australia? We only ever come into contact with the subaltern class in the past by means of biased intermediaries, such as official records. So too with the Irish orphan girls. We meet these young women most frequently at those points where the state intervened in their lives—in a workhouse in Ireland and on board a government chartered ship; or in an immigration depot in Australia, at the drawing up or the cancellation of the indentures of domestic servants, and sometimes in the records of a police magistrate’s court. These were the places the written record was set down. But state intervention was felt acutely for only part of these women’s lives. The vast majority never appeared in a police magistrate’s court. None kept a diary that has survived. There is no collection of their correspondence. How then are we to come close to these women and discover what became of them in the long run? How might their life stories be told?


Given the variety of backgrounds these young women came from, their relatively large number and the fact they were dispersed the length and breadth of eastern Australia, it is hardly surprising that their colonial experience should be equally varied. Among the casualties were those who were exploited and abused by their employers and husbands. In the Enniskillen workhouse register, for example, we find ‘No 3708 Alice Ball, fourteen years old, orphan, Protestant, not disabled, Enniskillen town her place of residence, admitted 30 August 1848, discharged 3 October 1849’. She and her sister Jane made their way with other Enniskillen orphans to join the Diadem at Plymouth for the voyage to Port Phillip Bay. Less than a year later, in April 1850, sixteen year old Alice, made pregnant by her employer, took her own life by throwing herself into Melbourne’s River Yarra.
Sixteen year old Mary Littlewood also suffered from harsh work conditions. Her mistress, Mrs Curtiss, of Sydney’s North Shore, hammered her on the face until she was faint with loss of blood. Luckily a neighbour intervened on her behalf. Sent up the country to Scone, Mary again fell foul of her mistress, this time, Elinor McGrath, herself a recent arrival from Ireland. Something of Mary Littlewood’s desperation, anger, frustration, rebellion, anomie, (how are we to describe it?) may be seen in the records relating to the cancellation of her indentures. Mary refused ‘to obey’ Mrs McGrath’s ‘lawful commands or attend to her duties as a servant’. Locked in, she attempted to burst the locks from the doors of her mistress’s home eventually ‘tearing the curtains from the windows, seizing the sofa covers or tidies, and attempting to tear them to pieces, at the same time using the most blasphemous expressions against all around her, damning her soul to hell but she would get out of the window and throw herself into the well’. Mary’s indentures were cancelled and she was returned to the immigration depot at Maitland where she disappears from the record. Nothing further is known of her.
Seventeen year old Mary Colgan from Skibbereen arrived in Geelong in 1850 and had the misfortune to marry James Walton, a man ‘addicted to liquor and using violence to his wife’, as a judge was later to put it. At the Ballarat gold diggings in 1857 both were charged with the murder of Edward Howell. Mary got off but James Walton was sentenced to eighteen months hard labour for manslaughter. A few years later, in 1862, still living in a tent, a long history of domestic violence came to a fatal climax. Mary, thrown into the cold night, beaten and kicked by her drunken husband, suffered a miscarriage. This was the fifth child she had lost because of her husband’s beatings. A few days later she too died in the Ballarat District Hospital—‘of typhoid fever and enteritis brought on by a miscarriage, occasioned by the ill-treatment of her husband’—according to the jury’s verdict at her inquest. James Walton received seven years hard labour for his crime.

Upwardly mobile

At the other end of the scale there were those who prospered, at least in the material sense. Ellen Parks, one of the Belfast girls who sailed in the infamous Earl Grey, was to marry London-born George Clarke, a successful restaurant keeper and oyster merchant in the city of Sydney. Like other Irish and Scottish women who suffered from deficiency diseases during the Famine, Ellen had difficulties in childbirth in the early years. But she survived and eventually had nine children, six of whom were still alive at the time of Ellen’s early death from heart disease in 1880. Ellen and George Clarke had prospered enough for Ellen to bequeath to her children not only money but jewellery, books, glassware, furniture and fine engravings—‘a chester diamond ring to Ellen, a gold hunting watch with Albert and locket attached, to George, a gold miniature brooch, with Emu and Kangaroo in wreath, to Anna, a gold brooch and earrings containing topaz, to Alice’.
At Moreton Bay, in present day Queensland, Margaret Blair married a bootmaker, John Hardgrave, and together they accumulated extensive property holdings in both north and south Brisbane. When her husband died in 1908, Margaret inherited an estate valued at £9,450, a small fortune for those times. In Victoria, Letitia Connolly, like Alice Ball also from Fermanagh, married a storekeeper, Scottish born William Hayes. Grasping the opportunities that came their way in the fluid economic conditions of the gold-rush era, Letitia and William were to prosper in the Victorian country town of Dunolly. An enterprising merchant and investor, William left Letitia and their three children, an estate valued at £7,487 when he died in 1890.

