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 find a job and possibly 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 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 Female Immigration Depot.

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 building had originally been a convict barracks for men - seen here in this watercolour from the 1840s.

But transportation stopped in 1840, and in 1848 the last male convicts at the barracks were sent to Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour.

The women stayed at the depot until they found a job or a member of their family came to pick them up.

About 40,000 women stayed at the depot, some with their children. There were two main categories:

The cost of their journey was paid by the government; some also received extra support, such as clothes.
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.

Many had no parents, or their parents were unable to care for them, so they were called orphans.

At this time, Ireland was experiencing a terrible famine because food crops were failing. In Ireland the famine was known as an Gorta Mór, which means ‘the great hunger’, and it lasted from 1846 to 1851. At least one million people died, and tens of thousands had to live in terrible conditions in Side note: workhouses.

To provide some relief, the British Government started the 'Earl Grey scheme'.

This paid for more than 4000 Irish teenage girls to migrate to Australia. More than half came to NSW, while others went to Adelaide, Hobart and Port Phillip (Melbourne).

Some of the girls were only 14 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 possessions. The Earl Grey scheme provided them with a wooden travelling trunk, which contained:

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

The new clothes were highly valuable. They kept the girls warm and in good health on the journey, so looking after them was important.

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.

  • 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 material) and were the colour purple.

However, archaeologists found lots of pieces of dress material under the floorboards of the Immigration Depot. They show us that even though the girls' dresses were the same colour, they would have all been different patterns.

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.


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 the passengers. 

A schoolmaster, or the matron, usually ran the school lessons. The focus was on reading, writing, arithmetic and grammar.

Some worked hard to learn, while others hid in their cabins to avoid going to class!

In the evening the girls entertained themselves by singing, dancing or reading. Some might have sewed clothes or other small items.

Most days followed the same schedule:

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
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 scaps 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 in one of the depot's rooms.

  • 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 offer the girls jobs. The girls mostly went to work as:

  • house maids
  • kitchen hands
  • nursemaids (helping mothers in middle class 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 lose their job and 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 country was hard. Some of the people in the colony did not want them to be here. This was 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.

As a result, they have thousands of family descendants alive today.

One such girl was Rose McGee. Rose migrated from Ireland in 1859 was she was 15 years old. While she was not part of the Earl Grey scheme, she had migrated for the same opportunities.

In 2016 her great-granddaughter Barbara (holding the photo) visited the depot where Rose had stayed 150 years before.

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


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.


  • 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.