Four thousand Irish orphan girls were shipped to Australia in the mid-19th century under the Earl Grey Scheme to work as servants. Many led wretched lives, marred by violence and abuse.
Jonathon Fairall's Earl Grey's Daughters, launched in Uralla this weekend, tells the story of three of the successes: Eliza Blanch (nee Dooley), and her sister and cousin.
Eliza ran the Royal Oak Hotel in Church Gully with her husband John from 1864, where their regulars included the notorious bushranger Captain Thunderbolt (Fred Ward).
Eliza came to Australia in 1850 at 19 as a penniless famine refugee; when she died in 1912, she was worth about $2 million in contemporary terms. Her legacy underwrote another half-century of family ownership of land in the region, Mr Fairall said, and many of their descendants still live around the region today.
"It's a typical 'migrant made good' story," Mr Fairall said, "but for people like her, Australia represented an incredible set of opportunities that simply weren't available at home."
The book will be launched at the McCrossin's Mill historical museum, Salisbury St, Uralla, at 2.30pm on Saturday.
Mr Fairall is a journalist and history writer. His wife Wendy Chapman is Eliza's great-great-great-grand-daughter.
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Eliza Dooley was born in Parsonstown (now Birr), southern Ireland, in 1832. Her parents died in the Great Famine that struck the country when a fungus ravaged the Irish potato crop. An estimated million people died of typhus or starvation; two million more emigrated, including Eliza, her sister Catherine, and their cousin Ellen.
At that time, Australia desperately needed women; in some parts of the country, there were 17 men for every woman. Henry, Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies, decided to bring destitute orphans out of Irish workhouses to the colony, where they would marry shepherds and agricultural workers, and alleviate the female shortage in the colony, Mr Fairall explained.
Their lives, though, were grim. They belonged to an Australian underclass, and many were raped, beaten up by their husbands, even murdered, or took their own lives.
"They didn't have anything when they arrived, and they had nothing when they died," Mr Fairall said. "They were nursemaids, scullery maids; that was their lot in life, and they weren't able to improve it."
Eliza was different; she thrived.
"She probably got off the boat without a single brass razoo in her pocket," Mr Fairall said. "She was fed, clothed, and housed, and she was probably incredibly grateful for that. She didn't have any spare cash at all, and she wound up owning half a dozen properties in Uralla."
Eliza also lived through the period when Australia was being formed: 1845-1900.
"Ultimately," Mr Fairall said, "the thing that really attracted me to Eliza's story was that [she and her husband] were able to take advantage of the changes that happened in those 50 years in order to advance themselves."
The gold rushes started in 1851, a year after Eliza arrived. In one year, bank holdings in Australia increased five times; and the population increased 10 times in a decade. Gold rushes and mining industry also created a viable domestic market for agricultural produce, Mr Fairall argued.
"Australia rode on the sheep's back," Mr Fairall said. "The importance of rural industry to the Australian economy didn't really start to decline until after the Second World War."
New England, already a grazing region, prospered, and its population hugely increased - many of them wanting a pub to drink or stay for the night. And some were on the wrong side of the law.
Eliza served Captain Thunderbolt his last beer on the day he died in 1870. The bushranger was drinking in the Royal Oak pub when the police 'traps' flew down from Armidale to capture him. Local legend, Mr Fairall said, has it that Eliza warned him the police were at hand; he tipsily leapt onto his horse, and rode off, chased by the young constable who shot him at Kentucky Creek.
On another occasion, a swagman died of starvation on their kitchen floor.
"Australia was a hugely conflicted place during those years," Mr Fairall said. "All of these characters that are part of the Australian iconography - the swagman, the bushranger, and the miner - played a role. But if you want to understand who they really were, not the myths, you have to understand politics and what was going on in that period of time."
The mid-19th century saw the first moves towards Australia's self-government. In 1853, the Legislative Assembly asked conservative politician William Wentworth to formulate a constutition for the country; he proposed a colonial peerage - a 'bunyip aristocracy' - with unelected seats in the Legislative Council for large landowners like himself.
Had Wentworth had his way, Mr Fairall argues, Australia would have ended up with a quasi-feudal society like Ireland, with a small landed aristocracy and a huge number of extremely poor peasants kept down by the army.
"People like Eliza and her husband John were going to be an underclass," Mr Fairall said.
But Australia was too big, and far away from Britain for such a system to work; and the colonists learnt to compromise.
Often with difficulty; the Land Reform Acts of the 1860s allowed poor people to select land out of the squatters' runs.
"In other words, it was state policy to take land away from the wealthy and give it to the poor," Mr Fairall said. "Just imagine that happening today; it was incredibly revolutionary!"
The squatters, though, found ways to make life difficult for the selectors, so they couldn't make an economic go of their selections. But, Mr Fairall said, ordinary hardscrabble people were able to aspire to a better life. It was, he believes, the beginnings of the Australian middle class: people who weren't fabulously wealthy, but who had enough money to control their own lives.
"Fifty years later, the Commonwealth of Australia was formed, and the prevailing ideology was that we were all going to get a slice of the pie," Mr Fairall said. "Nobody got exactly what they wanted, but everybody got a little bit: enough to become part of the project."