Irish Famine Memorial, Hyde Park Barracks

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Irish Famine Memorial, Hyde Park Barracks

Henry George Grey entered the British parliament in 1826 and, in 1830, when his father became Prime Minister, he became Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. He was a member of a group of colonial reformers, including Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who shared views on land and emigration, advocating that the colonies be governed for their own benefit and not the mother country. In 1846, during the Famine in Ireland (1845–1852), he was appointed Colonial Secretary. These positions gave him charge of Britain's colonial possessions, including Australia.

New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia wanted increased expenditure to assist immigration and reluctantly Grey permitted some borrowing. [1] At the same time the a select committee of the New South Wales Legislative Council recommended the introduction of labour, emphasising the need for female domestic servants and even acquiring some of them from 'female orphan institutions'. [2]

Caroline Chisholm, the 'emigrant's friend', philanthropist and protector of female emigrants declared herself in favour of such a scheme. It was Earl Grey's responsibility and came to be known as Earl Grey's pauper immigration scheme. With his approval, and with the cooperation of the Poor Law Guardians in Ireland, between October 1848 and August 1850 the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners brought 4,412 young women from the workhouses in Ireland to New South Wales, Port Phillip and Adelaide, 2,220 of whom arrived in Sydney. [3]

The workhouse women

Post-Famine Irish immigration to Australia was very significant, with estimates that over 30,000 single Irish women arrived over a 15-year period between 1848 and 1863. In a male-dominated society, the Irish workhouse women altered the demographics of Australia in a very significant way with 11 shiploads arriving in a three-year period. On 6 October 1848 the Earl Grey was the first [media]ship to arrive in Sydney with female orphans and was followed by the Panama, Thomas Arbuthnot, Inchinnan, Lady Peel, William & Mary, Lismoyne, Digby, John Knox, Maria and Tippoo Saib. After volunteering for emigration, all potential emigrants were carefully inspected by the Poor Law Guardians in Ireland, and their literacy, health and previous employment record examined before embarkation. This process was far more vigorous than for other applicants for assisted passage from Ireland.