by Eliza’s descendant Leeann Nolan
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise
I knew nothing of my Irish Famine orphan ancestor, Eliza McCready, until a little over a year ago. Some months earlier, I had stood at the foot of the grave of Charles Dickens’s son, Edward Bulwer Lytton, in the northern New South Wales town of Moree. I had gone to the cemetery especially to see it, reading online that it was there somewhere. As I was walking back out through the graves I came across the Aboriginal section. Unlike the section where Dickens’s descendant rested, here there were flowers on almost every grave. That struck me: the importance of ancestors to the Aboriginal people, how they acknowledge them and revere them. How long was it since I visited the grave of my parents, both long dead? I felt ridiculous visiting the grave of a man who mattered little to me. It wasn’t even the grave of the famous British author himself whose writing I admired but of his little-known son. When I returned home from my travels, perhaps feeling guilty, or perhaps simply contemplating my own immortality, I began to visit my parents’ grave most weekends.
The next lot of holidays, an advertisement for Ancestry.com came up on my Facebook feed, and so I decided to join up for the four-week free trial period. I had to give my credit card details which I baulked at, but still signed up and quickly found myself thoroughly immersed in my own ancestral history. On the first day I found the name, Eliza McCready, and through a small new article that someone put up on their profile learnt that she was one of the Irish Orphans sent to Australia during the Famine. Eliza comes from my paternal side. My father died when I was six years old, and though my memories of him are few, they are stark in their clarity. I have idolised him with all the rigidity of a child’s unbending will, and it has never abated. Eliza came to me through him and so I was immediately enthralled.
After more research, I found online some excerpts of Ray Denham’s excellent CD, The Feisty Colleens (2016), which listed Eliza’s name as being one of the ‘Belfast Girls’.
Some more sleuthing, and I also came across Jaki McCarrick’s 2015 play based on the Irish Famine Orphans, Belfast Girls which I was lucky enough to see performed in Queanbeyan on opening night in September 2019. As a Modern History and English secondary teacher, this information sent my imagination spinning: my GGG Grandmother’s life was documented, people had written about her, she lived and breathed in the pages of history, all I had to do was look, and I was able to find her.
She wasn’t simply an obscure name on a family tree. Her name appeared in the archives, documents from which I could determine meaning. I could read about where she’d been, who she married, her voyage to Australia and her time in Downpatrick Workhouse. I could learn about things she had actually gone through and witnessed in her life. I would not know her emotions but I would know the machinations of world history going on around her. I knew about the Irish Famine in a broad, sweeping way; now I could place Eliza in this time. I had facts, archives, primary and secondary sources, all with their own bias but a bias I could critique and respond to. I began to hear her voice, and I wanted others to hear it too.
The workhouse admitted its first inmates on 17 September 1842, and was able to house 1000. It was only one month later on 18 October that Eliza became an inmate. I don’t know if at this point she was already an orphan, though even if her parents were alive she would have been separated from them, no doubt frightened, and absolutely alone.
The Poor Relief (Ireland) Act of 1838 established administrative units called ‘Poor Law Unions’. It is clear that workhouses were meant to be a last resort for those who simply had no other alternative. According to Cormac O’Gráda, the Irish workhouses were similar to prisons. The workhouse regime included segregation and confinement, physical labor, unpleasant and sometimes inadequate food, and a pauper’s uniform’ (1999).
This also happens to be the year that William Thackeray, of Vanity Fair fame, was on a four-month working holiday, and wrote extensively on the disparity he saw between the rich and poor in Ireland.
In the workhouse records, held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), BG/12/G/1 Indoor Relief Register c. September 1842-May 1849, it is stated that Eliza was ‘a long time in Down infirmary’. Scrawled above this, as if to add further emphasis to her terrible condition are the words, ‘and very delicate’. Under the column headed ‘If disability, the description of disability’ it reads ‘delicate’. It is not clear what exactly ailed Eliza but maybe it was typhus fever, a disease that was to become prevalent during the famine. Clearly Eliza was gravely ill but perhaps her illness gave her some immunity when Black ’47 came, and the famine was at its height.
Life in the workhouses was not much better than on the streets. Peter Higginbotham http://www.workhouses.org explains the way in which the workhouses were segregated,Men, women, children, the infirm, and the able-bodied were housed separately and given very basic and monotonous food such as watery porridge called gruel, or bread and cheese. All inmates had to wear the rough workhouse uniform and sleep in communal dormitories, supervised baths were given once a week. The able-bodied were given hard work such as stone-breaking or picking apart old ropes called oakum. The elderly and infirm sat around in the day-rooms or sick-wards with little opportunity for visitor. Parents were only allowed limited contact with their children – perhaps for an hour or so a week on Sunday.
