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Clare to Van Diemen’s Land: Some forgotten Mothers of Tasmania
by Michael MacMahon
From Clare to Van Diemen's Land
A Dawn Journey
As day was breaking on the morning of 4 July, 1851 twenty female orphans aged between eighteen and twenty-three years were conveyed by horse-drawn cars from the Union workhouse at Corofin to the railway station at Limerick some thirty miles away. For the girls this was but the first leg of a journey, almost epic in nature, which would last for four months and end at the Emigration Depot on the Old Wharf at Hobart in Van Diemen’s Land on the other side of the world.
At Limerick the girls were joined by 100 other female orphans from the Scariff, Tulla and Kildysart workhouses. All 120 girls then travelled by train to the North Wall at Dublin where they were transferred by steamer to the English port of Plymouth. On arrival at Plymouth the girls were accommodated in the Government Emigration Depot on the Baltic Wharf along with thirty others of similar circumstances from the union workhouse at Cork. This last group had sailed directly to Plymouth from Penrose Quay. In one way or another all 150 girls were victims of the social disruption caused by Ireland’s Great Famine, “the greatest single peacetime tragedy in the history of any Western European country since the Black Death”. On 15 July all 150 workhouse girls together with seven married couples and eight children embarked on the 484 ton Calcutta to begin the long voyage to Van Diemen’s Land.
A Nation in Crisis
The Colonial Land and Emigration Commission
The Workhouse Regime
The class of paupers most affected by the insistence
of relief within the workhouse were the unaccompanied workhouse children.
For many homeless children the workhouse was a permanent abode since boarding-out
was rejected as a form of outdoor relief. In February 1847 there were
63,000 children among the workhouse population of 116,000; by the middle
of 1849 the number had increased to 90,000.
Though many of these would have been accompanied by a parent or parents,
the majority were orphaned or deserted children. By the end of 1846 all
of the workhouses were full and in February of the following year almost
100 workhouses contained more paupers than they were officially intended
It was clear that the famine was stretching the poor law to breaking point
and by 1847 it was already an administration in crisis. To add to the
difficulty the special government relief measures put in place from time
to time since the onset of the famine in 1845 were now terminated, and
it was announced that henceforth the responsibility for providing relief
would be borne by the poor law and financed from local rates. Within a
short time many unions, especially those in the poorer western regions,
were tethering on the verge of bankruptcy. Little wonder therefore that
the opportunity to despatch to the Australian colonies, without any cost
to the union, those homeless young females whose stay in the workhouse
was likely to be long-term, was enthusiastically received by almost all
the boards of guardians. In any event the scheme was widely availed of
and by April 1850, when orphan emigration to the Australian mainland was
terminated, the Irish workhouses had been relieved of upwards of 4,000
orphans who could not have been provided for at home.
Due apparently to acute shortage of female labourers the scheme was extended
to Van Diemen’s Land for a further period, and some 300-400 females
were sent there on the Beulah and the Calcutta in 1851.
Preparing for the Voyage
Although for the most part the minutes of the weekly meetings are irritatingly brief and stilted they nevertheless allow us to get a picture of the preparations made for the despatch of the girls. It seems that in March, 1851, in response to a circular from the emigration commissioners, the board made an application for a grant to meet the expenses of sending twenty female orphans to Van Diemen’s Land. The application was duly approved and the guardians were instructed to arrange for the girls to be at the North Wall, Dublin, at 2 p.m. on 5 July to transfer by steamer to Plymouth. The guardians were reminded of the regulations for outfitting the emigrants. Each girl was to be provided with six shifts, two flannel petticoats, six pairs of stockings, two gowns and two pairs of shoes. All items were to be new and of good quality. Since all the girls were Catholics they were each to be given a Douay bible. Finally the guardians were to provide wooden boxes of good material with strong locks into which the girls were to pack their belongings. Each emigrant’s name was to be clearly painted on the front.
The material for the girls’ dresses was procured from Russell Bros, Ennis, at a cost of sixty-five pounds. The twenty wooden boxes were made by a local carpenter named John Herbert for five pounds. A supply of combs came to approximately four pounds while the supply of flannel cost a little under five pounds. Marcus Talbot’s tender for conveying the emigrants to the train at Limerick for just under three pounds was accepted.
At their weekly meeting on 1st July the
guardians finalised the arrangements for getting the orphan girls to the
steamer at Dublin on the appointed date. Marcus Talbot’s cars were
to be at the workhouse ready to start at 4 a.m. on the morning of 4 July.
The girls were to be placed in the care of Stephen Hehir, who was to receive
thirty shillings for his trouble in addition to his travelling expenses
to Dublin. The clerk of the union was instructed to request the railway
company to reserve twenty third-class seats on the mid-day train and to
give £20 to Stephen Hehir to defray the necessary expenses. The
emigrants’ boxes were to be despatched by common car on the evening
of Thursday so as to arrive at the railway station at Limerick on Friday
morning and a car man was to be employed for that purpose at a cost of
“their conduct has been good and it will be the fault of their employers if many of them do not make good servants. They know little or nothing but are apt and quick if instructed with kindness. Since I appointed a schoolmistress a great progress has been made amongst the single women. Some who could not make a letter, can now write tolerably well; had the school been properly conducted at first by the matron great results would have ensued.”
But it hadn’t been all plain sailing. He described the 484 ton Calcutta as “not suitable for emigration”. For seven successive days on the voyage they were obliged to have the hatches battened down “although this might entirely have been avoided”. He had to deal with some serious personnel problems as well. The ship’s matron, sixty-year old Elizabeth Egan, had proved unsatisfactory, and he had to replace her during the voyage. Also, one of the sub-matrons had become afflicted with insanity. However the general state of the health of the emigrants was good. He had treated three cases of acute inflammation of the eyes during the voyage in the tropics, but otherwise he had encountered few problems apart from the “general hysteria” prevailing on board all female emigrant ships.
After disembarkation the girls were accommodated in the Emigration Depot on the Old Wharf at Hobart until they were placed in employment. (Today the Depot is an up-market fish restaurant called The Drunken Admiral). Despite their lack of training, all the girls found jobs easily, and Dennison, the Lieutenant Governor, praised their “exemplary conduct” and willingness to learn their future occupations.
Unfortunately the records at Hobart do not include the names of the emigrants’ parents or siblings. The names of their employers are listed, but there is nothing in the way of ‘follow-up’ information that would assist us to see how the girls fared subsequently. They simply fade into Tasmanian society. In a letter to this writer, Joyce Purtscher of the Genealogical Society of Tasmania – her great-grandmother, Julia Appleby, was one of the orphan girls on the Calcutta – had this to say:
“I think my great-grandmother was typical of those emigrants…. They married Irish convicts and continued in a life not much different to what they were used to in Ireland. They didn’t have to worry about lack of food, but many of them lived in isolated, sparsely populated areas of the countryside. I’m sure there are thousands of Tasmanians who are descended from these girls…”
Clare girls on the Calcutta
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Archives Office of Tasmania and of Joyce Purtscher of the Genealogical Society of Tasmania, Inc.