Assisted Irish Migrants to New South Wales in the 19th century

Readers may be interested in these Tables that first appeared in my book From Shamrock to Wattle in 1985. Most will know that New South Wales included virtually all of Eastern Australia in the first half of the nineteenth century. Victoria was established in 1851 and Queensland in 1859. Please make allowances for that when you study the tables.

In the days when one could wander round the stacks in a library, I was able to pull down volumes and put together the numbers. In Shamrock I wrote, ‘the figures are compiled from the various reports of the Committee on Immigration which are printed in the Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Council of New South Wales and from New South Wales Statistical Registers which were published annually in the second half of the nineteenth century. Table 2 (page 62) shows the County of origin of assisted migrants who came to Port Jackson in the eighteen months between January 1841 and June 1842′.

Given our current lockdown, I’ll have to have faith in the accuracy of what I said.

What is it that strikes you from these tables? Some of the questions I posed in 1985 and again in 1990, included, ‘was the period between 1840 and 1869 the one when the influence of the Irish, at least, numerically, was strongest? Note the peaks and troughs…How do we account for such fluctuations? How far were they the result of ‘push factors’ such as local conditions in Ireland, famine, the shrinking of tillage, or threatened loss of social status? How far were they the result of ‘pull’ factors, conditions …such as the discovery of gold, land sales, economic prosperity and the pull of family members already here?’

There is undoubtedly more work that could be done, and there are other questions that should be asked. Richard Reid developed some of these in his ANU doctoral thesis, much of which appeared in his Farewell My Children Irish Assisted Migration to Australia 1848-1870, Anchor Books, 2011.

For the moment, I’d especially like to draw your attention to the numbers of Irish who came between 1839 and 1842. I’m not sure if this influx is much remarked upon by Australian historians. Mary Hoban and Margaret Kiddle are exceptions. I remain to be corrected. Note too which counties the Irish came from, in Table 2.  There was a very Irish ‘tincture’ to Eastern Australia in the early 1840s. Can you think of anything that might test this claim? What is your response to the information in theses tables?

Some first responses from the team

huntrogers: ‘Primary statistics such as these are exciting to me, as I wonder how many were Irish-speaking. I can only imagine they improved the travel conditions. There are some heated articles about the Bounty system in Trove in 1839/40. When I think of my own assisted passage, I recall we were considering Tasmania, but then thought we were risking enough to go all the way to Australia, but Tasmania was an island too far. I also recall meeting a family that were going to New Zealand, and feeling sorry for the great risk they were taking in travelling even further south. We were city people, educated, wanting to see the world, but still feared the unknown. We did not know what we did not know. And we were travelling on a Greek cruise ship!’

fdg:’I read this afresh this morning and on a computer and it was much easier to get excited by your figures (I’m not easily stirred by numbers!!)

Why the big spike in 1842? People eager to take part in the Bounty Scheme before it ended? After 1842 an economic downturn in New South Wales meant Government Assisted Emigration spluttered along before revving up again in 1847-8. And why so many from Tyrone, Tipp., Galway and Limerick? Were they related to people already here, convicts and others? It would be hard to make the connection between convicts and Bounty migrants from particular counties. Unless, of course, the stats. on convicts were as good as these, and broken down by county. I also remember the children who were left behind by some of these 1840-2 migrants, wasn’t that the case?’

FOS: I think the most interesting statistic is the dominance of Tipperary, Clare and Limerick in the numbers. Including my Australian better half whose Cosgrove ancestors came from Clare. I wonder whether there is an academic thesis there somewhere. 

We would love to hear your response to these Tables.

Thanks to the National Library of Australia.

Sea Routes, from Robin Haines, Doctors At Sea, Palgrave, 2005, p.3

Trevor McClaughlin is a sometime member of the Tinteán Editorial Team.

19 thoughts on “Assisted Irish Migrants to New South Wales in the 19th century

  1. Very interesting.. I had very few come from Ireland in that period, mine tended to wander over in the early 1900s. You’ve made me think though, maybe there were more that I haven’t found as yet.
    Thanks, Trevor .

