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Irish Women and Children Transported to Australia as Convicts

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L.M.Reid is an Irish writer who has published many history articles online and in magazines.

Female convicts on their way to Australia

Female convicts on their way to Australia

Irish Prisoners on John Calvin Convict Ship

Children as young as 12 years old were among Irish female convicts in 1848. They had been sentenced to at least seven years transportation and imprisonment to Australia. This is the story of some of those Irish women and children. It follows a few of them from their conviction and incarceration in Grangegorman Prison in Dublin 7 Ireland, where they wait to board the convict ship.

I explain what happened to them when they arrived in Australia as convicts. How they were treated and their eventual release. I have traced some of these women's descendants and have family trees dating right up to the present day.

Young Irish Children Transported To Australia

The four youngest prisoners were each sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia were:

1. Mary Ryan

  • Age: 12
  • Crime: Larceny
  • Convicted in Waterford

2. Mary Jane Movraw

  • Age: 14
  • Crime: Larceny
  • Convicted in Antrim

3. Bridget Haughegan

  • Age: 15
  • Crime: Larceny
  • Convicted in Galway

4. Margaret McConnell

  • Age: 15
  • Crime: Larceny
  • Convicted in Down

Women and Children Convicts

They had to spend three months at Grangegorman Female Penitentiary in Dublin 7 before they were transported. The centralization of all these convicts was necessary at the time. The authorities in Australia had complained to the British Government.

Most of the Female Convicts Lacked Job Skills

They had reported that the female convicts who had already arrived at Hobart had no skills and therefore had no way of supporting themselves. So the British Government decided to gather up all the female convicts who had been sentenced to transportation and were in prisons all over Ireland.

Irish women and children were transported to Australia as convicts from this building in Dublin Ireland

Irish women and children were transported to Australia as convicts from this building in Dublin Ireland

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Grangegorman Female Penitentiary

They were all sent to the prison in Grangegorman in Dublin where they had to spend three months learning skills that would make them employable once they were transported.

They were to be trained in skills that would allow them to be sent out to work for the free settlers in Australia as part of their sentence. This rule applied to young children under sentence too. About fifty cells were used exclusively for these convicts. They did not mix with ordinary prisoners. They exercised and ate separately.

Training of Women and Children

Their training consisted of sewing, knitting, cooking and laundry service. It was designed to give them the skills needed by them when they would arrive in Australia as convicts and be assigned work duties as house servants.

Up till then the women were put in the jails in Australia and left there for years because they were not capable of outside work. The free settlers would not take them on. This was costing the Australian Authorities out in Hobart a lot of money because the convicts had to be housed, fed and guarded in the prisons.

Original record book of Irish female convicts

Original record book of Irish female convicts

The Starvation Years of 1845 to 1848

During the years of 1845 to 1848 the influx of country people to the cities was enormous. They were starving to death all over the country so came to Dublin to beg on the streets. The stable food of the Irish poor was the potato. When disease hit this crop they had nothing to eat. While all over Ireland there were crops of grains and vegetables which were transported to England at gun point.

The British government brought out a Vagrancy Law which made begging illegal. Others were stealing food and livestock to survive. If they got caught they knew at least they would be fed in prison. The daily diet of the prisoners before the famine was not good.

The normal prison food was:

Male Adults

  • Breakfast: 8 oz of oatmeal in stirabout and 1/2 pint milk.
  • Dinner: 14 oz of bread and 1 pint of milk.
  • Supper: 6 oz of bread and 1/2 pint milk.

3 times a week they got 3 lbs. of potatoes instead of bread. The women and children got slightly less than the men. Once the famine started and potatoes were in short supply, the prisoners were given substitutes. The prison system in Ireland could not cope; there was overcrowding and the cost of keeping the prisoners in jail was too high.

In order to deter the people from committing crimes so that they could get imprisoned and fed, the food rations were drastically reduced. This had no effect on the numbers; all it did was create more misery for the inmates and save the government on the food bill. Something had to be done, so sentences of seven years or more of transportation to Australia was increased.