Eliza was an inmate of Downpatrick Workhouse for almost three years before being released as a servant aged 15, on 4 August 1845. This was just before the height of the famine which decimated Ireland from 1845-49, so it is interesting that she was able to get work during this period at all; although, according to O’Gráda the northern half of County Down ‘escaped relatively lightly’ (2000). However, just over one year later she returned to Downpatrick Workhouse for her ‘second admission.’
Thomas Gallagher, author of Paddy’s Lament (1982), explains that ‘During the worst months, in the winter of 1846-47, tens of thousands of tenants fell in arrears of rent, and were evicted from their homes’ . This is corroborated by O’Gráda who says,
From late 1846 on, the classic famine symptoms of wandering beggars, roadside deaths rising crime rates, poorly attended burials, widespread panic about contagion, and mass evictions were commonplace throughout most of the country.
It may be that Eliza’s employers were forced to leave their home, or they were wealthier tenants, or they may have decided to escape the famine by moving to America. In any case, Eliza lost her source of employment. In the workhouse records, her place of residence was given as ‘Union At Large’, ie homeless, meaning she had no fixed address, and was clearly destitute.
Perhaps this reveals her reticence at going back into the institution, a place she knew well from the previous three years she had spent there. O’Gráda further explains the hesitancy many felt about succumbing to the walls of the workhouse,
After being evicted and seeing their homes tumbled, the tenant farmer and their families still shunned the workhouse, where life with freedom ended and drudgery on schedule began.
Eliza had had a taste of freedom and at 16 would have dreaded going back to the regimented, soul destroying life of the workhouse. She also had work experience: under the ‘employment/calling’ column in her records is listed ‘servant’. This would stand her in good stead in the selection process for the Earl Grey Scheme.
Eliza left the workhouse, seemingly for good, almost a year later on 22 September 1847, the end column merely stating: ‘left’. A few months before, in early 1847, the Poor Relief Bill was enacted. The British government extended a loan to Ireland, half of which was to be spent on public works and half on soup kitchens: public works that ‘British law decreed had to be unproductive in accordance with laissez-faire doctrine opposing governmental interference in economic affairs’ (Gallagher, 1982). The Irish Relief Act became law 26 February 1847. The Act dealt with the soup kitchens and meant that, ‘The Irish would no longer have to enter a workhouse to receive food: they would simply have to be destitute, helpless, or impotent’ (Gallagher). It may be that Eliza went to work on one of these projects, and was able to survive being homeless by going to the soup kitchens.
All of these details seem to coalesce to form an assumption that Eliza was a perfect candidate for the Earl Grey Scheme. At this point, it seems clear that her parents had died. She was single, an orphan, and had one year’s experience as a servant, so she would be seen as a good prospect by the officials. Though her age is given as 20 years on the PRONI records for her second admission, other records indicate she was born in 1830, so she would have been only 17 or 18 at most. Archives can be unreliable; indeed, the record of her first admission to the workhouse states that her employment is a ‘shoemaker’. The word is crossed out, but clearly human errors can be, and would have been made. Her age at her first admission into the workhouse is given as 16, when in 1842, she was actually only 12.
Six months after Eliza left the workhouse, in early April 1848, Lieutenant John Henry RN, the Emigration Agent in Ireland, ‘convened a meeting at the Belfast Workhouse to select the very first batch’ of orphans who would be part of the Earl Grey Scheme. At this point she had been institutionalised in the government workhouse system for four years, only leaving briefly for the one year of employment she undertook as a servant. She was an adult, and presumably had no other close relatives or friends she could rely upon in Ireland, all likely to have perished from hunger or disease, so it would seem reasonable to assume she was eager to leave for Australia. Her life in the workhouse would have been wretched, and Ireland had nothing to offer but hopelessness and despair. Her choice to accept participation in the Earl Grey Scheme, if it can be called a choice, was determined by the circumstances she found herself in. As O’Gráda reminds us, ‘It was push migration with a vengeance’.
Voyage to Australia
(courtesy R.Haines, Doctors at Sea, Palgrave, 2005, p.3).
Eliza left Dublin on the steamer Athlone on 27 May 1848, arriving at Plymouth two days later. She sailed out on the first ship, the Earl Grey, leaving Plymouth 3 June 1848, and arriving in Sydney on 6 October that year. It was what took place on that 125-day voyage that led to her being included among the notorious ‘Belfast Girls’. Though her name is never specifically mentioned in any of the official inquiries, Eliza was seen as one of the gang of ‘Belfast girls’ who were in the words of the ship’s surgeon, Henry Grattan Douglass, ‘…notoriously bad in every sense of the word’.
