Roscrea workhouse and Famine By Roisin Killmartin - Roscrea Through The Ages

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Roscrea workhouse and Famine By Roisin Killmartin

History > History 3

Roscrea famine and the Workhouse by Roisin Kilmartin

The Poor Law Act of 1838 was the basis on which 130 Poor Law Unions and workhouses were set up throughout Ireland with the purpose of providing care for the truly destitute within the community. Roscrea Union workhouse opened on 03 May 1842 with this same purpose of providing care to the destitute of the union. Throughout its existence the workhouse adapted to cater for the needs of the paupers who entered through the doors. Care within the workhouse was taken very seriously as death and disease became a part of the everyday life within the workhouse. Many who died left behind family who had no one left to turn to. Under the supervision of Mr. Earl Gray, young girls were chosen to emigrate from the workhouses of Ireland to the colonies of Australia. 90 young girls left Roscrea workhouse in association with the assisted emigration scheme to Victoria and New South Wales in Australia in the hope of obtaining a better life for themselves. The case study of Theresa Hughes can be seen in this Undergraduate Dissertation as I track her life from the workhouse of Roscrea to her final resting place in Ballarat cemetery in Victoria, Australia

Figure 1; Famine Memorial Garden at Scart, Kennedy Park, Roscrea, near the grounds where the workhouse once stood. In the foreground the memorial cross can be seen while the cut-stone doorway stands in the background. This is the original doorway that was present in the workhouse and which was saved while the rest of the building was being demolished. Source; John Crowley, William J. Smith & Mike Murphy, Atlas of the great Irish famine, 1845-52 (Cork, 2012), p.144.

My sincere gratitude to Dr. Úna Ní Bhroiméil for her guidance and continuous support throughout the time that we have spent together.
A special thank you to the library staff in Mary Immaculate College and in Tipperary Studies in Thurles Library, who with their kind assistance made my research easier.
I would also like to thank Mr. Joe Coughlan for his assistance and guidance throughout my research.
I would like to express a warm thanks to my parents and family for their support and encouragement throughout.


Growing up close to the town of Roscrea, I vaguely knew that there was a famine workhouse in the town as the building had been demolished in 1991 before I was born. With the erecting of a Memorial Garden at Scart near the site where the workhouse was located came my interest in the famine in the locality and the local workhouse. I did not know much about the famine only what I had been taught in school but wondered about the local stories and what happened within the Roscrea workhouse. Upon starting my research into the famine in Roscrea and its workhouse I came across an article about famine orphans and became very interested as I started to track different girls from the workhouse on their different journeys to the Australian colonies. The fact that these girls were younger than me and many of them had lost their parents and families made me want to investigate the scheme of the assisted emigration of the famine orphans.
For many years there had been few writings about the famine within Ireland which became known as ‘the Great Silence’, but the commemoration of this great catastrophe in the mid 1900s stimulated a wide ranging debate about many aspects of this period of mass emigration and starvation that essentially shaped the country that we know today. Studies that have been done by such scholars as Cormac Ó Gráda, Peter Gray, Christine Kinealy, just to name a few, and contributed some valuable insights into the complex structures of the famine in Ireland. Cormac Ó Gráda suggests that people may have forgotten what happened during this time of tragedy as it might be argued that we, as a country are trying to distance ourselves from our past and by doing so we are forgetting the important facts that make our country what it is today. However, the suffering of these ‘half-forgotten’ victims still lives on through works such as John Crowley, William J. Smyth & Mike Murphy’s Atlas of the great Irish famine, 1845-52 and many collections such as this. Poets such as Eavan Boland and Seamus Heaney also add a great deal to the recent famine writings. Their pieces of work such as That the Science of Cartography is Limited and At a Potato Digging are still studied in schools and in colleges allowing the legacy of the famine to live on. The song Fields of Athenry which is known by the majority of Irish people is referring to the famine. ‘Trevelyan’s corn’ and the ‘prison ships’ are referred to in this song and unknown to the many people that sing this song they are singing about the hardships of the famine.
With the help of many sources I was able to gather information about the famine in Roscrea and the workhouse within the town along with the famine orphans that left Roscrea. My main sources of information were the minute books from the Boards of Guardians in Roscrea, The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine 1845-52 by John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy, The workhouse of Ireland; the fate of Irelands poor by John O’Connor, Black ’47 and beyond and Studies in Economic and Social History; The Great Irish Famine by Cormac Ó Gráda. In regards to information about the famine orphans emigration scheme my main sources of information were Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish famine orphans in Australia; Volume 2 by Trevor McClaughlin, The Lost Children; A study of charity children in Ireland 1700-1900 by Joseph Robins, Colonial Duchess; the migration of Irish women to New South Wales before the Great Famine by Elizabeth Rushen, and the various state websites in Ireland and Australia to track the movements of the orphan girls from the workhouses in Ireland to their new homes in Australia.
I wanted to find out more information about the famine in Roscrea and the workhouse in the town. By establishing the set up and the running of the workhouse I hoped to get a greater insight into the events that occurred between 1845 and 1852. I also wanted to gain a deeper insight into the famine orphan emigration scheme as I had not heard about this before and was very interested in this area. In the following chapters my findings can be seen as in chapter one I give a background to the famine in general including the establishment of the poor law and more importantly an insight about the famine in Roscrea. In the second chapter I give details about the composition of the workhouse in Roscrea, the adaptations of the workhouse over the period as the numbers of paupers seeking assistance grew and the care and running within the workhouse. Chapter three deals with the concept of death and disease as this was such a major part of life within the workhouses. Numbers of deaths within the workhouse varied from year to year and this is seen within this chapter. In chapter four I talk about the 90 girls that left Roscrea workhouse under the Orphan emigration scheme and I have given a background to Mr. Earl Grey’s famine orphan’s scheme. I also followed Theresa Hughes from her home that was the workhouse to her final burial place in Ballarat cemetery in Victoria, Australia. This major tragedy that occurred in Ireland has most certainly not been forgotten and it is through studies like these that will ensure that the legacy will live on for years to come.


