The Famine Orphans, a Prelude to a Series of Profiles

An Introduction to Tinteán‘s new series, Meet the Earl Grey Famine Migrants by Trevor McClaughlin

Readers of this magazine will be familiar with the Famine Orphan Girls. With this issue, we begin an exciting new series profiling many of the young women who made new lives in Australia.  These profiles will be penned by descendants who have been spurred on and encouraged by several dedicated historians of colonial Australia, including Perry McIntyre and Liz Rushen, Richard Reid, Libby Connors, Val Noone, Elizabeth Malcolm and Di Hall. Trevor McClaughlin has devoted much of his career as a historian to documenting these girls, and has for many years run an inspirational blog demonstrating to family historians/genealogists how to  negotiate the historical record and go around the road-blocks.

Dublin Famine sculpture. Photo by Trevor McClaughlin

Between 1848 and 1850, about 4150 adolescent female orphans emigrated from Irish workhouses ‘halfway across the world’ to Port Jackson, Port Phillip and Port Adelaide. Their emigration is known as the Earl Grey Scheme after its principal architect Earl Grey (Henry George Grey 1802-1894) Secretary of State for the Colonies in Lord John Russell’s Whig government at the time of the Great Irish Famine.

In time, gender balance would be a defining characteristic of Irish migration to Australia in the nineteenth century.  But at the time of the Earl Grey scheme males outnumbered females in the colonies two or three to one. The Earl Grey scheme was an attempt to rectify that imbalance. The important thing is that the orphans were Famine refugees. They were from the genuinely destitute classes in Irish society whose world was ripped apart by the tragedy of the Great Irish Famine. They were all inmates of recently constructed workhouses, most of them merely short-term residents, aged between fourteen and twenty years of age. They were adolescents, girls, children, ready to grasp the chance of a new life in Australia.

In February 1848, the Imperial government in London began its meticulously organised Earl Grey Scheme through the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners (CLEC), the de facto architects of the scheme. Under their instruction, the ‘Irish Government’ through its Poor Law Commissioners sent circular letters to the Boards of Guardians of chosen Poor Law Unions  asked whether there were adolescent females in their workhouse willing and eligible to go to Australia; whether the Guardians would be willing to pay for outfits of clothing for the ‘girls’, and the cost of taking them to a port of embarkation in England. If so, workhouse officers should seek character references, arrange medical examinations, and have the girls examined by a CLEC appointment, Lieutenant Henry, a semi-retired Royal Navy officer. In return, the CLEC chartered ships to carry the orphans, arranged their berth, their dietary needs, and supervision on board by a government-appointed Surgeon Superintendent, and Matron.

In the eyes of Imperial social engineers, the Famine orphans were young marriageable women who would bring a stabilizing influence to a rough masculine colonial society. At the same time, they would answer the colonial demand for domestic servants, and redress the balance of the sexes. Unfortunately, Earl Grey also attempted to renew convict transportation to New South Wales and make the colonies pay for the migration of the orphans, something not explained to colonists before the scheme began. The orphan girls were maligned in the colonial press as immoral dregs of the workhouse who were ignorant of the skills required of domestic servants. They were ‘useless trollops’, ‘workhouse sweepings’, ‘whose knowledge of household duties barely reaches to distinguishing the inside from the outside of a potato’, and whose ‘squat, stunted figures, thick waists and clumsy ankles promises but badly for the ‘physique’ of the future colonists of Victoria’.

There were some notable exceptions: the welcome given to the Thomas Arbuthnot orphans as they made their way southward from Sydney in 1850 is the best known. The surgeon on board the Thomas Arbuthnot, Charles Strutt, even accompanied a hundred of the orphans through the hinterland, and found them suitable employers.

However, opposition to the scheme was so strong it lasted less than two years.

We have to ask what became of the orphans?

In Australia, were they disproportionately represented among the criminal classes, in suicide records, or among the inmates of destitute and mental asylums, as Tanya Evans mooted in her Fractured Families (UNSW Press, 2015)?

Or do we agree with one of the foremost historians of the Great Famine, Cormac Ó Gráda, writing in the Journal of Economic History, vol.79, no 2, June 2019, p.348:

The micro histories of the Earl Grey orphans in Australia and the Lansdowne emigrants in New York attest to the ability of even the most wretched to acculturate and adapt in their different ways. The latter clung to the ghetto and were slow to integrate, whereas the former were more likely to leave the cities behind, and far less likely to marry their own kind. In terms of material progress, the orphans probably had the edge. Both groups , however, support Irish historian Oliver MacDonagh’s conjecture that had migration been supported out of the public purse during the famine ‘many thousands more might have been given the opportunity to begin life with hope’.

Elsewhere it has been suggested most of the orphans lived in the kind of world so poignantly described in Australian literature in Henry Lawson’s story of The Drover’s wife, in Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies, and at a slightly later date, in Ruth Park’s stories of women living in the inner city.

A mother and child looking for disease-free potatoes

At the very least, most of us will agree with the late Tom Power who so eloquently remarked the Irish Famine orphans are ‘a continual reminder of the many terrible realities, similar to the Great Famine of Ireland, occurring in the world today and which cry out for our compassion and concern’.

Over the coming months Tinteán will run a series on the Earl Grey orphan girls comprising histories written by their present-day descendants which will help answer these and similar questions, and add a new and deeper understanding of the orphans themselves. It is a very exciting prospect .

Trevor McClaughlin 

Trevor is an historian, and the author of Barefoot And Pregnant?: Irish Famine Orphans In Australia: Documents And Register (I991).

See Trevor’s blog for more about the scheme

5 thoughts on “The Famine Orphans, a Prelude to a Series of Profiles

  1. Can we stop calling it a famine? Can we stop calling them Famine Orphans? Isn’t it time the truth was told with accuracy? If we can’t hold perpertrators of violence to account from the past, how do we stop these crimes against humanity continuing to occur and being dressed up as ‘unfortunate events’ and those who ‘rescue’ their victims as heroic. What was done to the Irish people shudders me to my core, as does the use and abuse of these victims that arose from that prior great atrocity.

    Niki na Meadhra

  2. I would like to contact Trevor Mc.Cloughlin to see if he has any details of my GGGrandmother Elizabeth Carbury and her Sister Mary who came out to Western Australia on the Palestine in 1853 from the Mount Bellew Workhouse

    • Jan, Trevor has spent a lifetime working on these girls, and generously makes available mountains of material on his blog. What’s best from your point of view is the wealth of tips he gives for family researchers as to the available sources and the ways around some of the difficulties of interpreting them. It’s a very substantial resource for those wanting to know about the girls, with lots of directions for engrossing research.Good luck in finding Elizabeth and Mary. FDG for the Editors of Tinteán.

    • Dr. Christina Henri, honorary artist-in-residence at the Cascades Female Factory Historic Site in Tasmania, has featured on television in Australia and Ireland, established the ‘Roses from the Heart’ Memorial Tribute Project which uses the orphan girl bonnet as a symbol of the women who were transported to Australia. The pattern of the colonial servant’s bonnet was selected from the costume collection at Narryna Heritage Museum, in Hobart, Tasmania. The project’s aim is to make a bonnet to honour the memory of each woman, with her name and the ship on which she was transported embroidered on it.

      In 2018, Christina launched ‘Irish Roses – Bride Ship Lasses’ Tribute Project. This group of women were survivors of the great famine. They were sent to Western Australia under the Assisted Migration Scheme. Christina seeks to honour this group of 4,114 women with bonnets too.

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