Irish Famine Memorial in Dublin Ireland

Irish Famine Memorial in Dublin Ireland

The Convict Ship The John Calvin

In 1848, there were 171 female prisoners and their children who left the Grangegorman Female Penitentiary in Stoneybatter and boarded the convict ship the ‘John Calvin.’ It left Ireland on 22nd January 1848 and arrived in Hobart Town, Van Diemen's Land ( now Tasmania) on 18th May 1848. Also on board were free settlers who were to join their relatives already out in Australia.

They were Daniel Kelly, his wife and five children. Mrs Heats and her three children. Mrs Finerty, with one child. A Matron for the convicts, Mrs Sproule and her 5 year old child, were also on board.

Grangegorman Female Penitentiary in Dublin Ireland

Grangegorman Female Penitentiary in Dublin Ireland

Transportation to Australia in 1788

The Banishment Act came into force in 1716. This allowed the British Government to transport convicted prisoners of both England and Ireland wherever they chose. At first the convicts were sent to penal colonies in America. The American War of Independence soon put a stop to this in 1776.

By 1848, punishment for petty crimes were now at least seven years transportation to Australia. Age of the convicted prisoner did not encourage the courts to be lenient. Children as well as adults received these sentences.

Potatoes for the Convict Ship The John Calvin

After three years of the famine food rations for the journey were low and hard to come by. There was a frantic rush of correspondence between Dublin Castle and the authorities as to the purchase of ten tons of potatoes for the voyage on the ‘John Calvin.’

In a letter dated January 13th 1848, T.M. Redington, the Under Secretary for Ireland wrote to Mr R. Tully telling him that potatoes could not be obtained except at the high price of £120 to £140. He informed him that the potatoes were to be substituted by farinaceous food. Lieutenant Tully had already bought the potatoes and wrote to Redington to tell him so. Redington replied to him the same day.

Dublin Castle, 17th Jan 1848

Lieutenant Tully Sir

I have to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 17th instant and beg to acquaint you that as seven tons of potatoes have been already shipped and the remainder has been purchased the Lord Lieutenant considers that under present circumstances you should proceed to carry out the direction of the Admiralty.

T.M.Redington.

Irish women and children waiting to board a convict ship that would transport them to Australia

Irish women and children waiting to board a convict ship that would transport them to Australia

Mrs Sproule to be Matron

So the female convicts on the John Calvin got their potatoes in spite of the famine. On 9th November it was also requested to D Le Marchant that 170 suits of women's clothing be purchased, with 20 suits of girls clothing, two sizes, and 20 suits of boys clothing, two sizes. This was to be used by the convicts on the John Calvin. A matron for the convict ship was also appointed.

Dublin Castle Jan 19th 1848

The Governor of the Convict Depot Grangegorman Lane Dublin. Sir I am directed by the Lord Lieutenant to acquaint you that His Excellency has been pleased to appoint Mrs Sproule to be Matron of the convict ship, John Calvin. Her appointment to date from 5th instant. His Excellency deems that a sum of ten pounds may be advanced to purchase necessities for the voyage and the remainder of the gratuity of £30 may be placed in the hands of the Surgeon of the ship, (taking his receipt for same,) to be handed to Mrs Sproule on arrival at Hobart Town.

Except when circumstances should have occurred during the voyage which would call for an inquiry, when it is to be placed in the hands of the Governor of the Colony. His Excellency has also been pleased to permit Mrs Sproule's child, aged 5 years to accompany her.

I am yours T.M. Redington.

They Arrived at Hobart Town on 18th May 1848

The convict ship, the John Calvin left Kingstown on 22nd January 1848 with the female convicts on board. Their journey to Australia had begun. They arrived at Hobart Town on 18th May 1848. There were no deaths among the convicts. After spending three months at Grangegorman Female Penitentiary they had sufficient training to be sent out to work in the houses as servants.