Chapter 1

The major tragedy that is the Irish Famine of 1845-1852 was a defining event in the history of modern Ireland. The fungal disease known as potato blight spread throughout Ireland causing the potatoes to rot in the ground. It is difficult to say exactly when this truly devastating disease first reached Ireland but the potato blight was first identified at the end of August in 1845. This was just the beginning of one of the darkest eras in Irish history. It is difficult to know exactly how many people died during this period but approximately one million people, out of a population of eight million, died of starvation during the famine. However this does not account for the number of people who died on their different voyages, as it is estimated that one hundred thousand people, out of one million people, died while on ships emigrating to different countries around the world. Although it can be argued that the famine in Ireland ended in 1852, undoubtedly, many of the survivors lived shortened life expectancies due to the severe lack of food during this seven year period. Even more than one hundred and fifty year after the famine, Ireland has still not recovered from its devastation. This can definitely be seen in the fact that Ireland is the only country within Europe to have a population that is less than its population in the year 1840. It is clearly evident in the town of Roscrea in North Tipperary, which is the town that I have chosen. In the year 1841 the population of the town of Roscrea was 5,275 however in the year 2011, the population of the town was 4,721.    
The Poor Law Relief System was introduced in Ireland in 1838 which was a system based on indoor relief and this relief could only be given to the inmates of a workhouse. However, in the year 1847 and act for the more efficient relief for the poor in Ireland was established. This was passed by the British Government and stated that the relief of the poor was to take place within the workhouses with strict regimes of compulsory work for men, women and children, a monotonous diet and the separation of complete families. The original Poor Law set up 130 workhouses and Poor Law Unions throughout Ireland. These were later increased to 163 workhouses and Poor Law Unions as the original catchment areas became too large to maintain the poor within. Roscrea Union was one of the many unions that were decreased in size with Donaghmore (situated between Rathdowney and Borris-in-Ossary, County Laois) in the year 1852. Each Poor Law Union had its own workhouse which was placed strategically in the main town, even though there were many large towns merged into the one Poor Law Union. These workhouses were based on their English counterparts and were in place to be the last resort for the people of the surrounding landscape and could accommodate more than 100,000 paupers. With the many unfavourable conditions within these workhouses, such as the hard labour enforced on the inmates, the scant meals and the insufficient clothing provided, it was hoped that this would deter any pauper from choosing the life as an inmate over a life of freedom and therefore saving the tax payers money. However these harsh conditions within the workhouses proved fatal to paupers as the severity of the famine came to a peak in 1846/1847. Paupers were utterly exhausted from the public works schemes such as the famine roads, and when they entered the workhouses it was truly as a last resort. These paupers were weak and starving and the further pressures of hard labour and scarce meals obviously left them susceptible to the various diseases within these workhouses and ultimately leading to death. To finance these workhouses, taxes/poor rates were collected within each Union to maintain the level of poor relief that was needed.      
George Nicholls was the man who was in charge of authorising the plan for the operation and administrating of the Irish workhouses in the year 1838. Nicholls was a British Poor Law Commissioner and he had eight Dublin based men who were also Poor Law Commissioners who aided him in the task. The first few steps in this progress was selecting the different towns across the country to go into the one hundred and thirty Unions and establishing the Boards of Guardians for each of these Unions. Roscrea Poor Law Union was declared in 1839 where it covered an area approximately 242m² and consisted of thirty seven members on the Board of Guardian who oversaw the operations of the Union. The catchment area that the workhouse covered was large and was composed of the electoral divisions of Kyle, Aghancon, Ballincor, Barna, Cangort, Dunkerrin, Ettagh, Gorteen, Mountthethon, Shinrone, Templeharry, Borrisnafarney, Borrisnoe, Bourney, Killavinogue, Killea, Roscrea and Timoney The Board of Guardians comprised of local gentry like land owners, prosperous merchants and professional men. There were 37 men from the locality; Richard Steel, Edward Walsh, M. Roe, Samuel White, Richard Ely, Francis A. Prittie, Col Lloyd, Captain Boughan, Captain Butler, B. Thacker, N Audrewy, Y. R. Price, M. H. Drought, Gary Atkinson, Captain Smith, Thomas Cidty, Edward Wall, Micheál Carroll, M Kushan, D Delaney, John Jackson, Daniel Bergin, A. P. Doolan, Henry Atkinson, J.F. Rollenston, W. Guilfoyle, Daniel Ryan, W.J Shortt, Martin Fogarty, Martin Treacy, R. Maher, Nicholas Laffan, John Steele, R. FitzGerald, J. Meara, J. Loughman, J. Kelly. This body were responsible for the overall management of the workhouse and were simply just working under the orders and guidelines that were laid down by the Commissioners in Dublin.
In more recent writings about the famine in Ireland it is suggested the British Government could have done more to aid the poor and starving people in the country during this period. Peter Gray is one such scholar and historian that has this view. He states that the fact that Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of Great Britain issued an apology in 1997, adds to the fact that ‘those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy’. Many historians within the last fifty years have done vast study on this area and the evidence is clear to see. The British Government could have done a lot more to aid the Irish in their time of need. The Government in London did give money to aid the people of Ireland however they only gave £8.3 million over the course of the Famine. Putting this sum into context, it only amounted to 0.5% of the gross National Product for Great Britain for one year. On top of this the money that was given to the Irish was in the form of loans as opposed to grants. Eventually of course these loans had to be written off but at the time the local authorities and various relief committees didn’t know this so they held back on spending the money as it would have to be earned back through tax which would put more stress on the already strained society. Also the short-lived soup kitchen schemes should have been in operation for much longer as they were quickly closed which left a gap that even the workhouse relief system could not fill. Religion had a very strong association also as some English say the famine as God’s way of rooting out all the Catholics and providing relief to them would just be prolonging the inevitable.
Of course the famine was a major calamity that occurred in Ireland and it was through the Poor Law that they were enacted. Recent writings blame the government based in London for the lack of support or the large catchment areas that could not maintain the large population within. It became obvious that the workhouses were not able to withstand the huge influx of paupers once the crisis was in full swing.

