On 4 April 1836, Bidy (Bridget) and Nancy (Anne) Delaney wrote to the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin from their home at Moneygall, requesting information about emigrating to Van Diemen’s Land. The letter was well-written and the language used indicated that the sisters were responding to the newspaper notices and posters which had recently advertised the sailing of female emigrant ships to the Australian colonies:
I Beg Leave in acquainting you With these few Lines Respecting young Women going out to Van dieminsland (sic) With a View to Better themselves. We Both join in one and are determined to proceed Without fail if you would be So good to Send us A Satisfactory answer letting us know and giving us the punctual directions Which We Will attend to them. We are two Sisters Bidy Delany aged 22 years and Nancy Delany aged 20. We are Stalesome (wholesome) And Willing to Earn our Bread. I hope you will Send an answer and we would like to Know in What manner we would be dealth (dealt) with. We will be Every day preparing and Expecting an answer.
We Both Remain your obedient Humble Servants
Bidy and Nancy Delaney, Moneygall, Kings County
PS If Necessary Keep the Certificates, if not please Return them.
It seems that one poster in particular had caught their eye. It advertised a free passage on the Amelia Thompson to single females, aged between 15 and 30 who would ‘be likely to conduct themselves creditably and usefully in the Colony’. If interested in emigrating, women were encouraged to write to the Under Secretary, Dublin Castle, c/o Lieutenant Charles Friend RN, the Emigration Officer at Cork for ‘all particulars’.
Lt Friend had also placed several notices in Irish newspapers in early April stating that ‘the fine first class ship Amelia Thompson of 477 tons register would sail from London for Van Diemen’s Land on Thursday, 28 April. If Bidy and Nancy wanted to sail on this ship, they would have to get themselves organised as they only had just over two weeks to gather the required outfit, say goodbye to their family and friends and travel to Dublin by 19 April to catch the steamer to London where the ship would depart.
This voyage of the Amelia Thompson was just one of 14 voyages of single women to the Australian colonies between 1833 and 1837. A scheme to encourage women to migrate had been established in response to the overwhelming disproportion of sexes in the colonies. The women’s emigration linked twin issues—the conditions in Ireland where many women, through circumstances beyond their control, were seeing their life opportunities diminishing, while the colonies needed a larger population to enable the process of colonisation to proceed: to provide growth in the population and stimulate economic development.
A major drawback to the colonisation process was the lack of a settled, gender balanced population. The 1828 census of New South Wales revealed that there were 27,600 men and 9000 women, equivalent to a ratio of 3.07 men to every one woman. By 1833 the ratio had not improved: in a total white population of 59,500, 73% were male and 27% were female. In 1834 in a total white population of 39,500 in the southern colony of Van Diemen’s Land 71% were male and 29% female. The figures were more extreme outside the major towns of these two eastern colonies: it was estimated that males outnumbered females 20:1 in some districts of the bush.
Over 1200 Irish single women and girls took up this opportunity to migrate to the Australian colonies in the mid-1830s. It is a common perception that these women were like the orphan girls who departed Ireland in the years immediately after the Great Famine of the late 1840s and their circumstances have been overtaken by the publicity surrounding the ‘Earl Grey Scheme’. But the majority of women who migrated to Australia in the 1830s did not migrate from charitable institutions or as orphans, but were well-informed, independent and enterprising women like Bidy and Nancy Delaney.
The enterprise of free emigrants who re-located to the Australian colonies was occasionally recognised by their contemporaries. In 1832, for example, James Atkinson wrote to Viscount Howick, the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, stating, ‘It is not, my Lord, the very lowest, and poorest classes of this country, or England, who will seek out for themselves, a remedy for their condition’, but he stated it was people who had the ability and some means to take up the opportunity to carve a new life for themselves beyond the seas. Women just like Bidy and Nancy.
In response to the sister’s letter, Lieutenant William Hodder, the Emigration Officer at Dublin, sent them the official application form and a list of outfits they were required to supply in order to migrate. The application form required details of their names, ages, trades or occupations, whether emigrating with parents, relatives or friends and the name and address of the minister of their parish. The form also had to be signed by ‘two respectable householders’, most usually their employer or a local magistrate. These householders had to know the intending emigrants, as they had to certify that the women were ‘of good Health and good Character’ and ‘capable of earning [their] livelihood by Industry’. These certifications were important to the government and organisers of the scheme under which the women were emigrating as they prevented any suggestion that the women were migrating under duress.
The sisters were advised that they needed to provide an adequate supply of clothes for the four-month voyage and their new lives in the colonies. As a minimum, the outfit was to comprise a bonnet, two dark caps, dark gowns, one pair stays, two flannel petticoats, six pairs of dark hose, one pair of good shoes, 18 shifts, six coarse towels, one cloak, six pocket handkerchiefs, four dark aprons, six night gowns, 12 night caps, one strong bag, two combs, soap, one small knife and fork, one table and tea spoon, one pewter or tin plate, one pint tin pot, one half-pint tin panakin and one work bag, with appurtenances.
They were advised to take with them good, plain useful clothes, packed up into boxes, not larger than would just contain them, carefully tied up and clearly labelled. Only a small bag containing items necessary for one month’s use on the voyage was allowed in their quarters. Additional clothing was stored in the hold and after four weeks all their bags and trunks were brought up from the hold so they could replenish their supply of clean clothes.
It seems that after filling in the forms and gathering all the necessary items, only Bidy was willing to migrate. Her name appears on the list of passengers on the Amelia Thompson, but Nancy (Anne) does not. The passenger list states that Bridget Delany was a 22 year old kitchen maid. When the ship arrived at Launceston in August 1836, she was employed by Captain Crear of Launceston Barracks for a relatively high annual wage of £14. On 6 March 1837, just seven months after her arrival, she married Thomas Hanlin at Launceston Church of England, her emigration dreams apparently realized.
When tracing family histories in Ireland, it is usually the people who stay behind who are most likely to be traced through parish records, but in the case of these sisters, it is the one who emigrated who has been possible to trace through her marriage and the registration of the births of her children.
But what of Nancy? Did she remain in Moneygall? Did she marry? How did she survive the next decade, a desperate decade of fever and famine? Or did she succumb to illness before she was able to join her sister in Tasmania? I would be delighted to hear from anyone who can shed light on Nancy’s life.
The women who migrated in the 1830s were courageous in freely undertaking the long journey and the pain of leaving their homes was mixed with the excitement of forging a new life. Many did extremely well and my books examine their backgrounds, reasons for migrating and what happened to them once in Australia.
Liz Rushen is Chair of the History Council of Victoria and an Adjunct Research Associate in the School of Historical Studies at Monash University, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Liz has written extensively on the emigration of Irish women to Australia, including ‘Single & Free: female migration to Australia 1833-1837’ and ‘Colonial Duchesses: the migration of Irish women to New South Wales before the Great Famine’. Both these books are available through her website (www.rushen.com.au), her publishers’ website (www.anchorbooksaustralia.com.au), Abe Books (www.abebooks.com) and Books Upstairs, 17 D’Olier Street, Dublin 2.