Archive – Young – Irish Orphan Scheme

Here Fiona answers Bev Young’s question:

“My ggrandmother came to Australia in 1850 under the Irish Orphan Scheme.  Her shipping info says she came from Ballinrobe, her father was dead but her mother was still alive.  I have tried many avenues over a lot of years to trace the family with only brick walls.  Can you help?  Her name was Bridget (Biddy) McDonough (1834-1914).”

Fiona replies:

Hello Bev,

Thanks for sending in your question – it’s a really interesting conundrum you’ve set this week.  I’m reasonably positive that I can point you towards the relevant sources that will allow you to trace your great-grandmother and her family.

First I want to tell you something about the Irish Orphan Scheme, to put your great-grandmother’s story in context.  The Irish Orphan Scheme (also known as the Earl Grey Orphan scheme after the Colonial Secretary who enacted it), had two main aims:

  • To reduce overcrowding in the Irish workhouses through an assisted emigration scheme, and
  • To send female immigrants to settle in Australia, where there was a huge shortage of women settlers.

In early March 1848, Stanley, the Secretary to the Irish Poor Law Commissioners, sent a circular to the 68 Poor Law Unions across Ireland, advising them of the scheme, which was set out on the following basis.

The Board of Guardians in every Union put forward the names of suitable girls, aged between 14 and 18 years of age.

The girls did not necessarily have to be orphans, but for whatever reason were no longer living with their families.  They were to be of good character, unmarried and with no children, so that there were no encumbrances to marrying Australian settlers.

Although the young women recruited for the scheme didn’t require a trade, they were expected to work as domestic servants on arrival in Australia, until they reached an age to marry and met a suitor.

In May 1848 the Poor Law Commissioners sent in a list of 2,052 young women whose names were proposed for the Irish Orphan Scheme, to the Emigration Commissioners.

The young women chosen in the Unions had to undergo an inspection by an officer of the Emigration Commissioners based in Dublin.  Consequently, Lieutenant Henry R.N. visited each of the workhouses to examine those whose names were put forward.   “The method of selection adopted by him was a simple one.  As the girls sat in the workhouse refectory he walked amongst them making his choice.”  [‘Irish Orphan Emigration to Australia 1848-1850’ by Joseph A. Robins published in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 57, No. 228 (Winter, 1968)].

Once the girls were chosen they were supplied with an outfit at the cost of the Union of £4 to £5.  The girls and young women were to be provided with the following:

  • Six shifts
  • Two flannel petticoats
  • Six pairs of stockings
  • Two pair of shoes [Shoes or slippers were thought of as more convenient for use on board ship, than boots]
  • Two gowns, one of which must be made of some warm material

[Taken fromPapers relative to Emigration House of Commons Parliamentary Papers’]

The Union also had to pay for the cost of the steamer trip to transport the young women from Ireland to Plymouth on the south west coast of England.  In Plymouth the girls underwent one final inspection, to ensure they were fit to travel.  If passed, they were assembled in a dormitory until there was a sufficient number of them to board ship for the three month voyage from Plymouth to Australia.

Conditions on board ship were regarded by contemporaries as being considerably better than those experienced by the vast majority of steerage passengers who emigrated via private shipping lines. The food served on board ship included a “daily ration of a half-pound of beef, pork or preserved meat for each individual, as well as bread, sugar, tea, coffee and other items”. [Irish Orphan Emigration…, Joseph A. Robins].

The first ship in the Irish Orphan Scheme sailed on 4th June 1848, when the Earl Grey sailed with 185 girls from Plymouth to Sydney.  The last boat sailed from Plymouth in April 1850.

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Despite best intentions, the scheme was open to misuse.  Some of the young women who availed of this scheme were found to have travelled under an assumed name, were older or younger than the prescribed age or had been married and travelled to Australia to escape their husbands.  The scheme also attracted some severe criticism for the conditions endured by some of the young women on the voyage or on their arrival in Australia.  For example, on board the ship the Earl Grey, the 1st and 2nd mates were said to have “paid improper personal attentions to some of the Irish orphan girls, and the cook was said to have taken liberties with some of them; On board the ship the James Gibb, the officers and seamen were reported to have been guilty of similar conduct… [and] it was stated that six of the females who went out in the ship Manchester to Port Philip were hired on board the moment they arrived by notorious brothel keepers.” [Extract from the debate on the ship conditions of emigrants to Australia, between Lord Mountcashel and Lord Grey, in the House of Lords, 15th March 1850].

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Returning to the evidence that Bev gave on her great-grandmother.  “Her shipping info says she came from Ballinrobe, her father was dead but her mother was still alive.”

Strictly speaking your great-grandmother was not an orphan, but the evidence would suggest that her widowed mother was no longer able to afford to keep her.

If your great-grandmother’s place of origin was Ballinrobe, then it’s highly probable that she was recruited from that district.  The surviving Ballinrobe Poor Law Union records have been deposited as part of the Special Collections in the Mayo County Library.  Although no Indoor Relief registers appear to survive, crucially Outdoor Relief records and the Minute Books survive from 1844 onwards.   You should examine the Outdoor Relief registers to see if you can trace evidence of your great-grandmother and her family.  The Minute Books for the twelve months prior to your great-grandmother’s arrival in Australia will almost certainly provide further evidence on what arrangements were made to recruit young women in the district of Ballinrobe, and to prepare them for their journey to Australia.  There’s a strong possibility that you may find your great-grandmother, and further information on her family and circumstances.  Based on prior research experience where we have traced young women from the Orphan Scheme, four times out of five we have found more documentary evidence on a named individual.  However, we always have to add the proviso, that when dealing with original records there is no guarantee ahead of time of what we will find.

The Ballinrobe Poor Law Union Minute Books have been digitised and are available to read on CD-ROM in Ballinrobe and Castlebar libraries.

If you know the name of the ship that your great-grandmother travelled aboard, then you can also search contemporary newspapers to see when the ship sailed, when it arrived, and any potential stories of the conditions that these young women faced on board.

Bev, the best of luck with your research.  I’d love to hear back from you, if you find anything concrete in the records.

Fiona Fitz.