Written and researched by Eddie Cantwell
Today, St. Josephs in Dungarvan presents a friendly facade. During the middle of the 19th century, Ireland’s - darkest period - it was the last refuge for families that literally crawled to the great gates seeking shelter from impending doom.
Between 1848 and 1850 several hundred young girls, many as young as fourteen - years old were shipped from workhouses all over Ireland to Australia. Many were illiterate. Some spoke English. Few had domestic training; tough efforts were made to train the girls in domestic skills prior to their departure. It must be remembered that simple domestic skills were not required in the landscape that these girls occupied and emerged from during this period of their young lives. In all probability, some of the girls may have been domestically skillful, but on the whole, they were the remnants of a starving nation.
These young ladies became known as the ‘Irish orphans’.
Irish Oprhan Girls
They were handpicked by government officials and shipped out! It is uncertain now - with the passage of time - if in fact all were orphans. A lot of uncertainty remains regarding the orphan girls. Were both parents dead? Did they leave siblings behind?
Complete families were allowed into the workhouse but were split up once inside. There is also the probability that some girls went with their parents blessing. There was nothing left in Dungarvan for them only poverty, starvation and the early grave. They had been aware of the daily ritual which was played out at the back of the workhouse where Fr. Twomey used water from a spring well to bless the emaciated body’s that were piled high on top of each other - with no regard for gender - on to a horse-drawn dray in preparation for the long journey to Slievegrine/Reilig a tSléibhe and a lime covered mass grave.
The girls were witness to this traumatic event day after day, as droves of starving banged on the great doors of the Workhouse crying for food or entry. They had listened to cries of despair day and night, so perhaps Australia was a way out for them.
The following is from the Sydney Chronicle Saturday, 3rd July 1847.
There are 800 persons in the poor-house at present. Every available corner of it is crammed, even the coach-house and stables are filled with paupers. In its hospital there are over 200, six persons died there on Friday night last, and the master says that the poor creatures are quite exhausted with hunger before they are taken into the house at all, so much so, that they are not able to bear the food, and that on being limited, some of them dropped down senseless in the hall from exhaustion. On last week there were twenty four persons died in Dungarvan and Abbeyside.
Their wretched cabins presented the most appalling scenes of misery ever beheld, without fire; without night covering, or even a drink to moisten the parched lips of the gasping, dying person.
On Monday night there were five more died in the Poor House, making the number of deaths there within the last six or seven days, thirty-five. Truly this is an alarming state of society; yet the rigidness of the landlords in their heartless endeavours to drag the rents from their wretched tenants is not one whit abated.
Within the last few days over fifty ejectment processes have been served on the starving tenants of the lands of Ballyreilly, Seaview, & Ballynagoulmore, in the parish of Ring, in the vicinity of this town. Many poor creatures in this town, and at Abbeyside, were forced to remove out of their miserable cabins and their beds, such as they were, to hide them from the iron grasp of the landlord's bailiff.
Emigration from Dungarvan, County Waterford
The first reference to groups emigrating from Dungarvan workhouse is recounted in Waterford County Museum’s book ‘Desperate Haven, and appears in the Minute Book of February 1849. ‘The entry notes a letter from the Poor Law Commissioners informing the Guardians of the arrival of the emigration agent, to select suitable females for the journey to South Australia. He was also to discuss the outfits required by each emigrant. On the 15th February the Matron was ordered to purchase the articles required by the emigrants. The following is a list of the items purchased and the names of the suppliers:
Supplies purchased ahead of emigration
|for making 18 boxes
|for combs, brushes and scissors
|for calico and stockings
|for testaments and prayer books
These then were the simple requirements for the girls, a box that contained the few items listed above. On April 12th the Medical Officer submitted the following report on the health of the emigrants;
“I have examined the several girls selected for emigration to South Australia, such persons as appear to require it have been placed under treatment for cutaneous and other diseases, they are all now in good health and fit to undergo the voyage, all have been inoculated”.
Initially, 34 girls were supposed to travel, then it was 22, and by reading the above entry it seems that eighteen may have been the number. However, my research uncovered a total of 41 girls which were uprooted from Dungarvan and shipped out for better or for worse! The Master and Matron were to ensure that the emigrants would be ‘of unblemished moral character’. Mrs Eliza Connelly who was sub-matron at the workhouse accompanied the girls on the voyage. Did she return to Ireland?
Irish Orphans Girls Depart from Penrose Quay to Plymouth
On 20 December the Clerk informed the Poor Law Commissioners that the Guardians had decided that the emigrants would leave from Cork as it was cheaper. They would leave on a steamer from Penrose Quay on the 27th. The Cork Steam Packet Company was paid £19.16s for transporting the emigrants to Plymouth. William Ryan charged £3.13s for each emigrant’s outfit. James Dobbyn of Waterford was paid £5.15s for transporting the emigrants to Cork on the 26th. After over 115 days at sea the first lot of Dungarvan girls arrived on, the 9th August 1849.
On arrival, the girls were inspected like cattle by immigration clerks, health officers, and potential employers. Most workhouse girls found positions within a few weeks and disappeared into colonial life.
Others were not so lucky and were sent to makeshift depots in outlying settlements, where servants and wives were in more demand. Some of the girls suffered greatly in an environment where the males outnumbered females by at least two to one and by eight to one in some districts.
The scheme was not without problems and eventually fell apart, partially due to public anger because the colony was being flooded with Irish Catholic country girls. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Dec. 29th. 1849;
“The conduct of many of the Irish orphan girls is becoming anything but what it ought to be— in fact, we fear that time will prove that these girls are about the worst class of emigrants that could be sent to this colony, and especially under the present regulations. For instance, the conduct of some of them in this town of late has called loudly for punishment; and yet, strange to say, the magistrates appear to be powerless, and the girls seem to be aware of it”.
