A Great-great Granddaughter of a Famine orphan arrived in Mountmellick, one hundred and sixty- eight years after her Great-great Grandmother was shipped to Australia, as part of the Earl Grey Famine Orphans Scheme. Lou Walsh and her husband Kev, from Toowamba, Australia, walked into Mountmellick Embroidery Museum and were astonished to see a photo of her Great-great Grandmother, Mary Millar looking back at her.
Between 1849 and 1853, four thousand one hundred and twelve orphan girls like Mary Millar, aged between 14 and 18 years were enlisted to be shipped from workhouses throughout Ireland to Australia, as part of the Paupers Emigration Scheme, more commonly known as the Earl Grey Scheme, named after the British Minister for Home Affairs at the time, who devised this scheme.
Thirty-seven girls from the Mountmellick Workhouse and twenty-eight girls from the Abbeyleix Workhouse, are listed as travelling under this scheme. Another twenty-two girls from Mountmellick, departed from Plymouth on 15th February 1849 and arrived in Port Adelaide, South Australia on 7th June 1849, on board ship ‘The Inconstant’. As conditions were so bad in the Irish Workhouses during the famine, it proved easy to entice these girls to travel as it provided them with extra rations on board the ship, to improve their appearance before arriving in Australia. They were also provided with a wooden box containing 6 shifts, 1 shawl, 2 pairs of shoes, 2 gowns, 2 wraps, 2 petticoats, 1 cloak, 2 neck scarves, 2 pocket handkerchiefs, 2 linen collars, 2 aprons, 1 pair of stays, 1 pair of mitts, 1 pair of sheets, I bonnet, day and night caps, 2 towels, 2 bars of soap, combs, brushes, needles & thread, a few yards of cotton or calico material, a bible, prayer book and rosary beads. To orphaned pauper girls, this represented more possessions than they ever had previously. These girls made their way to Limerick, where they boarded a ship to Portsmouth and from there, they then sailed to Australia with typical journeys taking 150 days at sea. Upon arrival in Australia, these young girls who were mostly illiterate, received a mixed welcome. Some locals resented them, others saw them as cheap labour and others as future brides. For the girls it was a mixed lot with some having good lives by the standards of the day while others had desperate lives.
Mary Millar was the daughter of Thomas and Ann Millar and was born in Mountmellick on 6th July 1831 and lived in Clonaslee for a time. During the Famine, this family entered Mountmellick Workhouse and Mary was one of the girls chosen to travel to Australia. Mary Millar arrived in Sydney, on board ship ‘Tippoo Saib’ on 29th July 1850, after spending up to 150 days at sea. As Mary was illiterate, she gained work as a house servant. In October 1851, Mary moved to Moreton Bay and married Richard Browning. Here they farmed some plots of land and she had 11 children, 43 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren. Mary died in 1906 aged 75 years.
The Irish Prison Service has for the past few years been commemorating these orphan girls by building replica boxes and writing their stories on the boxes. To date, twenty-one boxes have been made in Arbour Hill Prison, with four of them sent to Australia, one is in the United Nations in New York, one in Connecticut, one in Áras an Úachtarain and fourteen dispersed around Ireland to some of the towns where there were workhouses, from which these girls departed for Australia.
“Mountmellick Embroidery Museum is fortunate to have one of these replica boxes, as it tells the story of the girls who left Mountmellick” said Ann Dowling, Chairperson of the Museum Committee. “Further work on researching these girls and their stories is currently underway by several historians in Mountmellick and through the fortunate meeting with Lou Walsh, more of Mary Millar’s story is now known” continued Ms. Dowling. It is the intention of the MDA Museum Committee, to dedicate a space in the MDA building to commemorate these girls and to tell their stories insofar as it is possible.
* Photo: Ann Dowling, Anne Sands, Lou Walsh (great great grand daughter of Mary Millar), Ger Lynch, Dolores Dempsey & Kev Walsh