Handwritten letter.
Page of letter from T F F Jones, schoolmaster on the immigrant ship John Knox, to the NSW Commissioners of Emigration, 6 May 1850. State Archives and Records Authority of New South Wales
A letter from a schoolmaster on the orphan ship John Knox offers a fascinating insight into life at sea for teenage girls emigrating to Sydney in 1850.

After his arrival in Sydney in April 1850, Thomas Frederick Fitzsimmons Jones, a Dublin-born music master from London, wrote a seven-page letter to the NSW Commissioners of Emigration. In it, he candidly describes the cheek, trouble and challenges he’d faced during the almost five-month voyage from Plymouth as he attempted to teach subjects including English and arithmetic to 279 teenage girls.

Irish orphans at sea

The girls, ranging in age from 14 to 20, were orphans, mostly from famine-ravaged Ireland. They’d been selected from workhouses to emigrate to Australia under the British Government’s Earl Grey scheme (1848–50). In total, 4114 young women would emigrate under this scheme; 2253 were sent to Sydney, where they passed through the Immigration Depot at the Hyde Park Barracks, then providing temporary accommodation and a hiring office for single female immigrants. The colony needed women, both as domestic servants and as wives and mothers, and the orphans, whose future at home was bleak, were chosen as the first batch to stay at the new depot.

The voyage to NSW on the ‘orphan ships’ represented a substantial period of time at sea. A matron was appointed to supervise the girls, and in a genuine attempt to improve the lives and prospects of emigrants, ships would also allocate a schoolmaster. Jones, a fellow passenger who was emigrating to NSW with his family, was probably chosen on the strength of his own education.

Ireland had had a national school system since the 1830s, and all instruction was carried out in English. However, attendance rates throughout the 19th century were low, particularly for girls. This was exacerbated during the famine years, when many of these girls would have been of school age, as children were often required to work on family farms or find jobs to survive. So while levels of education among assisted Irish emigrants to NSW were typically higher than those of the non-migrating population, the John Knox orphans were different – almost half of them were unable to read or write, at least in English. (It’s not known how many were able to read or write in Gaelic.)

A tough gig

Jones had his work cut out for him. Bad weather, cramped quarters below decks and rowdy teenage girls on the trip of a lifetime would challenge the most experienced classroom teacher to build rapport and maintain focus, let alone a ring-in.

The opening paragraph of Jones’s letter sets the tone: ‘Gentlemen – It is with regret that I am compelled to admit that the improvement in the Education of the Orphan Emigrants has been far, very far short of what in the commencement I expected’. Based on the ‘perfect liberty and uproar’ with which the girls conducted themselves, he gloomily predicted that they would never submit to a life of quiet domestic service.

Many of his frustrations – from student misbehaviour to lack of adequate resources – could be those of any teacher, at any school, at any time in history. Classes were supposed to begin at 10.30am, but ‘it was very seldom I could assemble [the students] before 12, for as fast as they were collected, they went below again, hiding behind their bedding in the dark corners of the ship’. Some better‑behaved students were appointed as monitors, but with little success. Jones singled out the girls from Cashel and Cork as being the most troublesome: ‘almost all refused to attend their studies’.

Jones complained that girls he knew could read refused to, some who said they could read had exaggerated their abilities, while others ‘were indignant at being offered books which they said they had gone through long before’. He also claimed that many of the schoolbooks were destroyed or given away to the sailors. He does allow that some of the girls ‘certainly learned to read, and others improved in arithmetic’. But he acknowledges that ‘it was owing to their desire to learn’ and not necessarily due to his interventions – intrinsic motivation, a teacher’s holy grail.

It’s clear that this situation was new territory for the music master. Not only was he unfamiliar with ‘schoolroom practice’, but we know from his letter that he’d based his approach to teaching the girls on an account by surgeon-superintendent Dr Colin Browning, who had devised a system of education for male convicts undergoing transportation. This was a rigid and disciplined approach, heavily religious, and probably not best applied to a group of free young women.

A contrasting perspective

Jones’s letter provides a rare insight into the experience of a schoolmaster at sea. Interestingly, his candid perspective contrasts with a widely published account from Charles Strutt, surgeon‑superintendent on another Earl Grey orphan ship, the Thomas Arbuthnot, which arrived in Sydney in February 1850. Strutt and numerous private passengers stated that the girls on this ship were attentive and well behaved, and that many worked hard to learn new skills.

But unlike Strutt’s account, Jones’s letter wasn’t intended for publication. As well as recommending shipboard improvements and complaining about the pressures he’d endured, Jones laid some blame for the girls’ behaviour at the feet of the surgeon-superintendent on the John Knox, Richard Greenup, claiming that Greenup wouldn’t administer the punishments he requested.

After receiving Jones’s letter, the commissioners sought Greenup’s response. In his reply, the surgeon‑superintendent spoke approvingly of the girls, and alluded to Jones’s insistence on ‘threatening grievous punishment’ for the slightest infraction, as well as his general temperament: ‘Had he been calmer these scenes would not have occurred … but how difficult it was for him to preserve his calmness always living in such a turmoil’.1

It seems Jones had lost the students’ respect. Greenup states that he and the ship’s captain frequently discussed how ‘we could keep Mr Jones’s consequence amongst the emigrants’ by reminding them of the great opportunity presented to be tutored by such a well-educated man: ‘we did what we could’. Meanwhile, what the Dubliner Jones described as the girls’ ‘impertinence’, Greenup – who hailed from Halifax in Yorkshire – put down to good-natured ‘Irish readiness of repartee’.

In the end, it’s Jones who comes out of this sparring match the worse for wear. No doubt the students caused some headaches, but perhaps with a more empathetic and experienced schoolmaster the daily task of instruction would have been less of a battle.

Letter from R Greenup, Surgeon-Superintendent on the John Knox, 17 May 1850, to the NSW Commissioners of Emigration, State Archives and Records Authority of New South Wales.
  • Room with wooden floor, green walls and windows to left, with simple beds made up to represent dormitory.

    Immigrant women’s depot, level 2, Hyde Park Barracks, in 2018.

    Photo © Evolving Picture for Sydney Living Museums

  • Handwritten entries in printed table with headings across top.

    Detail of report compiled by Edmund H Flannery (schoolmaster) for immigrant ship Nile, 15 May 1861.

    State Archives and Records Authority of New South Wales

  • Group of wooden cotton reels on white background.

    Thread spools. Hyde Park Barracks Archaeology Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

    Photo © Jamie North

About the author

Head and shoulders portrait of man standing holding old bottle and in front of shelf of bottles.

Edward Washington

Audience Development Officer – Learning

Edward is part of Sydney Living Museum’s education team, developing education programs, and training the members of staff who deliver them to thousands of students every year.