Irish orphan girls at Hyde Park Barracks

This is a story of over 4000 Irish orphans driven from their homeland by the Great Famine.

In the years 1848 to 1850, a total of 4114 orphan girls, some no more than 14 years old, were shipped on government funded immigrant vessels from Ireland to Sydney, Port Phillip, Moreton Bay and Adelaide. Many, though not all, spoke English although few were trained in domestic service, the work in which most would find employment. Known as the ‘Irish orphans’, they had been handpicked by government officials and removed from county workhouses grown horribly overcrowded as, year after year, the Irish countryside sank deeper into poverty, misery and disease.

To manage the orphan arrivals in Sydney, an immigrant depot was set up at Hyde Park Barracks. In its newly plastered and painted rooms were added rows of heavy iron beds, replacing the old convict hammock frames and tattered hammocks. In some areas, ceiling boards were fitted, eliminating drafts and creating comfortable sleeping wards. Downstairs offices were remodelled and furnished for immigration business. While the orphan scheme itself was shortlived - swept aside by popular protest - other programs of sponsored emigration, along with the discovery of gold, continued to lure hopeful travellers, reunite families and boost the colonial workforce for decades to come.

This fleeting chapter in Australia’s immigration history looms larger than most. It weaves together Ireland’s harrowing years of famine, its spirited culture and countryside in turmoil, its families torn apart, an endless diaspora of desperate people with hopes of a brighter future beyond the seas.

Spared of misery

Since 1845 the successive failure of potato crops across Ireland had brought devastating famine, economic ruin and widespread evictions. Oppressive new Poor Laws had sent those hardest hit to the dreaded workhouse, breaking up families, village life and long-term connections to the land. Bitter winters, meagre relief efforts and deepening famine

By 1848, the famine's death toll had reached one million, with around one in five deaths occurring in a workhouse. As diseases like dysentery, typhus, cholera and scurvy swept through the overcrowded and unwelcoming institutions, inmates were forced work for their keep breaking rocks, building roads and carrying out other heavy, often pointless, physical tasks.

Behind the scheme to relieve Ireland of its crowded workhouses and ship needy orphans to the colonies was the politically progressive Earl, Henry George Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies (1846–1852). His vision was twofold: youthful lives spared of misery and the ex-convict colonies enriched with hardy, humble, fertile females. The selection process was simple. The girls had to be young, single, obedient, healthy and free of smallpox.

Earl Grey had originally hoped that orphans would be drawn from pauper institutions operating throughout Britain, although for unknown reasons only adolescent, unmarried girls from Ireland were despatched. Transport and processing costs were shared between the English government and Irish Poor Law Unions. Just as important was support from the colonies to ensure secure and comfortable housing and efficient hiring facilities, once the girls were brought ashore.

Initially the scheme looked promising. Reporting to London in 1848, immigration agent Frances Merewether was optimistic that, ‘provided the Emigrants were of useful description … three ship loads, or about 700 Statute Adults … might be despatched to the Sydney District each month’. With minor alterations and expense, the spacious old prisoner barracks with its high-walled compound and outbuildings could offer ‘ample and most comfortable accommodation’ for the Irish orphans.

In Australia, decades of convict transportation had left the colonies with a serious shortage of women. Teenage girls were vital for raising families while female servants and workers were needed in aspiring colonial households. However, without supportive networks or family, the girls remained vulnerable and powerless to control their fate. Mostly uneducated, unworldly and unused to domestic service, the orphans relied on protective officials to negotiate their place in the labour market. And costing less to hire than more experienced servants they generally found work quickly. Despite low wages, some sent savings home and funded family reunions.

A word about the Irish orphan girls, so liberally poured into the colony during the last year or two. Forty thousand pounds worth of this commodity was imported into New South Wales up to 1850 ...

Our Antipodes, Godfrey Charles Mundy, England 1855

Human parcels

Before they left Ireland each orphan girl was given a regulation kit of clothing, linen and utensils stored in a lockable box. The girls shared bunks in third-class quarters and mustered in small mess groups. Each shipment was overseen by a surgeon-superintendent and a matron, who guarded against contact with sailors and fellow passengers.

After several months at sea, the immigrant ships were towed into Sydney Cove, unloading their passengers on the dock like so many human parcels. The orphan girls, strangers in a strange place, along with the motley assortment of unaccompanied women and mothers with children, were carted on drays or walked up Macquarie Street to the Immigration Depot at Hyde Park Barracks.

