From Galway Workhouse Girls to Australian Pioneers.

A Feature about Western Australian Famine Girls by Mary Lambert

In 1853 Western Australia (the Swan River Colony) was a remote and an undeveloped place. With few facilities and lacking in amenities, and a hot and often inhospitable climate, this colony was not an inviting and welcoming place. However, the ‘brideship’ Palestine arrived in Fremantle that year, carrying 33 young girls from the Mountbellew Workhouse in Ireland. These young women were to help relieve the Swan River Colony’s shortage of domestic workers and provide potential brides for the largely male population.

The barque Palestine, a bride ship which took young women to Western Australia. Image courtesy of Jenny Brandis,

With the strong prejudice in the colony against the Irish and against Catholics, life was not going to be easy for these young women. However, in spite of the hardships awaiting them, those on the Palestine were more likely better off in Western Australia. Life as a pauper in the Mountbellew Workhouse was not an attractive proposition.

My grandfather came from the Mountbellew area. Having visited there in 2014, when I saw an advertisement in Tinteán for assistance in researching what happened to these young women I was intrigued.  So began 18 months of research into the sisters Mary and Catherine Cunningham, two of the girls aboard the Palestine.  The research was time consuming, enjoyable and at times frustrating. Mary and Catherine Cunningham, along with the other Workhouse girls from Mountbellew, did not deserve to be forgotten.

What-ever happened to Catherine and Mary?

Catherine Cunningham

Catherine married William Baillie (Bailey), in 1857 at Middle Swan, 25 km north-east of Perth. Moving around the Bunbury area, they lived in rural, and isolated areas. From 1859 to 1874 Catherine and William had eight children. The births were registered at different parts of this locality. Presumably they were moving around so William could find work.

Catherine lost her eldest child, Mary, aged eight, to a snake bite in 1867 just two months before her fourth child, John, was born. A newspaper account is given below. Sadly, baby John died aged one year in 1868. The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times (WA : 1864 – 1874), Friday 22 February 1867, featured the story on page 2:


At Brookhampton, on the evening of the 13th instant, a little girl named Bailey, went out about half-past eight in the evening to get some water and on her return told her mother she had trodden on a snake and that it had bitten her. Unfortunately the mother thought nothing of it, and during the night the poison took such a hold of the system that the poor little thing was beyond help in the morning, and died about midday, apparently without the slightest suffering. There were marks visible in her leg of nine teeth.

Around the time of little Mary’s death (summer 1867) there were reports of large bush fires in the Bunbury region. Living in the bush, Catherine would have become aware of the dangers of bushfires and the terrible devastation that they can bring. Fear of such fires would have become part of her life especially in the hot summers. Contact with local aborigines would have been inevitable. Prevailing attitudes to the indigenous people were harsh and not respectful. Sometimes indigenous people were feared when they fought back against their land being taken from them. Life here was very different from the Workhouse in Mountbellew!

Records show that in 1875 and 1876 William, Catherine and some of their children went to and from Perth from Bunbury by boat a number of times. Maybe Catherine was visiting her sister, Mary who lived in Perth.  Boat was the only means of travelling to Perth at that time as major roads had not been made.  While going to Perth on one occasion in 1876, Catherine’s son, Thomas aged two, was christened in the Fremantle Catholic church.

However, Thomas is recorded as being christened shortly after birth in Bunbury. Perhaps Thomas’s original Christening was not in a Catholic Church?

Not much is known about Catherine after the birth of her last child. That there are few records of her indicates that she and her husband William were not of high social status, and moved around to various isolated communities. However this lack of records also shows that they were not in trouble with the police and court system.

Mary Cunningham

Mary married John Sellenger, an Irish ex-convict, in 1858 in the Perth Catholic Church. Unlike Catherine, Mary lived in Perth throughout her married life. She had seven children, all born in Perth.  John was often in trouble with the law mainly for minor offences. In 1871, John was found guilty of assaulting his wife and was given one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.

