The third in Tinteán‘s series of Profiles of Earl Grey Famine Orphans
By Julie Poulter, a descendant
My 3 x great grandmother Jane Kelly arrived in NSW in April 1849 on the Earl Grey famine orphan ship Digby. She was accompanied by her sister Isabella and over two hundred other famine orphan girls. Over the next twenty years, Jane’s life would spiral out of control and she would find herself incarcerated in Sydney’s notorious Darlinghurst gaol. Some of her fellow orphan girls would also suffer the same fate, a fate in some cases worse than famine. Jane’s best friend from the Digby was Bridget Higney. Jane was about three years older than Bridget and for the first decade of their life in NSW, they would be separated by over 200 kilometres, with Jane living near Goulburn and Bridget remaining behind in Sydney.
Jane was initially sent to Yass to work in the household of James Chisholm, Esq. But it wasn’t long before she absconded with a man named Thomas Lansdowne. To avoid scrutiny, Jane and Thomas used the ship’s name ‘Digby’ as an alias. The couple had six children between 1850 and 1856 before their relationship turned sour after Thomas accused Jane of infidelity. He tied her to a triangle, tore off her clothing and horsewhipped her so severely that she had to be treated in hospital for her wounds. She was also in the early stages of pregnancy at the time. In late 1857 Jane brought Thomas to court to attempt to gain some support from him. He stated to the court that he had found her in a house of ill fame in Sydney and that she associated with bad characters there. He also accused her of leaving him previously for another man, in an attempt to discredit her. It was eventually Thomas that was discredited, and he was ordered to pay Jane eight shillings a week.
Jane soon moved on and began a de facto relationship with a newly widowed local man named William Garner, an ex-convict, keeping her last-born daughter Martha with her. Jane’s five other children remained with Thomas and were brought up by his new defacto partner. Four children were born to Jane and William Garner between 1858 and 1863, three of whom died. William often left Jane in their bush hut at Tarlo without means of support whilst he was away driving a bullock team. Jane also cared for some of William’s children from his previous marriage, including Catherine, who in 1862 died from an ulcerative disease of the face. Jane was accused of ill-treating the 12-year-old girl and contributing to her death, but the coroner could find no evidence of this. Just a few weeks later, Jane left William and took her three living children, five-year-old Martha, four-year-old Ann Jane and eight-month-old Cecelia and walked from Goulburn to Sydney to seek help at the Benevolent Asylum. Baby Cecelia was to die soon after they arrived.
The Sydney Benevolent Asylum was to play a huge part in the lives of many of the orphan girls, helping them survive when their circumstances were dire. Jane took William to court in 1863 for support of his children and was successful, but when the 12-month court-enforced obligation ran out, Jane was forced to leave her children at the asylum. She had been pregnant when she walked from Goulburn to Sydney and she named her new baby girl Cecelia in honour of her lost baby. Sadly the second Cecelia fared no better than the first one. Once the maintenance money ran out, Jane was back on the streets and little Cecelia, aged about ten months at the time, was thrown over the fence of the asylum one night and abandoned by Jane. She died two months later.
Around the same time, Jane’s friend Bridget Higney was surviving as a single woman in Sydney by working for a grocer. But in the late 1850s, Bridget met George Jarmane and baby Mary Ellen was born as a result of this union. In 1860, Bridget took George to court and was awarded 12 shillings a week maintenance. By 1862, she was pregnant to George again and she turned to the Benevolent Asylum for help and her second daughter Ada was born there in May. A year later Bridget was in trouble. She was admitted to the asylum with her children, suffering from an ulcer on her leg. She was released in October 1863 but tried to gain admission again a few days later when she turned up drunk. By this time baby Ada was sick with ulcers in her mouth, but the asylum refused to admit her. In desperation, Bridget left Ada on the doorstep of Dr Renwick. Little Ada later died and her cause of death was determined to be secondary syphilis. Bridget’s eldest daughter Mary Ellen was admitted to the asylum then went to the Randwick asylum for children, along with two of Jane’s daughters, Martha and Ann Jane. From the Police Gazette report of Bridget deserting her baby at Dr Renwick’s, we have the only description of her: described as being ’31 years of age, very tall, fair complexion, wearing a dark green dress, black cloak and a straw bonnet trimmed with dirty green ribbon’.
Bridget’s relationship with George Jarmane was now over and she took up with a man named Michael Barry instead. Their short-lived relationship was volatile, and each accused the other of stealing off each other. Bridget’s illness was now starting to affect her behaviour and in March 1865, she was convicted of assault. In August, Bridget was robbed whilst drunk and asleep in Hyde Park. The shawl that was stolen from her belonged to Jane. The following month Bridget threatened to ‘split the skull’ of a local publican and she spent two weeks in gaol. In January 1866, Bridget robbed a man and was sent to Darlinghurst gaol for two months. It wasn’t long before Jane was convicted of riotous conduct and sent to the same prison for a month. A few weeks after Jane’s release, she was caught on the street again, drunk and behaving indecently in Pitt St at midnight. Jane spent a week in gaol on this occasion.
On the 9 July 1866, both Jane and Bridget were convicted of riotous conduct and gaoled together for seven days. Bridget was ailing by this time and whilst in prison, she had an epileptic fit and died. Jane never returned to gaol after this and her criminal convictions ceased. She spent the next six years keeping herself out of trouble, perhaps by seeking help from her eldest children, who were by then in their late teens. Jane died of tuberculosis in Sydney in 1872. Apart from a Sydney marriage record of 1855 of an Isabella Kelly to a Jeremiah O’Brien, no trace of Jane’s sister Isabella has ever been found. Jane and Bridget were just two of at least fifty famine orphan girls who were gaoled in NSW from the 1850s to 1900. Work is continuing to bring the stories of these marginalised women of mid nineteenth-century Sydney to life.