Yet there is no evidence to confirm that these girls did anything other than use profanities, and shout lewd accusations at one another during the voyage. The Earl Grey’s captain, Alexander Robertson, agreed with Surgeon Douglass, ‘The girls from Belfast were decidedly the worst, coming from a town where I suppose they have been upon the streets’. Well, yes, in one sense, they were. Eliza was declared ‘houseless’ on her second admission to the workhouse in 1846. Yet the charge of being ‘upon the streets’ obviously refers to their being prostitutes. Robin Haines explains that, ‘…the whiff of the workhouse – whether English or Irish – was synonymous with the taint of the trollop’. Haines goes on to discredit the accusations by Douglass stating that the,
[Colonial Land and Emigration] Commissioners reacted strongly to sweeping and unscrupulous charges against Irish women …when the Surgeon-Superintendent of the Earl Grey cast ‘a general and discriminate stigma upon a large body of young women’ who were largely undeserving of such blame.
How frightened they must have been of these young women, who swore loudly and often.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
Douglass was circumspect when being interviewed at the Sydney Inquiry held in the days after the Earl Grey reached Australia. He skirted details and baulked at naming names, behaviour that today would be seen as evasive but seen then as ‘polite’. He cast his lies and accusations in benevolent rhetoric, stating, ‘It would be cruel to have particularized each girl’s career’, so instead, he used slurs, insults and gross generalisations to condemn all the women’ (Debnam, 2016). When questioned he says that the girls from Belfast
had been roving about the country … Many of the girls had been working in the flax mills, others had been running about the country and begging from door to door.
He makes it sound like they were out having a lark, ‘running around’, getting up to mischief, rather than dying of starvation, racked with disease, trying to survive without food and shelter, in one of the worst famines in human history. He makes ‘begging from door to door’ sound like a criminal offence, rather than a desperate means of survival by a people ground down by hardship and disease. O’Gráda author of Black ’47 and Beyond states the obvious that, ‘Most famines induce people to move temporarily in search of food and work and in order to escape disease’. It is quite bizarre that being ‘on the streets’ always means prostitution, instead of being homeless.
O’Gráda refers to an Irish song in West Kerry that ‘lamented the young men having lost their spark … and good-looking women could now venture out alone at night without fear of harassment’. He goes on to describe the effects of the famine in detail,
There were many accounts of bodies left unburied; others described survivors dragging corpses unaided to cemeteries, and people not quite dead being lowered into communal burial pits.
How anyone could think women were standing on street corners waiting for customers when they were starving and too weak to actually stand from disease, is absurd. That is not to say that sexual favours in exchange for food would not have taken place, but what woman starving in Ireland at the time would not have done so? Gallagher cites a ‘hand written memoir’ of an old woman which states,
It didn’t matter who was related to you, your friend was whoever would give you a bite to put in your mouth … Sport and pastimes disappeared. Poetry, music and dancing stopped. They lost and forgot them all … The famine killed everything.
Gallagher quotes another famine horror story that took place in County Down, Eliza’s home county. He writes,
Food became both a dream and an obsession, and the scarcer it became, the more degrading and revolting were the alternatives left to those trying to survive … a beggar woman and her two children went to the home of a comfortable farmer asking alms. When they approached the doorstep, they saw the pigs in the sty eating food. Before the mother could stop them, or feel that she wanted to or had a right to, the children ran over to the trough and, like pigs themselves, gobbled up what the pigs had not yet eaten.
But Gallagher’s most harrowing story from The Hunger was the horrific incident of a woman who ate the flesh from the feet and legs of her dead three-year-old son. McCarrick also refers to child cannibalism when the character called Sarah says that,
I crawled through the wet grass an’ dug up with my own two hands where I’d buried her – and looked down at the white mauled flesh in a way I never thought possible
Douglass’ lack of understanding of the situation in Ireland at this time is breathtaking, his ignorance is astonishing, and I admit I am overcome with resentment and fury when I read the archives. If this was his manner when speaking to Sydney Immigration officials, what must his manner have been when speaking to the orphans on board a ship at sea? His open contempt, arrogance, and disdainful attitude is clear, how much clearer would it have appeared to them, and how this pompous, self-serving man must have infuriated them. He had no idea what their lives had been like previously, coming as they did from destitution; they may have felt they had nothing whatsoever to lose by openly defying him. His threats, compared to the dire situations they had already been in, would have seemed quite pathetic. They had gone through hell, what more could he or anyone else do to them? They would have had no respect for Surgeon Douglass who knew nothing of what they had gone through. Unfortunately, they were to learn that defiance would not be tolerated.
