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The workhouse orphans

PRONI event at the John Hewitt Bar, Belfast PRONI exhibtion of documents relating to China Talk in the PRONI lecture room
Before the gold-rush caused a comparative population explosion, Australia was considered vastly under-populated. More people were needed and Australia looked to the British Isles as a provider. Britain had any amount of excess labour,: the overcrowded workhouses were proof of that. Yet the Poor Law Guardians in England, who controlled the English workhouses, were initially rather slow to take advantage of the need for servants in Australia. Under the Poor Law Act of 1834, they were permitted to send paupers abroad and pay the cost out of the poor rates. While it was well within the confines of the Act to migrate whole families, the few Poor Law Boards in Britain who took advantage of this proviso, normally did no more than provide outfits and discharge small debts, thus allowing the migrant to take advantage of free passages offered by the Australians. Furthermore, it was the urban based and, notably, the London boards, who initially made the most use of the clause.
When the Poor Law Act was extended to Ireland in 1838, the Irish Poor Law Guardians used the emigration clause from the first to send paupers to Canada. Emigration, as a short term remedy for Irish poverty, had been recommended in the 1833 report by the poor law commissioners, but the report was ignored and the workhouse system instituted instead.
Between 1838 and 1843, 112 workhouses were erected, and a further 18 were under construction. These 130 workhouses were intended to cater for 94,010 'guests', and probably would have been adequate had not the great Irish famine of 1845-51 interposed

Image of Belfast City Workhouse, now part of Belfast City Hospital. Image of Belfast City Workhouse, now part of Belfast City Hospital.
Two views of the Belfast City Workhouse, now part of the Belfast City Hospital.

During, and for some time after, the famine years, Irish workhouses were severely over-crowded. In 1849, 250,000 people were being accommodated: by June 1850, there were 264,048. Although the death rate in these institutions was high - 283,765 died in the years 1841 to 1851 (of whom 138,576 were of children under the age of fifteen) - so many destitute people clamoured to be admitted that there was rarely room to spare. One of the biggest problems facing the guardians was how to cope with 'the permanent dead-weight', - a phrase applied to those young people who were likely to remain in the workhouse for a long time. Normally designated orphans, many still had one, and sometimes both, parents still alive, but once they entered the workhouse they were regarded as the wards of the -Poor Law guardians, to be disposed of as the guardians saw fit.
One proffered solution to the problem of overcrowding was to send some of the girls overseas. However, in order to prevent people from entering the workhouse for the sole purpose of obtaining assisted migration, the offer was limited to those who had previously been resident in the workhouse for at least one year. Young female orphans (and 'young' was a very elastic term when applied to single females) were considered the most suitable candidates for emigration to Australia. They would help redress the gender imbalance and, in the long term, normalise the social composition of the populace. In the short term. they would fulfil the need for domestic servants.

Photograph of Catherine Fox. Photograph of Jane Byng. Photograph of Catherine Rooney.
Photos of Catherine Fox, Jane Byng and Catherine Rooney,
three of the original Irish workhouses orphans, taken in later
life. (T. McClaughlin 'Barefoot and pregnant?', Melbourne, 1991.)
Although the young girls from the workhouses were sent out to take up domestic service, very few had any experience of the work. This did not please the Australians: they had been led to believe they were getting proficient labour cheaply, not realising that the profession ascribed to each girl was what the guardians considered her fit for, and not for any previously acquired skill. This led to problems. Although all the workhouse girls from the first three ships to arrive in Australia had been hired almost as soon as they came ashore, a report to the Children's Apprenticeship Board (35KB) Adobe PDF formatted document Opens a new browser window. claimed that in Adelaide in 1849 'there are 21 of the Irish Orphans upon the Streets' and 'indeed there appears to be a greater number of orphans than any other class of females'. While it was true that some of the 'girls' were neither as young nor as innocent as was inferred, it was also the case that many of the employers came from humble backgrounds themselves and often had no idea of how to treat or train a servant. Nor did the training the girls received in the workhouse prove useful in a domestic setting. When the immigrant girl failed to provide the level of service expected, she was frequently returned to the depot, or turned out of doors and left to her own devices. Having no other means of support, some of the discarded servants turned to prostitution. This in turn lead to protests against the 'dregs' of the Irish workhouses being dumped on Australian society. As protests grew more vocal, and as the famine in Ireland appeared to have abated, the British Government agreed to the scheme being terminated.

Photograph of Bridget Hartigan. Photograph of Sarah Arbuckle. Photograph of Bridget Flannigan.
Photos of Bridget Hartigan, Sarah Arbuckle and Bridget Flannigan,
three of the original Irish workhouses orphans, taken in later life.
(T. McClaughlin 'Barefoot and pregnant?, Melbourne' 1991.)
The final group of Irish workhouse orphans left for Australia in April 1850. Altogether, 4,175 girls were sent overseas during this period; 2,253 to Sydney, 1,255 to Port Phillip, 606 to Adelaide and the remaining 61 went to the Cape of Good Hope.
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