The Voyage of the Inconstant Article by Ger Lynch

22 May 2020
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A message from our Chairperson.

Greetings again all Friends of Mountmellick Embroidery Museum and welcome to another Article relevant to our local Museum and History.  We hope that wherever you are reading this that you, your family and friends are staying safe and looking forward and planning for Post Covid-19 activities as restrictions here are starting to ease. This is now our eight article and we are delighted with the growing interest and readership generated to date, thank you for the positive comments and feedback received. Just to note that all articles written to date are available on both our Mountmellick Development Website and our Facebook Page, feel free to share with any friends who you feel may be interested in them, and perhaps that you might consider a visit to our Museum in the future when normality has resumed. For ease of reference the previous articles are as follows:

Week one Initial Introduction by Ann Dowling Chairperson – (2) History of Samplers on Display by Marie Walsh – (3) Beale Family by Bridie Dunne – (4) Local Churches in Mountmellick by Ann Sands – (5) Industries in Mountmellick by Ger Lynch – (6) Embroidery Collaboration with Dress Designers by Marie Walsh – (7) Key Milestones in local History and the Revival of Mountmellick Embroidery by Ann Dowling. (8) The Voyage of the Inconstant by Ger Lynch.

One of the common threads that ran through almost all the previous articles was the effect of the famine (Gorta Mor or Great Hunger) on every aspect of life during the 1840’s and 50’ie. Coinciding with National Famine Remembrance Day which occurred last Sunday here in Ireland, this week’s article by one of our local fountains of knowledge Ger Lynch tells the story of those girls transported from Mountmellick Work House on the Ship “Inconstant “to Australia during this tragic period in our History.

Ann Dowling

Over to you Ger.



The Voyage of the Inconstant

Before I tell the tale of the voyage of the Inconstant and the 22 girls from Mountmellick who travelled on board it to Australia during the famine, I should give you some idea of the circumstances that brought this about.

Under the 1839 Irish Poor Law Act, over 130 workhouses were built in Ireland. The building of Mountmellick Workhouse commenced in 1842 and the first inmates were admitted in August 1845. It was what they called a medium workhouse and it was built to accommodate 800 people, during the famine the number housed there was over 1600. These workhouses have been described as ‘the most feared and hated institutions ever established in Ireland’.

During the famine period all workhouses became overcrowded and the large number of young female inmates for whom they had no work became a problem. Meanwhile the lack of young females had become a problem to the development of Australia. Earl Grey, who was the home secretary in England at the time noted this and proposed a scheme which would send young girls from the workhouse in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to Australia. This was to be known as the Earl Grey Scheme. On account of the desperate conditions which existed in Ireland at the time this proved to be the better of two evils for them and the Irish girls were the only ones with a few exceptions to avail of this scheme.

In all, between the years 1848 and 1850, 4,114 Irish girls were transported on over 20 different ships to Australia. Sixty eight girls from Abbeyleix and Mountmellick workhouses travelled to Australia on board eight different ships.

  • Lady Peel (2 girls) arrived in Sydney on the 3rd of July 1849
  • William and Mary (17 girls) arrived in Sydney on the21st of November 1849
  • Lismoyne (10 girls) arrived on Melbourne on the 2nd of November 1849
  • Tippoo Saib (13 girls) arrived in Sydney on the 29th of July 1850
  • Maria (19 girls) arrived in Sydney on the 1st of August 1850.
  • Lady Kenway (1 girl) arrived in Port Philip on the 6th of December 1848
  • Pemberton (6 girls) arrived in Port Philip on the 14th of May 1849
  • Inconstant with 22 unnamed girls from Mountmellick arrived in Adelaide on the 14th of May 1849

These ships were not like the coffin ships which brought Irish people to America and Canada during the famine in fact they were the opposite authorities here and in England wished to have the girls well-presented and well-nourished on arrival in Australia and they issued orders that they were to received three meals a day on board ship and they were to be respected at all times. Their health and educational skills were to be improved on board ship and to achieve this a surgeon superintendent and head matron a number of sub matrons and a school teacher were appointed to each ship.

