An Unfortunate Life: Rose Flemming, Irish Famine Orphan

The first in Tintean’s series of Famine Orphan Profiles by Jeff Kildea, a descendant.

Rosanna Clark’s prison photo of 1883.

After I began researching my family’s history in 1979 my mother often asked me as the years passed whether I had found any information on her great-grandmother Rose Flemming, known to her as Rosanna. Unfortunately, I was unable to satisfy mum’s curiosity, for Rosanna’s story kept eluding me; that is, until 2016, some three years after mum’s death. Having now stumbled upon Rosanna’s story, I wonder whether mum knew it all along and quizzed me to see if I had found out the family’s secret or whether she hoped that I might be able to tell her what it was that her aunts and uncles used to whisper to each other behind cupped hands when she was young.

Rosanna Flemming was born c.1830 at Ballyadams, a townland in County Laois, Ireland, which is about eight kilometres from the town of Athy, County Kildare and 70 kilometres south-west of Dublin. Her parents were Patrick and Mary. At age 19, Rosanna emigrated to New South Wales under Earl Grey’s orphan emigration scheme, which between 1848 and 1850 sent to Australia more than 4000 young Irish women and girls from workhouses during the Great Irish Famine. Although termed ‘orphans’ many of the girls had one or both parents living but unable to care for them in the straitened circumstances of the Famine. That was true for Rosanna whose mother was still living at Ballyadams. Surely, the pain of separation for both mother and daughter was thus that much more intense.

Opened in January 1844, the Athy workhouse was designed to accommodate 360 adults and 240 children. By February 1849 it held almost 1400 inmates. The purpose of the Earl Grey scheme was twofold: to relieve overcrowding in the workhouses and to provide female labour and wives for the male-dominated colonial societies of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. In all 37 girls would be selected to travel from Athy to Australia, 18 (including Rosanna) on the Lady Peel in 1849 and 19 on the Maria in 1850.

Standing next to Rosanna Flemming’s commemorative travel box at the Athy Heritage Centre are Jeff Kildea and Evelyn Conlon, author of Not the Same Sky, a novel about the experiences of the Irish famine orphans in Australia.

For the journey Rosanna and her cohort, ranging in age from 17 to 19 years, were provided with a wooden trunk in which were clothing, needle and thread, a Douay Bible, a certificate of good character and a certificate of good health. From the workhouse they walked to the railway station where they took the Great Southern and Western Railway train to Dublin. From there they went by open-deck steamer to Plymouth, a journey of some 36 hours. In Plymouth they transferred to the Lady Peel. The ship, which was originally scheduled to sail on 25 February was delayed, not leaving Plymouth until 14 March 1849.

A correspondent to the Times who went on board the Lady Peel a few hours after the Irish orphan girls embarked, wrote:

I was much struck with the cleanly, healthy appearance of a cargo of Irish girls from the ‘unions’ on their way to Port Phillip and Sidney. They were nearly all Roman Catholics, and spending the Sunday on shore, went to mass; as they passed through the town, everyone was struck with their tidy, orderly appearance. I saw them the next day on board and was most pleased to find the pains taken to give them a thorough good outfit in every way.

After a voyage of 110 days the Lady Peel reached Sydney on 3 July 1849 carrying 174 Irish female orphans, nine married couples and seven children.

The orphan girls were initially housed at the Hyde Park Barracks from where they were placed with various employers. Rosanna, who could neither read nor write, was given 12-months’ indentured employment with Dr John Dickson, a medical practitioner and a recently-elected member of the Legislative Council for the seat of Port Phillip in what would soon become the separate colony of Victoria. Dickson had moved from Geelong to Sydney to take his seat just a few weeks before the Lady Peel arrived. But Rosanna’s employment with him did not last long. On 26 October 1849 Magistrate Hutchinson Hothersall Browne cancelled her indenture for ‘improper conduct’.

In Barefoot and Pregnant (1991)historian Trevor McClaughlin warns that we should not read too much into such descriptions, accusing Browne of ‘naked anti-Irish prejudice’ and noting that both master and servant tried to work the system, one to get rid of an unruly servant, the other to seek better conditions elsewhere. In any event, less than three weeks later, on 12 November 1849, Rosanna married James Clark of Surry Hills, a 45-year-old native of County Westmeath, who had arrived in the colony not long before her. The ceremony took place in St Mary’s church, a predecessor of St Mary’s Cathedral.

James and Rosanna had nine children, five boys and four girls. In this respect, Rosanna was typical of the Irish famine orphans. According to Trevor McClaughlin, on average they married at 19 years, most to older men within three years of landing, and had nine children. But unfortunately for Rosanna, she was also typical of Irish famine orphans in another respect; not of a statistically established profile, but of a stereotype of lawless and loose women propagated by the colonial opponents of the Earl Grey scheme.

Rosanna’s first brush with the law occurred a little more than six years after her marriage when in 1856 she was fined 20 shillings for drunkenness. Over the next 33 years she would be convicted more than 20 times for various ‘street offences’, mostly related to alcohol, for which she was fined and in some cases imprisoned. Reading through her long list of convictions, she could almost be described as a one-woman crime wave. Yet it was not the public who were harmed by her offending, but herself and, no doubt, her family.

