A Famine Orphan Girl - Margaret’s Story
My great great grandmother Margaret Maher was only 18 years old when she left the Roscrea Workhouse in 1850 to begin a new life in Australia. Her parents, Thomas and Elizabeth, were both dead and the only other family member in the records was a cousin, Patrick Maher, in Melbourne. Margaret was one of 4114 young women who were brought to Australia between 1848 and 1850 under the Earl Grey Scheme. This was a scheme introduced to both ease the overcrowding in Irish workhouses due to the famine and at the same time meet the needs in the colonies for domestic servants and wives, there being a considerable imbalance between the sexes at that time. 90 of those girls were from Roscrea workhouse, the fourth largest group after Dublin, Skibbereen and Enniskillen. (Ref. McClaughlin).
The girls selected were mostly between the ages of 14 and 18. Their passage was paid and they were given a trunk with a selection of clothing, probably more than they had previously owned. Most of the girls went to Sydney with others going to Melbourne and Adelaide. The scheme had much to offer for both the girls and the colonists but ended after only 3 years due largely to local opposition in the colonies. Much of this opposition was whipped up by local Protestant clergymen aided by some media and official depiction of the girls as poor character and “undesirable”. A detailed list of the girls who came in each ship can be found in Trevor McClaughlin’s book, Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish famine orphans in Australia. Where the information is available, McClaughlin has details of the employers and marriages of the girls.
Margaret travelled on the ship Maria arriving in Sydney on 1st August, 1850. On arrival the girls walked from the harbour up Macquarie Street to the Hyde Park Barracks. These barracks were built in 1817 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie to better manage the convicts. When transportation to New South Wales ended in 1847, the building became the Immigration Depot from 1848 to 1886. Apart from the orphan girls, many other women, sometimes with children, arrived needing somewhere to stay until they found employment or were collected by family. Caroline Chisholm, wife of an army officer, was influential in having a secure place for women and children to stay; she spent many years from about 1840 onward working to assist the new arrivals and even accompanied groups of women including some of the Irish orphan girls to their destinations in rural areas.
At Hyde Park Barracks the girls were housed in dormitories upstairs under strict supervision. Renovations in the 1970s revealed numerous items such as hair combs and pins, gloves, jewellery and sewing items which had dropped down between the cracks in the floorboards or had been taken by rats. Some of these are on display today. On the ground floor was the Hiring Room where colonists could interview and select servants on hiring days.
There is no information available about where Margaret was employed but it would appear to have been in the Port Stephens area, near Newcastle, about 200 k north of Sydney. Several years later, in 1854 or 1855, she married Edward Fallon at Muswellbrook, a town in that area. There is no official record of the marriage as civil registration only began in NSW in 1856 and no parish record has survived. What information I have is from the birth certificates of their 9 children: the 2 eldest give 1854 as the date of the marriage, the other 7 have 1855. Four of the latter give 28th April 1855 but all agree on Muswellbrook as the place. Their first child, John Fallon, was born on 2nd April, 1856, so either date could be correct.
Edward Fallon, a native of Athlone, was arrested in 1836 and, along with another man, charged with “stripping a sheep of 2½ lbs of wool”. He proclaimed his innocence but was found guilty and sentenced to 7 years’ transportation to New South Wales. He came on the Calcutta in 1837. As an agricultural labourer, he was assigned to the Australian Agricultural Company. This company had a massive land grant of 1 million acres in the Port Stephens area and were second only to the government in the number of convicts assigned. Edward obtained his Ticket-of -Leave in the minimum time of 5 years in 1842 and his Certificate of Freedom in 1844. A Ticket-of-Leave was similar to parole with some freedom but restrictions on a convict’s movements. He appears to have stayed in the same area when freed as shown by his marriage to Margaret at Muswellbrook and the birth of their first 6 children at Scott’s Flat nearby.
In 1859 Edward received a land grant of 73 acres at Nundle, about 100 k north of Muswellbrook. The family did not immediately move there as the births of their children up to 1863 are all at Scott’s Flat, but the last three are at Nundle.
Edward and Margaret had 9 children – John (1856), Edward (1857), Ellen (1858), Michael (1860), Anne (1861) and Thomas (1863), all born at Scott’s Flat, and Emily (1865), William (1866) and Jane (1868) born at Nundle. The eldest child, John, is my great grandfather. In 1880, John Fallon married Margaret Gallagher, the Australian born daughter of Michael Gallagher (according to his headstone “Native County Derry Ireland”) and Judith Fogarty from Templemore, Co. Tipperary. Andrew and Margaret Fogarty had arrived in Nundle with 7 of their 8 children in 1852. Judith was the 2nd eldest daughter. The eldest daughter, Brigid, followed in 1855. Nundle, now a small quiet town with one pub, was in 1860s and 1870s a booming mining area and Michael Gallagher was one of a number of innkeepers in the town. Thus were brought together a number of the Irish strands of my ancestry.
