In 1864 John and Eliza Blanch opened the Royal Oak Hotel in Church Gully, near Uralla. But just 15 years before this Eliza Dooley was an orphan living in the Parsonstown Workhouse in the south of Ireland.
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 new book Earl Grey's Daughters tells the story of three of the successes. Including Eliza Blanch.
In 1850, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Henry Grey, had several issues on his plate, but the two that concern us linked Ireland and Australia. In 1850, Australia was suffering from a severe lack of women. The early settlers were mostly men. Men could advance themselves in the Australian colonies in a way that was impossible at home. Australia appealed to the young and adventurous. Young ladies in Victorian England were expected to be neither.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, the situation was reversed. There were tens of thousands of young girls languishing in its workhouses. In 1845, potato blight had attacked the Irish potato crop. Sometime in the summer of that year, the spores wafted across the Irish sea and drifted into the fields around Dublin.
Millions of spores settled on the leaves of healthy potato plants. Within a few days, they had travelled hundreds of kilometres on the breeze, infecting everything they touched. One third of the crop was affected. The next year, in 1846, almost the entire crop failed and deaths began to be reported. The disease retreated in 1847, but came back again in 1848 and 1849. Most of the crop failed in those two years.
The failure of the potato could have been no more than a footnote to the economic statistics of 1845. In that year, London, the navel of the world, could have propped up Ireland if politicians had willed it. They did not. Most English politicians had reached the conclusion that the Famine was the result of bad land management. Irish landowners were at fault; not the English administration or parliament's decisions. The greed of Irish aristocrats was to blame. And if it wasn't the Irish landlords' fault, then it was the fault of their tenants.
The potato failed and hunger became a presence among the Irish. It traumatised the nation. The evidence is in the population statistics. The census of 1841 recorded over eight million people. During the Famine years over a million excess deaths occurred. Another million emigrated. The number of Irish men living in Ireland fell by 22.9 per cent. The number of Irish women fell by 20.8 per cent. It's a small but telling difference in the overall mortality that will be important to our story later on.
One of those who emigrated was the heroine of Earl Grey's Daughters, Eliza Dooley from County Offaly. She was just 13 when the famine bit and she learned what real hunger is like.
As the Famine bit, the poor were caught in a cruel conundrum. Lack of food left them weak and less able to do hard physical work. They were thus less able to earn enough money to buy food. It also made them less angry. Violence peaked in 1847, when the Famine relented for a year, but hunger did not abate. A million people - including the Dooleys - were swept into a downward spiral; beaten and driven down like dogs. Then they came at last to that grim and terrible place: the portal of the workhouse.
Workhouses were the only form of government relief available to people like the Dooleys. They were designed so that conditions inside were worse than any conceivable option on the outside.
For each of them, the process was the same. Their dirty rags were stripped from them. Naked, they were washed and deloused. Those with long hair were shorn. They were put into workhouse uniform and then sent into the exercise yard. It was a world of pain.
Family members were separated in order to make the workhouse as unattractive as possible. Eliza never saw her parents, or her brothers, again.
So, as 1848 drifted to its close, she waited. They did not know it, but help was coming from the unlikeliest of sources. Miserable as it was, a place in the workhouse cost money. It was costing about £12 every year to keep them. But a ticket to Australia cost just £15.
The first she heard of it was when the matron came into the girl's dormitory and told them that anyone who wanted to go to Australia should wash themselves and be present in the office downstairs. They had no idea what the implications of 'going to Australia' might have been, but any break in the tedium of the day was probably welcome. In the event, about 50 girls stood in a row as a superannuated seaman from the Royal Navy, walked up and down.
'This one,' he said, pointing. 'That one.'
Things moved fast. The girls were taken by horse and dray to Dublin Port and, probably for the first time, they smelt the sea and heard the cawing of gulls.
Earl Grey, at least, was satisfied. He saved money at home, relieved pressure on the Irish workhouses, and addressed Australia's pressing lack of women, all at the same time.
In 1848, the British government began organising the systematic export of starving Irish children to Australia and South Africa. The Subraon, arrived in Sydney on 12 April 1848. She was a run-of-the-mill immigrant ship on which the commissioners had bought 63 passages. The first ship commissioned under the scheme was the Roman Emperor, which arrived in Adelaide on 26 October with 238 young women on board. The Earl Grey arrived in Sydney that October carrying 195. By 1850, 4000 girls had arrived.
When it became clear that the Earl Grey scheme was not just about paupers and not just about Irish paupers, and not even about female Irish paupers, but about Roman Catholic, female, Irish paupers, Sydney society was positively hysterical:
The Sydney Morning Herald thundered: "we saw no objection to a few hundred of them being shipped for these shores, but the thing has turned out altogether different. Instead of a few hundreds, the girls are coming out by thousands. Instead of more orphans, we are being inundated with Irish paupers".
It was all nonsense. The bare facts are that in 1848, 7885 migrants arrived in Sydney, of which a mere 1778 - Protestant and Catholic, men, women and children - were from Ireland. Almost all the girls who came to the Australian colonies under the Earl Grey Scheme over the next three years really were orphans. By and large they were well thought of by their employers. Colonial immigration schemes were not hijacked by the Famine. But no one in authority had a reason to defend the commissioners in London, the immigration agent in Sydney, or indeed the girls themselves. The bigots had the run of the media.
The result was an early termination of the project. 4000 girls made it, but in Ireland 104,000 children still languished in the workhouses.
Most of those girls who made it to Australia were lucky. And their luck continued to hold. The bigots in the SMH remained at their posts, but their voices were drowned out by the whoops and yells of those who had found gold. Just a year after the Earl Grey scheme ended -- in 1851 -- the first discoveries were made and the Australian economy exploded. Australian bank deposits increased five times in 1852 alone. Wages doubled.
The political establishment was hugely conflicted. Sure, they wanted to increase the population and they certainly wanted more wealth, but they also wanted to create a well-mannered underclass to support their aristocratic visions.
Instead, what they got was an army of determined people who believed they could improve their lot in life by the application of their own industry. For Eliza and her husband, that meant long hours behind the bar of their pub, the Royal Oak in Uralla, but every shilling that was passed over the counter belonged to them.
The battle between these two ideals played out in the second half of the 19th century. The footsoldiers in that battle form the most iconic parts of the vision Australians have of their own history - the diggers at Eureka, the swagmen, the bushrangers, the selector and the squatter.
Eliza and her clan interacted with them all. For instance, the great bushranger Thunderbolt was a regular at the Royal Oak, where Eliza pulled him a pint or two. Indeed, she handed him his final drink. As for swagmen, well, we know at least one of them actually died on the kitchen floor at the Royal Oak.
However, the big story of Eliza's life was undoubtedly the battle between the squatters and selectors that erupted in 1861 when John Robertson introduced the Land Reform Acts. The Acts tried to break up the huge runs of the squatters with selections. In truth, they were never as successful as Robertson had hoped. In many instances the blocks available were too small to provide a viable living for a man and his family. At the same time, they were too big for a single man to clear, sow and reap effectively. To make matters worse, the squatters fought a vigorous rear-guard action against their presumptuous neighbours.
Nevertheless, selections were available to those of limited means. Some, like Eliza and her husband, used the new laws to buy themselves a real stake in the future of the colony.
When she died in 1912, Eliza was worth over $2 million in today's money, most of it in land. It was quite a journey for a pennyless orphan who did not have enough money to feed herself.