  2. Today marks the date in 1836 when my ancestor Henry and his brother James were to be hanged – transported at the last minute, (thankfully). Perhaps the real story of resilience and strength belongs to their wives and children who stayed behind for the next 13 years, arriving as assisted migrants thanks to Caroline Chisholm (1847 and 1849). How did they survive when the St Vincent sailed away with their husbands on board…what was it like for these women left behind with infants and little ones – and then re-uniting as a family on the Monaro (NSW) all those years later…

  3. My ancestors came later than the question you pose about the 1840s, arriving in 1852 and 1863 (a big year for Irish migration according to your figures), so definitely part of the later pull factors. You mention Richard Reid’s book, I remember he said large numbers went from Tipperary and Kilkenny, and I can tick both those boxes!
    I often think about how ‘Irish’ some early Aussie towns/townships must have been – certainly in my research on the Mayo Orphan Girls, the area around Kiama was very Irish, the Irish orphan girls in that area in the 1850s must have often run in to each other. And my favourite ‘Irish’ Australian town? Home Rule!

    • Intrigued at the huge emigration total of 1841, I did some searching and found a 1997 article by John McDonald and Eric Richards titled, “The Great Emigration of 1841: Recruitment for New South Wales in British Emigration Fields”. And indeed they were bounty immigrants, with Tipperary considerably over-represented. Apparently John Dunmore Lang announced that the Irish Catholics were “Tipperarifying the moral atmosphere of the colony”!

  4. Trevor McClaughlin poses some intriguing questions, which, I regret, I am not well equipped to answer, but I would be very interested in the responses of other readers of Tinteán. It seems to me that the ‘push’ factor would be far and away the more dominant. Anything to escape the grinding poverty. The ‘pull’ factor in the 1800’s would be weak at best. Even as a young boy in County Mayo of the 1940’s there was little knowledge of what was going on in the adjoining counties, and Dublin was an eon away. I still remember, and can feel the emotion of the moment clearly, when, in 1951, we were about to depart for Australia, and an aunt said to me, ‘Well goodbye Murrough, I don’t suppose we will ever meet again’. Australia, even as late as 1951, was not far short of ‘Terra incognita’. For migrants leaving Ireland in the 1800’s, it was an escape, but to where they were escaping must have been just a name. So, could I ask a question of my own: what were the hopes and aspirations of those migrants? Did they know more about Australia than I have credited them with?

    • Thank you odeaghain for your comments and your perceptive and insightful questions. I believe there was quite a lot of coverage of Australia in Irish newspapers of the time, mostly rose coloured. Who owned the newspapers? There are also some letters between here and there. But not heaps of them. Those whose dominant culture was the Gaelic one, say from your part of the world, may have had more difficulty in writing letters. But they all must have had enough command of English to negotiate the demands of the Bounty and Government Assisted systems of emigration. It depends on how well they could write and their access to a postal service among other things-no? See D. Fitzpatrick, Oceans of Consolation (Melbourne UP, 1995). What made me draw breath was finding the number of children those early 1840s migrants had left behind because they could not procure a passage for them. How to choose between your children? How did Catherine Agnew cope ? (See Anniela’s comment). It tells us something of the nature of family and community bonds in Ireland itself. Or maybe the dynamics of their family emotional life was very different from our own? I hope others might enlighten us about this, pretty please.

