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From Wexford to The Cape: the search for 61 Famine emigrants

Historian Dr Ciarán Reilly looks at the circumstances which saw a total of 61 women make the journey from the workhouses of Wexford to a new life in Cape Town


Modern day Cape Town.

Modern day Cape Town.

An anti-convict protest in Cape Town on July 4, 1849

An anti-convict protest in Cape Town on July 4, 1849

Cape Town circa 1848

Cape Town circa 1848


Modern day Cape Town.


In the midst of the Great Famine, a total of 61 young women were sent from Wexford to Cape Town in South Africa. Their arduous journey was made as part of an assisted emigration programme aimed at relieving overcrowding in the workhouses, something which was increasing daily as the extent of the famine began to set in.

Historian in 19th and 20th Century History at NUI Maynooth Dr Ciarán Reilly has been looking at the type of life that would have faced these Wexford women as he aims uncover each of their stories and learn what became of them as they swapped the South East of Ireland for South Africa as well as looking at the evidence of a Wexford connection in Cape Town that lasts to this day.

'Although the Cape no Hope may bring, our tone we will not lower, For still in Table Bay we'll sing, we're Paddies evermore' (Wexford Independent, 29 Sept. 1849)

In May 1849, twenty young women from Wexford workhouse set off to Cape Town, South Africa, as part of the assisted emigration programme, known as the 'Earl Grey Orphan Scheme'. In total, more than 4,000 were shipped to Australia during the final years of the Irish Famine in this scheme, named after its principal architect, Henry, third Earl Grey, the secretary of state for the colonies in Lord John Russell's Whig government. The scheme was meant to relieve the overcrowding of the workhouses of Ireland which was daily increasing due to the Famine and also included the emigration of 61 young women from Wexford workhouse. What the Wexford girls did not realise was that they were sailing to the Cape of Good Hope in the middle of the Anti-Convict protests that dominated Cape society throughout 1849 and 1850.

In 1848 members of the British government proposed that convicts (mainly Irish) should be sent to the Cape of Good Hope, initially to help build the city's breakwater and other maritime projects and eventually to reside there. The plan met with widespread opposition and would engulf the Cape for more than eighteen months. In May 1849, as the emigrants assembled at Wexford workhouse for departure to the Cape, an Anti-Convict Association was formed and almost 5,000 people signed a petition against the establishment of a penal colony. On July 4, a further demonstration of public unity against the convicts took place in Cape Town. Despite the opposition, the plan to send 300 prisoners (mainly Irish and including the infamous John Mitchel) went ahead and the ship Neptune departed for Cape Town. Throughout 1849, Cape Town was described as being 'in a state of open rebellion' as the inhabitants awaited news from London about their petition. The Neptune and its prisoners waited in anchor for five months hoping to land in Cape Town but eventually departed in disappointment in February 1850. The episode deeply divided opinion at the Cape and pitted Irishmen on opposite sides including two influential players - Hamilton Ross of Galway and Robert Stanford of Mayo.

In March 1848, the issue of sending workhouse orphans to Van Diemen's Land or the Cape of Good Hope was first mooted by the Wexford and Enniscorthy Board of Guardians. Despite having a number of girls willing to undertake the voyage, the scheme was shelved as the particulars of the voyage were not yet clear. However, the plan was resurrected the following year with the destination chosen as the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa). The first batch, numbering twenty girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen were selected to leave Wexford Workhouse in early May. Many of them were from the Killurin area including Jane Kehoe, Mary Wall, Mary Carty and Jane Hawkins. Before their departure the girls were presented before the weekly meeting of the Wexford guardians where one of them, Catherine Brien, offered an address of thanks to the board for their benevolence in sending them to the Cape. She noted that: 'We shall look back and remember that to you we are indebted for the blessings and comforts we enjoy'. It is not known whether Brien actually read the address, or indeed if she could read. It is unlikely that she drafted it. Instead it looks as if the guardians prepared a speech which would reflect well on their benevolence.

To prepare for their safe arrival in Cape Town and to ensure that they were well attired in their search to find employment once they landed, the guardians provided £25 towards the cost of conveying the women to Plymouth. Accompanied by Catherine Furlong, the matron of the workhouse and Thomas Codd, the porter, each carried a specially made trunk. Clothes were commissioned for the emigrants by a number of local women including Catherine Rea and Mary Redmond who made day dresses, and Anne Butler who made them shoes. Their departure created a mini-industry around Wexford and certainly many benefited from the opportunity to supply the workhouse with these wares.

On May 8, 1849, the first group left Wexford for Plymouth via Dublin, where they travelled on the ship Royal Alice. Upon reaching Cape Town, Commander J. M. Hopper commended the émigrés, noting that 'their conduct throughout the long voyage, their good behaviour (never a word of complaint) and their attention to their own religious duties' was to be widely congratulated.

As a token of his esteem, the captain gave each of the women ten shillings to help them get settled in Cape Town, and later placed an advertisement in the newspaper Zuid Afrikaan in an effort to entice people to employ them. The success of this little-known scheme was helped by the fact that there were a number of Irish priests in Cape Town, including the Reverend Arthur McCarthy from County Wexford, who received the Wexford girls and secured employment for them, ensuring that they did not fall victim to the vices of the city. This was something that ultimately helped perceptions of their character, and most of them quickly found employment.

 It was important for the Wexford Board of Guardians that positive reports of the Cape filtered back to the workhouse and the local community, in the hope that it would encourage more to make the voyage. Typical of these complimentary references was that of Catherine Lynch, who wrote that the 'eating and drinking is very good, and the climate is delightful.'

Another of the passengers, Bridget Lynch, wrote glowingly of their situation, stating that five or six of the girls got employment in Cape Town, the rest going to other centres that were 'purely English in their habits and manners.' Lynch stated that 'on the whole I by no means regret coming to this place.' Employed as a dry nurse for one Mr. Watermayer in 'The Gardens' in Cape Town, Lynch had her own 'roomy bedroom' and was well looked after. As a result of these glowing reports, it was decided to send another thirty-two girls from the Wexford workhouse, but owing to the escalating troubles at the Cape, their departure was delayed.

In early 1850, they got going. Prior to their departure the girls were brought before the guardians where Mary Leonard spoke on behalf of the group remarking that 'we humbly hope, with the help of divine providence, that on a future day we shall have earned for ourselves the same high character bestowed on those who left this house. It shall be our highest ambition always to act in such a way as to gain respect in a foreign land for the model county of Ireland'. This second group, who departed in February, were not so lucky as the first group, and nearly all suffered from fever en-route Their arrival in Cape Town was muted given the fact that emigrants were expected to be free from disease and mental debility, and to possess industry and morality. Wishing to escape the obvious tensions that existed in Cape Town, as well as the anti-Irish rhetoric that abounded there, several of these women chose to settle in the district of Albany, in the Eastern Cape, which was, in their own words, 'more English than Cape Town,' which was dominated by the Dutch.

Just what became of these young Wexford girls thereafter remains unclear. This writer has begun the arduous task of finding them and uncovering their stories in the early 1850s in South Africa.

Where did these girls settle and what was their fate after their arrival? What evidence survives of them today and what impact did they make on South African society.?

South Africa may offer some clues: there are two Wexford Streets in Cape Town and a town called Dunbrody about 100km from Port Elizabeth. Perusing South African archives had also led to some success including finding details of the early demise of Catherine Curry who died in 1853, and conversely on Alice Kelly who lived to 1909. The challenge now is to find them all.