FIRST WAVE: Irish Girls

FIRST WAVE: Emigrant Ships to Port Phillip 1839-1845

Chapter Six: IRISH GIRLS

On the 13th of December 1840, the 560 ton barque Orient anchored at Port Phillip. She had departed London on the 2nd of August and left Plymouth on the 11th of the same month, making it a relatively swift passage of 95 days at sea.  The Orient was one of John Marshall's well-appointed London ships. She was not flying the yellow fever flag as she sailed up the Bay to Melbourne. The local Immigration Board was not expecting any trouble.

Captain Wales duly reported to the harbour authorities that the barque's manifest included 18 cabin passengers, 3 stud Durham cattle, and 216 bounty emigrants. The Surgeon-Superintendent advised that no deaths had occurred on the voyage. It looked as though the processing and disembarkation of the 39 married couples with their 39 children, the 40 single males, and 59 single females would be prompt and without incident.

The Orient girls

However, according to the rather supercilious tones of a later edition of the Port Phillip Gazette, the Orient had not, after all, been such an orderly ship. 
"Upon the arrival of the Orient at the port of her destination, several of that grade of passengers, who reaping the advantage of the free Bounty System, who are usually classed as being steerage passengers, waited upon Mr La Trobe, with an intimation that a number of profligate female characters had joined the ship, in the same rank, and under similar circumstances, as they themselves had reached the Colony."
Consequently, after receiving the additional testimony of Captain Wales and the Surgeon responsible for the welfare of the emigrants on board, His Honour the Superintendent of the Port Phillip had "felt it his duty to recommend the refusal of the usual bounty on some eighteen or twenty females on the plea that their testimonials of good character had been falsified by their subsequent conduct".(1)

The Orient's List of Immigrants presents the known facts in stark terms. Next to the "Recapitulation" or summary at the end of the document is the following brief entry:
"N.B. The Single Females having a black mark (*) opposite their names Embarked unprotected. Those having a red mark (*) opposite their names Embarked unprotected; and behaved infamously while on board; in consequence of which the Bounties have been withheld".(2)
The eleven "Single Females" who had a black asterisk beside their name were:
  • Anne Caine, 23 yrs, general servant, Catholic, literate, Dublin
  • Salina Dillon, 16 yrs, general servant, Catholic, reads only, Dublin
  • Ellen Foyle, 22 yrs, general servant, Catholic, reads only, Dublin
  • Mary Anne Grymie, 18 yrs, house servant, Catholic, reads only, Tipperary
  • Catherine Gammon, 17 yrs, house servant, Protestant, reads only, Tipperary
  • Catherine Haggarty, 18 yrs, house servant, Catholic, illiterate, Dublin
  • Jane Kennedy, 19 yrs, house servant, Protestant, literate, Wexford
  • Mary Larkin, 21 yrs, house servant, Catholic, literate, Dublin
  • Catherine Larkin, 24 yrs, house servant, Catholic, literate, Dublin
  • Eliza Matthews, 22 yrs, house servant, Catholic, literate, Dublin
  • Eliza Pick, 19 yrs, house servant, Catholic, literate, Dublin
The first point to be noted here is that all the girls were Irish. The second point is that in these cases the breach of travel conditions ("Embarked unprotected") was caused by a relative shortfall of married women (39) available to chaperone all the unmarried women (59).  This was the Emigration Agent John Marshall's error and it was he who was being punished by the 19 Pound bounty being withheld. That is, Marshall bore the costs of their journey and was then unable to reclaim his expenses, losing nearly 400 Pounds on all 20 "unprotected" young women.