In spite of John’s frequent disregard for the law, two of Mary’s sons had long careers in the Police Force and one daughter married a Policeman. One son, William Charles Sellenger, born 1863, rose to prominence in the Police, retiring as Chief Inspector of the Western Australian Police Force. Edith Cowan University in Perth, named the Sellenger Centre after him. The Centre’s website offers this tribute to him:

William Charles Sellenger was the first non-commissioned Police Officer in WA to become Chief Inspector. Acquiring this status was unlikely as he was the son of a convicted felon, poor and Catholic in a society that was class-based, Anglican and hierarchical. When he retired in 1928 he had effected many positive changes within the Police Force and society in general. Those changes improved the lives of many citizens, including the underprivileged, Indigenous people and those within minority groups. He was never content to allow prejudice and injustice go unchallenged and constantly pursued fair treatment for all citizens regardless of their race or religion. Throughout his life, he fearlessly pursued justice and social change, not only legally, but morally and ethically.   (Froyland, 2001).

Mary undoubtedly influenced  the son’s fine values that led him to be so respected. Mary died in 1894, probably too early to see the height of William’s success.

A Western Australian Police History site featuring policing in Fremantle in 1919 gives a fascinating glimpse into Mary’s son’s family life by way of a telling photograph:


Jpeg Sellenger

Mary (Cunningham) Sellenger’s  son and grandsons – William Charles Sellenger and sons ~1905
(Fremantle 1919 – A Slice of Policing Life, Peter Conole


The little grandsons have had police uniforms made for them by the Fremantle community to honour their father’s role in the community.

John, Mary’s husband, was entrepreneurial and managed to make a good living as time went by. Records show that towards the end of Mary’s life she and John were not living in poverty.

In spite of the hardships involved, Catherine and Mary managed to raise their families in Western Australia so far from their home in Mountbellew. While these sisters had different lives, they were both pioneers in forging this prosperous nation of Australia. Their descendants have been able to enjoy the many social and economic benefits of modern Australia.

Mountbellew Workhouse Girls Commemoration May 2018

The recent Commemoration weekend (May 4 -6) in Mountbellew, was a very moving experience and a great tribute to the 33 Workhouse girls. A warm welcome was extended to the Australians who were able to be there.  Attendance by Australian descendants and Irish relatives of these young women made the Commemoration very special. The organisers provided a full and enjoyable week-end, beginning on Friday night with a ‘Rambling House’ in the historic pub, Ruanes at Glentane. Traditional Irish music, song and story entertained and delighted all present. On Saturday a more serious note was struck with a conference at the Portumna Workhouse (one of the very few fully restored Irish Workhouses). Speakers provided historical background including the Irish famine and the Workhouse system. The lives of some Workhouse girls were revealed by various Australian speakers – mainly by their descendants.

Australian Ambassador, Richard Andrews, lays a wreath at the site of the former Mountbellew Workhouse. (Photo: David Walsh, Connaught Tribune 10 May 2018)

Sunday was the culmination of the weekend. A beautiful Mass at Mountbellew Church emphasising the Australian – Irish connection and honouring the 33 girls, was followed by a luncheon. The official launch was performed by the Irish Minister for the Diaspora, Ciaran Cannon, and Richard Andrews, the Australian Ambassador to Ireland. Various other Irish dignitaries attended.  After speeches and presentation of Commemorative medals by the Australian Ambassador, there was a ceremony at the Mountbellew Workhouse site. Here flowers were laid at a plaque in honour of these young women, and a tour of the site (now a secondary school) was given.

Those involved with the Mountbellew Workhouse Project have done an amazing job of honouring these young women who otherwise may have been lost to both Irish and Australian history. Certainly, thecontribution of these young women from Mountbellew in creating and building modern Australia should not be forgotten.

Mary Lambert, Melbourne, Australia

Mary has provided the following reading for those who wish to delve into the history more: Further Reading




3 thoughts on “From Galway Workhouse Girls to Australian Pioneers.

  1. Wonderful to have met you Mary at the Commemoration and to have helped link 2 of the Australian families to their Irish and US families by DNA

    Keep up the great work

    Martin Curley

  2. I very much enjoyed this piece. My great great grandmother was also an Irish lass destined for Western Australia on the bride ship Travancore. It was a life beyond comprehension knowing the comforts we all have today.

Comments are closed.