Chapter 2

In the 1800s the county of Tipperary was divided into two ridings; North and South. Within these ridings there were a number of baronies, six in both the north and south. Roscrea which was situated in North Riding was in the barony of Ikerrin and was its chief town. The construction of Roscrea Poor Law Union workhouse was completed in April of 1842 and its first admissions were on the 3rd of May that year. It was built to accommodate up to 700 people and cost £6,700 and a further £1,296 to furnish the workhouse. Roscrea had a population of 5,275 at this time and was a strong market town. The wealth of the local elite is clearly seen in the swift building and completion of the workhouse as many other workhouses throughout Ireland did not open until one or two years after Roscrea workhouse. For example, those in the west of Ireland were significantly slower to open then Roscrea; Westport did not open until the 5 November 1845, Tuam in Co. Galway did not open until the 4 May 1846, Cahirciveen did not open its doors until the 7 October 1846 etc. But of course many other factors, primarily poor land, contributed to this delay.
The Poor Law Relief System created a ‘new’ landscape composed of unions and imposed the hatred workhouses, which were based on only providing relief to the inmates of a workhouse, in the middle of these new electoral divisions. This modernising effect that the government hoped to impose on the country can be thought to have saved many Irish people during the famine period. Without the presence of the workhouses the starving poor would have had no choice but to travel to the major cities causing even more overcrowding and spread of disease that was experienced during this period. Although there were many unfavourable conditions within these workhouses and it truly was a last resort for the families that were starving and had no other options. The running of the unions fell favourably to the government as to finance these workhouses, taxes/poor rates were collected within each Union to maintain the level of poor relief that was needed and Boards of Guardians were established to oversee this.The workhouses became a symbol of the suffering of the local people and became despised by the community.      
Figure 2 Location of Roscrea Workhouse 1902. Source;
The Union workhouse in the town of Roscrea was erected on a six-acre site and was located on the towns land of Scart in the south of the town as shown in figure 1. Roscrea workhouse, like all workhouses built under the Irish Poor Law, was roughly cruciform in shape. It followed George Wilkinson’s typical layout; the front building consisted of the Clerk’s office, meeting rooms, the reception area and probation wards. The main building which was located near the front building comprised of dormitories, schoolrooms and the Master’s and Matron’s quarters. Joining this to a third building, the infirmary, was the dining hall. In the infirmary was a hospital and “lunatic wards”. Outside there were exercise yards and gardens and the entire complex was surrounded by a stone wall.
During the famine the workhouse within Roscrea became very over crowded. This is of no surprise when looking at the number the workhouse was built for, which was 700 and the population of the town at the time, which was 5,275, (which does not include the surrounding countryside). It is very clear that the Workhouse was not built to contain the surround area in the time of a crisis. The first major problem with numbers and overcrowding came in November/December 1846 with the Tipperary Vindicator reporting that;
‘Dreadful instance of extreme suffering and destitution have been reported to us. . . The workhouses are everywhere filling even beyond the numbers for which they were built and in more than one locality hundreds have been obliged to go away without admission whilst the Poor Law Commissioners have issued a letter against receiving a far greater number than that for which the workhouses were originally intended’ .