The nine "Single Females" who had a red asterisk against their names were:
  • Sarah Aldridge, 23 years, house servant, Protestant, reads only, Nottingham
  • Marry Barry, 19 yrs, house maid, Catholic, illiterate, Tipperary
  • Bridget Buckley, 21 yrs, general servant, Catholic, illiterate, Tipperary
  • Susan Bell, 19 yrs, house servant, Protestant, illiterate, Cork
  • Mary Kennedy, 18 yrs, house servant, Catholic, illiterate, Wexford
  • Sarah Mander, 17 yrs, house servant, Protestant, literate, Plymouth
  • Susan Martin, 19 yrs, house servant, Catholic, literate, Dublin
  • Mary Peters, 19 yrs, house servant, Catholic, literate, Dublin
  • Sarah Warran, 28 yrs, house servant, Catholic, literate, Dublin
The first point to be noted here is that nearly all were Irish (7) and most of them were still in their late teens (7). The second point is that it was these (very) young women who were being punished for behaving "infamously", rather than anyone else whose responsibility it was to ensure their physical and moral safety during the voyage.

By singling them out and naming them, the authorities were denying these unmarried women the possibility of respectable employment. They also lost their right to secure accommodation in the government barracks until such time as suitable employment was found. With tarnished reputations they were unloaded from the ship and then left to their own resources -- which in real terms probably meant serving as barmaids in rough grog shanties near the docks, or prostitution.

Marshall was already bearing a financial penalty for failing to provide a sufficient number 'guardians'. He incurred no further punishment for the nine misbehaving girls, even though it was the regulated duty of his appointed officer, the Orient's Surgeon Superintendent, to oversee separation of the sexes below decks, and proper conduct above. 

The rigorous enforcement of the "under protection" rule by the Port Phillip Immigration Board was continued in subsequent ships, although emigration agents in Britain were fairly quick to adjust their passenger lists to minimise further losses. Marshall complained about the "overly technical" interpretations being applied in the colonies, but his own recruiting pamphlet in 1839 had emphasised that "Single Females...go out under the protection of a family on board".(3) He knew as well as anyone of the hard lessons learnt under the earlier government scheme to balance the sexes in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land.

The Princess Royals

In 1832 the British Colonial Office sent out the first of a number of ships containing only young women. The first two of these carried 400 females. The Red Rover  departed Cork in Ireland and arrived at Port Jackson without drawing adverse comment. The Princess Royal, on the other hand, left London direct for Hobart Town, and it is possible Tasmanians have been talking about her ever since. As a former Sheriff of Van Diemen's Land wrote in a letter published in 1837, "To be called a Princess Royal was considered a reproach for a long time".(4)

The raucous antics of the Princess Royal  girls were reported at every opportunity, and with exaggerated disgust, by the southern colony's newspapers. One Hobart editor wrote, "We by chance happened to stroll into the Police-office, when Miss Ann Dallan, one of the Royals, made her third appearance for drunkenness, in the short space of ten days, having been fined, confined, and bailed. She was sent back to gaol in default of further sureties." The "importation of good, useful, virtuous females", this newspaperman concluded, "is not effected by emptying the London Workhouses, Penitentiaries, and Magdalen Asylums".(5)

Another  member of the press protested indignantly at the free accommodation provided by the colony's Ladies Committee for the Port Royals at the New Town Orphan School.
"We beg to draw the attention of the Chief Police Magistrate to the disgraceful scenes which now occur by day and night, on the New-town road, which, before the arrival of the female emigrants, was as peaceable and quiet as the most secluded hamlet throughout Britain. To such a pitch has this most gross and indecent conduct risen, that the wives and families of respectable inhabitants cannot take their accustomed walks."
The solution suggested by this offended reporter was that the Ladies Committee immediately evict their unruly guests: "Once unhoused from this nest of idleness in which they are now placed, the Police will take care of them".(6)

The unfortunate reputation of the Princess Royal women is likely to have cast a long shadow on the minds of colonists at Port Phillip. Most of the early squatters and their employees were originally 'Bass Straiters' from Van Diemen's Land, rather than 'Over Landers' from Sydney's Settled Districts. Their experience of colonial life in Van Diemen's Land, and its scandals, through the 1830s were likely to have been more influential in the new settlement than distant reports from Port Jackson.

