Mary McConnell, a Belfast Girl

A story of my great-great grandmother Mary ASHTON, née McCONNELL by Patricia Evans, a descendant.

The EARL GREY EMIGRATION SCHEME did not get off to a good start. Henry Grattan Douglass, the Surgeon on the first vessel to arrive, lambasted the young orphan girls as ‘barefooted little country beggars’ who had no idea of domestic service. On board the Earl Grey there were about fifty ‘Belfast girls’ who were, he said, a ‘thoroughly bad set’. Some were married women, and older than they said they were. Some were prostitutes. All of them were foul-mouthed, and given to petty thieving. The authorities in Britain and Ireland had pulled the wool over the eyes of the colonists by sending them such riff raff. Douglass’s troublesome miscreants, about forty-seven of them, were sent directly to Maitland and Moreton Bay. No Sydney for them!

Enquiries in Britain and Ireland were to rebut Douglass’s claims.  But the damage was already done. The ‘Belfast Girls’ went into history as ‘notoriously bad in very sense of the word’, ‘many of them prostitutes and many of them not orphans at all’.

It was not until the 21st century that playwright Jaki McCarrick provided a different, vibrant, feminist interpretation of the ‘BELFAST GIRLS’ in her very successful play of the same name. Which itself raises questions about the relationship between fiction and history. We hope Jaki will write a short piece about her play for us in coming months. 

Here is Patricia Evans’  story of one of the Belfast girls, Mary McConnell.


It all began somewhere in the beautiful countryside of Tyrone, Ireland about 1829 when a couple looked down on the gorgeous little baby girl that had just arrived into their world. None of them were to know of the future that was to face this baby that Mammy and Daddy called Mary. She was to come to Australia as an Irish orphan under The Earl Grey Scheme 1848-1850. The story of these orphans is told in a book Barefoot & Pregnant, researched & written by Dr Trevor McClaughlin, formerly of the Department of History at Macquarie University NSW.

Nothing is known of the early life of Mary’s family, as they left their home in Tyrone and moved to Belfast. We can only assume the reason was the devastating potato famine that starved so many, and they hoped to get work and more importantly, food to enable them to survive.

I first picked up details of the family in a sworn statement by Mrs Catherine McKevey, dated 1849. From this letter we know that Mum, Dad & Mary (no other children are mentioned) lived and worked in the Lagan Village, across the river from Belfast City. It states that Mary’s parents had lived in the village and were both well thought of and were hardworking decent people. Aged only 14, Mary went to work for Mrs McKevey and is reported to have been a ‘thorough servant’. The family appear to have been in employment and with food in their bellies. Both Mum & Dad were working in the flax mills and Mary lived with Mr and Mrs McKevey in 1844-45. Not long after this Mary was to take work in Mr Montgomery’s flax mill. Her father had died in 1846, resulting in her joining her mother in both employment and living quarters. Not long after this Mary’s mother also died. From this point on, it appears poor Mary was to start the long hard life of an Irish Orphan, under extreme circumstances and destined to travel to a faraway place, known to all as ‘The Colony’.

Mary  entered the workhouse in Belfast in July 1847 as an orphan and a pauper. She spent approximately 16 months there before her voyage to Australia. Hunger and her strong survival instinct was probably what drove her on to the streets of Belfast where she was to become, in her words (or was it Surgeon Douglass’s words?), a ‘professed public woman’.

It was also at this time that Lord Earl Grey, the British Secretary of State, thought he had a magic answer for several problems facing the English Parliament. He could rid the Irish workhouses of the orphaned paupers by supplying the Colonies with female labour and females to correct the imbalance of the sexes. This scheme was called the ‘Earl Grey Scheme’ and was to remove about 4,000 female orphans (including our Mary) from the overcrowded workhouses throughout Ireland. The scheme survived for only two years. From the workhouse, Mary with other ‘Belfast Orphans’, left for Plymouth by the steamer ‘Athlone’ under the supervision of ward master James Caldwell. The ‘Belfast Girls’ in company with many others then left Plymouth on 3 June 1848 on the Earl Greybound for Sydney Town. They arrived after 122 days at sea on 6 October 1848. I shudder to think of that long sea-journey.

For this voyage, each girl was given daily rations of half a pound of meat, a quarter pound of flour, raisins, peas, rice, tea, sugar, butter and biscuits. Each girl was also outfitted with six shifts, six pair of stockings – two worsted & four cotton – two pairs of shoes, two gowns – one woollen plaid – two short wrappers, two night wrappers, two flannel petticoats, two cotton petticoats, one stout worsted shawl and cloak, two neck and three pocket handkerchiefs, two linen collars, two aprons, one pair of stays, one pair of sheets, one pair of mitts, one bonnet, day and nightcaps, two towels, two pounds of soap, combs & brushes, needles, threads, tape & whatever other little articles (such as a few yards of cotton or calico) the Matron knew young females would require. They were also given a Bible and Prayer Book suitable for their respective religions. They were given one box – measuring two feet by 14 inches, and 14 inches deep, with lock and key. This was to be painted with the emigrant’s name on the front and a catalogue of the contents pasted on the inside of the lid. Each box was ordered to be strongly made so as to bear a long voyage and besides being locked they should also be strongly corded.  I often think about the size of Mary’s tiny box and wondered how it stored all of those precious articles.