This was a great improvement for the convicts and the Free Settlers who used them. When the first shipments of female convicts arrived they were not fit to work for the free settlers.

By 1848 the Probation System was in place in Australia. So the convict women had to spend six months on board the converted hulk, the Anson. They were then able to contracted out to work to the local colonists.


Gaol in Hobart.

Gaol in Hobart.

Nuns Come to Australia to Help The Women

In 1836, Dr John Polding, then Vicar - Apostolic of New Holland, and later Archbishop of Sydney, wrote to Mother Mary Aikenhead in Dublin asking her to consider sending out some of her nuns to Australia.

He visited Europe in 1837 and went to see her. He explained the terrible conditions that the convicts were living in, giving her a pamphlet entitled, ' The Catholic Mission in Australia.' It outlined the spiritual deprivation, misery and cruelty that they were experiencing.

Sisters of Charity

Mother Aikenhead circulated this pamphlet to her convents in the hope of getting volunteers to make the journey. There were five nuns who were eager to go. They were Sister M John Cahill, Sister M Francis de Sales, Sister M Laurence Cator, Sister M Xavier Williams and Sister M Baptist de Lacey. They brought with them a copy of their Constitutions, all the exhortations, spiritual papers; alter linen, vestments and plenty of books.

They left Kingstown for London. After a brief delay they left Gravesend on the ship ' Sir Francis Spaight ' for Sydney Australia on August 8th 1838. Doctor Ullathorne was on board and it was agreed that he would take charge of the Sisters for the duration of the journey.

Arrival in Australia

Also making the trip were three Catholic priests and five Ecclesiastical students. It took four months to get to Sydney; they arrived on 31st December 1838. The next day, 1st January 1839, Mass was celebrated in St Mary's Cathedral with the nuns and priests at the alter. Everyone was delighted to see them and they received a great welcome. The nuns stayed at Polding's house for a few weeks, then took up residence in Parramatta.

The Female Factory Prison in Australia

The female prison housed approximately eight hundred convict women and three hundred convict children. It was known locally as the ' Female Factory'. When the nuns first entered the prison the women were disrespectful to them, swearing and fighting all the time. The ' hard labour ' they were forced to do did not help the situation. They spent their time breaking stones and sawing wood.

The Nuns Were Shocked

But they soon set about changing things for the better. Five mornings and evenings a week they came to the prison to read and pray with the women. Each nun sat on a chair in the yard with her own group of prisoners sitting on the floor around her. She spoke to them with respect and listened to them.

After a very short time the women's attitude changed dramatically towards the nuns and the prison authorities. Soon the swearing and fighting stopped. The only priest responsible for visits had earlier refused to enter certain parts of the prison because of the abuse he received. Now he had to get another priest in to help him because so many of the women wanted confession and communion.

The Governor of the Colony George Gipps

The nuns of the Sisters of Charity needed to get the Governor of the Colony George Gipps, to agree to open a laundry and a needlework room. Mother Mary John and Sister Mary Baptist made an appointment to see him. He assumed they had come to ask for payment for the work they were doing in the prison.

They refused any wages and instead asked permission to change the working conditions of the women. The Governor was already impressed by reports he had received from the prison and readily agreed. Both laundry and needlework was taken in from outside and proper employment began.

With the women's behaviour improved and their training in laundry and needlework they were equipped to be sent out into the community as servants and housemaids.Only about two thirds of the women were Catholics, but a lot of the others soon wanted to be converted.

The Female Factory Closed Down

The nuns also visited the men's prison, especially the condemned cells. They were sometimes told not to visit certain prisoners as they were too dangerous and their safety could not be guaranteed. The nuns went to all the prisoners and they were never attacked. They went to the women's hospital once a day and paid regular visits to the poor in their homes. On 13th June 1847 three of the nuns from the Sisters of Charity left Parramatta for Hobart Town, Tasmania.

They also visited the children at the Orphan School in Parramatta, Sydney. The following year the Female Factory closed down. The remaining Sisters along with new novices went to Sydney Town where they received as a donation. a mansion overlooking Sydney Harbour.

