A world away from home

Between 1848 and 1850 over 4,000 adolescent female orphans emigrated from Irish workhouses to Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Their emigration has become known as the ‘Earl Grey scheme’ after its principal architect, Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies in Lord John Russell’s Whig government at the time of the Great Irish Famine.

In the eyes of Imperial social engineers the famine orphans were young marriageable women who would bring a stabilizing influence to rough masculine colonial societies. To use today’s terminology “marketing” of the scheme was not good and sadly the Irish orphan ‘girls’ were soon maligned in the Australian metropolitan press as immoral dregs of the workhouse, ignorant of the skills required of domestic servants. In fact opposition to the female orphan scheme was so strong that it ended within two years.
Luckily Australian historical records are so rich they permit historians to reconstruct the lives of many of these young women. From 1848 they settled across the country including many areas in Central West NSW.

A web site well worth exploring is The Earl Grey Scheme. In addition to the excellent background information there is an extensive list of the ships and their orphan passengers. Researchers have included a great deal of information that doesn’t appear in the Immigration Records.

During the years of the Earl Grey Scheme a total of 2253 orphan girls were lodged at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney. To commemorate these young women the Barracks has mounted an exhibition “Irish Orphan Girls: Hyde Park Barracks and the Earl Grey scheme”. If you’re in Sydney take the time to visit both the exhibition and the haunting Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine.

While our orphans probably wanted to forget their harrowing experiences prior to emigration as family historians we’re always anxious to find out “more”. To get an idea of the orphan’s life in Ireland visit The Workhouse, a site dedicated to the workhouse; its buildings, inmates, staff and administrators. Click on workhouse locations on the left hand side bar to lead to Ireland and then individual counties and unions.

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