However, the irony of responding to the Orient as if it were a repeat performance of the Princess Royal (a sort of 'told-you-so' moment that reinforced anti-Irish feeling), was that the troubled ships that came out under the Female Emigration scheme of the early 1830s were all English vessels. They were not from Ireland.

In New South Wales, problems arose from the London ships Bussorah Merchant in August 1833 ("many of Females have turned out very bad"), and the Layton in December 1833 ("a very large proportion of women of very bad character"). The worst ship was the David Scott, also from London, which arrived in October 1834.

Out of 226 female emigrants on board the David Scott, 52 were the subject of official complaint. 41 of these women "appear to have been common prostitutes" and "had an unrestrained intercourse with the men, and by their abandoned and outrageous conduct, they kept the ship in a continuous state of alarm during the whole passage". It was David Scott women, "some of whom had been allowed to land, immediately after the ship came to anchor", who "were picked up quite drunk in the streets of Sydney, on the evening of their arrival".(7)

It was not Irish ships from Cork, the Red Rover in August 1833 or the Duchess of Northumberland in 1835, that were the cause of public concern. In fact, the Attorney General Alexander M'Leay made clear statements to the contrary. He reported that "a greater proportion of the women by the Red Rover turned out well than either of the English ships", and that "of all these ships, there was the greatest portion of well-conducted women by the Duchess of Northumberland".(8)

The truth of the matter did nothing to prevent the merger of two distinct concerns into one unwarranted generalisation in colonial opinion. The worry that Irish emigrants had too great a share in the Bounty scheme, and the idea that too many single women on a ship generated an unacceptable moral risk, combined in a suspicion that Irish girls were by nature uncontrollable and wanton, potentially introducing lower sexual standards into the young colony.

In characteristically bombastic manner, the squatter Hannibal Macarthur connected the two points into one slander at a public meeting in Sydney's Royal Exchange during 1840. "At present", he thundered, "we find that great numbers of useless people are imported, prostitutes and vagabonds...A few respectable people are put on board and then whole cargoes of people sent by steam boat from the south of Ireland".(9)

Their personal wealth, and the importance of their Camden Merino flocks to the colonial economy, meant that the Macarthurs could pretty well say whatever they wanted to, no matter how irrational or scurrilous. But prejudice, perhaps more politely stated, a slur more subtly inferred, was also the general rule in the Port Phillip District.

Charles La Trobe, usually considered a very able and reasonable administrator, was not above slyly interposing the prevailing nastiness into his official communications to Governor Gipps. In a letter dated July 1842 he manages to insinuate that on-board pregnancies and unexpected childbirth were a far larger issue than his officers could report. In typically long-winded prose he writes, 
"Once furnished with the requisite certificates, and passed by the officers appointed to the duty in England, it is impossible for the local Board to reject an individual presenting himself or herself here, unless occurrences during the voyage, that could not be concealed, have given premature publicity to the impropriety of the selection".(10)
This is an example of cunning inuendo that, fortunately, his officers on the Immigration Board did not attempt to copy. Lieutenant Lonsdale and Doctor Patterson still felt obliged to more or less stick with the facts as they knew them. Their Report of that year rather surprisingly comes to the defence of the "large proportion of single females, chiefly from the south and south-west of Ireland...It ought to be known that these helpless peasants have at all times been very desirous to obtain employment, and have generally shown virtuous dispositions".(11) 

In these officers' experience, it was some young girls, often less than 16 years old, and "selected in large towns such as London, Liverpool, Leith, and Bristol", who "generally turned out badly, and soon resumed their former abandoned habits". Lonsdale and Patterson conscientiously try to determine who were the problem (a few poor street-kids from industrial cities) rather than following the lazy path of lumping it all together and naming it "Irishness".

Withheld bounties

Information supplied in the Lists of Immigrants for Port Phillip indicates that colonial insecurities about sexual misbehaviour by the Single Female contingent on emigrant ships was much overdone. The Orient was an isolated case. There was no repetition of the Princess Royal taking place under the colonists' noses.

