Elizabeth Walsh: Birr (Parsonstown) Workhouse Orphan Girl to Australia 1850. By Dr Perry McIntyre

Our favourite week of the year has rolled around again – Heritage Week 2021 – and we are delighted to publish the first of two blogs by Dr Perry McIntyre AM, a Sydney-based historian, who has used the Birr Workhouse registers to research the lives of workhouse girls who emigrated to Australia under the ‘The Earl Grey Scheme’ during the Great Famine. An accompanying podcast featuring Perry in conversation with Lisa Shortall, Offaly Archives, is available here. The Heritage Council has generously supported the conservation of the Birr Workhouse registers by way of a Community Grant.

In Ireland, once a person emigrated they were often lost to local memory, but records in Australia can provide wonderful details of their lives in their new homes. This blog gives an outline of the life of one of the thirty-five young women aged between 13 and 18, who were selected from the Birr workhouse for emigration to Australia as discussed in a previous blog in January 2020. Thirty of the thirty-five were listed in that blog, the others being more difficult to identify because of the nature of their native places enumerated on the shipping list of the Tippoo Saib. This was the last of twenty ships which conveyed young women from Ireland to Australia during the Famine years of 1848-1850 under what has become to be known as ‘The Earl Grey Scheme’.

Elizabeth Walsh is identified on the Tippoo Saib as aged 16, a Roman Catholic from Ferbane, King’s County who could neither read nor write. The shipping list also records her parents as Thomas and Ann (both dead) and that she had an uncle, Michael Brien, already in Australia, details which are not available from the Birr Workhouse register. One possible contender for her uncle is Michael Bryan from King’s County who was transported to Sydney on the Java in 1833, noted as aged 23, married with one male child. He was transported for 7 years for stealing a hat, had a previous conviction of 3 months and was free by 1838, living at Windsor west of Sydney. He has not been followed and there does not appear to be any obvious contact between Elizabeth and her uncle once she reached Sydney.

Elizabeth Walsh is one of only five emigrant orphan girls that I was able to locate in the surviving Parsonstown Indoor Registers (BG/164/7/1 & 2). She is recorded in BG/164/7/1 No.1428 as female, 16, single, no occupation, RC, from Ferbane, entered the workhouse in filthy old rags on 20 March 1849, discharged 27 March 1850 Australia [see image below]. This is the day that all 35 girls would have left the Birr Workhouse to begin they journey to Sydney.

The Tippoo Saib sailed from Plymouth on 8 April 1850 and the Poor Law Union Guardians’ Minutes of the week ending 9 March 1850 [Birr Minutes BG/163/1/6, p.295(6)] show that the Clerk of the Union was ordered to:

communicate with the Superintendent of the Great Southern and Western Railway stating that it is the intention of the Guardians to forward by Rail from Ballybrophy to Dublin 35 orphan girls from this Union and requesting to be informed relative to the amount which may be required to defray their expenses. The Guardians having been given to understand that such persons are conveyed at a cheaper than the ordinary fares. John Warburton, Chairman.

The minutes of 16 March show that Lieutenant Henry RN who was in charge of the emigration of these girls, was to pay for their passage to Plymouth on the first leg of their voyage to Australia. As required by the regulations, the Guardians signed a form consenting to the emigration of these thirty-five orphan girls and the Workhouse Clerk forwarded £23.12.6 to Lieutenant Henry so he could pay their passage to Plymouth and cover the insurance. Unfortunately none of these consent forms have been located for any of the workhouses.

The process had begun some time before: the February minutes show that the Birr Union was happy to take up the suggestion by Lieutenant-Colonel Clarke, the Poor Law Union Inspector that they would ‘embrace the opportunity … of sending orphan girls to Australia’ and they would forward him a list of the names of those proposed. Henry visited the workhouse and made a selection from those chosen by the workhouse and organisation of the outfit of clothes required by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners began. Some local suppliers of gowns, materials for cloaks and gowns and other necessary items are listed in the minutes, for example BG/164/6/6, p.272 which shows what local men John Meara and John Egan supplied as part of the necessary outfit for each girl.