The fact that the very first shipment of Irish orphans did not go well, was a political catastrophe, as Debnam points out, ‘… the success of the whole scheme could depend on the acceptance or rejection of those women”. But from the very onset the ‘Belfast girls’ were considered outcasts and the scheme doomed to failure, was cut short in 1850. An excerpt from The Argus newspaper on 24 April 1850 states,
The whole country cries out against the further admission into the colony, of such degraded beings as the majority of the female orphans have been found … every vessel that brings an increase of this kind to our female population, brings a melancholy increase to the vice and lewdness that is now to seem so rampant in every part of town.
This antipathy is corroborated by McClaughlin who cites an Argus editorial in January 1850 which decried funding being given to the Irish orphan scheme,
Our money ought to be expended upon the rosy cheeked girls of England … upon the brawn lassies of bonnie Scotland … instead of being wasted upon these coarse, useless creatures who … with their squat, stunted figures, thick waists and clumsy ankles promise but badly for the “physique” of the future colonialists of Victoria.
Clearly, keeping the Belfast girls out of Sydney did not produce the desired effect, and all of the orphans were now tainted with the same brush. That is to say, they were Irish. Indeed, it was noted by a witness before the Select Committee on Irish female immigrants, that one racial slur was simply to say, ‘Oh! They are Irish … there is nothing more taunting to an Irish girl than that’.
While their courage was evident on the high seas, once they reached land, the captain, and in particular the ship’s surgeon, Douglass, sought immediate redress for the perceived humiliations they had experienced at the hands of these ‘brazen’ women.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
An Inquiry into the voyage of the orphans was held, and after two days a decision was made by the Sydney Orphan Committee to send 38 of the female immigrants to Moreton Bay: they were deemed unsuitable for Sydney. Eliza McCready was one of those women. There was no way the authorities were going to allow the Belfast girls to enter Sydney. It was already attempting to develop into a respectable town, was in the throes of discarding its convict origins, and busy hiding the massacre of Aborigines. The girls were to be hidden, silenced, a stain on an already blood-stained continent. It is difficult to hear the voice of Eliza in the official records, a destitute, powerless woman, but she is there. She won’t stay silent.
I can only imagine how torturous not being able to disembark after the tedious journey would have been, although for Eliza who had had so little freedom in her life, perhaps she still felt some hope for a better life. On 14 October, the schooner Ann Mary sailed for Moreton Bay with the ‘miscreants’ Douglas identified. Connors and Turner explain that
Brisbane was largely peripheral to the orphan scheme; its greatest significance to the authorities was its remoteness so that the most ‘unsuitable’ of the first arrivals, labelled the ‘Belfast girls’ could be shipped there and not become the focus of political discontent in Sydney.
And so they were removed, banished, expunged from history. Except, of course, they weren’t.
Does my sexiness upset you? / Does it come as a surprise
The orphans from the Earl Grey are referred to in the play Belfast Girls by Jaki McCarrick. The play is set on board the Inchinnan, the second orphan ship to arrive in Australia on 13 February 1849. One of the characters, Judith, is reading an Australian newspaper, and announces what it says to the others, ‘..talkin’ about the Earl Grey…it says ‘these obscene women … foul language not skilled many of them ‘public women’ – ending up in Sydney – as public women’. Henry Grattan Douglas [sic] is also mentioned as Judith goes on to ‘quote’ him from the newspaper article,
He says that when the orphans came off that boat – ‘they lived lives of concubines; became thieves and were blasphemous’. He says that ‘the workhouses lied – and knew well who and what the women were before they sent them’.
How is it we all got our certificates of good character, our references, huh? Sixty women from Belfast on this ship, and most of em I seen walkin’ the streets … Oh they knew right well what they were sendin’ to Australia! Few of us are orphans. Few of us are girls. They just used it as a chance to purge the country of its dirty women. We didn’t leave Ireland at all, ladies. Ireland has spat us out. (McCarrick)
Eliza was indentured to a man, ironically also named Douglas, (with one ‘s’) at Goodna, near Ipswich, for six months. On 5 June 1849, at St John’s in Brisbane, Eliza married ex-convict, Robert Patterson Bannister. Bannister was from Brighthelmstone (Brighton) in England. According to his convict records he was tried when he was nineteen years old at Sussex Assizes; his crime, a second offence, was stealing seven printed books valued at 2 shillings. His employment was noted as a cordwainer, a shoemaker who makes shoes from new leather, a funny coincidence: Eliza’s first admission to the workhouse incorrectly listed this as her occupation.
