The thirty seven Listowel girls who left Kerry for Australia as part the Earl Grey ‘Orphan’ Scheme did not all emigrate together and though the arrival in Sydney of both groups was only five months apart, they ended up having very different experiences.
Initially nineteen Listowel girls left on the Thomas Arbuthnot from Plymouth, in the company of one hundred and eighty nine other Irish famine ‘orphans’ including their fellow Kerry girls form Dingle.
These were the lucky ones as they had the humane and caring Surgeon Charles Strutt on board their ship for the voyage. On arrival it was decided by the colonial government to send one hundred and thirty of the girls into the interior where there were a growing number of settlements and stations, who would no doubt require labour. At least eight of the Listowel girls and nine of the Dingle girls went on this journey. Charles Strutt, while waiting for a return passage to England, had volunteered to see these girls into employment. Three matrons (one was Miss Collins, who had been an assistant matron in Listowel Workhouse) accompanied the party on fourteen drays drawn by a team of horses. They were only two days on the road – a rutted track, the forerunner of what is now the Hume Highway – when disaster struck and two of the Listowel girls Mary Brandon and Mary Conway were thrown off their dray and the wheel went over their legs. Strutt had no option to but to leave them at Camden but he put them in the care of an Italian priest before journeying on. Both survived this ordeal, were apprenticed and married in the district. Strutt was very careful to only place the girls in good employment with responsible employers. By the time he had arrived at journeys end, he had ‘placed’ all the girls and to make certain that they were looked after, he called on the return journey to their new homes and if he judged them un-satisfactory, he had no problem in moving them on to better situation.
The Tippoo Saib was the last ship that left Plymouth to bring orphans’ to Sydney under the Earl Grey Scheme. By the time that these twenty Listowel girls were cleared to go to Australia, conditions had changed dramatically there. Animosity had built up towards the scheme. There was an inherent anti-Irish, anti-female and anti-Catholic prejudice in the colony at that time. The ‘orphans’ were denounced as ‘immoral, useless and untrained domestic servants, a drain upon the public purse a financial liability’. The Irish ‘orphans’ were branded as ‘useless trollops’.
This criticism was in the main unfair. They were untrained and this was probably the principal shortcoming of the entire scheme. By 1850 Australia was settling into respectability, it was no longer a convict colony. In particular, residents in the towns saw themselves as replicating the way of life they had left ‘at home’ in England. They were advertising for Parlour Maids, Piano Teachers, ‘a Governess competent to teach French and Music besides every other branch of a solid education’
The Kerry girls, fresh out of Irish Workhouse had absolutely no experience in housekeeping, dairying, or the finer points of educating children. Taking into account the disadvantages of their level of service experience, was the outcry in the Australian newspapers justified or was there a deeper political agenda at work in which the girls were unwitting pawns?
Full details of The Kerry Girls from Dingle, Kenmare, Killarney & Listowel.