After her fifth child was born in 1861, the family moved from Sydney to Armidale and then a few years later to Muswellbrook. Perhaps that was to break the cycle of recidivism, for after each move there was a pause in her litany of convictions: after the first move it was five years and after the second, nine. But each time the pattern of offending resumed. Clearly Rosanna had serious medical and psychological issues. It is not known what triggered them. We know that she lost at least two children in infancy, but perhaps her earlier experiences in Ireland played a part, perhaps it was the trauma of displacement, perhaps it had something to do with her relationship with James, or perhaps there were organic causes. We can only speculate.

One would like to think that in today’s more enlightened times the state’s health system would intervene early to address such problems. But in mid-Victorian New South Wales with its colonial imitation of Dickensian England, the law was used as a blunt instrument to defeat anti-social behaviour, with punishment rather than medical intervention the preferred antidote. For instance, when Rosanna was convicted in December 1877, the magistrate at Muswellbrook sentenced her as an habitual drunkard to six months imprisonment in Maitland Gaol with labour. Not surprisingly, after she was released it was not long before she was back inside. But lest we be too smug about those ‘unenlightened’ times, we should remember that the  decriminalisation of public intoxication in New South Wales occurred only in 1979.

Rosanna in fact served three further periods in Maitland Gaol: three months in 1882, six months the following year and a further three months in 1889. It is a sad reflection of Rosanna’s situation that the prison entrance book referred to her complexion as ‘sallow’, while her prison photograph displays the chiselled-granite features of her expressionless face. The report in the Maitland Mercury of her last conviction described her as ‘an unfortunate character … well known to the police’.

Surprisingly, despite Rosanna’s many problems, she lived until the age of 71 when, according to the Coroner, she died on 29 June 1901 of natural causes. Not a bad innings for that time, especially for someone who had lived so rough. Nevertheless, the demons which brought her down so low, were no doubt with her to the end.

Many questions arise from this brief summary of Rosanna’s sad and tragic life. Apart from the broader social issues already mentioned, one is driven to ask whether she would have been better off remaining in Ireland or would she have become one of the more than 1200 people who died in the Athy workhouse and fever hospital during the Famine. Like all historical what-ifs, we will never know. But Rosanna’s story reminds us that Earl Grey’s scheme to send young women from the workhouses of Ireland to Australia ought not be romanticised as a noble rescue operation, offering vulnerable young women a chance to escape to a new and prosperous country where land and food were in abundance. While it is true that many of the orphan girls lived long, happy and fulfilling lives in their new homeland, for others the experience was not so propitious.

Leaving aside such macro considerations, basic questions of a personal kind also cry out for answers. For instance, where does James Clark fit into this story? We know that he was living at Muswellbrook when he died on 9 January 1898 aged 93. But did he and Rosanna continue to live together through all those dark years? And what of their children? How did they cope living with their very troubled mother? Perhaps they did not. Perhaps the younger ones were placed into care.

We do know that some of the children moved out at a young age, including the eldest daughter Mary, who at age 17 married Maurice Collins, a 25-year-old labourer from Clonakilty, County Cork, who would become a school master teaching at a number of schools in the Hunter Valley. Both were Catholics, yet on 23 December 1871 they married in Muswellbrook’s St Alban’s Church of England. Mary was four months pregnant at the time. Perhaps they were shunned by the local Catholic community because of that or because of her mother’s scandalous behaviour. But again, we can only speculate.

Mary and Maurice had 12 children, the second youngest of whom, Alma, born on 20 May 1895, was my mother’s mother. Although born before James and Rosanna died, Alma would have been too young to have had personal knowledge of Rosanna’s afflictions. Not so her older siblings starting with Daniel, born 1872, and followed by brothers and sisters born almost every second year thereafter. Rosanna’s pitiful life must have been apparent to the older children. And, of course, there were Rosanna’s own children, Alma’s uncles and aunts, three of whom lived into the late 1940s.

So, perhaps mum did know something of Rosanna’s story – things she had picked up from overhearing hushed remarks behind cupped hands – and was curious to learn more. Or was she concerned that Rosanna’s story might pass down to another generation? Knowing mum, I think the former is more likely. But, once again, we will never know.

Jeff Kildea

Jeff Kildea, a descendant of Irish famine orphan Rose Flemming, is an adjunct professor in Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales. He has written books and articles on the Irish in Australia including Tearing the Fabric: Sectarianism in Australia 1910-1925, Anzacs and Ireland and Hugh Mahon: Patriot, Pressman, Politician.  He gave the 2017 address at the Great Irish Famine Memorial gathering at the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney.

One thought on “An Unfortunate Life: Rose Flemming, Irish Famine Orphan

  1. I find the 19th C. Irish history fascinating as all my ancestors came to America in the Famine years of Mid-Century. Some of those Ireland-to-Aus. immigrant teenaged women could have been among my kin, as I hear from a number of DNA cousins across the Pacific. As I go through the Irish RC Parish records, I see way too many “illegitimate” infants. Unlike U.S. records, the Irish RC Church always seemed to know the name of the father. Was the father already married or deceased that they couldn’t marry the poor girl? I would imagine some of these Australia brides-to-be were “illegitimates” sent off to Catholic orphanages when only a few days old. What a nasty, demeaning word “illegitimate!” In some parish records, these poor babies were called “bastards.” ! I look forward to coming essays on the Australian brides.

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