Indeed, of the 2,836 unmarried women who were brought to the settlement, only 88 of them were denied Bounty on arrival, and this figure includes the 20 Orient women. Of the 88 deemed ineligible for free passage, the great majority were excluded from the government's reimbursement scheme on the grounds that they were "not under proper protection". 

In other words, in 57 cases it was really the shippers who were being reprimanded, for not taking on board enough married women to meet the guardianship requirements for unmarried women under the Regulations. The penalty was on the 'exporters/importers', who were then not able to recover their costs on those numbers of single females who were in excess.

Other instances of the local Immigration Board refusing Bounty for single women included 8 where their occupations were not in demand (Governess, Dressmaker, Bonnet Maker, Ladies Boot-binder); another 6 where they were underage (13 years, 14 years); and 3 where they were judged too unhealthy ("Sickly during the voyage and on embarking", "Bounty retained until produced in health", "This girl is very subject to Epileptic fits"). 

It was made clear to all participants in the emigrant trade that the government only paid Bounty for those who disembarked alive and well. It did not pay for the dead or dying and it withheld payment on those emigrants who landed sick or were sent into quarantine until after they had recovered.

The remaining 14 instances where Bounty was disallowed for single women are in what might be called the morality or "impropriety" category. Nine of these rulings were made for the Orient. Superintendent La Trobe, as already noted, decided that these girls had "behaved infamously while on board". In the other five 'morality' cases, which occurred on five separate ships, the circumstances of the women involved were just plain sad.

A 26 year old from Fermanagh was found to be a "Soldier's wife"; a 26 year old from Cork was discovered to be "a widow" who had smuggled her 3 year old daughter on board; two girls, a 20 year old from Monaghan and a 25 year old from London, were both exposed by having "had a child born on board"; and an unfortunate 24 year old from Lancashire who "came out with a Mr Hedley and family, a Cabin Passenger, and is now near he accouchement [sic], consequently ineligible for Bounty".

Daughters of Erin

Clearly the Single Females who came to Port Phillip as Bounty emigrants were not the wanton strumpets that some colonists thought they were. But a great many of them were certainly Irish.

Graph 8: EMIGRANT PROFILES. A 3D graph showing the comparative contributions of each region of the British Isles to the four categories of adult Bounty Emigrants to Port Phillip from 1839 to 1845. MM = Married Males; MF = Married Females; SM = Single Males; SF = Single Females.

A total of 2,836 young women came out to Port Phillip during the first wave of bounty emigration. Most of them, 2,122 or 75% of the total, were Irish. Classified as "Single Females" or "Unmarried Women", they also made up a sizeable portion of the overall number of emigrants from Ireland. One third of the 6,219 adult Irish emigrants were in this category.

The high numbers of single women from Ireland represented a distinctive feature of assisted migration to Port Phillip in the early colonial period. They were almost the only source of available, marriageable, women coming into the District. As such, they formed the most likely foundation of future, colonial, families of their own, no matter whether they ended up married to English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish men.

Most of them, 1,208 or 57% of the total from Ireland, were from adjoining counties in the southwest: the Munster counties of Tipperary (433), Cork (245), Clare (129), and Limerick (89); the Connaught county of Galway (150); and the neighbouring Leinster counties of Kilkenny (82) and Kings County (80). Another small cluster, 309 or less than 15%, originated from the Ulster counties in the north: Tyrone (101), Antrim (80), Cavan (62), and Armagh (62). (The other 28% were scattered throughout the remaining Irish counties between these two regions, or clusters, of higher emigration).

Most of them, 1,600 or 58% of 2,773 single females whose religion was declared in the Lists of Immigrants, nominated their religion as Catholic. Most of them too were virtually uneducated. 1,275, or 46% of the 2,773 single females who declared their literacy levels in the Lists of Immigrants, claimed they could both read and write, but another 910 admitted they could "read only", and another 588 could do neither.

And, needless to say, none of them appeared to have any money. All of the unmarried women, and the Irish portion of them in particular, therefore seem to have been singularly ill-equipped to launch out on independent (which is to say unprotected and unprovided for) lives in the distant Australian colonies.