The ‘Belfast Girls per Earl Grey, as they were referred to, were classified as refractory. One of the girls who finally arrived in Port Jackson with sunshine on her face and fresh air through her hair was Mary McConnell. As they were considered a bad lot, the Belfast girls were not allowed to disembark in Sydney Town. The other orphans on the ship were finally marched up to Hyde Park Barracks on 21 October 1848. But our Mary and other refractory Belfast girls were kept on board until arrangements could be made for their employment and transportation to the Hunter Valley or Moreton Bay.

Serious accusations were made by Dr Douglass, Surgeon Superintendent, that the orphans were ‘abandoned and depraved characters whose selection was a gross imposition and injustice to the Colony of New South Wales.’ This led to a full enquiry in Sydney Town which probably played a part in the cessation of the Irish Orphan Scheme. The enquiry confirmed that Mary was not one of the good girls.

Mary McConnell was given a position with Mr Wilson at East Maitland for a period of three months with the pay of £10 per annum, paid in cash, monthly. These agreements were worked out by the Sydney Orphan Committee, under the chairmanship of F L S Merewether. Whilst in their care, the orphans had to apply for permission to marry. With Mary ‘branded’ as one of the naughty girls, maybe permission was not forthcoming, and a reason she never actually married William Ashton.

It was probably in East Maitland NSW that Mary met William Ashton in the middle of 1849. She was to spend the rest of her life with him. He had been born about 1819 in Lancashire England and arrived as a repeat convicted felon with a 14-year sentence for highway robbery. He arrived at Sydney Town on the Theresa on 31 January 1839. Throughout his life he had many occupations including brick-maker, labourer, sawyer and bushman. Although not married, they raised eleven children. Finding all these children and following them through was no easy task. Their first child was born at Millers Forrest, near Raymond Terrace NSW, with the other ten being born in the Mulbring Valley, which runs south of Maitland down towards Toronto NSW.

Civil registration in NSW began in 1856, with issue born prior to this date being found through Church records only, if the child was baptised. William & Mary’s first four children were born pre-1856, and luckily they did have them all baptised. Knowing they were Protestant, I started with the microfilm of the Church of England, Newcastle Dioceses registers. I thought I had struck the jackpot as I found them one after the other, right down to the 11th child, under the name of ASHTON, FATHER William & mother Mary. George Silvester ASHTON, their last born being baptised on 20 June 1872. I then thought it would be an easy task to follow through with their certificates for their births, deaths and/or their marriages. As their seventh child is my paternal grandmother, Margaret ASHTON who married James WARBY on 15 December 1883 at Maitland NSW, I made this my starting point. Again I learnt, in doing family history, nothing is as it appears to be.

Thomas Ashton, Mary’s son, 1852-1900

Thomas and his sister Grace, children of Mary. Grace was born in 1858

As I have mentioned, the first four children were baptisms only, therefore they are listed as ASHTON and naming the father as William ASHTON. Then when it became law to register a birth, death or marriage, Mary registered the next 7 children as illegitimate, under McCONNELL. So now we have a family that is baptised as ASHTON and registered as McCONNELL, with no father named. Subsequently, they all lived and married under the name of ASHTON. When I finally received my great grandmother’s birth certificate, she was listed as an only child. Even though she was the seventh child there were no previous issue on her certificate. To my surprise, it is deemed that an illegitimate child has no siblings. According to the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, the previous issue on a certificate is ‘of the marriage’.

Mary and her man William led a very harsh, troubled life on a small tenant farm in the Mulbring Valley, raising a family in a modest slab hut. Aborigines were coming in to Maitland in this period and they may have encountered them.  

Like the majority of the early ordinary settlers, they turned to alcohol for relief from their everyday troubles. Both William and Mary were charged with indecent language, obscene language, assault, and drunk and disorderly. William was picked up suffering from delirium tremens. Despite these failings, they raised eleven healthy children in harsh conditions without many conveniences. They fed, clothed and housed all children much to their credit. Mary became a very busy midwife even delivering some of her own grandchildren.

Mary  was to leave a large legacy in her new homeland: 57 grandchildren. Unfortunately her life was touched by tragedy right to the very end. Her grandson and a great grandson of eleven months were murdered, the child by poison. Her great grandson was shot through the head by his jealous mistress. Both stories were fully covered by the Maitland Mercury of the day. Then at 8.30pm on the night of 13 July 1892, at 26 King Street, Newcastle NSW, she came to a tragic end by falling down the steps and breaking her neck as she was retiring at her daughter Elizabeth’s house. This sad ending was reported in the Newcastle Morning Herald as there was an inquest into her death.

Mary rests side by side with the man she chose as her life-time partner in the Sandgate Cemetery, near Newcastle, New South Wales.

Patricia Evans

Tricia is a family historian. Her father is a great grandson of Mary McConnell. Her passion for family history was born from having a loving relationship with her paternal grandparents, Henry Bennett and Margaret Ellen Warby.

For more about Mary McConnell, see Trevo’s Irish Famine Orphans Blog.