After their voyage from Ballybrophy by train to Dublin, like all the workhouse young women, they crossed the Irish Sea by steamer and boarded their emigrant ship, occasionally spending a few days in the Plymouth Immigration Depot, but usually immediately going on board to be allocated their berths. On 29 July 1850, after a voyage of 114 days, the Tippoo Saib sailed into Sydney Harbour with some agricultural labourers, a few married couples and a married schoolmaster as well as the 297 workhouse orphan girls. They were ferried to the quay and their boxes unloaded on to carts, the whole entourage making the short trek to the Immigration Depot at Hyde Park Barracks where they were lodged and ‘prepared for entering into service in about a week’ [Sydney Morning Herald, 3 August 1850].

Under the Hired Servants Act, Captain Morphew was charged with seducing, Julia Daly, a Meath girl from the Oldcastle Union who had run away from her indentured service with Mr A.H. McCullock, a Sydney solicitor. McCulloch had hired Julia and another Tippoo Saib orphan from the Mullingar workhouse, Mary Connor but they absconded. The ensuing court case was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 1850 and Morphew was never again allowed to command an emigrant ship. The newspaper reported that: ‘by his indulgence in vice’ he had ‘ruined the girl for whom we must suppose he had some affection, and have thrown himself out of respectable and lucrative employment. It is a case which to masters of emigrant ships conveys a serious warning’ [Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 1850].

Unfortunately there is no surviving employment register for the Tippoo Saib so we do not know what happened to most of the girls when they were initially hired as indentured servants from the Hyde Park Barracks. Unusual reports such as that mentioning Julia Daly and Mary Connor can sometimes reveal what happened to them on arrival.

The first recorded mention of Elizabeth Walsh from Ferbane is when she married John Howarth at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Princes Street, Sydney on 27 October 1851. He is probably a soldier born in New Ross, County Wexford. Although noted as Catholic both in the Birr Indoor Register and on the shipping list, she married in the Wesleyan church and is reported in her later life as Church of England. Her height also changes in the gaol registers but I’m pretty certain this is our woman. Between 1851 and 1866 Elizabeth and her husband had seven children born in Sydney. To add complication to tracking Elizabeth Walsh in Sydney, there was also an Eliza Walsh from Castlelost, Westmeath on the Tippoo Saib who had been in the Mullingar Workhouse. Both these Eliza Walsh girls spent some time in gaol. However, it seems correct to say that our Birr girl who married John Howarth had seven children with him in Sydney between 1851 and 1866 before he left the family and moved to Queensland, apparently in the early 1870s but her life was in trouble before he left.

Eliza’s life was in crisis; as a descendant says she really hit on hard times and her story from here on is not a happy one. Between the end of 1871 and 1887 there are many reports in the newspapers and entries in gaol registers that reflect Eliza’s inability to get on with life. We do not know what triggered her downfall but her husband reported her and it seems she was not properly looking after her children. When he left things got worse. She was frequently in court which often resulted in fines or terms of imprisonment for drunkenness, vagrancy and bad language. There are also reports of similar cases for Eliza Walsh which  I have assumed is the Westmeath girl, since from October 1851 the Offaly girl was Eliza Howarth so, concentrating only on Eliza Howarth, there are the following recorded run-ins with the law:

  1. December 1871 – Central Police Court – Saturday – Eliza Howarth was fined 10s, or in default to be imprisoned for three days for having been drunk and disorderly in Wells Street, Redfern [Empire, Monday 25 December 1871, p.3 & Evening News (Sydney), Saturday 23 December 1871, p.3]
  2. September 1872 she was charged with threatening language towards her husband John Howarth and had threatened to stick him in the heart ‘while under the influence of drink’. The Evening News (Sydney), 23 September 1872 and the Empire, 24 September 1872 both reported that John claimed she ‘made use of a great many opprobrious epithets towards’ him and that her character was bad and she frequented the houses of prostitutes instead of looking after their children. She was bound over to keep the peace.
  3. November 1875 she was again admonished for obscene language and fined 10s or to be imprisoned for 4 days [Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November 1875].
  4. August 1879 – ‘an habitual drunkard named Eliza Howarth, found behaving in a riotous manner in George Street, was sentenced to three month’s imprisonment with hard labour’ [Evening News, 13 August 1879].
  5. 1881 Eliza Howarth per Tippoo Saib in Wollongong Gaol, south of Sydney, details show she was born in Ireland, Church of England, aged 42, 5’3”, brown hair, brown eyes and could read and write [Gaol Register].
  6. January 1882 ‘Central Police Court – rather fewer cases of drunkenness than usual [but] Eliza Howarth, charged with having no visible means of subsistence, was sent to prison for three months’ (Evening News, 27 January 1882).
  7. July 1883 in gaol recorded as ‘Eliza Howarth alias Hewitt alias Ross alias Ross per Tippoo Saib 1849, born Ireland, Church of England, widow, aged 45, 4’11”, medium build, dark complexion, mixed hair colour and grey eyes, unable to read or write [Darlinghurst Gaol registers – the name variants have not been investigated].
  8. May 1885 Vagrancy – Eliza Howarth was charged with having no lawful ostensible means of support of fixed place of abode. Eliza was very loquacious, and harangued the Bench for some time, saying she always had a home, for which she had for the past three months was in Maitland. She said the Lord was listening to her telling the truth, and that last time she got three months for nothing. She asked the Bench to be as lenient as possible with her, and to send her to some other gaol, as she did not like Maitland. She was sentenced to three months’ hard labour in Maitland Gaol. She thanked his worship, and said she did not blame him at all, as he was only doing his duty [Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 29 May 1885].
  9. January 1886 – again in gaol, as Eliza Howarth, per ‘Tipposee’ 1849, born Ireland, Church of England, aged 46, 5’1½”, medium build, sallow complexion grey hair, brown eyes, not able to read or write. The details were reported in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 8 January 1886: ‘Newcastle Police Court. Drunk and Destructive – Eliza Howarth was charged with being drunk and with damaging Government property. The accused was arrested on Tuesday on the first charge. After she had been in the cell for a little time she called for a drink, and when supplied with one by Constable Gosling, the lockup-keeper, she threw the water over the floor and battered the tin drinking-cup against the door. She was fined 5s for being drunk, and for gratifying her destructive propensities she was ordered to pay a fine of 20s, 6d damages, or be imprisoned for 21 days [Gaol Register].
  10. 1887 – in gaol for two months in Newcastle, north of Sydney charged with indecent language and released on 20 August 1887.
  11. July 1886 – East Maitland Police Court. Eliza Howarth was fined 10s, or three days’ imprisonment for having been drunk and disorderly, at 10 o’clock on Thursday evening. She was mulcted in the further penalty of 20s, the alternative being seven days in gaol, for having made use of indecent language [The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 10 July 1886].

After fifteen years of struggling, on 2 November 1886, Eliza placed the following notice in The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser pleading for her husband to answer her letters.

There is no evidence of a response but she seems to have moved back to Redfern, her original area of residence in Sydney. Eliza died on 21 May 1896 registered as Howard. Her parents are ‘unknown’ on her death certificate and she was buried in the destitute Anglican section of Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney two days later.

Little can be gleaned about the last years of her life but it seems she had friends. The informant on her death certificate was A.J. Smith of Liverpool Street, Sydney, the same person who put an In Memoriam notice in The Evening News the year after her death, on 22 May 1897. She was also remembered in the same issue of this Sydney paper by ‘her loving friends G. and M. Hamilton, of Cintra Street, Redfern, so perhaps in her final years she found contentment.

Dr Perry McIntyre AM



The conservation of the Birr workhouse registers was supported by The Heritage Council through the Community Grant Scheme 2021.


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