St Vincent's Hospital

They turned this building into St Vincent's Hospital in 1857. They went on to open more convents, hospitals and schools all over Australia. St Joseph's Convent in Hobart Town was opened in 1847, a year before the women convicts arrived there on the ‘John Calvin’ Convict Ship on 18th May 1848.

Prison Details Catherine Cuddihy

Prison Details Catherine Cuddihy

Bridget Cuddihy and Family

A mother and her three daughters all sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia. Four convicts who arrived that day were related. Bridget Cuddihy was a widow and fifty years old. She was sentenced to seven years for sheep stealing.

Her three daughters were also convicted of the same crime, each of them receiving seven years. They were, Honora Cuddihy, aged twenty three, Mary Cuddihy, aged eighteen and Catherine Cuddihy, aged seventeen.

Usually if prisoners felt their sentences were too harsh they sent a petition to the authorities. Neither Bridget Cuddihy or any of her Daughters Applied for Leniency. They had been left in Ireland during the famine years with no means of support.

Bridget's son Daniel had been transported to Australia five years earlier. He had been found guilty of burglary and assault. It is possible that rather than die of starvation in Ireland the Cuddihy women decided to be convicted of a crime to get transported to Australia.

The Petition Failed

Daniel Cuddihy was twenty four years old when he was found guilty along with John and Michael Seymour in Nenagh on 2nd August 1843. All three received a sentence of fourteen years transportation. From the petition they sent to the Lord Lieutenant, Earl De Grey explaining the evidence produced in court, a miscarriage of justice is likely.

The three men were accused of entering a house and attacking the owner, a Mr Pat Conroy. In court the policeman who arrested the men stated that only three quarters of an hour after the assault was reported, he went to the house of the three accused. There he found the men asleep in bed.

No Sign of Blood or Dirt

Mr Minogue a so called witness to the assault was so obviously lying that the judge ordered that he be arrested as he left the court and be charged with perjury. It was also stated in court that the ' victim, ‘Mr Conroy had a grudge against the two brothers John and Michael.

He was reported to have threatened them with false accusations if he ever got the chance. The jury brought in a verdict of guilty with out leaving the jury box. Also in the petition Daniel Cuddihy stated that his widowed mother and sisters relied on him for support and were now in a deplorable state while he was in prison. The Petition failed and the three men were transported to Australia

Cuddihy Family Tree

Bridget Cuddihy had been a widow for thirteen years when she was transported. Four years after arriving in Australia as a convict she married Thomas Barr on 25th October 1852 in St Joseph's church in Hobart. He was also a convict and fifty two years old. Bridget died when she was sixty three in hospital from complications due to diarrhoea. Honora Cuddihy married John Early three years after arriving in Australia as a convict on 13th October 1851 in St Joseph's church in Hobart. He was twenty eight years old and also a convict, but worked as a boot maker. They had two children. Anne was born in 1852 and Bridget in 1854.

Mary Cuddihy married Mathew Hares ten years after arriving in Australia as a convict in 1858 in Emu Bay, just outside Hobart. Their first child Robert was born in 1858 and they had three more sons and a daughter.

Certificate of Release

Catherine Cuddihy had a son, William four years after arriving in Australia as a convict in April 1852. She married his father, Thomas Kilroe in August 1852. She had nine children, six sons and three daughters.

James was born in January 1854, then Richard in February 1855 who was stillborn and Margaret was born in September 1856. On 29th April 1858 she got her Certificate of Release. Why she served ten years and not the seven she was sentenced to is unclear.

She was Now Free

She immediately placed her three children, Joseph age six, James age four and Margaret age nineteen months into Queen's Orphanage in Hobart. Six months later she picked up Margaret and collected the two boys in December of that year and she was pregnant again.

Ambrose was born in June 1859. The following year James died at the age of six from water on the brain. Thomas was born in November 1861, then Mary Ann in December 1863, Theresa in December 1866 and Robert in August 1870.