Lost Children 3One of Letitia’s shipmates, Sarah Richardson née Arbuckle, also married well. Married to a market gardener, farmer and landowner, she raised twelve children and died a ‘gentlewoman’ in 1908. After her husband died in 1892 Sarah managed the farm properties on Phillip Island herself. In the phonetic spelling of her entries in her meticulously kept farm account books we can still hear her Ulster accent. ‘June 1899 for chicory digging, Petter Moor £4-12-6…August 10, 1900 paid to Hunary Richardson for work and laber don and bording kiln men the sum of £18-1-0…in 1902 bard wire and chicory seed £1-3sh’.
From information in the author’s prosopographical database of Irish female orphans, the orphans who went to Queensland fared marginally better than those in either New South Wales or Victoria. The table above is based on probate records.
Victimisation and abuse, material prosperity and middle class respectability was the lot of a minority of the famine orphans. In an attempt to find out what became of the majority of them, extensive work has been done among birth, death and marriage records in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. The demographic story of 280 young women has been pieced together using family reconstitution techniques.

Data limitations

Unfortunately there are limitations to what this evidence uncovers. For example, our sample is biased towards Protestant Ulsterwomen. Nineteen per cent of the 1,285 orphans who disembarked at Port Phillip were Protestant and 28 percent were born in the nine counties of Ulster. Of our reconstituted families, 37 percent were Protestant and 43 per cent from Ulster. Our sample is also weighted towards the young women who arrived in the early vessels. The orphans became more difficult to trace as government assisted migrant traffic increased. Nonetheless, while acknowledging this bias, a very cautious alignment of names, ages, religion and parents’ names (in the New South Wales and Queensland cases) carried through to immensely informative death certificates has led to a high degree of confidence in the accuracy of our findings.

Typical famine orphan

Our typical famine orphan, if such a person ever existed, was a teenage servant from Munster who was Roman Catholic and able to read. Both her parents were dead (almost a quarter of those who came to New South Wales had one parent still alive). She married when she was nineteen, within two and an half years of disembarking in the colony (two thirds of those traced married in less than three years of their arrival) most likely to an Englishman, ten or eleven years her senior, and of a different religion from her own (30 per cent of those traced married Irishmen, 56 per cent Englishmen and 5 per cent native-born Australians). If she was lucky enough to survive the hazardous years of childbirth, her completed family size was nine children. The famine orphans had a higher age-specific marital fertility rate than other Irish born migrant women. In New South Wales and Victoria she could expect to live another forty years and in Queensland another fifty years after she arrived.
To try and put faces to some of our statistics, Mary Fitzgibbon from Clare was about eighteen years of age when she married Englishman John Hunter in Brisbane in 1853. He was twenty-five. Together they had nine children, four girls and five boys. John Hunter was a labourer, sawyer and timber cutter in Brisbane and on the Logan River. He died of rheumatic fever in 1873, one month before the birth of his youngest son, Peter. Mary was to live out another forty years of widowhood before being buried in Toowong cemetery. Honora Mugan from Castlebar in Mayo married John Dengate, a Wesleyan, in Bathurst in 1852. She was eighteen, he almost twenty-seven. Together they had ten children, six boys and four girls. But they lost three of their boys in the scarlet fever epidemic in 1866. John died in Cooma in 1891. There is no record of Honora’s death.
This is only some of the information that such records make available. They can be made to yield still more, about pre-marital pregnancy rates or about the orphans’ geographic mobility, for example. The Australian map is based on birth registration records and shows how widely scattered the orphans were in eastern Australia in 1861. Within fifteen years of their arrival, the famine orphans were concentrated in the major cities but they were also in relative abundance on the frontiers of white settlement in New South Wales, Victoria and the newly created colony of Queensland.

Prolonged widowhood

Other inferences may be drawn from the demographic information contained in our family reconstitutions. The fact that the orphans married men who on average, were ten or eleven years their senior, meant that many of them could look forward to prolonged widowhood. Margaret Best, for example, was twenty years a widow, Mary McCann fifty three years, Jane Kirkwood forty six, Ann Barrow, fourteen and Honora Shea nearly twelve years without her husband.

Bridget (née Hartigan) and Will Hine with daughter Caroline in 1862.

Bridget (née Hartigan) and Will Hine with daughter Caroline in 1862.

Four generations-Bridget in 1912, aged seventy-seven, with daughter Caroline, grand-daughter Ruby and great-grand-daughter Carrie.

Four generations-Bridget in 1912, aged seventy-seven, with daughter Caroline, grand-daughter Ruby and great-grand-daughter Carrie.