These comments should be taken with ‘a pinch of salt’. We should also keep in mind that many young girls were married off to men much older than themselves and dragged off into the bush. Some were lucky and found good employment. Some went off with men digging for gold and were lucky, some were not! Some girls ended up as prostitutes in order to feed themselves. Some found themselves before the courts for stealing. Some committed suicide. Some ended up in asylums.
Apparently, the Government was supposed to look after the girls and make sure they were indentured; that is, the employer would sign a contract to take responsibility to educate, feed, house, train and pay the girls who lived with them. In case of a disagreement between the girls and their employers, the only way that the contract would be broken was in a court. According to Gary Crockett, Curator of the Sydney Museum, a typical Irish orphan girl would leave the Barracks, work, and then marry an older man. She would then have a large family.
What is clear tough is that many of the girls were abused. So, who were those girls and what became of them? In his book Barefoot and Pregnant Trevor McLaughlin claimed that there were as many as 4.000 girls shipped out to Australia between October 1848 and august 1850. Many of the Dungarvan surnames will be familiar and in all probability, some will have relatives still living in the Dungarvan area.
I have entered the names here followed by age. Some of the names have been misspelled; all are from Dungarvan but for those that I have listed from elsewhere.
|Barry, Ellen, 21
|Brien, Catherine, 16
|Brown, Catherine 16
|Brown, Eliza/Alice, 16
|Bryan, Margaret, 16
|Callaghan, Johanna, 15
|Cary/Carey, Mary 16, Clashmore
|Crummins, Bridget, 1 Straban, (probably stradbally)
|Donovan, Ellen, 18
|Fitzgerald, Ellen, 18
|Flood, Bridget, 16, Cappoquinn
|Foley, Mary, 19
|Galvin, Alice, 15
|Hawkins, Mary/Margaret 16 (Cappoquinn)
|Hayes, Mary 14
|Hogan, Honora 16
|Holland, Ellen, 16, Cappoquinn
|Hurley, Johanna 17
|Kearney, Mary 17
|Laughlin, Catherine, 16
|Lawless, Mary 15 (Lismore)
|Looney, Mary 18, Cappoquin
|McCarthy, Bridget 17
|Mahoney, Mary, 15
|Mellaney, Mary 18
|Mullaney, Bridget, 15
|Navin, Nora 16
|Neale, Mary, 18
|OBrien, Johanna, 17
|Slattery, Margaret 18
|Spratt, Mary 17
|Tobin, Margaret 16 (Lismore)
|Whelan, Honora, 15
The Story of Ellen Fitzgerald
Some details of Ellen Fitzgerald’s life can be found in Barefoot and Pregnant the details prompted me to search further and try to discover what became of all of those Dungarvan girls. This is an ongoing process, but I will give a few samples here.
Ellen Fitzgerald arrived at Port Philip Melbourne. She remained there for a month and was then moved to Geelong depot where she later went into domestic service. It seems like she stayed on the ship for that duration! Ellen was daughter of James Fitzgerald; her mother’s maiden name was Ann Carey. She married Henry Biggs, 14 months after her arrival in Australia, and had seven children. Biggs was stabbed to death in 1864.Ellen remarried again four years later. She actually married on the same day as her daughter Elizabeth, who must have been aged around 18.They were married in the Primitive Methodist church. Many of the orphan girls were married in protestant churches. Ellen’s daughter Annie wrote a little book about her mother Ellen's hard life; They lived a hut made with ‘paling sides a bark roof and an earthen floor beaten down hard and covered with kangaroo skins’. Annie grew up God-fearing, hard-working and on a diet of goat's milk and eggs and senna tea. (Made from flowering plants).
Ellen died in Healesville in 1897.
Ellen Biggs (Fitzgerald) is pictured here with Son Henry, who was born after his father was murdered. What intrigued me about this particular story was the stabbing of her husband Henry, and so I decided to look further into it.
Henry was convicted in 1843 for stealing stockings, imprisoned for 3 weeks and was also whipped. On 7 July 1845 he was tried in Somerset, for stealing a Spade and was transported for ten years.
He was on the run when he married Ellen using his mother’s maiden name ‘Applegate’ He was stabbed by his ‘mate’ William Milking. The couple had been drinking together at the Forest Hotel, Bungaree, at about one in the after- noon. A quarrel arose between them after Biggs accused Milking of burning a ‘poor man’s house down!’
Milking apparently did not reply to this, they then left the Pub. They returned at about four in the afternoon and set about arguing again. Biggs struck out at milking hitting him three or four times. The duo “had a regular stand up fight in the bar” and Milking was knocked down. When he got up he said "I shall not fight you, as I have got a bad back, and you are the strongest man." The landlord of the hotel stopped the fight, but Milking had a knife and the landlord ordered him off the premises .After a few minutes Milking went to the folding doors between the hotel and the store next door, and while there, Biggs struck him again. In his defence, Milking said, “A man is bound to defend himself,”
Milking took a knife from his inside pocket and stabbed at Biggs three times! One blow missed, the second cut him on the thigh. The third plunge penetrated to a depth of about four inches under his armpit Biggs cried "Oh my God," and staggered into the bar, with blood streaming down his sleeve and fainted. Medical assistance was administered and next day he was moved to the hospital. Milking later gave himself up and in his defence, questioned the dying Biggs, and did not spare him.
Newspapers of the period said that he ‘seemed in no way affected either by the fate of the unfortunate victim or by his own critical position, and he ‘cross-examined the wounded man in the most unconcerned manner’. This ended the first phase of Ellen’s life.
The Irish Famine memorial in Syndney holds of database of girls transported during this time, visit HERE to take a look