FEMALE IRISH FAMINE ORPHANS
I have previously written in this forum about elusive ancestors. Those ancestors that you can only trace back to a certain event in their life and then you reach a dead end. You know they are your ancestor because you have the proof. You have traced backwards from your self via the relevant birth, death and marriage certificates. You know they were not born in Australia because you have the death certificate which states that they were born somewhere else and that they have been in the colonies for a certain length of time. And you just don’t know how or why they came. There can be very many reasons for this mystery such as names recorded incorrectly, names not recorded at all on the ship’s passenger lists, names being changed to obtain anonymity and in many cases the circumstances of arrival being hidden from family, as was the case for many convict arrivals.
I have a number of these elusive ancestors in my family tree. One such person is my maternal great-great-grandmother. I always call her Rosanna Raill because that is the name recorded on her marriage certificate and that is the first official document that I obtained for her. However, on other records she has been recorded as, Rosanna Rail, Rose Anne Ragan, Rose Ann Reel, Rose Anne Real, Rosannah Ragan and Rose Ann Neal. Hence, my difficulty in finding a record of her arrival in Australia. However, thanks to the helpful and knowledgeable research staff at the Genealogical Society of Queensland I have found a very promising clue. This time the name I am following is Rose Reed, a passenger listed on the vessel Inchinnan which landed in Sydney on 13th January 1849. Her parents are listed as deceased but their names are Patrick and Anne which match up with information on Rosanna’s death certificate. Her place of origin, listed on the passenger list as North America United States, also matches up with the marriage certificate for her second marriage in 1882. However the place of origin does pose some doubt because a different place of birth is recorded on her death certificate and on a birth certificate for one of her children. This time it is listed as Cork, County Cork. Nevertheless, it is a clue which does seem to hold merit. Finding Rose’s name listed on the Inchinnan has opened up a whole new avenue of research for me and it is one that I had not considered before in any great depth. This is the history of Ireland during the Great Famine.
The Inchinnan was one of the vessels which brought Irish female orphans to Australia under the Earl Grey Scheme. The Earl Grey Scheme was the idea of Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies and it was designed to address a shortage of domestic servants and marriageable young woman in Australia and at the same time help alleviate the problem of orphans in the Irish workhouses. Between 1848 and 1850 over 4,000 young Irish girls and young women between the ages of 14 and 20, were sent to Australia, to the ports of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Ireland during this time was suffering a devastating famine and many children were orphaned and starving and living in workhouses and poor houses. It was decided that these were places where girls most suited for emigration could be found. A process was put in place for the relevant authorities to visit the Work Houses and select girls that they considered suitable for the purpose of the Scheme.
The Scheme was short-lived. It lasted only 2 years. There was enormous opposition to the scheme almost from the beginning. There were many political interests at play and these led to a hostile reaction in Australia to the orphan girls. There was also strong anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiments in the colonies at that time.
I gained great insight into this situation by reading Trevor McClaughlin’s book “Barefoot and Pregnant – Irish Famine Orphans in Australia” vol 2, published by the Genealogical Society of Victoria. The first section of this book consists of a collection of documents. These documents include official reports and letters between the relevant authorities regarding the setting up of the Scheme. There are also many newspaper reports from both Irish and Australian newspapers, as well as records of the voyages, reports on the enquiries into the Scheme and also detailed accounts of some of the orphan’s experiences.
Reading these documents gives understanding about the historical background of the Scheme and the prevailing sentiments at the time. Feelings in Australia against the orphans were particularly harsh and I was very moved by one report mentioned in the book, of an editorial in the Argus in January 1950 which referred to the orphans as “ useless creatures” and “our money ought to be expended upon the rosy cheeked girls of England …… upon the braw lassies of bonnie Scotland ….. instead of being wasted upon these coarse, useless creatures”. It seems harsh criticism indeed of these poor, starving orphan girls who had come to the other side of the world to a new and unknown way of life under a plan which was not of their making and which appears was set up for political and social reasons with very little thought for the girls’ ultimate well being. There is now a monument to the Great Irish Famine (1845- 1852) at the Hyde Park Barracks, Macquarie Street, Sydney. There is a website for this monument www.irishfaminememorial.organd on this website there is a database with a list of the female orphans.
The second half of McClaughlin’s book lists the vessels that sailed to Australia under the Scheme and the names of the orphans on each ship, together with her age, native place, parent’s names and religion. However, if a family member has researched that particular orphan there may well be a wealth of other information such as the name of the workhouse that she came from, the type of correspondence that may be held in public records in Ireland and Australia pertaining to her, who she may have worked for upon arrival and her marriage details and death details. Some orphans have additional information and others have very little or none at all. It was from this extra information that I was able to gather more hope that Rose Reed may indeed be my Rosanna Raill because the marriage details, husband’s name and husband’s death details match up with the records that I have.
The workhouse that Rose Reed came from was Ballyshannon in County Donegal. There are several websites where I was able to discover details of the conditions in that workhouse and the process around the orphans being selected for emigration. From the site www.vindicator.ca/history/famine/workhouses(which is the findings of a local history group) I learned that 16 female orphans were selected from that workhouse as being suitable for employment in Australia. Each girl was equipped with 6 shifts, 2 flannel petticoats, 6 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of shoes and 2 gowns. The girls were then taken from Ballyshannon in Northern Ireland to Plymouth, from where they sailed on the Inchinnan on 30th October 1848 with 148 girls from other workhouses. Another website www.ulsterancestry.com/newslettergives a harrowing account of conditions in the Ballyshannon workhouse during the famine years. Rose must have endured these conditions before her emigration to Australia.
I was very much puzzled as to why Rose’s place of origin could be stated as United States North America. However, my research led me to the history of the exodus of large numbers of people leaving Europe to start a new life in North America in the first half of the nineteenth century. The main point of entry was the city of Quebec in Canada and in the 1830’s the number of people reaching this port averaged 30,000 annually and a third of these were Irish. At the same time smallpox and cholera epidemics were sweeping across Europe. A quarantine station was set up at Grosse Ile in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River to help control the spread of disease. The website www.bac-lac.gc.ca gives an overview of this period of history and has a database which allows you to trace immigrants from their departure in Europe and their voyage across the Atlantic to their stay at Grosse Ile and their journey further into the continent. The database has lists of births, baptisms, deaths and burials at sea, marriages, baptisms and burials at the Grosse Ile Quarantine Station, hospital registers and names listed on the Grosse Ile Quarantine Memorial. The worst year of this epidemic was 1847 and it is said that over 5,000 people died at sea and thousands more died in cities across Canada. There is also a link from this site to the Grosse Ile and Irish Memorial National Historic Site at www.pc.gc.ca. (This is a Parks Canada website). On this site it is stated that it can be safely asserted that 60% of immigrants coming from the British Isles between 1829 and 1851 were Irish.
Is it possible that my Rose sailed to North America with her parents and she was left orphaned when they died from disease? If this is the case how did she arrive back in Ireland and why was she at the Ballyshannon Workhouse and not a workhouse somewhere else in Ireland? There is a lot more research for me to do to get to the bottom of her story.
What a fascinating story Meg. I am writing an article about researching family history for a Brisbane lifestyle magazine called The South City Bulletin, and I wondered if I could ask you some questions about your experience. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested. Thanks Amanda