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From 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”.[1] 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
For several decades before the onset of the Great Famine in the 1840s large sections of the Irish population existed at a level of subsistence that was never far from starvation. There was virtually no industrial employment, and most families at the lower end of the economy depended almost entirely for sustenance on the crop of potatoes produced on their small patch of land. As the population increased fragmentation of holdings became widespread so that during bad harvests subsistence crises were commonplace. As the social conditions continued to deteriorate and famine became endemic, various ameliorative measures were suggested from time to time, amongst them that of assisted emigration. A depressed agrarian economy, it was argued, could not continue to sustain Ireland’s rapidly expanding population, and for several years before the potato blight appeared some landlords had already resorted to assisted emigration as a means of ridding their estates of surplus population. During the crisis of the Great Famine assisted emigration was stepped up, and in the spring of 1847 it was reported that on one estate alone in Co. Tipperary more than five hundred cottiers had accepted their landlord’s offer of passage and provisioning to Quebec.[2]

The Colonial Land and Emigration Commission
Significantly the exodus from the country during the famine coincided with a campaign initiated in some of the Australian colonies aimed at attracting settlers to that continent. The British government, which had already contemplated a number of managed emigration schemes to the colonies – probably more as a means of checking the flood of Irish labourers to Great Britain than for any other reason – advanced a sum of £100,000 to New South Wales to assist this settlement programme. This stimulated a fresh wave of emigration to that colony under the auspices of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission. The scheme was later extended to other parts of Australia. The colonies were particularly in need of women to remedy an imbalance in the population as hitherto most of the Irish emigrants were young male labourers. But since the recruitment of women was proving difficult, it was agreed in 1847 that the scheme should be extended to Irish workhouse orphans. With just one or two exceptions the boards of guardians of the poor law unions welcomed the scheme, seeing it as a heaven-sent opportunity to off-load some of the homeless children which the dislocation caused by the famine had cast upon the workhouses.

The Workhouse Regime
In 1838 a Poor Law modelled on the English workhouse system had been extended to Ireland. In accordance with its provisions the country was carved up into poor law unions composed of convenient groupings of district electoral divisions. Each union had a workhouse where the paupers of the area could be housed and put to employment. The workhouse was a Spartan, prison-like institution where the regime was designed to be as “disagreeable as was consistent with health” in case anybody might be tempted to sponge on the rates. The poor law forbade the granting of relief to anybody but those who became inmates of the workhouse. As one commentator put it: “if the applicant for relief did not comply with the invitation to enter the workhouse he got nothing. If he did accept the spider-like invitation, he accepted such poor conditions that it proved the truth of his claim that he was really destitute”.[3] This was the workhouse test.

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.[4] 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 to house.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

Remains of the admission block, Corofin Workhouse
Remains of the admission block, Corofin Workhouse

Preparing for the Voyage
Of the Co. Clare workhouses that supplied passengers to the Calcutta only one – Corofin – has surviving records. These consist mainly of the minutes of the weekly meetings of the board of guardians. The union was still in its infancy, having been in existence only since February, 1850.[8]A new workhouse was in the course of construction and in the meantime the paupers were being accommodated in temporary wooden sheds hastily strung together. Applications for admission were numerous and the union was greatly impoverished. In the first week in June, 1851 there were 534 paupers in the house and the medical officer had pointed out that the dormitories of the females, which were also used as dayrooms, were very overcrowded.

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 fifteen shillings.

Hobart c. 1860
View of Hobart c. 1860 (Courtesy Archives of Tasmania)