In January 1849 Lieutenant Henry of the colonial and emigration services visited Mountmellick to select girls for the Earl Grey Scheme. The girls would have been presented with a travel box for their journey which would have contained the following

6 shifts                                   1 shawl                        2 pairs of shoes      2 gowns         

2 wraps                                 2 petticoats                 1 cloak                  2 neck handkerchiefs

2 pockets handkerchiefs     2 linen collars             2 aprons                1 pair of stays

1 pair of mitts                     1 pair of sheets           1 bonnet                 Day and night caps     

2 towels                               2 bars of soap              Brushes                  Needles and thread

A bible                                A prayer book              A rosary                A small sum of money

For these girls, some of whom may not have owned a pair of shoes, this made them better off than they had ever been in their lives. The box and its contents had to be paid for by the local board of Guardians, they also paid for the girl’s passage to Plymouth. The cost of transporting the girls from England to Australia was borne by the British Government.

In memory of those orphan Girls transported under the Earl Grey Scheme, the National  Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims and the Irish Prison Service, have collaborated on a project over the last six years to make replicate travel boxes.  These replicated Travel Boxes (only one original travel box exists which is on display in a Sydney museum) are made in Arbour Hill Prison and great credit is due to the Staff and Offenders for not just the detailed historical research but the level of detail engraved on each box manufactured. Each of the twenty-four boxes made to date tells its own unique story of either one girl or a group of girls who travelled under this scheme. I am informed that it takes approximately fourteen weeks to complete each replicate Travel Box. These boxes are now to be found in museums both at home and abroad including Aras an Uachtarain (President of Ireland’s Residence), United Nations Building in New York, Jennie Johnson Famine Ship, Dunbrody Ship, and many other local Museums in Ireland, Australia and the USA. We were privileged to receive one of these boxes   into our Museum in a presentation performed by the Minister for Justice Charles Flanagan on the 19th May 2019.    

The young girl highlighted on our replicate travel box who was chosen at random from the 92 girls who travelled from Laois is Mary Miller, who arrived in Sydney onboard the Tippoo Saib on the 29th of July 1850. Our travel box features a photo of Mary, her daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter.


So what happened to Mary Millar after she arrived in Sydney.

You can imagine our amazement when by sheer coincidence a lady and her husband from Australia arrived in our Museum seeking information on a Mary Miller. This lady, Lou Walsh turned out to be the great great great granddaughter of Mary Miller.  For the story of that trip, her journey back to take part in presentation of the famine box and the complete story of Mary Miller, Lou Walsh has kindly agreed to draft a piece in the coming weeks which we will happily publish and in doing so complete her story. We are all looking forward to that.

The Voyage Begins

We do not know how the girls were transported to Dublin Port from Mountmellick. We know that they left Dublin for Plymouth onboard the steamer ‘Devonshire’ soon after the 7th of February 1849. The journey must have been rough for we have a report that they arrived in Plymouth in a distressed state. On arrival they would have been taken to a holding area, which was surrounded by high walls, to keep them separated from the local population who feared they would contract fever and disease from these girls.

When all the girls that were booked to travel were assembled in Plymouth, they boarded the Inconstant on the 15th of February 1849. They set sail for Adelaide in Australia. These young girls came from the following workhouses, Newcastle (18), Mullingar (40), Tullamore (18), Mountmellick (22), Parsonstown (30), Limerick (24), Tipperary (22) and North Dublin Dublin (12). In total there were one hundred and eighty-six Irish girls.

The Master of the vessel was Patrick Culliton, the first mate was Garrick Barry, and Doctor Charles Watkins was the surgeon superintendent. Mrs Catherine (Kate) Moran was the head matron. The sub matrons were Eliza Barlow, Eliza Brady, Emily Gregory and Mrs Clarissa Kelly, her daughter Mary Ann Cummins was the nurse. Richard Cummins was listed as a constable.

On arrival in Adelaide, on the 14th of May 1849, there were allegations of misconduct on the part of the Captain, the Surgeon Superintendent and the Head Matron. There were further allegations by one of the sub matrons Mrs Kelly of great improprieties in connection with the Captain and the Matron, and one of the girls Eliza Taafe was declared insane for reporting some of these alleged improprieties. Although these allegations were not proven there is no doubt that some of the girls aboard the Inconstant were badly treated and suffered sexual abuse. This happened onboard at least three ships which took part in the Earl Grey scheme, this despite an order from the authorities that the girls were to be cared for and treated with respect during the journeys. While in port 11 members of the crew were confined for disobedience that occurred during the voyage.

