The Women Who Changed Australia

Book review by Liz Rushen

Jonathon Fairall, Earl Grey’s Daughters: the women who changed Australia.

SPSP Publishing Sydney, 2019EGD_2019+cover.jpg

RRP: $25.00

The Earl Grey Scheme was devised by the British government at the time when Earl Grey was Secretary of State for the Colonies, to relieve overcrowding in the Irish workhouses and to meet the demand for domestic labourers and single young women in the colonies. Operating between 1848 and 1850, young Irish women were brought to Adelaide, Port Phillip and Sydney on 20 ships, the author’s forebear and her sister arriving in Sydney on the last of these, the Tippoo Saib.

The subtitle of this book reflects the ambitions of its author: The women who changed Australia. It’s a big claim and in reality, Jonathon Fairall tells us of the experiences of his ‘granny’, Eliza Dooley and her kin, rather than describing the impact on the colonies of the arrival of approximately 4 000 women under this scheme. The many books, articles and blogs which have appeared recently on the circumstances and colonial lives of the young women who migrated under this and other emigration schemes confirm the interest in, and wealth of research into, 19th-century immigrants.

Many of us feel we have a book waiting to be written and Fairall clearly fits this mould. Limited by the availability of extant records, he makes a good effort at tracing the genealogy of his family. His work would have been enriched by more research into the historiography of 19th-century migration and colonial life rather than meandering its way through Irish history from the time of the Vikings, through English history from the time of Henry VIII and Australian history from the time Joseph Banks first sighted Botany Bay in 1770.

There are some gems in the book, both in writing style and content. In a discussion of the Irish reliance on the potato, for example, we read, ‘But the price of the largesse of the potato was vulnerability’. The author provides an excellent analysis of the workhouse diet and, in Australia, a discerning treatment of the lives of bushrangers such as Thunderbolt. He also provides a perceptive analysis of the government’s challenge in addressing poverty and is on similarly stronger ground when discussing the effect of drought on small farmers.

Fairall shines when he is writing about Edward Gostwyck Cory, one of the earliest squatters in New England, but is on less secure ground when describing the specifics of his family’s narrative, such as the selection process for girls from the workhouse. He writes that that government’s emigration officer at Dublin, Lieutenant Henry was ‘a superannuated seaman from the Royal Navy’ whose ‘qualifications for the job were anyone’s guess. What he thought the qualifications of the girls should be is an even greater mystery’. The selection processes for women for emigration had been rigidly applied for more than 15 years by the time the Tippoo Saib departed Ireland. The processes were strictly outlined and the government was quick to ensure that no-one had the opportunity to rip them off.

With the rapid increase of emigration from England, Scotland and Ireland during the 1830s, fraud was increasingly reported to the Colonial Office and it became apparent that there was a need to regulate the process to ensure the safe passage of emigrants. In March 1834 emigration agents were appointed at the major ports, including Dublin. The officers’ major tasks were to ensure that ship owners complied with the Passenger Act, liaise with the local emigration committees, inspect emigrant ships and generally superintend proceedings at the ports. Dr John Henry was one of these men, appointed first at Bristol where he stayed for six years before his promotion to Liverpool. He remained at Liverpool until 1845 before moving to Dublin, where he remained for twelve years. Writing of his long service, J W C Murdoch commented to Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioner T F Elliot:

It is not only in enforcing the PA [Passenger Act], and attending to duties arising out of the Australian Emign which are more or less connected with his own profession that Dr Henry’s services have been so usefully engaged. We continually have to employ him in matters that require great discrimination & probity. We allude particularly to the selection of Schoolmasters & Matrons to accompany Irish Emigts & also the approval of such Emigts as may be recommended for passages by the Irish Poor Law Authorities or Charitable Institutions. On all occasions when so employed he has given us entire satisfaction.

This passage confirms that the girls who migrated from Irish workhouses under this scheme were in the first instance nominated by the workhouse authorities and consequently approved by Dr Henry, who was acting on behalf of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners. It was not for Dr Henry to indiscriminately select the workhouse girls and women.

Despite these reservations this book is a valiant attempt to uncover the life of a family about whom very little is known or recorded and the circumstances surrounding the experiences of a woman who emigrated under the Earl Grey Scheme. It will be a valuable resource for his family.

Dr Liz Rushen is an Adjunct Research Associate in the School of Historical Studies at Monash University. She has published widely in the field of migration history and women in colonial Australia, including Single and Free: female migration to Australia, 1833-1837. In 2018-19 she was the recipient of a State Library of Victoria Creative Fellowship to research the life and writings of Tipperary-born journalist, Edmund Finn (aka ‘Garryowen’).