Book Review: Bathurst welcomes the Irish workhouse orphans

Book Review by Trevor McClaughlin

Leonie Glynn Blair & Perry McIntire, ‘Fair Delinquents?’ Irish Famine Orphans of Colonial Bathurst and Beyond. Eitherside Publications, Robina T C Qld, 2019. 465pp. 

RRP: $49.95

ISBN: 978-0-6486675-0-6 (pb)

Alison Light reminds us that ‘Ancestor worship is common to all cultures and is as old as the hills. Those existential questions, Where do I come from and what has shaped me?-–are hardly recent’. They are questions poignantly relevant to the descendants of the Irish Famine orphans.

In recent times, the Earl Grey workhouse scheme has caught the imagination of writers, dramatists, filmmakers, artists, sculptors, bloggers, family historians and website owners such as http://mayoorphangirls.weebly.com/. This handsome volume from Eitherside Publications, ‘Fair Dellinquents?’ Irish Famine Orphans of Colonial Bathurst and Beyond, is a welcome addition to the canon. It successfully mixes local regional history with the skills of genealogist and historian.

In Chapter 1, Perry McIntyre introduces the Earl Grey emigration scheme and names the orphan girls who went to Bathurst and the Central West of New South Wales. Leonie Blair, in Chapters 2-7 provides the reader with an eloquent description and analysis of the girls’ success in settling in the region. She sets the scene, taking these Europeans across the Dividing Range over the Blue Mountains, reminding us how difficult that crossing was.

Glynn Blair strikes a balance between genealogy and history by carefully manipulating a variety of sources. She rejects the contemporary denunciation of the orphans as a ‘Useless, Incompetent Horde of Ignorant Children’. On the contrary, she claims that they were ‘useful domestics and marriage partners’. Only 14 of the 185 involved would appear before the Bathurst courts.

Chapter 5, ‘The Living Experience of the Irish Orphans as Women’ is where she displays the fruits of her research to best effect. This chapter emphasises that ‘Portia Robinson still lives’, and urges that we ‘put the women in the forefront of our history’. These Irish orphans were young women in search of respectability, determined to build a new life for themselves in the colony. ‘Childbirth was dangerous, often life-threatening and somewhat feared’, Glynn Blair further explains. Most of them had large families which ‘was the norm and promised a secure old age’. Their daily working life was hard, full of drudgery: cooking, cleaning the kitchen equipment, doing the laundry, fetching fuel and water, setting up a home, building a social network, often with other orphans, and sometimes sponsoring the emigration of other family members from Ireland. Readers will be pleased by this insightful, well-researched and eloquent account of daily life for these women.

The anchor to the kite the authors fly is in Chapter 8 (pp.96-427), the individual biographies of the orphans who went to Bathurst. These biographies, the authors claim, are not family histories ‘but rather profiles…of the girls, their husbands and the first generation of their children’ assembled from the public record (my emphasis). What we have in Chapter 8 is 185 biographical profiles of the orphans, from Jane Adderley to Charlotte Mackay to Sarah Jane Wylie. Some orphans take up three or four pages, some only a paragraph. Some settled in Bathurst itself. Some left only a footprint and quickly moved on to Dubbo, Condobolin, Forbes and beyond. Some went back to Sydney, or further yet.

Anyone who has dabbled in this area of research will recognise the vast amount of work and skill involved in this collection of histories. It links together an inordinately wide range of sources, connecting shipping lists, convict records, Immigration Agents’ correspondence and other archival material with birth, death and marriage records, newspapers reports, obituaries, and input from the orphans’ descendants themselves. It is a technique evoking what scholars of the ancient world call prosopography. A most impressive and praiseworthy achievement indeed.

The book will appeal to the orphans’ descendants, pleased to see their ancestor in print. But it will have a wider appeal too, to those interested in the human story, the history of ordinary people, to anyone delighted by Alison Light’s Common People. This voyeuristic reader enjoyed dipping in and out of the individual biographies, whenever and wherever the fancy took him. It is a fine production, richly illustrated, meticulously prepared and referenced, and financially supported by Bathurst Council. Be warned, however, you may need a magnifying glass to study the maps that are reproduced.

Like any good book this one raises other issues. I should make clear what follows is not intended as criticism of Fair Delinquents, just a couple of things that strike my ageing brain. Fair Delinquents is an excellent example of one kind of public history – history taken to the public at large, taken outside the academy and classroom. It is no longer the case that academic historians poo-poo the work of family historians and genealogists. Or at least I hope that is the case.

In recent times public history has fired the imagination not only of television producers (Who do you think you are?) and family historians but of academic centres of public history (UTS) and Applied History (Macquarie University) as well.

Writers and publishers throw burley on the waters extolling the virtues of academics working together with members of the public. That does not mean we swallow what they say, hook, line and sinker. ‘Know the historian, know the history’ still applies. Is she a conservative, a feminist, a patriot, a social democrat? These things colour what public historians write. We need to be aware of them and to keep our critical faculties finely honed.

There are ethical issues too. Let’s say a researcher has discovered some ‘awkward’ details from court records or mental asylum records, both of them public records. Here are some examples,

On proceeding to the residence [the policeman] found [the female prisoner] in a beastly state of intoxication, the children lying asleep on the floor, and little or no clothing to protect any of them from the cold.

or

One child is with her [in the Mental Asylum] and she shews great attachment to it, in her lonely and desolate state of mental isolation.

elsewhere, 

Native of Ireland, mind affected by her child burning to death nine years ago. She is in a filthy state with lice and other effects of neglect…she lives in the beautiful and fabulous creations of fancy and hope.

And having made every effort to get in touch with descendants, without success, does she publish and be damned, hurting someone in the process? 

My other concern is about the balance between local history and family history. Local and regional history has flourished in recent times. Duncan Waterson’s Squatter, Selector and Storekeeper, A History of the Darling Downs, 1859-93 is an early example. David Bollen’s Up on the Hill: a history of St Patrick’s College Goulburn, won the NSW Premier’s History prize for NSW Community and Regional History in 2008. Good examples or templates abound, and will be useful in the future.

Fair Delinquents tilts the balance very much in favour of its genealogical profiles. One needs to go ferreting around these profiles, ‘mining all within’, to find more about local Bathurst history. Would it be possible to readjust the balance using well-chosen orphan stories to illustrate and examine major developments in regional history: Irish women and Frontier wars with the Wiradjuri; orphans and the religious life of Bathurst; orphan families, the discovery of gold and the coming of Bushrangers; orphan families and the commercial life and economic growth of the region? Different strokes for different folks I suppose. But worth thinking about for another time.

Trevor McClaughlin is the author of Barefoot & Pregnant? Irish Famine orphans in Australia (1991 and 2001), and of the blog https://earlgreysfamineorphans.wordpress.com

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