In the following three years a total of 2253 orphan girls were lodged at the Barracks. Scrutinised by immigration clerks, health officers and clergy, they shared sleeping quarters in the newly-appointed wards upstairs, before signing indentures for work in the ground floor hiring room. Elsewhere in the building, separate areas were appointed for regular shiploads of immigrant women. Immigration officials saw the Barracks as shelter for 'unaccompanied' females, along with the wives and children of convicts, 'sent out to their husbands or parents'.

From the first arrivals in 1848, and for years afterwards, the orphan girls confronted heated local hostility. In the background, moves towards colonial self-government had already kindled fears of a mobbish Irish majority, and Earl Grey’s support for the revival of convict transportation had won him few friends in the colony. Initial antipathy towards the orphans centred on their youth, incompetence, lowly workhouse origins and, most of all, their Irishness.

Coupled with inexperience in household service, according to one Sydney official, was ‘their disinclination to learn, their dirty and idle habits’ along with, in some, ‘a morose and ungovernable temper’ . Even worse, as future mothers, the girls threatened to imperil the supposedly vigorous colonial physique, with ‘their squat, stunted figures, thick waists and clumsy ankles’.

... antipathy towards the orphans centred on their youth, incompetence, lowly workhouse origins and, most of all, their Irishness...

Prejudice and ridicule, however, was nothing new. Irish women had long been branded low-class, licentious and unruly in the colonial press, and the notoriety of some recently arrived free Irish women revived locals’ suspicion, while politicians and Protestant clergy feared a growing Irish-Catholic majority. Yet despite a perception that the colony was awash with 'workhouse sweepings', most orphan girls found employment within weeks of arrival. Many proved to be suitable workers. Around half of the girls married older protestant Englishmen.

Apprenticeships to middle-class families often meant years of hard, low-paid work as maids, kitchen hands and mothers helpers. Their tendency to have large families of their own seldom made life easier. As gold and outlying land releases pushed European farmers further into the interior, the orphan girls were well represented in harsh and isolated pioneering settlements.


While waiting to find work, the orphan girls spent their days occupied with routine chores and their nights in the sleeping wards upstairs. Apart from interviews with approved employers, outside contact was limited to visiting health officers, local clergy and nuns of the Sisters of Charity, who offered advice, prayer and literature, and pressured the Matron for better treatment.

The orphan girls were all disposed of, and sent away as fast as they could be disposed of...

Matron Mrs Eliza Capps, Select Committee on Irish Female Immigration, 1858

Given it cost the same to ship experienced immigrants to the colony, many began to wonder if the drain on colonial funds was worth it. By 1850, as orphans arrivals increased were offloaded at Sydney Cove and the Barracks grew periodically crowded with un-hireable inmates, anger arose over the expense of housing them in the depot. Unlike the Scottish or English women in transit at the Barracks, the Irish orphans were forced to pick oakum – unravelling old ropes for wadding – under guard in a so-called ‘refractory room’.

The customary coldness of 19th century charity, it seemed, took a more punitive turn. According to immigration agent Captain HH Browne, whose antipathy towards the scheme was well known, singling out the Irish girls for punishing work was necessary, given the ‘general complaint at the time was that they were treated with more consideration than they were entitled to and rather unduly encouraged to remain in the building’.

Maria, the last ship to transport Earl Grey’s orphans, docked at Sydney on 1 August 1850. Unable to withstand such heated opposition, the workhouse scheme was abandoned. Two years had seen a few thousand orphans find their way into new, sometimes better, circumstances. Many more remained behind in Irish workhouses. Government-assisted female immigrants from Britain continued to lodge at the Barracks until 1886.

Ongoing stories

Of the thousands of orphan girls bundled through the Barracks in the wake of the Irish famine after 1848, most disappeared into colonial life, leaving little trace of their ordeals and conveniently burying their stories. In recent years however, a growing number of family historians have begun to unearth connections across the generations, bringing to light fascinating tales of young women making new lives in the colonies and establishing, sometimes, vast family networks.

Other kinds of traces were discovered under the floorboards of the Barracks, when archaeologists were brought in to investigate and scour the building ahead of museum renovations in the early 1980s.

The following gallery highlights how personal tales and archaeological relics connect us to the struggles and triumphs of these trail-blazing women.

Gary Crockett

Gary Crockett

Former curator

It was the dog-eared world of Rouse Hill House, back in 1991, that inspired Gary Crockett to become a curator. Gary produced exhibitions on convict, immigration and legal history at the Hyde Park Barracks, studied spatial history at the Museum of Sydney, collaborated with artists and tenants at Susannah Place, architects and engineers at Elizabeth Farm, designers at Rose Seidler House, curated Surf City, an ode to Sydney surf culture, along with a string of video, audioguide and interactive museum projects.