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.
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.
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 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