Master George A. O’Malley of Roscrea was very concerned about the overcrowded state of the workhouse and feared the outbreak of disease as there were already four cases of smallpox and chincough or whooping cough in that year and the means of keeping the sick were not adequate enough to contain it. When looking at the large numbers entering the workhouse it is obvious that even though Roscrea was a prosperous town, the famine affected every part of Ireland and both young and old, families and single people were given no other option than to seek refuge within the workhouse. The large catchment area drew paupers from the surrounding larger town, for example, there were 66 paupers within the workhouse from Dunkerrin and 68 paupers from Shinrone in the year 1850. However the towns lands of Bourney, Cullenwaine, Rathnaveoge and Templeharry accounted to a significant number of paupers to the workhouse with 323 paupers in the year 1850. The need to extend the workhouse was greater than ever. Along with Master O’ Malley, the Board of Guardians were also concerned with the large influx of paupers into the workhouse.  In December 1846, the Board of Guardians requested permission from the Poor Law Commissioners to erect stone walls around the sheds at the back of the workhouse that were used to house straw. The purpose of this was to convert them into additional wards ‘which are now much required..because of the truly awful condition of the great mass of the population’. The Board of Guardians held emergency meetings frequently to plan the various methods they were going to undertake to deal with the issue of overcrowding.
Carpenter Michael Hall won the contract to erect new sleeping platforms which were completed in January 1847 along with a temporary day house in the men’s yard. However by March of the same year the Board of Guardians had made and approved plans to further extend the workhouse. Both the men’s and women’s dormitory were to be increased to a two-storey building and the size of the nursery was to be increased. Over the course of the Famine the workhouse had to evolve to accommodate the large number of paupers seeking respite. The workhouse which was to originally house 700 inmates accommodated fewer than 2,000 people in January of 1849 which was much ‘more than the house could contain’. Sheds, stables and local buildings were converted to house auxiliary workhouses and hospitals. These local buildings were scattered throughout the Poor Law Union; Auxiliary workhouses were located in Roscrea, Dunkerrin and Moneygall, Established Fever Hospitals were located in Roscrea and Shinrone and temporary Fever Hospitals were found in Borris-in-Ossary, Rathdowney, Killavinoge, Dunkerrin and Aghancon. Some of these were located in ordinary houses and sheds that the board had to pay rent on. One such example is the conversion of an ordinary town house in Roscrea, into a cholera hospital
From the Board of Guardian minute books it is clear to see that there was a large influx of paupers into the Union workhouse in Roscrea, with 1849 being its peak year when in January the workhouse accommodated 1,860 people. This shows that the local community became more and more dependent on the workhouse as the famine became worse. However, it is unfortunate that no register of inmates has survived from the Roscrea Union workhouse which makes it very difficult for us to establish gender and age of the inmates. But thankfully we are lucky enough to have a copy of the list of paupers relieved from the workhouse in the year 1850 which gives us some clues of the composition of the workhouse. This showed the origin towns land of the inmate and also the date of admission. Of
Figure 3; List of Paupers in Roscrea workhouse in 1850. Source
the over 800 paupers on the list close to 50% of these were children under the age of 12 and of the remaining percentage which were adults, over 70%, were females. Although this does not tell us that the whole composition of the workhouse followed this same pattern it gives us an insight as we do not have the register on inmates.
The legacy of the workhouse in Roscrea and throughout Ireland is and was immense. The high walls that remain around some workhouse grounds epitomise the feared memories of entering this ‘poor house’. Hundreds of poor and starving people entered the workhouse in Roscrea with no hope of ever leaving. It is very clear now looking back that the workhouse was not built to accommodate the large population of the surrounding area. This major flaw proved fatal as from such an early stage as 1846 the effects of overcrowding was evident as recorded in the Tipperary Vindicator. The majority of paupers entering the workhouses being women and children were dependant on the workhouse in every way and essentially the workhouse and Poor law system failed them. Despite the best efforts of Master O’ Malley and the Board of Guardians to erect new auxiliary workhouses and additional hospitals nearly 3,200 people died within Roscrea workhouse which will be discussed in the following chapter.  

