Thousands of young Irish women were sent from overcrowded workhouses in Ireland to Australia under the “Earl Grey Scheme” which lasted from 1848 to 1850. The maneuver was named after the son of the famous tea merchant who as secretary of state for the new British colonies designed the scheme to correct the gender imbalance caused by the transportation of convicts.
Neisha Wratten is the great-great-granddaughter of Bridget Cannon, who was just 15 when she was taken away from Carrick-on-Shannon workhouse in February 1849 to be transported to Austraila.
Wratten, who has extensively researched the life of her ancestor and the other Earl Grey girls from Carrick, has traveled all the way from Australia to campaign for a memorial at the former workhouse for those who left there during the Famine.
“I was distressed to learn that Bridget was detained in a penitentiary at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney shortly after being indentured,” Adelaide-based gynecologist told the Irish Times.
She found that 250 Earl Grey girls were detained for “general misconduct.”
“They were kept apart from the other girls in case they contaminated them,” she said. “They had to eat, sleep and work in one room where they were forced to pick oakum.”
She said she believes girls from Irish rural backgrounds were punished for not being suited to civilized society in Sydney, where some were sent to be servants.
“They probably knew how to milk a cow and to wrestle a sheep or dig up a patch of potatoes, but did not have any idea how to polish the cutlery.”
Wratten was one of 30 people who participated in the “Famine Attic Experience” three years ago, spending a night in the workhouse attic where the children stayed.
She thinks many other Earl Grey descendants would be interested to see the workhouse building that has been barely changed since the Famine and believes restoration of the attic would be a fitting memorial to those who lived and died there.
“When you go into that attic you grasp the scale of the tragedy. It’s like hearing about the second World War and then visiting a camp and it hits you.”
She told the Irish Times that it would be an opportune time to plan a memorial at the former workhouse which currently houses St Patrick’s community hospital, as a new hospital building has been approved.
“The workhouse is intact, almost exactly as it was when Bridget was there,” she said. “The platforms where the children slept on straw are still there in the attic.”
Wratten is holding meetings with politicians, planners and other interested parties in Leitrim to discuss the proposal.
John Bredin, chairman of the Heritage Group which has a long-term lease on part of the former workhouse, told the Irish Times that he would welcome a memorial to the 65 girls who left there during the Great Hunger.
Bredin expects more Earl Grey descendants would like to make the pilgrimage to the workhouse and is planning another “Famine Attic Experience” for next year.
“We have a lot of information for them – the names of the girls, their parents’ names and the names of their townlands,” he said.
“We are very keen to meet Dr Wratten to discuss ways of commemorating these girls and we are very conscious that famine is still happening all over the world.”
As an average of 12 workhouse inmates were dying every week, those who left could be regarded as the lucky ones. However, Wratten says, “They did not all have happy endings.”
Her ancestor Bridget Cannon took her husband John Smith to court after 30 years of abuse.
“In one incident she lost some teeth and had her ribs broken,” said Wratten. “But she finally said ‘enough’ when John threatened to put a pitchfork into her chest, and the court case made the state newspapers in Brisbane. We still have an enormous problem in Australia with domestic violence, which is another reason her story is so pertinent.”
Says local Fine Gael councilor Finola Armstrong McGuire, who supports the idea of a memorial: “Neisha is a living witness. This is part of our history but she makes it real.”
Wratten said: “It is hard to convey just how much the descendants – and the Australian-Irish community – treasure these women. They are incredibly special to us. They are our little Irish mothers."