On the same day that the Inconstant arrived in Adelaide the following appeared in ‘The South Australian Gazette’.

“Applications will be received immediately for orphans expected by the Inconstant and applicants desirous of availing themselves of their services are requested to attend in person or by proxy on the second day after the arrival of the vessel at the office of the secretary native school. It is recommended that the orphans be removed immediately after the arrangements have been made.”

A few days later the following appeared in the local intelligence section of ‘The South Australian Register’.

On Monday evening an extraordinary procession was seen on the North Terrace Road. 10 drays fully laden with Irish female orphans and their luggage were seen moving along at a brisk pace towards the Native School location, where it is understood they will find temporary asylum. They all seemed warmly and comfortably clad and excited much sympathy.”

We know that most of the Irish girls that were aboard the Inconstant were hired by the colonists but unfortunately some were forced into prostitution and others may have had to resort to it in order to survive. This is borne out by the fact that sixteen of the girls who travelled on the ship were listed as prostitutes in the 1850 Government Register of Adelaide.  Nine girls were listed in the South Australian Government Register of Cases of Destitution.

The county and local addresses of the girls was registered when they boarded ship, they also registered the name and addresses of their first employers, which made tracing possible. In the case of the Inconstant, these practises were not observed. This meant, in the case of the Inconstant it was hard to trace the girl’s history after they arrived in Australia. We know with regards to the Inconstant, 5 were traced back to the North Dublin Workhouse and 7 to Parsonstown (Birr). 4 of the girls were traced by family historians.

Some of the Inconstant girls fell on hard times while others prospered and had good lives relative to their time. The Taafe sisters, Mary and Eliza is a good case in point. They were born in Edenderry, County Offaly. They were the daughters of Joseph Taafe and Ann Cameron. They were all admitted to the North Dublin workhouse in 1848. Both parents died of fever in the workhouse. The daughters travelled to Australia on the Inconstant as already mentioned Eliza was declared insane and her prospects in the colony could not have been great. In contrast Mary married Samuel Dunne and had 14 children. She died in her daughter Rosanna’s house in South Melbourne on June 12th 1923 and was buried in Brighton cemetery, Melbourne. She was 90 years old.

There is a lot more to be said about the fate of the girls who sailed from Ireland aboard the Inconstant and of all the girls who travelled on the Earl Grey Scheme, but space will not permit.

The fate of the Inconstant after it left Adelaide is worth recording. After repairs she left Australia on September 11th 1849 for Callao in Peru with 4 passengers and a cargo of 29 cases of Cavendish Tobacco, 20 skins and 6 cases of Alum. This was a very light cargo so the ship was carrying large stones in its hull for ballast. While sailing into Wellington Harbour in New Zealand in order to replenish the fresh water supplies the ship hit rocks at a place now called ‘Inconstant Point’. The damaged ship was towed to a beach and declared unfit to sail. She was then sold to Mr John Plimmer, an early pioneer who became known as ‘the Father of Wellington’. He had the ship towed into the harbour and docked there for use as a warehouse. The ship eventually became landlocked and was known a ‘Plimmer’s Ark’.  In 1883 the warehouse was demolished and the ships ribs were cut down so the National Mutual Life Association head office could be built on the site. In 1997 excavations were carried out at the now ‘Old Bank Arcade’ and remains of the Inconstant were found. Much of the wood was taken away for preservation but her bow is preserved underneath a glass floor. The Inconstant (601 tons) was built in Cape Breton Island in Canada in 1848 and in its short existence was part of the history of Canada, Ireland, England, Australia and New Zealand.

The young girls, who were part of the Earl Grey Scheme, despite the worst possible start and having to overcome prejudice, fear and hardship in Australia, mostly went on to play an important role in the building up of Australia and those who claim to be their descendants do so with great pride and a sense of honour.

Ger Lynch.