Because of this demographic fact, to say nothing of the effects of the economic depression of the 1890s and in the days before the old age pension, a high proportion of Irish born working class widows would have been at great risk of institutionalisation in their old age. In 1848, Belfast orphan girl Mary Murray arrived in Adelaide on board the Roman Emperor. Forty-nine years later, in the 1890s, she was an inmate of a benevolent asylum at the other end of the country, at Dunwich on Stradbroke Island in Moreton Bay. So too were Ellen Leydon who had arrived by the Thomas Arbuthnot, and two other ‘Belfast girls’ who had come by the Earl Grey, Eliza Rodgers and Eliza Frazer.
Analysis of the occupational status of their husbands reveals that most of the famine orphans lived out a battling working class existence. Sarah Doyle’s husband was a farm servant, police constable and fish dealer, Eliza Carrigge’s, a labourer and sawyer, Sarah McMullen’s, a labourer, milkman and dealer. Bridget Callery’s was a labourer and bush carpenter, Ellen Dunbar’s husband a boot and shoemaker, Bridie Flynn’s a policeman and labourer, and Bridie McCarthy’s a farm servant and labourer. They lived, in other words, in the kind of world so poignantly described in Australian literature in Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife, in Barbara Baynton’s Bush Stories and at a slightly later date, in Ruth Park’s stories of women in the inner city. Bearing children every two or three years and raising a large family in a two roomed wattle and daub hut was hardly more comfortable than life in the cramped living conditions of working class Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

‘Short grasses’

Materially well-to-do middle class matrons, victimised wives and servants, or battling working class mothers are the three dominant images of the famine orphans’ lives in Australia. Yet even these representations are scarcely adequate; the orphans’ life experience was as complex as the human condition itself. A young Scottish cuddy boy, James Porter, described the orphans who came to Moreton Bay at the end of 1849 being ‘treated more like criminals than objects of pity. There (sic) hair had been cut short and the blackfellow when he saw them for the first time called them “short grass” consequently they were afterwards called “short grasses”’. Porter’s account is invaluable in evoking a picture of the rough masculine society into which the young women were thrown:

…the men from up country represented themselves or were understood by the girls to be squatters and when their cheques were spent the difficulty was to get their wives out of town…one girl refused to move but her husband by main force got her to the camp, padlocked a bullock chain about her waist and fastened it to the tail of the dray. Eighteen months afterwards I got on to the Merroo [gold] diggings I recognised her living under the protection of a man other than her husband keeping a sly grog shop.

We can only imagine how the young women came to terms with the rough masculine society of the day. Obviously some survived better than others. They should not be thought of simply as passive ciphers. They were self-fashioning women negotiating a space for themselves as best they could. Young orphan servants such as Mary Byrnes, Margaret Slack, Catherine Dempsey, Jane Sharp and Mary Moriarty used the law to defend their rights against their employers. In turn, employers complained of the sassiness and lack of deference on the part of their Irish orphan servants.

Johanna Kelly (1833-1929), here aged sixty, arrived on the Panama 12 January 1850 and later married John Bushell.

Johanna Kelly (1833-1929), here aged sixty, arrived on the Panama 12 January 1850 and later married John Bushell.

Similarly, the criteria we use to measure the ‘success’ of the famine orphans are difficult to define. For some of the orphans the very act of survival was success in itself. Others strove for middle class respectability and to suppress their workhouse origins. For many, one suspects the question of ‘success’ or ‘failure’ was not a consideration. For present day family historians increasingly interested in the Irish famine orphans the best testimony to the young women’s ‘success’ was their new Australian family. Ellen Maloney, for example, died of a uterine haemorrhage, scarcely forty years of age, but having given birth to ten children. Four generations later numbered among a very large number of her descendants are farmers, lawyers, academics, health professionals, public servants, men and women in religion, schoolteachers and business people. Eliza Frazer and Ellen Leydon may well have ended their days in Dunwich benevolent asylum. Very little, in fact, may be known of the emotional dynamics of their family life. But for their descendants, Ellen Leydon and Eliza Frazer are the founders of their own ‘successful’ Australian dynasties.

Trevor McClaughlin is Senior Lecturer in History at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

Further reading:

T. McClaughlin, Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine orphans in Australia (Melbourne 1991).

T. McClaughlin (ed.), Irish Women in Colonial Australia (Sydney 1998).

R. Reid and C. Mongan, ‘A Decent Set of Girls’: the Irish Famine orphans of the Thomas Arbuthnot 1849-1850 (Yass Heritage Project 1996).

J. Robins, The Lost Children: a study of charity children in Ireland 1700-1900 (Dublin 1980).


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