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Earl Grey Irish Famine Orphans

October 1, 2019

The Orphan Emigration Scheme

Between 1848 and 1850, the Orphan Emigration Scheme sent over 4000 young Irish girls from the workhouses for the poor, to Australia. Many of these girls were orphans, though some had been abandoned by their fathers, and when their mothers were no longer able to care for them, due to hardship, they were sent to one of the workhouses.

Earl Grey was the British Secretary of State for the Colonies. He set up the Orphan Emigration Scheme to clear some of these young girls from the many overcrowded workhouses. Local landholders who funded the girls in the workhouses were huge supporters of the scheme.

The other reason for the scheme was to send young girls of working age to Australia, to reduce the severe shortage of female labour, and also to provide marriage partners for the men. At the time there were many more males than females living in Australia.

Six ships carried the girls across the seas to Australia, which was in the early days of settlement: Lady Kennaway, Pemberton, Diadem, New Liverpool, Derwent and the Eliza Caroline.

Over 1700 girls arrived in Melbourne. These girls, from all 32 counties in Ireland, were considered to have been living in the most dire situations imaginable. They were between 14 and 20 years of age, and only girls deemed suitable were chosen to be sent.

When it came time to leave the workhouses and board the sailing ships for the long journery, each girl was given a chest with personal belongings including two dresses, two petticoats, five pairs of stockings, two pairs of shoes, a bible, a hairbrush, a bowl and a spoon.

Unfortunately, on arrival in Melbourne, the girls were initially not received well. The people of Melbourne were suspicious of them. They were maligned in the press, abused in the streets, and often treated badly by unscrupulous employers.

From The Argus 4 April 1850:  Another ship-load of female immigrants from Ireland has reached our shores, and yet, though everybody is crying out against the monstrous infliction, and the palpable waste of the immigration fund, furnished by the colonists in bringing out these worthless characters, nobody has, for so far, sufficiently shaken off the ordinary apathy which besets the community, to set about the necessary means for getting up a remonstrance against the farther continuance of a system fraught with such fearful evils to the whole community … ”.

Most of the orphan girls turned out to be tough enough to cope with the less than ideal conditions, as well as the abuse. After the unfortunate and desperate situations they had found themselves in back home in Ireland, they would have seen Australia as an opportunity for a better life. There is evidence that some of these girls did fall on hard times, but mostly the orphan girls went on to live happy lives in Australia, marrying and raising families.

One of these orphan girls was an ancestor of mine, Ellen Boyle. My next post will describe the life lived by Ellen Boyle in Australia, after her arrival in Melbourne in 1848 on the Lady Kennaway

Australian Memorial to the Great Irish Famine

Irish Famine Memorial. The girls names have been engraved on glass at the Memorial at the Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney.


From → family history

  1. My husband’s ancestor, Biddy Gollagher was also on the Lady Kennaway.

    • That’s interesting Pauline. Did you mean Gollagher? Or Gallagher perhaps? Ellen Boyle’s mother was Ann Gallagher

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