The unique profile of the "Single Females" who emigrated to Port Phillip -- mostly Irish, mostly Catholic, and mostly under-educated -- raises an interesting question. Why, in an Early Victorian Age of increasingly strict moral standards, were these young women allowed to embark on a one way journey to the ends of the earth, by themselves? What, in a society no less paternalistic and patronising than the rest of Britain, were their Irish-Catholic parents thinking when their daughters left for Port Phillip, without the support and protection of their family?

The answer, (where a common thread can be reasonably assumed) is that these momentous decisions were probably made, not in careless disregard of parental responsibilities, but after a lengthy period of family discussion and eventual agreement.
The application process for bounty emigration was in itself many months in the making. Decisions for individual family members to emigrate were not taken casually or quickly. They were deliberate and very often strategic in nature.

Impartible inheritance in Ireland

As a preparation for understanding the argument that follows it is worth recalling the counter-intuitive observation made in Chapter Two; that it was the simply desperate, rather than the utterly destitute and disheartened, who applied to emigrate under the bounty scheme.

Life was grim enough for most people in pre-Famine Ireland, but those who chose to leave were those who still had something to lose by staying -- a slightly higher standard of living that was being steadily eroded by economic conditions -- unlike those who had already experienced complete impoverishment. 

This is a generalised hypothesis, of course. However, there was probably a grain of truth in the landlords' lament, that "the young, the enterprising and the industrious...leave us whilst the old, the impotent and the indolent portions...stay with us".(12)

This next section is structured around three short quotes from Kerby Miller's Emigrants and Exiles. These excerpts have been selected from Miller's extensive history of Irish emigration to North America because they provide astute summaries from the statistics of that much larger event. 

In the period from 1838 to 1844 more than 351,000 Irish people migrated to the United States and Canada. This puts the first wave of 6,219 Irish emigrants to Port Phillip between 1839 and 1845 into sobering perspective. The extracts from Miller's comprehensive history are used here as accurate 'snapshots' of the much bigger picture of Irish emigration.
1.    " 1836 almost 60 percent of the Irish arriving at New York were classified as labourers and servants, compared with only 38 percent in 1826; farmers constituted 8.5 percent - only a slight drop since 1826 - but the proportions of artisans and professional men had declined steeply, to 27 percent and 3 percent respectively...most Irish emigrants now travelled alone or with siblings rather than in nuclear families; of those landing in New York about two-thirds were males, usually in their early twenties, although witnesses reported increasing numbers of young women travelling singly".(13)
The pattern of Irish migration across the Atlantic changed in the first half of the nineteenth century, from overwhelmingly Protestant northerners, to a majority of Catholics, increasingly from the south of Ireland. These new emigrants were less affluent (although "not destitute"). To minimise the cost of fares, they travelled as individuals rather than in family groups.

Ticket prices had fallen from four to six Pounds in the 1820s to two to three Pounds in the 1830s, but emigrants on the North American run normally had to supply their own provisions and bedding for the four to six week journey. Rising numbers of young single women were also travelling, on a ratio of one female to two males.
2.    "...between 1830 and 1840 the rural marriage rate per 1,000 inhabitants [in Ireland] declined by more than a third, while the proportion of men marrying at age twenty-five or younger fell from nearly 40 percent to only 28 percent...According to the 1841 census, in rural Ireland 44 percent of the male and 36 percent of the female population aged twenty-six to thirty-five were still single".(14)
The pattern of Irish marriage changed in the first half of the nineteenth century, from marrying young and having many children on smaller and smaller plots of potato ground, to marrying later, if at all. This reflected a fundamental (although gradual and geographically uneven) shift in Catholic attitudes to inheritance.

Traditionally, for historical reasons related to prohibitions on Catholics acquiring land in previous centuries, the custom was an equal subdivision of land between all sons and the provision of dowry money for daughters. This is a system of 'partible inheritance' and it was dominant in the three southern provinces. The practice of 'impartible inheritance', where the eldest son got all the estate, was the prevalent system in Protestant Ulster. It was hard on non-inheriting children but it preserved the family farm intact.

