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This week Brian Mitchell, Ireland's leading genealogist tells the story of Australia and Ireland’s part in her remarkable growth through the lense of pages of his local newspaper, the Derry Journal. First published on 3 June 1772 the Derry Journal pre-dates the first European settlement of Australia. 

From Ireland to Syndney in 100 Days - Letters from Passengners

By 1830 Ulster was in crisis. In the preceding 50 years she had experienced an unparalleled period of population growth which was reflected in chronic under-employment in agriculture, which was by far her largest employer. Farms had been subdivided to such an extent that the continued payment of rent depended on a buoyant linen industry rather than farm productivity. 

The domestic linen industry was in rapid decline. Landlords were looking to ‘improve’ their estates. As a consequence, farm workers were being forced off the land but there were few signs that Ulster, apart from a fledgling flax spinning industry in Belfast, was developing an industrial base to employ them.

Mass emigration seemed to be the only answer. 

Government Policy in Assisted Migration to Australia

1830 Australia was effectively a penal settlement. From the 1830s the British government was keen to encourage free settlers to migrate as Australia was now seen as a supplier of raw materials, in particular wool, for British industry and as a market for British manufactured goods. Australia, it was estimated, needed an influx of 10,000 emigrants annually to sustain her economic growth. 

There were doubts as to the wisdom of promoting large-scale assisted emigration to Australia. Distance and remoteness had to be considered. With an Australian voyage costing 5 times an American one the government had to introduce various schemes of assisted passage to attract emigrants. Their success can be judged by the fact that 170,000 emigrants arrived in Australia between 1830 and 1850. Virtually all Irish immigration in this period was government-assisted, very few paid their own fare. The Irish, with some 37,000 assisted passages, made up 50% of all assisted immigrants in this period.

Assisted Passage to Australia

The main scheme of assisted passage in this period was the bounty system which was in operation between 1836 and 1845. By this system a sum of money per immigrant was paid to those who arranged and paid for the passage of those categories of immigrants – such as shepherds, masons, bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths, joiners and agricultural laborers, if under 40, and female servants, aged 15 to 30 – required for the development of the new colonies.

The system was financed from the sale of crown land. The new colonies of Adelaide (South Australia) established 1836 and Port Phillip (Melbourne) established 1835, together with the established colony at Sydney, relied almost totally on the bounty system to bring in the workforce they required.


At Cork and Greenock depots were established, capable of accommodating 500 people, to house and feed bounty emigrants prior to their departure. With the steamer connection to Greenock bounty emigrants could be on board their ship within 24 hours of leaving Derry.

Direct Sailings from Derry to Australia

The majority of 19th century Irish emigrants to Australia departed from major British ports such as Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Plymouth and Southampton. Most emigrants from northwest Ireland (i.e. Counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone) destined for Australia would have begun their journey on the cross-channel steamer out of Derry to either Glasgow or Liverpool.

However, in the period 1837 to 1845 the British Government fitted out ships to take selected emigrants from Irish ports such as Belfast, Cork, Derry and Limerick to New South Wales.

Eligible emigrants and, in particular, “married agriculturists, not exceeding a certain age, with their wives and families” were given a free passage.

In 1837 and 1838 the inconvenience of reaching the port of embarkation for the intending emigrant from northwest Ireland was lessened as the government laid on three ships which sailed direct from Derry to Port Jackson (i.e. Sydney harbour), New South Wales, Australia. The three ships were the Adam Lodge with 405 emigrants, the Parland with 295 and the Susan with 264 passengers; in total 964 emigrants were carried on these three ships.

The process for recruitment of passengers wishing to sail to Australia from Derry can be followed in great detail in the pages of the Derry Journal. At Figure 1, I have summarized this procedure for the ship Susan, from notification through to recruitment of passengers and departure, as extracted from the Derry Journal. 

Intending emigrants were advised to present themselves to Dr James Hall, the government selection officer, at the Custom House, on Derry’s Shipquay. They were also advised that the selection process was to be “confined to a certain distance into the Counties of Derry, Tyrone and Donegal, it having been found inconvenient bringing people from remote parts.” This Custom House no longer stands; it was, however, located on the same site as the new Custom House that was erected in 1876 and which today houses the House Restaurant,

Those selected received a certificate entitling them to a free passage to New South Wales.

Each male was expected to come with two suits, two pairs of shoes, eight shirts, six pairs of socks and three towels. Each female, beside her clothes, had to possess a cloak and bonnet.

To prove their intention to emigrate a deposit of £1 had to be paid. This deposit paid for bedding, comprising a mattress and blankets (those wishing extra comfort had to supply their own sheets), a small box, 15 inches square for storing their clothes in, a knife and fork, two spoons, a metal plate and a drinking mug – all of which became the property of the emigrant on arrival in Australia.

Passenger Letters from ships bound for New South Wales

Further insight is provided in letters from passengers on these ships, now settled in New South Wales, which the Derry Journal published. These letters were, in effect, part of the advertising campaign to attract passengers for future sailings.

