From Armagh to Barrington: an Earl Grey orphan in Northern Tasmania.

The second in Tinteán‘s series of Profiles of Earl Grey Famine Orphans

By Gael Phillips


Mary Ann McMaster, Famine Orphan and a Pioneer of Northern Tasmania


Thomas Reeves, Champion Axeman of the Colonies, 1892 and 1895.

When my grandmother, Eva Annie Dart, formerly Palmer, née Diprose died in 1975, I inherited her handwritten recipe books and her address book. I had been interested in family history since my teenage years but most of the history I knew was of the Diprose family, an old pioneering family in Tasmania who had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1823. Thomas and Elizabeth Diprose, née Children, were free settlers from Kent in the United Kingdom. Their youngest son, Isaac, my great-great grandfather, was born a few months after their arrival in the young colony. One of Isaac’s sons (he had 16 children), James Children Diprose, married Ann (known as Annie) Reeves in Latrobe, Tasmania in 1876. I knew nothing of Annie’s family other than her brother had been a famous competition axeman during the 1890s.

From 1975 onwards I had been researching my family history in a systematic way, obtaining copies of birth, death and marriage certificates in Tasmania and other Australian states, working backwards from myself, to my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. During this systematic approach to my genealogy I discovered that the parents of my great-grandmother, Annie Reeves, were John Reeves and Mary Ann Reeves, formerly McMaster. They were married in Launceston on 4 July 1853. Mary Ann was 17 and John Reeve was 38 years old and both were ‘free’. The officiating Minister was the Reverend Edward Sweetman, an early Wesleyan Methodist Minister in Tasmania. From the marriage certificate of Mary Ann McMaster and John Reeves, I learned that John Reeves was working as a sawyer in the forests.

From my grandmother’s address book I discovered entries for the surname Reeves. I correctly assumed that these were close relatives and in 1982 I was able to meet several members of the Reeves family, my grandmother’s cousins, to obtain more information from them. I had searched the shipping records in the Tasmanian Archives Office but I was unable to find an arrival for Mary Ann McMaster. Following a meeting with several of my grandmother’s Reeves cousins I was told that Mary Ann had come to Tasmania with the Rev Ed Sweetman and his wife, as ‘companion or governess’. On a later interstate trip I searched the shipping lists in Victoria and found a record of Mary Ann McMaster having arrived on the Diadem into Port Melbourne, on 10 January 1850.  The Argus reported on 17 January 1850 that 234 (actually 205) orphan girls had been landed from the Diadem and ‘would be open for engagement on and after today’. The Irish famine orphan girls on board were selected from workhouses in the Northern counties of Ireland to come to Australia under the Earl Grey Scheme.

After their arrival in Hobson’s Bay (Port Melbourne) this particular voyage was subject to a Board Enquiry prompted by problems involving the sailors’ allegedly inappropriate behaviour with the girls and women on board. The records informed me that Mary Ann McMaster, whose age was variously given as 14 and 16 years, was able to read and write, belonged to the Established Church and came from Rich Hill in Armagh (given as Ritch Hill in the shipping list). She was engaged to work for Mrs Ed Sweetman as a Nursemaid. Further research indicated that the Rev Edward Sweetman and his wife had moved to Tasmania in early 1850, taking Mary Ann with them. I thought there was sufficient evidence, both from family stories the Reeves brothers had told me and the shipping records, to identify this Mary Ann McMaster with the Mary Ann McMaster who had married John Reeves.

There was much prejudice against Irish immigration into Australia at this time, particularly aimed at ‘Roman’ Catholic girls. Articles appeared in the newspapers which were highly critical of these poor Irish girls. A lead article in The Argus on 24 January 1850 stated that they were ‘undesirable immigrants’ and ‘ignorant creatures whose whole knowledge of household duty barely reaches to distinguish the inside from the outside of a potato’. The girls were described as having ‘squat, stunted figures, thick waists, and clumsy ankles’. In my view, it was unfortunate that the Earl Grey Scheme was abandoned later in 1850, so that those who had formerly been able to escape the workhouses had fewer choices.

John Reeves, husband of Mary Anne McMaster.

I discovered John Reeves was an ex-convict who had arrived in Tasmania on 19 February 1842 on the Tortoise with 393 other convicts. The convict records stated he was from a small village in Buckinghamshire, named Buckland, not far from Aylesbury and was convicted at the Aylesbury Assizes on 27 April 1841 of robbery with violence. At the time he was able to read but not write. According to the convict records his occupation was Labourer and Brickmaker. He had a wife Jane and three children, who were left behind in Tring. Newspaper reports disclosed that he was known to the authorities as ‘Gypsy Jack’ and had previously offended by poaching and other minor crimes. The convict records also showed that John’s father, Thomas Reeve, was transported to New South Wales in 1827, arriving on the John I. Thomas worked in a chain gang, helping to build the road over the Blue Mountains, and later lived at Emu Plains. He had also left behind his wife, Ann Reeve, nee Ball and his four children. It is likely that with the father absent the family would have been living in poverty creating desperate circumstances in which a young man would steal in order for his family to survive.

After his marriage to Mary Ann McMaster, John Reeves became one of the first settlers in the Mersey District at Formby in 1855. They had a couple of acres with a market garden and nursery. Formby, along with Torquay on the other side of the Mersey river in Northern Tasmania, were later combined to form Devonport.