Chapter 3
The large number of inmates entering the workhouse and the addition of further temporary auxiliary workhouses ultimately proved that the famine had a major impact on the town of Roscrea and surrounding areas. Although Roscrea was a prosperous town which contained 2 breweries, 3 hotels, 2 tanneries, 29 pubs, 10 drapers, 7 boot and shoe makers, 9 bakers and many more businesses providing employment within the town, it is obvious that it struggled during this period. Many people were reluctant to enter the workhouse but as it became harder and harder to survive, more and more people were forced to go to seek refuge within the workhouses.
Graph 1: Number of deaths within Roscrea workhouse per year.
In the year 1846 there was an increase of fever, epidemics and associated famine illnesses and disease throughout all of Ireland. Within Roscrea workhouse the peak year in deaths due to illness was in 1849.  In 1845, 26 inmates died (0.8% of the total number of inmates that died in the workhouse due to disease during the famine period), in 1846, 101 inmates died (3.2%), in 1847, 685 inmates died (21.2%), in 1848, 239 inmates died (7.6%), in 1849, 867 inmates died (27.6%), in 1850, 472 inmates died (15.1%), in 1851, 418 inmates died (13.3%) and in 1852, 248 inmates died (11.1%). In 1848 it is obvious that there was a significant drop in deaths in the workhouse and this has to be related to the severely hard winter of 1847/1848 which wiped out many of the diseases that were rampant within the country. This harsh winter is still evident in the spring of 1848 as spring deaths in Roscrea amounted for 33 percent of the overall yearly deaths being the largest proportion. Although this winter was very harsh the inmates of the workhouse survived as they were not exposed to the harsh conditions.
In looking at the number of deaths between gender and age, from July of 1845 to the end of 1852, there are only two phases where the number of adult deaths exceeds the number of children’s deaths aged fifteen and under, the second half of the year 1851 (only 45.7 percent were children) and July to September in 1852 (only 36.8 percent were children). This is a very striking fact that children became major victims of the Famine but unfortunately this was the pattern throughout the country. Undoubtedly children were more prone to get diseases and with minimal food within the workhouse leaving them weak it is clear to see why child mortality exceeded any other category at the time. 1849 became the peak year for child mortality as it reached 68.8 percent making up two thirds of the total deaths in the whole year. Records from Roscrea are scarce but from the registers that we do have there are no significant differences in the men and women mortality rates. Between March and October of 1848, 20 men and 14 women died while children under the age of 15 accounted for the majority of deaths with 48 recorded.  
Although a large number of inmates (3,056) died while in Roscrea workhouse, when comparing this figure to some other workhouses the number is small; for example within Cork workhouse 7,466 inmates died. Of course one must take into consideration the larger populations of workhouses such as cities and the poorer land in the west of the country. However, Roscrea Union was a large union covering a catchment area of 242m² . With the large amount of potential paupers the low death rate proves the point that Cormac Ó Gráda makes that fewer deaths are related to a better managed workhouse. The presence of a fever hospital in the workhouse proved vital and the addition of more aided the problem. Master O’ Malley and the Matron of Roscrea workhouse proved to have been very good at their jobs of running the workhouse.
Care within Roscrea workhouse was clearly taken seriously as Master O’ Malley tried his best to contain the diseases that were present. Paul J. Woods, who was the medical officer in Roscrea workhouse, was one of the most important men in the workhouse. He submitted weekly reports to the Board of Guardians of the number of deaths and was also responsible for the diet of the inmates and the day-to-day administration of medicine and medical care of the sick. Paul J. Woods was assisted by Mr. William Kingsley, M.D. who was in charge of the fever hospital at the time. It is obvious that disease and illness was taken very seriously in the workhouse with the presence of doctors. However, Cormac Ó Gráda maintains that professional medicine severed little or no purpose during this period. These medical men had not got the scientific understanding of how contagious diseases, that were present during this period, were transmitted and had no real treatments for these either. But even so, these medical professionals were present in Roscrea to try maintain the level of disease at the minimum. In the year 1847 when the number of deaths rocketed for the first time within the workhouse, the board of guardians were interested in maintaining a high standard of care as they were focusing on the importation of Indian meal, bread, beef, new milk and turf to maintain the standard at a high level. This extra nutrition that the inmates received would have boosted their immune system and helped them fight disease. In 1847 there was not any particular reference to the large numbers dying within the workhouse. In 1849, which was the peak year of deaths with 867 deaths recorded in the workhouse, it was obvious that the workhouse and the surrounding countryside was in distress as the Board of Guardians wrote to the government seeking relief to the distress that was occurring as the rate payers were no longer able to meet their payments.
During this period diseases were rampant throughout the whole country. According to Ó Gráda again, he maintains that there were two types of death during the famine. One was direct and was related to nutrition as victims caught nutritionally sensitive diseases due to lowered immunity. The other was indirect and was related to the disruption of the normal life of the pauper. During the famine the main diseases were infectious and took advantage of the lowered immune systems off the paupers. These diseases such as Fever, Typhus, Dysentery, Lice Infestation, small pox and many more spread through the workhouse due to the large numbers entering the workhouse and moving around within the workhouse on a daily basis.  With the number of inmates very high, the hospitals and newly built wards were bound to be overcrowded with over 100 people occupying the ward in 1850. The fear of further infestation led to the isolation of the infectious paupers in the two fever hospitals within the union in Shinrone and in the town of Roscrea.
The illness and disease that caused many deaths in the workhouses at this time broke up many families leaving children in workhouses without parents. A scheme of assisted emigration that was under the supervision of Earl Grey, took young orphan girls from the workhouses to the vast colonies of Australia took place between 1848 and 1850, when around 4,000 orphan girls were sent from the workhouses of Ireland to the various colonies of Australia. Earl Grey, who was the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, was greatly supported by the Boards of Guardians as there were plenty of these orphan girls within their workhouses and the future prospects for them looked very grim. A process of selecting the only the most fit and able bodied orphans took place. The Commissioners requested ‘not the idle or worthless but those whose education and moral and religious training afford a reasonable guarantee that they with become active and useful members of a society’.
This assisted emigration that took place was very different than that of the Irish who fled from the country in the somewhat unregulated traffic to Northern America. This organised emigration for these teenage orphan girls was closely regulated by the various government organisations such as the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission in London, the Irish Poor Law Commission located in Dublin, and by the immigration authorities within the Australian Colonies.This orphan emigration scheme was carried out at no cost to the government and the cost was met by the individual Boards of Guardians and the Colonial Authorities. This was greatly received by the government and is one of the reasons that it can be seen as a success as the alternative to this was that the young girls would be depending on the government for many years. Australia had been used for years by the British Government as a penal colony but both governments were anxious to redeem its reputation and construct a better image than having Australia seen as a country of convicts.
Many historians who have studied the facts about this orphan emigration, find it difficult to distinguish the whole process as being a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’. Of course, it can be seen as somewhat of a failure due to a number of factors. The scheme was short lived as it only began in 1848 and finished in 1850. The hostility that was felt by the Australians towards the young Irish girls entering their colonies was the equivalent of introducing a sort of criminality into their society. There were thousands of orphan girls left behind in the workhouses of Ireland after the scheme had ceased. But I believe that this assisted orphan girl’s emigration scheme was essentially successful due to the stories of success that are known from the young women who had left Ireland with no prospects or any hope of doing well within the country. Even the Lord Mayor of Cork city expressed this saying; ‘…there is no hope for them in our crowded community’. Examples such as Cathy O’ Donnell from county Limerick who lived 260 miles north of Sydney with her husband and five children on rich land shows that her life was immensely improved by being a part of the scheme. In the following chapter we will see the composition of this emigration scheme and particular examples of girls who left Roscrea which offered very little prospect for their employment in the hope of obtaining the opportunity to have a better life.     

