Irish Orphan Girls
Hyde Park Barracks and the Earl Grey scheme
Soft caps, Barracks Archaeology, Hyde Park Barracks Museum, photograph Christopher Shain 2008
… they were treated with more consideration than they were entitled to and rather unduly encouraged to remain in the building…
Between 1848 and 1850 several thousand young women, some no more than 14 years old, sailed from Ireland on an ill-fated emigration plan to hiring-out depots in Sydney, Adelaide, Moreton Bay and Port Phillip. Many were illiterate. Most spoke English. Few had domestic training. Known as the ‘Irish orphans’, they had been handpicked by government officials and removed from county workhouses grown horribly overcrowded as, year after year, the Irish countryside sank deeper into poverty, misery and disease.
Since 1845 the successive failure of potato crops across Ireland had brought devastating famine, economic ruin and widespread evictions. Oppressive new Poor Laws had sent those hardest hit to the dreaded workhouse, breaking up families, village life and long-term connections to the land. Behind the idea was Henry George Grey, the politically progressive Secretary of State for the Colonies (1846–1852), whose vision was twofold: youthful lives spared of misery and the ex-convict colonies enriched with hardy, humble, fertile females. However, within just two years Earl Grey’s orphan scheme had sparked enough protest to be scrapped.
Reporting to London in 1848, immigration agent Frances Merewether was optimistic that, ‘provided the Emigrants were of useful description … three ship loads, or about 700 Statute Adults … might be despatched to the Sydney District each month’. With minor alterations and expense, the spacious old prisoner barracks with its high-walled compound and outbuildings could offer ‘ample and most comfortable accommodation’ for the Irish orphans.
|Immigration Depot brush, peg and improvised domino. Barracks Archaeology, Hyde Park Barracks Museum, photograph Gary Crockett 2008.|
In the following three years a total of 2253 orphan girls were lodged at Hyde Park Barracks. Scrutinised by immigration clerks, health officers and clergy, they shared sleeping quarters in the newly-appointed wards upstairs, before signing indentures for work in the ground floor hiring room. Separate wards were provided for other categories of ‘unprotected female Emigrants…[along with] the wives and children of Convicts who may be sent out to their husbands or parents’.
From the first arrivals in 1848, and for years afterwards, the orphan girls confronted heated local hostility. In the background, moves towards colonial self-government had already kindled fears of a mobbish Irish majority, and Earl Grey’s support for the revival of convict transportation had won him few friends in the colony. Initial antipathy towards the orphans centred on their youth, incompetence, lowly workhouse origins and, most of all, their Irishness. Coupled with inexperience in household service, according to one Sydney official, was ‘their disinclination to learn, their dirty and idle habits’ along with, in some, ‘a morose and ungovernable temper’ . Even worse, as future mothers, the girls threatened to imperil the supposedly vigorous colonial physique, with ‘their squat, stunted figures, thick waists and clumsy ankles’.
Given it cost the same to ship experienced immigrants to the colony, many began to wonder if the drain on colonial funds was worth it. By 1850, as boatloads of orphans were offloaded at Sydney Cove and the Barracks grew periodically crowded with un-hireable inmates, anger arose over the expense of housing them in the depot. Unlike the Scottish or English women in transit at the Barracks, the Irish orphans were forced to pick oakum – unravelling old ropes for wadding – under guard in a so-called ‘refractory room’. Charity, it seemed, had taken a more punitive turn. According to immigration agent Captain HH Browne, whose antipathy towards the scheme was well known, singling out the Irish girls for punishing work was necessary, given the ‘general complaint at the time was that they were treated with more consideration than they were entitled to and rather unduly encouraged to remain in the building’.
Maria, the last ship to transport Earl Grey’s orphans, docked at Sydney on 1 August 1850. Unable to withstand such heated opposition, the workhouse scheme was abandoned. Two years had seen a few thousand orphans find their way into new, sometimes better, circumstances. Many more remained behind in Irish workhouses. Government-assisted female immigrants from Britain continued to lodge at the Barracks until 1886.
Curator, Hyde Park Barracks Museum
Irish Oprhan Girls is a new display examining the role of the Female Immigration Depot at the Hyde Park Barracks, between 1848 and 1850, to house and process shiploads of workhouse orphans sent from Ireland, struggling in the grip of famine.
On display now at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum