The Earl Grey Scheme and the Emigration of Girls from the Workhouses of Laois

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The Earl Grey Scheme and the

Emigration of Girls from the Workhouses of Laois

During the Great Famine, dozens of teenage girls left the workhouses of Laois bound for Australia. Their emigration was part of a British government scheme to provide the British colony with wives and domestic servants, and to rid the workhouses of ‘dead weight’. Their story is part of our local history, the story of ordinary Laois girls – neighbors, family and friends of our own ancestors five generations ago.

Two years ago, 3rd year students at Portlaoise College discovered the names of 14 girl emigrants on the Laois Genealogy website. The students’ discovered that these names had come from a famine memorial in Sydney, erected after a 1995 visit by the then president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. President Robinson urged the Irish community in Sydney to commemorate the famine. Four hundred names are inscribed on the granite wall of the monument at Hyde Park Barracks, previously a prison where the orphans were housed while waiting to be indentured into domestic service. The names of all fourteen girls on the original list are there. Pictures of the monument can be viewed on Descendants of Irish emigrants in England, the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere have been very active in collecting historical data and piecing together the story of Irish emigrants. The students decided to try to follow up on the story of these girls here in Laois.

The fourteen girls on the original list are Ann Bergen, Old Derrick (?) Elizabeth Bergen, Old Derrick (?) Ellen Dowling, Newtown; Mary Doyle, Mountmellick; Mary Dunphy, Abbeyleix; Rose Flemming, Ballyadam; Alice Keefe, Ballilone (Ballyroan) Anne Kennedy, Arles; Mary Miller, Cloneslie (Clonaslee) Bridget Muldowney, Ballnikill (Ballinakill) Catherine Pender, Towlerton; Power Catherine, Annicart (Amicart?) Eliza Whelan, Abbeyleix and Mary Lyons, Arloo (Arles) The names were taken from ship’s records and so spellings of place names are sometimes incorrect. A project ‘Mountmellick Workhouse Famine Orphan Emigrants: 1849′ involved going through ship’s records and yielded the 69 names that appear at the end of this article.


Image rights: Women’s History of Ireland, Earl Grey Famine Orphans, Hyde Park depot sent to Australia, c/o

It is a sad fact of Irish history that we know little about the experience of those who suffered and died during the famine. Nationwide, the population dropped by approximately two million in five years. We do not know exactly how many perished and how many emigrated. Workhouse records are often missing or incomplete. Many victims never made it to the workhouse at all, and many do not have marked graves. Furthermore, the experience of those who suffered most during the famine is lost because, in their death struggle, they leave barely a trace on the written record. Some were illiterate. All were very poor and many left behind no surviving family to remember them. Official history has always neglected the poor, but in the case of the Great Famine even folklore, poetry and song sometimes fails us. The famine was simply too painful to remember.

The girls emigrated under a British government scheme called the Earl Grey Scheme. Earl Grey was the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The Earl Grey Scheme was designed to hit two birds with the one stone: deal with a severe shortage of women in the British colony (men outnumbered women in rural areas of by eight to one) The scheme would also deal with ‘surplus’ girls in the workhouses of Ireland. In Ireland, one of the problems facing the guardians of the workhouses and local ratepayers was how to deal with ‘permanent dead-weight’; young women, with little prospect of marriage, or employment were a worrying financial drain (there were twice as many able-bodied females as males in the workhouses of Ireland) Therefore, in Ireland a decision was made that only girls would qualify for the scheme. The scheme was not popular in Britain, but in Ireland, the first year of the scheme, 2,219 girls emigrated from Irish workhouses with another 1,056 the following year. By the time the Scheme was terminated in 1850, 4112 girls had left Irish workhouses for Australia.

To qualify for the scheme, ‘orphans’ had to be between fourteen and eighteen years of age, industrious, of good character and free from disease. They were also required to have the 3Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic). Ship records reveal that not all the Laois emigrants met these criteria. Two of the girls were 14 years old; eight were 15 years and fifteen of them were 16 years old.

One of the most interesting discoveries the students made is that, although designated orphans, many of the girls still had one, and sometimes two parents alive. One example is Mary Breen, Queen’s County. Ships records tell us that this 16 year old Roman Catholic girl sailed to Melbourne in 1849 on board the Pemberton. Both parents were alive at the time, Daniel Breen and Ann Brennan. The loss of one parent deemed the girl an orphan. Ships records show that twelve of the girls record a mother living, five a father living and three had both parents living. Once they entered the workhouse the girls were regarded as legal wards of the Poor Law guardians. There is nothing in the documents to suggest that parents and relatives were consulted, but then workhouse records are very institutional.

The ships records often listed the address, the religion, age and parents (living or dead) of the emigrants. The ships that carried the ‘orphans’ were Lady Kennaway, Lismoyne, Lady Peel, The Pemberton, William & Mary, Maria, and Tippoo Saib.

Another ship, the infamous Inconstant was subject upon arrival to an official investigation into abuse of passengers by the crew. We know that it carried 22 girls from Mountmellick Workhouse. Unfortunately, the Inconstant records do not record the address and so it is impossible to know which of the 209 girls on board came from the Mountmellick Workhouse. British parliamentary debates at the time reveal that there was mistreatment of girls on several ‘Earl Grey’ ships.

The girls were supplied with a box containing 6 shifts, 2 linen collars, 6 pairs of stockings, 2 aprons, 2 pairs of shoes, 1 pair of stays, 2 gowns of warm material, 1 pair of sheets, 2 short wrappers, 1 pair of mittens, 2 flannel petticoats, 1 bonnet, 1 stoat shawl and cloak, 2 towels, 2 handkerchiefs, 2 bars of soap, combs, brushes, needles, thread and anything else the matron deems necessary. They set off by horse and cart for the nearest Irish port. From there, they sailed to Plymouth, England, and then on to Sydney or Melbourne. Anglicans were given Bible and Prayer Books; Psalm Books were given to Presbyterians and Prayer Books for Catholics. The ship’s records reveal that two of the Laois girls were Church of England.

In March 1848 a memo was sent to 166 workhouses requesting lists of suitable girls for Earl Grey Scheme. In January 1849, Emigration Commission Officer Lieutenant Henry Royal Navy visited Mountmellick to select girls for the scheme.

Maps of Poor Law Unions show that some of the 41 ‘orphan’ emigrants were from Abbeyleix Workhouse. During the famine, there were two Poor Law Unions in Laois which meant two workhouses: Abbeyleix and Mountmellick and the townlands of Laois were served by one or the other. Donaghmore, today an excellent museum, did not open as a workhouse until the famine was over.

What did these girls leave behind? It is impossible to learn much about their individual lives, but what we can say with certainty is that they left behind a county devastated by famine. The Great Famine is the greatest social catastrophe in our history. Here in Laois, the population dropped by between 27% and 28%. This is significantly higher than other counties in the Midlands and as bad as some counties on the west coast of Ireland. The census records that in 1841 the population of Laois was 153,930. By 1851 it had dropped to 111,664. Letters from a local relief committee to the Relief Commission in Dublin show that as early as the first year of the famine, 300 men and the 500 women and children who depend on them, were actually starving in the Barony of Maryborough.

To piece together something of the lives the girls left behind it is helpful to look at conditions in the workhouses. The workhouses were built for the poorest people; they were prison-like and harsh. Families were segregated, men women and children. In Mountmellick, the adult dormitories were on the first floor, men on the right, women on the left. Children were accommodated in the attic. In many workhouses, work was done and meals were eaten in total silence. As the workhouses became overcrowded they became breeding grounds for relapsing fever and typhus. Mountmellick Workhouse was built to cater for 800 persons. At the height of the famine, it catered for 1500. We know that there was a serious outbreak of disease in Mountmellick in 1847.

Did the girls want to go? Did they have a choice? The harshness of life both inside and outside the workhouse was certainly a push factor. The contemporary Leinster Express section,

‘Emigrants Guide’ gives us insight into the pull factors. It describes Australia as ‘a beautiful country… producing nearly all the European and many tropical fruits… gardens… vineyards….. beautiful flowers.’ The Leinster Express at the time describes conditions in Laois as ‘frightful’.

The ship’s records online sometimes include details of what happened to the girls in Australia. Many married and had large families of their own. What kind of welcome did they receive? The scheme soon got a bad press in Australia. The Irish ‘girls’ were much maligned in the Australian press as immoral dregs of the workhouse, unskilled and ignorant. Coming from extreme poverty, the girls would not have a few of the necessary skills for domestic work in Australian homes. There was fierce local resistance to what Australians believed was a flood of Irish immigrants. The Australian gold rush was beginning to solve the problem of the population there and there was no longer a need for assisted emigration. Another factor which made the Earl Grey Scheme unpopular was the fact that the Australian middle classes were going up in the world and wanted to shake off their historic connection with workhouses and convicts. The scheme was paid for by the colony. Some newspapers (the Augus in Melbourne) criticized the scheme. It was a flood of Irish immigrants. Earl Grey was unpopular at the time because he was pushing to reintroduce convict transportation. The Australian middle classes wanted to shake off their historic connection with workhouses and convicts. It must be true however that the girls, coming from extreme poverty and dreadful living conditions would have lacked the necessary skills for domestic work in Australian homes. The Irish community in Australia defended the girls and complained that the papers were anti-Catholic and sectarian. The Argus, for example on January 24th, stated that the girls were

“ignorant creatures, whose whole knowledge of household duties barely reaches to distinguishing the inside from the outside of a potato and whose chief enjoyment hitherto has consisted of… trotting across a bog to fetch back a runaway pig. Our money ought to be extended upon those rosy cheeked girls of England”

On the other hand, with the exception of abuse recorded on board a number of ships, the girls were well looked after by the authorities both at home and in Australia. The death rate on the voyage was 1%, dramatically lower than that aboard most emigrant ships. Charges against employers in Australia were investigated and sometimes punished. Ellen Moylan, from Aghaboe Queen’s County accused her employer of ‘ill-usage’ and was accused of ‘disobedience.’ The indenture was cancelled.

The ship’s records online have been updated to include details of what happened to the girls in Australia. This work was done by people tracing their own family. There is only a smattering of information across the 4000 girls. Some were abused. Some did very well. Most were working class. The average age of marriage was 19, to men on average 10 years older.

Nonetheless, many of the girls went on to marry and have families of their own.


2 thoughts on “The Earl Grey Scheme and the Emigration of Girls from the Workhouses of Laois

  • Gday
    I have an Irish Famine ancestor Margaret Ann Bryan b: C1835 Maryborough Queens County marr: Clare South Australia to Stephen Harford on the 21 Dec 1851 (1830-1915) Departed Portsmouth 15 Feb 1849 Arrived 7 Jun 1849 Port Adelaide, South Australia. Margaret died in Broken Hill, New South Wales on the 12 Oct 1895 aged 60 yrs. and is buried there with her husband Stephen. Margaret gave birth to 14 children who were raised in the RC faith. I believe there was also a sister Mary Bryan who came on a different ship.
    I have no details of Margaret’s parents and would research myself but it’s difficult as I live in Australia.
    If I can assist you in any way please don’t hestitate to ask.
    My contact details are ..Email Mobile 0428601106
    I have also found 117 of the names of 209 that sailed aboard the Inconstant

  • Hello Garry,
    Noted your reference to Margaret Ann Bryan. I have been delving into my own family ancestry and Margaret is a “feature character”. Margaret and Stephen had a daughter, Rebecca, who was my maternal great grandmother. Rebecca’s story is also a feature.
    I am happy to provide any new information, or even confirmation of details, which is also important.

    Rod London

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