      • I continue the story of Catherine Agnew who, with her sister-in-law, Alicia secured passages on the Waverley for themselves and their 7 children (due to the efforts of Caroline Chisholm). Unfortunately, Catherine and the boys were not able to leave as scheduled due to one of the children having a fever at the time of departure and they would not let them embark. So, for the second time, Catherine and the children stood on the shores of Ireland and watched a ship sail away to Australia with their family – and Henry would not have known they weren’t coming until they didn’t;t arrive!. It’s hard to imaging the heart-wrenching sadness as the ship sailed away – for both women and the children! Catherine had to wait for 2 more years until she and the children were able to sail on the Success to Sydney – who helped them – how did they survive? Yet, the records show that Catherine and the children could read and all but the youngest could write as well…so poverty and heartache had not stopped them entirely. Then, they had to walk or travel by horse and cart all the way to Numeralla in the Snowy Mountains (even today, a long drive) – such endurance and resilience! I wonder what they thought as they travelled through the bush and then onto the dry Monaro after leaving the green of Ireland? What would it have been like to meet up again after 13 years having not seen one another at all in that time and with little correspondence…and the children were tiny when their fathers were transported so they would have not known them at all. What was that first re-union like in a strange land? And yet, it seems they made a success of their new lives, despite the challenges and isolation, all living well beyond their 80s!

      • When I asked if the emotional dynamics of a family in the past was similar to ours I was thinking there may be another dimension. What do we know about the attitudes of people in the past to things such as love, sex and marriage, or death? Was infant and child mortality high? Did they not live as long as us? Did they have large families in the hope that some would look after them in old age? What about the influence of their economic circumstances? Were children sent out to other homes at an early age? Did husbands go away for long periods for seasonal work? And what was the impact of all this on emotions? Were they stoic rather than given to any notions of romantic love? Did what o’deaghain refer to as ‘grinding poverty’ have the overriding influence on emotional bonds?

  5. So interesting to hear from people who travelled to Australia and clearly thought it was the end of the earth. Hilarious that Tasmania was considered an island too far, though to be fair I think many Australians feel that way today 😆 Seriously, though how much more frightening would it have been for the Irish Famine Orphans. Though I think at least in the case of my ancestor, Eliza McCready, 3 years and 9 months in the Downpatrick workhouse, destitution and homelessness would have made it seem like an adventurous new beginning. I have just received my DNA results from Ancestry. Com and my ethnicity is 46% Irish, specifically from West Clare. Eliza was from County Down, so I will have to do some digging to find out more about my Irish connections in the south. Interestingly, Eliza entered the workhouse in 1842, when she was only 12 years old and orphaned. So yes, I too wonder about the significance of that year.

  6. We should not assume that Irish farming families uniformly lived in ‘grinding poverty’. Some did, others certainly did not. Even with assisted passages, there were expenses to be met, and the very poorest would have struggled to meet them. There was a world of difference between the strong farmer and the cottier, and there were also many in between, not well-to-do but not starving.

    • Very much agree Colin. It’s a complex subject. Whether the question is why did Irish people come generally, or why did so many come 1841-2 from those particular counties. Or what was the role of women in the migration and settlement historical process? Or even, was the emotional dynamics of family life different from our own? Those questions too will be subject to the when and whos, at what time and who exactly, are we talking about.

      Are there other issues? How about that great question from Huntrogers, how many of those who took flight in 1840-2 could speak Irish? Can we establish links back to earlier arrivals, convicts and others? See Eamon Healy’s recent comment. My sincere thanks to everyone for engaging.

  7. Great research and article, and while I am not too well equipped to add academically to this discussion, hopefully you might find some of my comment helpful. One of the first things that struck me (particularly regarding the first table), was the emergence of high numbers from Galway and Roscommon as the leaders in Connaught, and Limerick, Clare and Tipperary in Munster. While as another commenter has suggested a good reason for the Tipperary contingent is explained in the article “The Great Emigration of 1841: Recruitment for New South Wales in British Emigration Fields,” I believe another tangent I have been researching recently may add another facet to consider. From 1829 to 1832, there was a significant Whiteboy movement called the Terry Alt movement (it also went by several other names) which began in Clare, and spread from there to Limerick, Galway, Roscommon and parts of Tipperary (and elsewhere). Unfortunately, the Terry Alt movement generally remains significantly under-researched. Being from Galway, I took a particular interest at the beginning of this Summer to learn a bit more about the movement, particularly in South Galway where I am from, and have identified 82 men from County Galway as a whole who had been tried, convicted and sent to NSW as a result of Whiteboy crimes. I know from other articles I have read a more significant contingent were sent from Clare, and I suspect likewise for Roscommon. I am now examining each of the 82 Galway men to determine what happened to them after their arrival in NSW between 1831 and 1833. One thing I have noticed is once they received their conditional pardons after 7-10 years (and sometimes before), they begin to petition Government to have their families and extended family to join them through assisted emigration. As an example, I have determined at least 10 individuals from Galway availed of this chain migration to join their convict relatives (3 men were responsible for these 10 who later arrived between 1841 and 1844), which may have added further to the spikes you have identified. My research is ongoing, but even if only a small percentage of convicts were responsible for this chain migration, I believe it could help explain some of the spike, although, certainly not all, and does not fully explain the inflated numbers from those counties generally.