Chapter 4

At the beginning of summer in 1831 the British government appointed an Emigration Commission to gather information about emigrants abroad and to assist any person who wished to emigrate. The five commissioners who were appointed were given special instructions to pay particular attention to the possibilities of assisted emigration to the Australian colonies. The committee tested the idea of sending ships to the colonies of Australia with only female passengers but the failure to enact a receiving committee in the colonies meant that the young women were received with hostility by the locals and was essentially was deemed a failure. However in the year 1840 the Colonial land and Emigration Commission was formed to oversee emigration to Australia from England and Ireland. A ship was sanctioned to sail from Dublin with between 200 and 300 female passengers on board bound for Australia. This scheme was greatly received in Ireland and demand for this assisted emigration was so high that another committee had to be set up in Cork along with the one in Dublin. This all occurred before the famine and before the period of great distress.
The Orphan girls’ emigration scheme was conducted in a similar manner from England but was only meant for girls aged between 14 and 20 years of age from the various workhouses and with no family, but this was not always the case. The final destination of the 4,000 girls who left Ireland varied with 2,253 of them reaching Sydney, 1,255 reaching Port Philip, 606 to Adelaide and the final 61 to the Cape of Good Hope. Of course there was opposition to the scheme as a whole and the local newspaper the Tipperary Vindicator posed an objection stating that it was a form of white slave trafficking. The idea of sending young girls to the Australian colonies to be married off to the settlers was not looked upon with favour. Also there was a report in this same newspaper about the resignation of a member of the Roscrea Board of Guardians due to his objection of the Poor Law Commissioners sending the young girls to Australia.
Figure 4: List of the some of the young girls who travelled on the Pemberton in 1849. The Hughes sisters can be seen on this with their ages, religion, literacy and expected occupation. Source; The States Record Authority of New South Wales ( /4_481600253.jpg&No=7).