The Voyage
It would appear from the official records that the emigration commissioners gave a good deal of attention to the preparation of the girls at Plymouth for the long voyage to the colonies.[9]A surgeon-superintendent, a matron, a number of sub-matrons and, where possible, a religious instructor were appointed for each ship. The dietary on board the orphan ships was better than that drawn up for ordinary emigrants and included a daily ration of half a pound of beef, pork, or preserved meat, as well as bread, tea, sugar, coffee and other items.[10]A daily journal kept by one Charles Strutt, a ship’s surgeon on the Thomas Arbuthnot, which carried 194 Irish workhouse girls from Plymouth to New South Wales in 1850 provides a unique insight into the journey of the Irish orphans to Australia.[11] Regrettably no such detailed log exists for the Calcutta, but there is at least oblique evidence to show that the voyage was not too unpleasant. The emigration officer at Hobart reported that on arrival the immigrants expressed themselves in terms of satisfaction and gratitude for the kind and attentive treatment they had experienced from all on board.[12]He found that all the requirements of the Passengers’ Act had been complied with and the ship was in a clean and orderly state. All of the passengers were accounted for; in fact there was one more on board than had embarked at Plymouth as a child had been born at sea to one of the married couples. The ship’s surgeon-superintendent on the voyage was Dr. Church. He appears to have struck up a good relationship with the girls, and to have been impressed by them. In his report he stated:

“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.”[13]

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.

The former Emigration Depot at Hobart, later a restaurant
The former Emigration Depot at Hobart, later a restaurant

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.[14]

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…”

There’s a little Irish mother that a lonely vigil keeps
In the settler’s hut where seldom stranger comes
Watching by the home-made cradle where one more Australian sleeps
While the breezes whisper weird things to the gums
- John O’Brien, Around the Boree Log


Clare girls on the Calcutta
The names of the orphan girls from Co. Clare who travelled on the Calcutta are given below together with the workhouse of origin:

Catherine Brennan, Ann Bridgeman, Ann Cullinan, Mary Cullinan, Biddy Casey, Honorah Donohue, Catherine Forde, Ann Hourihan, Mary Houlihan, Catherine Houlihan, Minnie Halloran, Sally Lynch, Mary Linnane, Biddy Moore, Biddy Meere, Mary McNamara, Mary O’Keeffe, Mary Sullivan, Ellen Toole, Biddy Vaughan.

Mary Fitzgerald, Margaret Moloney, Mary Staunton, Honora Nash, Biddy Corbett, Biddy McNamara, Mary McMahon, Mary Guerin, Biddy Kelly, Mary Smith, Margaret Doherty, Mary Goonan, Kitty Nelson, Biddy Hynes, Mary McMahon, Biddy Brady, Biddy Brett, Margaret Rochford, Biddy Ryan, Ellen Rochford, Mary Canny, Judith Moloney, Ann McNamara, Catherine Durack, Margaret McNamara, Margaret Hynes, Ann Rochford, Biddy Cooney, Ellen Linehan, Mary Hackett, Margaret Connor, Biddy Collins, Mary Shaughnessey, Biddy Duffy, Ellen McNamara, Mary Hill, Catherine Guerin, Mary McInerney, Catherine Keogh, Biddy Larkin.

Margaret Gilligan, Mary Moloney, Mary Tierney, Mary Healy, Catherine Hogan, Biddy Cleary, Mary McNamara, Mary Carthy, Biddy Madigan, Mary Bane, Biddy Halloran, Judith Danaher, Mary McMahon, Biddy Staunton, Ellen Stafford, Ellen Fleming, Mary King, Minnie Hynes, Fanny Meehan, Judith _________[?], Judith Kelly, Honora Keane, Catherine Sheehan, Catherine Smyth, Biddy Meaney, Biddy Jones, Honora Torpey, Mary Moloney.

Mary Healy, Biddy McMahon, Ellen Duffy, Mary Shea, Margaret Moore, Mary Kelly, Ellen Cusack, Catherine Madigan, Biddy Moore, Jane Keane, Biddy Cabey, Mary Dillon, Susan Hoare, Mary Phillips, Mary Landers, Margaret Casey, Biddy Phillips, Catherine Cooney, Mary Hogan, Catherine Phillips, Ellen King, Joanna Liddy, Biddy Sexton, Biddy Ryan, Mary Cusack, Ellen Kinnane, Honora O’Connor, Margaret Cunningham, Mary Casey, Mary Bennett.

All names in Alphabetical order

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Archives Office of Tasmania and of Joyce Purtscher of the Genealogical Society of Tasmania, Inc.

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Alphabetical List of Surnames