Female migration

Woman dressed in blue, seated on bed in exhibition space holding photograph.
Barbara Zammit's great grandmother Rose McGee was one of the 40,000 women who stayed at the Female Immigration Depot between 1848 and 1887.
Convict transportation had brought more male convicts to NSW than females. By the 1820s there were almost four men to every woman in the colony.

The colony needed women - as workers, wives and mothers. Also, for many women in the UK migration was seen as an opportunity to change their fortunes - to escape poverty, find work and start a family.

So, from the 1830s the British government encouraged young, unmarried women to migrate to NSW. One of the ways they did this was by paying the costs of the women's voyage.

Female Immigration Depot: 1848-87

By the 1840s and 1850s thousands of young women were migrating to NSW. When they first arrived in Sydney they needed a safe and secure place to live. From 1848 they stayed at the Immigration Depot at Hyde Park Barracks.

Water colour of the Hyde Park barracks showing front wall and gates. Smoke can be seen coming out of chimneys on either side of the 3 story brick barracks building.

The barracks - seen in this watercolour from the 1840s - had originally been built as accomodation for male convicts.

But convict transportation to NSW stopped in 1840, and by 1848 the last male convicts were moved out and sent to Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour.

Newly arrived female migrants would stay at the depot until they were hired out for work, or a member of their family who already lived in the colony came to pick them up.

Between 1848-1887 about 40,000 women stayed at the depot, some with their children. There were two main categories:

Assisted
The cost of their journey was paid by the government; some also received extra support, such as clothes.
Unassisted
The cost of the journey was paid by the migrant, their family, or a friend living in the colony.
First arrivals: Irish orphans

The first group of assisted female migrants to stay at the depot were teenage girls from Ireland - they arrived in October 1848.

During the 1840s Ireland was experiencing a terrible famine because food crops (such as the potato) were failing. Potatos were a vital source of food and without them many people did not have enough to eat.

The famine lasted from 1845 to 1851 and it was known in Ireland as an Gorta Mór, which means ‘the great hunger’. At least one million people died, over a million emigrated (to places like America and Australia) and thousands more took shelter in Side note: workhouses.

To provide some relief, an emigration scheme was organised (it became known as the Earl Grey scheme). It lasted from 1848 to 1850 and paid for more than 4000 teenage girls to travel to Australia.

More than half came to NSW (and stayed at the Immigration Depot). Others went to Adelaide and Port Phillip (which became part of the Colony of Victoria in 1851)

The girls who took part had been living in workhouses, so this was an opportunity for them to escape the terrible conditions. Many had no parents, or their parents were unable to care for them, so they were known as orphans.

Some of the girls were as young as 13 years old.

Wooden trunk with selection of clothing set out on top.
The wooden travelling trunks contained a new wardrobe for the girls, including: dresses, bonnets, mitts and stockings. They were also given a Bible and a prayer book.
A treasured possession

Because they were coming from poverty the girls had very few, if any, personal possessions. The Earl Grey scheme provided them with a wooden trunk, which contained things like:

  • new clothes (such as dresses, a warm cloak, mitts and stocking)
  • soap and towles
  • a comb and a hair brush
  • a Bible and prayer book
  • new shoes

The new clothes were essential. They kept the girls warm and in good health throughout the journey and would also help them find work and start their new life in Australia.

Looking after them was important and something the girls took pride in.

During the voyage the girls unpacked their trunks every few weeks to clean, brush and air the contents to ensure there was no water damage or mildew. They would also wash and change the outfit they were wearing.

  • Mauve dress with plain, front-buttoning fitted bodice with a small, high collar, bell-shaped skirt worn over petticoats, and loose-fitting or frilled sleeves that could be rolled up.
  • Reproduction of a mid nineteenth century cottage bonnet with green ribbon.
What can we learn from archaeology?

Research from books, letters and diaries tells us that the girls' dresses were made out of calico (an inexpensive fabric) that was most probably the colour purple.

Archaeologists have found lots of pieces of this material under the floorboards of the Hyde Park Barracks Museum (where the Immigration Depot once was).

Because these pieces of fabric have different patterns on them, it tells us that what the girls' dresses looked like  changed over time, even though they probably stayed the same colour.

Engraving of interior of wooden ship with women.

Life below deck

If the weather was fine the girls could spend time in the fresh air. But if it was bad they would have to stay below decks were there wasn't much room.

Journey

It took four to five months to sail to Australia.

On the voyage, the girls were looked after by an older female matron. There was also a surgeon-superintendent on the ship who was responsible for the health of all the passengers.

A schoolmaster usually ran school lessons while at sea and focused on reading, writing, arithmethic and grammar.

For example, the schoolmaster on the ship John Knox was Thomas Jones; his wife Eliza was the ship's matron. Thomas and Eliza were also migrating to NSW (with their younger daughter).

As the schoolmaster, Thomas had to manage over 270 teenage girls.

Some worked hard and improved their spelling, writing and reading, while others hid below decks to avoid going to class!1

In the evening the girls entertained themselves by singing, dancing, reading or sewing clothes.