I believe that the Orphan girls’ emigration scheme was a success from the number of girls who benefited from the scheme as they were given an opportunity to have a good life which was not given to them in Ireland. Of course some girls were unfortunate and fell into the wrong hands when reaching Australia. Some suffered domestic violence of abuse by their employers which led to them losing their jobs and obtaining a criminal record. There were however, a small number of girls who were involved in the emigration scheme who chose to live outside the limits of ‘accepted’ society in the colonies of Australia engaging in prostitution. It was through these actions of a minority that gave the scheme as a whole a bad name and ultimately made it the short lived project that it was. Governor Sir Charles Fitzroy said that more than two thirds of the girls onboard the first ship that arrived to Sydney conducted themselves in a satisfactory manner. The residents of the Australian colonies were not pleased with these actions and public meetings which ‘the attendance was numerous in the extreme’ were often called to deal with these problems. The South Australian Register addresses the men of the community advising them not to support the ‘existence of a brothel’ which gave a reception to the famine orphans who appeared at their doorstep with nowhere to go and with no money.
Among the other girls involved in this Orphan girls’ emigration scheme were 90 young women from Roscrea workhouse (60 in 1848 and 30 in 1850) who were carefully chosen by Lieutenant John Henry of the Royal Navy to travel the long journey to Australia. The two groups of girls that were bound for the ships the Pemberton in 1848 and the Maria in 1850. The Boards of Guardians were obliged to pay for the fare for the girls’ voyage as it was cheaper to pay their voyage than pay for them to stay in the workhouse.

Figure 5: Map showing Orphan's origins and the number of Orphans from each workhouse. Roscrea is highlighted in red and it is obvious that a large number (90) girls left this particular workhouse. Although it was not the largest number, it was a significantly large number when considering the size of Roscrea in comparison to the Dublin workhouse which only had 41 more girls. (Source: Trevor McClaughlin, Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia; Volume 2 (Melbourne, 2001), p.73.)

In the town of Roscrea, Matthew Hughes married Catherine Scolfiend in the year 1831 through a Roman Catholic ceremony. They had three children named Theresa, Mary and Eliza but unfortunately were forced to enter the workhouse in the town in 1848. By December of the same year the three girls aged fourteen, fifteen and seventeen were left orphans with no family to turn to. Their misfortune was turned around however when Lieutenant John Henry inspected and chose all three sisters to embark on the first of the two voyages to Australia from Roscrea. This journey would be a lengthy one which included a horse and cart ride to Limerick to get on a ship bound for Plymouth on the south-east coast of England. This part of their overall journey took six long months. When reaching England the Irish girls were thoroughly inspected once more to ensure the height of health and cleanliness. The Dublin based newspaper The Evening Mail reported on the ‘fine vessel’ that was to take the girls to Australia and how ‘every way the bodily and physical wants of these expatriated girls had been cared for’. The girls varied in age between 14 and 21 and had come from different backgrounds as some were able to both read and write while others could do neither. With the age of these girls being so young some had never left their local communities so this whole new experience was very strange to them.      