These letters are transcribed and can be viewed at the end of this piece. 

•    Alexander Fairley, carpenter of Derry city, who sailed from Derry on ship Adam Lodge on 29 March 1837 and arrived at Sydney on 13 July 1837. He was writing from Kirkham, 30 miles from Sydney on 2 September 1837. It was published in Derry Journal on 13 February 1838. (Figure 2)

In his letter Alexander reports that there were 30 deaths on the voyage; 25 children, 4 women and one man, John Park of Derry. The surgeon on the ship, Doctor Osborne, ‘got me a situation with a gentleman to do the work of a new house for him.’ For this work Fairley received 2 guineas per week and a house. He spoke favourably of his new country, he saw that there were opportunities for him to improve himself. He was equally impressed by the town of Sydney, ‘the town of Sydney is about as twice as large as Derry, which contains no buildings to equal those in Sydney.’ 

•    John Miller and his wife who sailed from Derry on ship Parland on 3 June 1838 and arrived at Sydney on 3 October 1838. They were writing from Patersons River, New South Wales on 24 November 1838. It was published in Derry Journal on 28 May 1839. (Figure 3)

John Miller and his wife found work within 3 days of their arrival. ‘This is the best colony in the world for wages and I am completely settled in a good place, and have £30 a year, a house and wood and water found, besides my rations.’ John’s wife was so satisfied with her new life that she advised her brothers and sisters to ‘embrace the first opportunity of coming out to this colony.’

•    Bernard McCauly, publican and grocer of Moville, County Donegal, who sailed from Derry on ship Susan on 19 October 1838 and arrived in Sydney on 2 February 1839. He was writing from Wollengong District of Illiwarra, 70 miles South of Sydney on 14 April 1839. It was published in Derry Journal on 22 October 1839. (Figure 4)

Bernard writes, ‘I wish to give for the information of my fellow-countrymen who mean to emigrate, a wholesome advice for their guidance. The class of emigrants fit to come here are unmarried people, from 14 to 34….. A man with a strong full grown family would do well, with a little capital to take a farm, but I advise the aged men and women and small weak families, or any that are well to live at home, to remain where they are as they will have to encounter great difficulties from the time they leave the land of their nativity till they settle in the land of their adoption…..This is a fine country for the sober, industrious people, but let the drunkard stay at home (this is a drouthy climate for him)….I expect (God willing) to make an independency here in seven years for my family.’

A further letter published in Patrick O’Farrell’s book, Letters from Irish Australia, 1825 to 1929 (published by New South Wales University Press and Ulster Historical Foundation, Belfast, 1984) by another passenger on the Susan, James Dempsey of Bushmills, County Antrim (transcribed at Figure 5) provides more insight into life on board an emigrant ship.

The ship was due to sail from Derry on 12 October 1838, but owing to unfavourable weather it could only reach Culmore, five miles downstream, where it remained until Thursday morning, 18 October. It then moved down to Moville, at the mouth of Lough Foyle, and anchored there to await her first opportunity to sail. She finally set sail on the 19th.

The 264 passengers in this small sailing vessel of 577 tons were divided into 17 messes, with one man in charge of each mess and responsible for the equal division of rations. Breakfast was at 8am with dinner alternating between pork and pea soup and beef and suet. Six men and the surgeon were responsible for law and order. 

The ‘Medical journal of the emigrant ship Susan from Londonderry, Ireland, to Sydney New South Wales, for 10 October 1838 to 1 February 1839 by Charles Kennedy’ is held in the National Archives, Kew, London at reference ADM 101/79/4, 

The St. Vincent Ship

Further details exist on the layout of another emigrant ship on the Australian route, namely the St. Vincent which sailed from London with 165 passengers and then picked up another 75 at Cork before heading for Sydney in April 1844. This ship, which would have been typical of other Australian emigrant ships of the day, was described and sketched in the Illustrated London News of 13 April 1844.

The St. Vincent was a small, three-masted, wooden sailing ship of 628 tons in which the bulk of her 240 passengers were accommodated in the Between Deck which measured 124 feet in length by 25 feet in breadth with 6 feet 4 inches in height (see plan, Figure 6). It is here that all assisted passengers lived. From bow to stern on both sides of the ship ran a double tier of standing bed places, each separated by wooden planking, and furnished with bedding and pegs on which to hang clothes.

Australian Ship, St.Vincents

Image: Plan of Australian Emigrant Ship, St.Vincent, which sailed from Cork, Ireland in April 1844 destined for Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. This small, three-masted wooden sailing ship of 628 tones accommodated 240 passengners.

By 1850 the Irish in Australia formed a solid numerical base, sizeable enough to take advantage of the new remittance regulations introduced in 1848. Residents in Australia could, upon payment of a proportion of the passage money, nominate friends or relatives in Ireland for an assisted passage. By the late 1850s virtually all Irish arriving in Australia did so under nominated or remittance passages. The gold rushes further established the Irish in Australia. During the 1850s, 101,000 Irish immigrants arrived in Australia.

Brian Mitchell
Derry Genealogy, 7 March 2023


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