John and Margaret Fallon had 11 children; 2 little girls died in infancy and the last little boy died soon after birth. The 6th and middle child, Herbert James, was my grandfather. In 1918, he married Hazel Greacen, the granddaughter of John Greacen from Monaghan, Ireland (another Irish strand). Herbert and Hazel Fallon had 3 children – Noel, Roma (my mother) and Patricia.
Both Margaret Maher and Edward Fallon came to Australia due to circumstances beyond their control in their homeland, but were able to make a better life for themselves and their family. All 9 of their children had survived to adulthood. On his death in 1888, aged about 72, Edward owned the 73 acres of land at Nundle, 1 horse and harness, 4 head of cattle and items of furniture. He had the right to vote and had been on the electoral roll since 1870. Margaret Fallon, nee Maher, lived another 20 years and died aged 77 in 1908. Both are buried at Nundle. My granddaughter and my brother’s grandchildren are the 6th generation of their descendants in Australia.
In June 2017, on my fourth trip to Ireland, I stayed at Athlone for a week in order to visit some of the places linked to my ancestors. I do not have any family connections there today that I know of but I wanted to spend some time in Athlone and Roscrea. Thanks to generous assistance from Roscrea Heritage Society and Pamela Aitken in particular, I was able to visit the site of the Roscrea workhouse, now demolished and replaced by modern buildings. A memorial park has been established close by, featuring the stone arch of the entrance doorway of the old workhouse saved when the old building was demolished. Thus I was able to “stand in the footsteps of my great great grandmother” in that doorway.
Bull, Judy. The Convict and the Orphan Girl: a history of Edward Fallon and Margaret Maher and their descendants, a new life in a new country. Thesis prepared for the Society of Australian Genealogists’ Diploma in Family Historical Studies, 2009.
McClaughlin, Trevor. Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish famine orphans in Australia. Volume 2. Melbourne, The Genealogical Society of Victoria, 2001.
O’Connor, John. The Workhouses of Ireland: the fate of Ireland’s poor. Dublin, Anvil books, 1995.
Petition of Appeal of Edward Fallon, National Archives of Ireland, Dublin, 1837.
Website of the Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee Inc. www.irishfaminememorial.org
The Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee Inc.
The Great Irish Commemoration Committee (GIFCC) was established in Sydney in 1996 to build a memorial to commemorate the Great Irish Famine and the 4114 orphan girls who came to Australia as a result, inspired by a request from then Irish President Mary Robinson in 1995 to remember famine victims. The project was launched by Irish President Mary McAleese on 2nd September 1998 and unveiled by the Governor-General of Australia, Sir William Deane, on 28th August 1999. Hyde Park Barracks was selected as the site because of the building’s association with the girls.
The memorial stands in the grounds of Hyde Park Barracks and is partly built into the southern sandstone wall. A glass wall makes it visible from both sides and on this wall have been sandblasted the names of about 400 of the girls. Descendants of the girls were invited to put their names forward for this; unfortunately I was unaware of the memorial until some years later so was too late to nominate Margaret Maher. A memorial service is held on the last Sunday in August each year. There is Irish music, both national anthems, a keynote speaker and wreath laying both official by the Irish Consul-General and the committee and informal laying of flowers by descendants of the girls. I usually attend each year and bring flowers for Margaret. This is followed by refreshments (including Guinness) and more Irish music.
Hyde Park Barracks reopened in February 2020 after an extensive renovation and upgrade of the historical features. Unfortunately it is now closed due to the pandemic, but will open again when possible to do so.
The GIFCC has also decided to remember the girls in a practical way by establishing several projects for modern refugees:
- The Mamre project supports a program run by the Sisters of Mercy to help African refugees arriving in Australia.
- The Great Irish Famine Memorial prize at the University of Western Sydney is an annual award to a female UWS student who has come to Australia as a refugee and is committed to building a life and career here.
- An annual History award to a female student at Macquarie University, Sydney.
|Date of Birth||1832 (circa)|
|Date of Death||1908|
|Associated Building (s)||Roscrea Workhouse|