On 4 February 1849 Theresa, Mary and Eliza along with the 57 other girls from Roscrea workhouse and the 247 girls from workhouses all over Ireland boarded the Pemberton to embark on a 113 day journey to Port Philip in Melbourne, Australia. On board the ship under the charge of the captain J.H Richardson, the three sisters were given three meals a day, which they were not accustomed to, double beds with floor space of six feet by three feet. These girls would have found this a big difference from their homes where some would not have had a bed for themselves and therefore the girls entering the ship ‘seemed well pleased with their destination’. It was partly due to this high standard of care that the scheme was successful and many young women in Ireland longed to embark on the different voyages. Some young girls went on these ships under false pretences just to get an opportunity to have a better life in Australia.
Upon arrival in Australia, the many young girls were optimistic about a better life that they were going to achieve. The 4,000 girls from Ireland involved in the scheme were scattered all over Australia. The three main areas were Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane as these were the large cities that the ships had sailed into and many of the girls were able to find the various forms of employment within these. However as can be seen on the map on the following page, the area which the girls dispersed was very broad, especially in the states of Victoria and New South Wales. On this map you can see the different towns that the girls moved to, some up to 200 miles away. The majority of the teenage girls that entered into Australia under the orphan girl’s emigration scheme were employed as an ‘apprenticeship’ with a master. This meant that they were employed as housemaids, servants, nursemaids, etc, and generally to attend to the needs of their master and their families.  
Upon arrival in Port Philip in Melbourne, the Hughes sisters were prepared for hiring and entered into special hiring rooms which were arranged by agents. It was here that the particular case study of Theresa Hughes is seen as a success as her life became better than that of the one that she would have lived in Ireland which was a distant memory at this stage. Theresa was one of the more fortunate girls as she was hired out to J.W Steiglitz for a fee of eight pounds for two years as an apprentice (a nursemaid to his children). Mr Steiglitz had arrived to Australia from Germany in 1844 and received a pasturing licence to rear sheep on an open range. After spending her two years with J.W Steiglitz and his wife Marcella, Theresa, who was then 16 years old, she met and married 20 year old William Morgan from Bristol England. At the time of their marriage in 1852 William was listed as a farmer in Ballarat and being the owner of a hotel called ‘Miners rest’ near the Ballarat Gold Mines.  Although this is a mining town it does suggest that the family well lucky in a sense to be owners of a property and to have land.    
William and Theresa went on to have twelve children together. One of their daughters, Alice married Pembroke Armstrong Greville, who was the son of Thomas Greville, a noted horse trainer and breeder in the area of Ballarat, and being a part of the horse industry brought wealth. They married and had seven children in the town of Ballarat in Victoria, however they were unfortunate that they also got divorced. One of their sons, Clifford Thomas Greville was a member of the Australian army and fought in World War I. Unfortunately he was killed in Villiers Bretenaux in France in July of 1918, aged 19. Theresa died on 24 August 1892 aged fifty five years old, which was just slightly above the average life expectancy of women in Australia at that time which was 50.8 years. She is buried in Ballarat cemetery. The legacy of Theresa Hughes (Morgan), the young fourteen year old girl who left Ireland with no family but her two sisters who accompanied her, lived on in Australia and it is obvious that this was one of the real success stories from the Famine Orphan Emigration Scheme. There are fewer records of Theresa’s two sisters but their some of their footprints in Australia are still evident. Mary Hughes who was fifteen on arrival to Australia was employed by Honor Tracey who has residence on Little Lonsdale Street in Melbourne where Mary worked for two years at a price of £6. This seems to be all the information that is available about Mary. Eliza’s case is the same as all records that are available about her is that she was employed by M. Davis of residence on Elizabeth Street in Melbourne and she worked there as a nursemaid for six months for £9. Although there are not many records of the two girls their stories can be regarded as a good outcome as they were not left homeless, orphaned and under the threat of death or destitution and in this sense they can be seen as lucky. It is through stories like this individual stories with good outcomes that the word success can be related to the scheme even though many historians have branded it a failure. The young girls were given an opportunity to make a better life for them than they could have ever imagined of having back in their homeland of Ireland. At that time in Ireland the life expectancy for women was 41.9 years but many women had died before ever reaching this age. By been chosen for this scheme the young women were given an opportunity to prolong their life and this is seen in the case study above as Theresa Hughes lived to age 55 which was 14 years more than the life expectancy in Ireland at that time.  

Figure 7; The area of the graveyard in which Theresa Morgan is buried. She is buried under the name Thersa or Thirsa. Source; Ballarat Cemetery and Ballarat Genealogical Society;


During this period of great distress and turmoil it was obvious the feeling of hate had emerged from the pauper class towards the workhouses of Ireland. Many of these workhouses were unable to cope with the sheer size of the catastrophe that was unfolding from 1845 meaning that many starving families were turned away from the workhouse with nowhere to go and no family to turn to. Roscrea workhouse had to adapt and change its composition to deal with the large influx of paupers that were coming through the doors every day. It was through the expansion of the already present sheds and buildings that allowed the workhouse to accommodate these extra paupers. Through the assistance of the Boards of Guardians and Master O’ Malley the workhouse was able to perform better to assist the surrounding populations of the Union.
It was clear that the workhouse took the care of the paupers very seriously with the addition of the fever hospitals and auxiliary workhouses. Death was a major part of life both inside and outside the workhouse. Although records from the workhouse are scarce we still have some examples to provide a background to the amount of people who suffered and died in the workhouse. Deaths varied from year to year with 1847 and 1849 being the peak years in regard to deaths within the workhouse. Children under the age of 15 accounted for the majority of deaths within the workhouse for the majority of the period. Many families were broken up by the workhouse system and some children were left without any parents or family at all. It was through this concept that the Earl Gray assisted orphan emigration scheme of young girls being transported from the workhouses in Ireland to the Australian colonies came into action. Of the 90 girls that were taken from the workhouse of Roscrea some were lucky in the sense to marry and have a better life than that of the one they would have had in Ireland. The example of Theresa Hughes shows that by being given this opportunity the individual success can be seen as she went on to have a family it seemed that she had had a good life from her records.
From investigating the area of Roscrea, Roscrea workhouse and famine orphans I discovered some new material that was not known before. From the case study of Theresa Hughes, new information was found such as her journey from the workhouse in Roscrea to her burial site in Ballarat cemetery. Although some investigations had been done in regard to this area I believe that the new information that I gathered added greatly to this.  
Before investigating this area of study I wanted to gain a greater insight into the events that occurred between 1845 and 1852 in regard to the workhouse and the area of Roscrea and I feel that investigation.I have achieved this. I also wanted to investigate the assisted emigration of the famine orphans from Ireland and particularly from the Roscrea workhouse. From tracking the girls from the workhouse to their homes in Australia gave me a great insight into the scheme at the time and how it operated and I am grateful that I got the chance to do this particular

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