  8. Thanks for continuing to educate me, Trevor, all this time after first teaching me Australian history at Macquarie University in 1988! Very interesting to see the all the immigrants from Tipperary. Decades later (in the 1870s – I’m away from my files due to the lockdown) my maternal grandmother and namesake Bridget met her future husband, also from Nenagh Tipperary, on the ship to Australia. On the other side of the family, my paternal grandfather also arrived in Australia from Tipperary in the 1890s. I wonder how much research historians have done on the reporting of Australia in the 19th century Irish press, with the searching of some Irish papers now somewhat easier due to digitisation?

    • You are very kind Bridget. The shoe is on the other foot. That sounds like a great research project for someone. I’m not sure if the digitisation of 19th c. Irish newspapers matches Trove. One of my favourites is “Life in New South Wales” in ‘The Lurgan, Portadown and Banbridge Advertiser & Agricultural Gazette’, 4 October 1849, “…Here is a picture of a ‘young corn-stalk’ coming pacing along on a coarse bred trambling filly…”

  9. I can shed some light on fdg’s question about “why the big spike in 1841?” which I discuss further in my upcoming book (shameless plug!) Opposing Australia’s First Assisted Immigrants, 1832-42, based on my PhD thesis (Macquarie Uni) and due out later this year. The colonial elite were clamouring for ever more labour (to bring labour prices down) and complained that Britain was mismanaging assisted emigration. So, Governor Gipps approved more bounty permissions than was prudent – over 70,000 bounties (compare that to the numbers above!) that would have cost over one million pounds if all had been redeemed. At that point, the bounty system became a commercial speculation & bounty permissions were traded in a shadow market for a spell. Then, the economic depression happened, land sales ceased, and there wasn’t money to cover the bounties already promised. The Coloninal Office had to shut it all down and, as was noted above, assisted immigration didn’t really get going again for a few years.
    The sharp increase in the number of Irish was duly noted in the colonial press in a very negative way. My book is focused on the negative rhetoric about assisted immigrants, including Irish assisted immigrants, and the motivations behind such rhetoric, so I’ll stop this reply now before it turns into 5,000 words 🙂

  10. This is a well written article that raises a few interesting questions. I enjoyed it and it has provided an impetus to further research for me in the area of Family History.
    One side of my family emigrated to “NSW” from Fermanagh in 1842. They came with 7 children and the father was described as a Farmer / Labourer.

  11. Hi Trevor, as usual, you pose interesting questions. I agree with Melanie that the increased emigration in the early 1840s was due to the activity of the bounty agents, John Marshall (owner of the Plymouth Emigration Depot) and John Besnard. Besnard was Marshall’s agent until 1841 when he established his Cork Emigration Depot and began working for Carter & Bonus. He enlarged his depot in 1843-44, before the government insisted that all Irish emigrants for Australia departed from Plymouth. And now my own shameless plug – for more information on this aspect of Irish emigration, see Chapter 10 of my new book, ‘John Marshall: ship owner, Lloyd’s reformer and emigration agent’, Anchor Books Australia, 2020.

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