Formby, Torquay and Barrington before Formby and Torquay were united into Devonport, ca 1890


By 1864 John and Mary Ann became pioneers of the Lower Barrington area of Tasmania, where John had bought 100 acres of heavily wooded land. According to family stories, while John was clearing their land at Barrington, he would come home to Formby at night, having to swim a river, believed to be the Don, with his clothes and belongings strapped to his back. The first few years were particularly difficult before sufficient land could be cleared to grow vegetables and to have milking cows.


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Modern map, showing Devonport, Lower Barrington, Latrobe

Mary Ann engaged with her life as a farmer’s wife and was a pillar of the local Wesleyan Methodist Church. She evidently taught her husband to write. In his later life he was able to write a letter to the Mercury, published on 1 June 1883, telling of the large potatoes able to be grown at Lower Barrington. He cited a potato he had grown which weighed 3 pounds 9 ounces which, when cut into pieces and planted, grew into 96 pounds of potatoes. (One pound equals 454g.) There was quite a vigorous discussion in the newspapers about potatoes – the variety grown by John Reeves being ‘Brown’s River’.

Life was difficult on a pioneering farm. Venomous snakes were a hazard and on 28 February 1885 John Reeves was reported in the Tasmanian as having killed a black snake which had 46 young ones. No anti-venenes were available at that time. Felling trees was dangerous, hard work. The eucalypts were from 200 to 350 feet high. In the early days the family survived by eating native animals, such as wallabies. The land was full of nettles.

Another newspaper report in the Launceston Examiner on 21 October 1871, told of three children of John Reeves of Barrington being lost in the bush after going out to look for some cows the previous Saturday evening. A search initially failed to find the children but the next morning the children were found, safe and well. One can only imagine the anxiety of Mary Ann and John for their lost children. The trope of children wandering off into the bush and being lost is an Australian nightmare. The bush (forest) in that part of Tasmania was particularly dense. When Mary Ann Reeves was 72 years old the North West Advocate and Emu Bay Times reported on 19 June 1909 that she had fallen while sliding down a small haystack while collecting eggs and suffered a compound fracture of one of her legs. Fortunately, she evidently recovered from the fracture, which could have been fatal in the days before antibiotics.

John and Mary Ann had a family of eleven children who survived into adulthood, born between 1854 and 1875. Their children included Thomas (Tom) Reeves, who became famous as the Champion Axeman of the Colonies in the 1890s. He is celebrated at the Axeman’s Hall of Fame in Latrobe in Tasmania where the display includes a sculpture of Tom Reeves.

Ann Reeves, daughter of Mary Ann McMaster, with her husband, James Children Diprose and two of the eldest children, circa 1879-80.

My great-grandparents, Ann Reeves and her husband, James Children Diprose were the first pioneers of what became Yolla, in North West Tasmania. They called their property ‘Progress Farm’ because during the early days on the farm one of their cows had twins as did Annie Diprose, whose twin girls, Mercy Pearl and Grace Ruby were born in 1890. One of the recipes I found in my grandmother’s hand-written recipe books was ‘Progress Farm Christmas Pudding’. This recipe, from my great-grandmother, was very possibly given to Annie Diprose, nee Reeves, by her mother, Mary Ann McMaster, who in turn may have been given the recipe by Mrs Sweetman.

John Reeves died on 29 May 1894 at the home he had built on his farm at Lower Barrington. Gypsy Jack had become a respected member of society, as did large numbers of ex-convicts in Australia during the 19th century. He was praised as being a great old pioneer and a pillar of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of which he had been a member for 52 years. During their days at Lower Barrington, John Reeves hosted Sunday services in his home and on Sunday afternoons Mary Ann Reeves ran a Sunday School.

Mary Ann lived until 28 December 1914. For a couple of years prior to her death she had been living at Deep Creek with her son John Reeves, near Wynyard, Tasmania. I have been unable to confirm the names of her parents but according to her obituary she was born in Belfast and her father was Joseph McMaster. Significantly, Mary Ann also had a brother named Joseph, who wrote to his sister from San Francisco in 1869.

Mary Ann McMaster, my great-great grandmother, was a true pioneer in Australia and with her husband, John Reeves, started a dynasty which is thriving today. At the time of her death in 1914 she had 11 children, 64 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren. One of the most famous descendants of Mary Ann McMaster and John Reeves, alive today, is Hannah Gadsby, the comedian.

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Mary Ann McMaster is my Orange Female Irish Orphan ancestor. We share the same mitochondrial DNA because I descend in a direct female line from her. In another article, I will recount something of the life of my Green Female Irish Orphan ancestor from Kilkenny, my paternal great-grandmother, Mary McEvoy.

Dr Gael E Phillips is a former Specialist Anatomical Pathologist who has been researching her family history in a systematic way since 1975. In addition to many publications in the medical literature, she has published articles on medical history and family history. Her other interests are in painting, printmaking and sculpture and in particular the relationship between art and science. In 2012 she and the late artist Wim de Vos conceived and coordinated the creation of a folio of bookplates by 31 artists, ‘Bookplates Unbound’.



3 thoughts on “From Armagh to Barrington: an Earl Grey orphan in Northern Tasmania.

  1. Excellent Gael – and thank you very much for this article. One day we will learn more about Mary Ann’s parents. We just need to live long enough!! Betty Keep

  2. We have spent years researching my greet great grandmother Eliza Dooley, who arrived on the Tippoo Saib, and have just published a book called Earl Grey’s Daughters. This looks at what it was like in Ireland before the girls left and what was happening in Australia during their lifetime.

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