Most days on board the ship would have followed the same schedule2:

Time Activity
6.30am wash and dress
7.30am breakfast
8.30am sweep and clean sleeping areas
11am-5.30pm school classes
12.30pm dinner (as the midday meal was called)
5.30pm tea (the evening meal)
8pm sweep and clean sleeping areas
9.30pm bed and lights out
  • 1. State Archives NSW: 9/6194: Ships’ Papers, John Knox 1850. Letter by Thomas Jones, schoolmaster on board the John Knox emigrant ship, to the Commissioners of Emigration in NSW. The John Knox arrived in Sydney in April 1850 carrying 279 Irish orphans.
  • 2. The Daily News, Wednesday, November 6, 1850: An account of the daily routine by Charles Strutt, surgeon-superintendent on board the Thomas Arbuthnot which arrived in Sydney, February 1850, carrying 194 Irish orphans
Life at the Immigration Depot

Sometimes there were hundreds of girls staying at the depot. The depot matron kept a close eye on them. She made sure they washed their clothes and kept their sleeping areas tidy.

Interior of wooden floorboarded room with natural light coming in window at end. Several beds placed around green painted walls.

Keeping the rooms clean was important.

Rats lived under the floorboards. They stole scraps of food to eat and pieces of clothing to make their nests.

What food did the girls eat at the depot?

Every few days there would be a delivery of fresh meat, vegetables and bread.

The meat and vegetables could be boiled to make a soup, or roasted. 'Dripping' (the fat from the cooked meat) was used to spread on the bread.

At meal time the girls all ate together.

  • Foodstuffs laid out on table, including meat, vegetables, bread and spices.
  • Slice of bread on a plate with metal teapot in background.
  • Soup
  • Meat and potatoes on plate
Finding a job

Each week, private citizens came to the depot to hire the girls as 'indentured servants'. This meant that their new employer was supposed to train them in a skill, either for domestic work (around the house) or farm work, like milking cows and making butter.  The girls mostly went to work as:

  • house maids
  • kitchen hands
  • nursemaids (helping mothers from better off families)
Drawing showing a large room filled with women and girls talking in groups. The women are wearing Victorian dresses and hats.
In this artwork you can see young female migrants sitting in the 'hiring room' at the Immigration Depot. They are waiting to be interviewed for a job.

The work was low paid, but some girls were able to save small amounts of money.

The girls lived with the family who had hired them. Sometimes this meant staying in Sydney, but many were sent out to country areas.

If they behaved badly they could be sent back to the depot.

 

 

Life in Australia

Migration gave these young girls a new life in Australia, with opportunities to find work, maybe get married and start a family.

However adjusting to their new life, in a new country, was often difficult. Some people in the colony did not want them to be here because they thought they had no skills, or because they practised a different form of religion.

Despite this, many of these inspirational young women lived long and successful lives. They worked hard, ran businesses, married and produced families. As a result they have thousands of descendants alive today all around Australia.

Rose McGee (pictured below on the left) migrated from Ireland to Australia when she was 15 years old.

She arrived in 1859, so was not one of the 4114 orphans who came out as part of the Earl Grey scheme. But Rose would have migrated for the same opportunities.

In 2016 her great-granddaughter Barbara (holding the photo) visited the Hyde Park Barracks where Rose had stayed nearly 160 years before, when it was the Immigration Depot.

Creative Arts activity

These two brooches (on the right) were lost by women who stayed at the depot.

We don’t know who they were, but these objects would have been very precious to them. If you look closely you can see they are different designs and are made from different materials.

To recognise the significance of the female migrants and honour their legacy you could make your own brooch and wear it in their memory.

To complete the activity you will need:

  • to choose the different materials you want to use
  • design what your brooch looks like
  • create it so it's ready to wear

Objective:

To create a brooch that is inspired by the story of the Irish orphans and their experience of migrating to Australia. 

Stimulus to draw on:

  • patterns on women's dresses
  • personal items - brooches
  • what you have learned about female migration

Step 1
Choose the different materials you would like to use. Your brooch could be made from:

  • fabric
  • cardboard
  • paper

Or anything else you think will work and more than one art material is encouraged!

Step 2
Do a pencil sketch of what you want it to look like - include as much detail as you can.

Consider:

  • what will you use to pin it to your shirt or jacket?
  • how big or small will it be?
  • how will you decorate it?

Step 3
Present your design to the class (or a small group) for some feedback.

  • Does it meet the activity's objective?

Step 4
Get started making, be creative and then wear it!

Need some inspiration?

Check out these weblinks for easy-to-make brooch ideas and materials:

Creative Art K-6 Syllabus

Stage 2
Making: VAS2.1; VAS2.2
Appreciating: VAS2.3

Stage 3
Making VAS3.1; VAS3.2
Appreciating: VAS3.4

Copper brooch with green patina, green and blue check central inlay.
A delicate little metal brooch, only 2.5 cm wide, with three magenta-coloured faceted stones.