Robert, also known as ‘Gypsy Bob’, came out on the Portsea on the 13 September 1838, ten years before Eliza arrived. He was given his ticket of leave 20 May 1847. In convict records held at the Commissariat Store in Brisbane, it is stated that 23 November he was working at Limestone (Ipswich) under a Mr Kent. He received fourteen days solitary confinement on bread and water for refusing to take his sheep out. On 12 December 1840 he received 50 lashes for neglect of work, absenting himself, and ‘insolence to his Overseer’.
It would seem that Eliza had found a kindred spirit. It wasn’t a match made in heaven; nevertheless, it was a match.
Robert bought a small plot of land in Town Marie (Ipswich) where he worked as a butcher. He had acquired a modicum of success, and both he and Eliza would seem to have been doing well for themselves. In the Moreton Bay Courier on 26 May 1855, Robert was even listed as having contributed 2s 6p to the ‘Patriotic Fund’. This was one month after their second child, Caroline was born. It would seem that the Bannisters had become model white Australians.
Connors and Turner claim that, ‘choice of spouse was critical … for many of the orphans it was their spouses’ behavior that determined whether they could rise above the cycle of poverty’. Despite his convict past, Robert provided well for his family. Together they had four children: Elizabeth Sarah, b. 22 October 1851; Caroline, b. 25 April, 1855, Thomas John, b. 8 April 1859; and Mary Martha, b. 5 April 1861. Caroline is my direct ancestor; my own grandmother, Caroline Elizabeth Nolan nee Butcher was named after both her and Eliza. My grandmother also had a brother named Robert Patterson Butcher who died in Roma at only twelve years of age.
Unfortunately, the tale of Eliza does not end happily ever after. At 32 years of age, with her youngest child only 9 months old, and my own GG Grandmother, Caroline, only 6 years old, Eliza was struck down with tetanus. She died in Ipswich Hospital Monday 6 January 1862. A newspaper report in the North Australian on 7 January headed ‘Death from Lockjaw’ reads,
A poor woman, named Eliza Bannister, was received into the Ipswich Hospital on Friday last from Redbank, whence she was brought by steamer, who was suffering from tetanus or lockjaw occasion [sic] by a sore on the foot.
She would have suffered excruciating agony from painful muscle spasms for three days before she died. After what she had already gone through in her short life, her sudden death is unbearably tragic.
According to Connors and Turner,
The Moreton Bay ‘girls’ represented less than 5 percent of the more than 4000 Irish orphans who were sent to Australia, but they were an influential element at the embryonic Brisbane settlement … Arriving in the colony at the beginning of their most productive years, both economically and biologically the contributions of the Irish female orphans to the white community was assured.
I stand as testament to that, as do Carole Eastaughffe, and her daughter, Alannah Shore, descendants of Eliza through her son Thomas. I was fortunate to meet them both at the Irish Famine Memorial at the Sydney Barracks in 2019.
Eliza McCready’s life may have been short but it is difficult to imagine her as anything other than courageous. Her will to survive allowed her to endure the hardships she faced in Ireland, including four years in the workhouse, and the long illness she endured as a mere child within its walls. The loneliness and despair she must have felt is difficult to contemplate. Like many of the orphan girls she surely looked out onto the horizon from the Earl Grey, her thoughts filled with hopes and dreams of a family, a husband, a life free from hunger. Douglass was horrified at the thought of what kind of offspring the Belfast women from the Earl Grey, would produce, stating in a letter to the Colonial Secretary in 1850,
Many of these girls have been forwarded to the interior, where very soon they will become mothers. What can the workhouse woman teach her child but what she had heard and learned herself? And as it is probable that two or three generations may arise, before the neutralizing offices of schools and religious instruction can be available by reason of increased population, is it not frightful to consider the extent of contamination and radical depravity which will have been fostered by such a selection of young women.
But I am honoured that she is my ancestor and I can only hope that part of her essence resides in me, a thought which fills me with enormous pride. Like Caroline, Eliza’s daughter, I was also six when my father died. I vividly recall in the months after my father’s death, my mother pleading to me, her face contorted in anguish, don’t forget your father, don’t forget, don’t forget. Maybe it is the love of him that drives me to seek out Eliza’s story, to make me feel more connected to my past, a past that comes to me through my father, and grounds me securely in a present that often has me reeling and isolated.
Eliza’s voice has been buried in the archives, it is faint but it grows stronger.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Leeann Nolan is a secondary school Modern History and English teacher, living in Brisbane. She has a Research Masters Degree in creative writing From QUT, and hopes to write a historical fiction novel based on the life of Eliza McCready.
You can hear Rosie Perez reading Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ here.