As the legal constraints on Catholics owning land were removed, and as repeated subdivision of Catholic farms led to unsustainable allotments and inevitable poverty, so more Catholics began to adopt impartible inheritance. For many non-inheriting Protestants, and now for many more non-inheriting Catholics, lifestyle choices were reduced to abstinence (no land or no dowry meant no marriage) or emigration.
3.    "...the increasingly prevalent practice of impartible inheritance began to oblige permanent patterns of chain migration, as the first son or daughter to emigrate was duty-bound to send remittances and prepaid tickets to his or her other non-inheriting siblings...By the early 1830s between one-sixth and one-half of Irish emigrants leaving from Liverpool or Ulster ports had received their tickets or passage money from America, and by 1840 over half of all Irish migration was so financed".(15)
This, it should be remembered, was the American experience. It is not possible to ascertain from the Lists of Immigrants how many of the bounty women to Port Phillip were responding to the same familial pressures. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that some, if not most, were their Irish family's 'ambassador' to Australia.

These unmarried women from Ireland were not being cast out of the family fold. Nor were they being 'abandoned' to their own fate. Their journey was, in significant part, the result of their parent's planning, one critical piece of a carefully considered strategy to improve the lot of all family members.

This chapter has already discounted the popular myth that the "Unmarried Women" from Ireland were uncontrollable 'wild girls'. Now it seems that the opposite myth, of poor pathetic waifs heartlessly cast adrift on the world's oceans, is also without much substance. Their family backgrounds were no doubt mixed in reality, but it is also probable that many of them were the 'forward-representatives' of a family-inspired move to improve the circumstances of those left at home.

Irish women were over-represented in the category of "Single Females", it is true. In this respect they were ahead of the trend of the "spinsters" and "servants" who went to North America. On the Atlantic crossing, equal numbers or larger numbers of single females than single males, did not happen until after the Great Hunger of 1846-49. The financial preference given to males in a patriarchal society may provide some of the explanation for both the American and Australian experience in the pre-Famine era, however.

Once family funds were exhausted on American tickets for sons wishing to emigrate, the remaining need to send daughters too may have been achieved, at no cost, by taking advantage of the Bounty Scheme to Australia ("free passage" and provisions and bedding supplied). This was a positive, if unintended, encouragement for Irish parents to send more girls than boys to New South Wales. They quite possibly had a 'surplus' of girls to send.

Nonetheless, these 'Irish girls' could hold their heads up high. They definitely were not "prostitutes" and "vagabonds" of Hannibal Macarthur's fetid imaginings.


(1) 'Mr Marshall's Emigrants', Port Phillip Gazette, reproduced in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Saturday 23 January 1841, p. 2
(2) Immigrant List of the Orient, 13 December 1840, <>
(3) 'Australian Packet Ships, Emigration to New South Wales, Free Passage', in Twenty Years' Experience in Australia, London, Smith Elder & Co, 1839, p. 61
(4) 'Female Emigration', The Sydney Herald, Thursday 2 March 1837, p. 2
(5) 'Female Emigrants', The Sydney Monitor, Saturday 3 November 1832, p. 2
(6) As above
(7) 'New South Wales, Immigration, Minutes of Evidence Taken Before The Committee...May 18, 1835', from The Sydney Herald, reproduced in The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, Saturday 31 October 1835, p. 590
(8) As above
(9) 'Immigration - Public Meeting', The Sydney Herald, Monday 21 September 1840, p. 2
(10) 'Copy of a Letter from CJ La Trobe, Melbourne, 26 July 1842', British Parliamentary Papers, 1780-1849,Emigration, 1843, Vol. XXXIV, Appendix M, p. 75
(11) As above, Appendix N, p. 75
(12) KA Miller, 1988, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, New York, Oxford University Press, p. 201
(13) As above, pp. 198-199
(14) As above, pp. 218-219
(15) As above, p. 271



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