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Cecil Woodham-Smith, in her classic textbook, The Great Hunger, summed up the plight of Irish emigrants.

Very few of the Irish poor who fled Ireland were destined to achieve prosperity and success themselves.  The condition to which people had been reduced was too severe a handicap and it was the fate of Irish emigrants to be regarded with aversion and contempt.  It was not until the second or third generation that Irish intelligence, quickness of apprehension and wit asserted themselves and the children and grandchildren of the poor emigrants became successful in the countries of their adoption.”

In Thomas and Eliza Little we find a rare exception to this rule. Read below to read their inspiring story.

Thomas & Eliza Little

Their success was built on ambition and risk-taking but, more importantly, on love, kindness, and philanthropy. Their lives are remembered and documented by Stephen Lally who is a descendant of Thomas & Eliza who emigrated from Loughrea, County Galway in 1823. He not only describes the detail of their lives in Ireland, India and Western Australia but also offers insight in how this couple became so successful despite their humble beginnings.  

Life in Ireland

We find Thomas Little and his family in an 1821 census fragment, living in Carraroe, near Loughrea, Co.Galway. His father was a Protestant and his mother was a Catholic. They were not among the poorest in Irish society yet their family’s fortunes were clearly on a downward path. His father had a large house on 18 acres and his brothers and sisters were educated. Yet Thomas was a gardener and his brothers were unskilled labourers. In 1822 Galway suffered one of its frequent famines and it is likely that Thomas’ father lost his 18 acres at this time. 

Eliza Lally’s family is also in an 1821 census fragment, in Knockatogher, north of Loughrea. Her father rented only 6 acres so, with a three-generation family of about 14. Eliza’s family was dramatically broken up in July 1821 when her brother murdered his grandmother and they moved away. Thomas and Eliza married in about 1823. Both their families were facing disruption and decline and they were getting through another famine so they, and three brothers, took the bold and heart-breaking decision to leave Ireland. In mid-1823 they all joined the army of the Honourable East India Company.

A Move to India

The sea voyage to India took 4 months from Dartford to Calcutta and it was Eliza who suffered most. Only about 6% of recruits were allowed to take a wife with them as women were considered an unnecessary burden to a fighting force. Eight wives were given no separate accommodation and were crammed in with 200 men. Even at this time, reports described their conditions as appalling and a disgrace. 

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Image: East India Man 'Repulse' 1820

With the heat, strange diseases, poor cleanliness and lack of medical knowledge, the death rate among Europeans in India was incredibly high. None of Thomas’ and Eliza’s three brothers lived to see their thirtieth birthday and this was quite normal. The service record of every soldier is available in annual reports held in the British Library so it is possible to trace their lives, deaths, promotions and locations. Much of a soldier’s time was spent on the march, traveling perhaps 800 miles at twelve miles a day, along with a vast caravan of support servants; cooks, tent erectors, water carriers, and elephants, camels, buffaloes and carts.

Thomas rose quickly from the ranks moving on to the Public Works Department. He acquired the social graces, educated conversations and style to achieve this. India, at this time, was a place where distinctions of race or religion mattered less than at home. Being Irish mattered more than being Catholic or Protestant. Thomas worked with wealthy British, Hindus, Muslims and Europeans of many nationalities as equals. In 1837 he was entrusted with an enormous amount of money by Charles Prinsep, one of the most important people in British India, and he sailed with Eliza, two surviving sons, an adopted daughter and a ship full of servants and equipment to the fledgling colony of Western Australia to invest this money in a horse breeding and farming venture.

Making a Home in Western Australia

In the tiny colony of Western Australia Thomas and Eliza came into their own. It is here that they are still remembered and their lives are recorded in the memoirs of their friends and business associates and in the newspapers of the day, now available on line. Thomas bought land for Charles Prinsep and set up in business for him about 100 miles south of Perth. As was normal in India and Australia, after a few years he was making investments of his own and eventually left Prinsep to build his own grand house and his own business. It is fascinating to follow how the early settlers grasped every opportunity to carve out a living. Thomas branched out into fruit, vegetables, figs and other crops but it was wine making that was his greatest achievement. He was also involved in other ventures such as timber exporting. He was an instigator of horse racing locally and became a Justice of the Peace.

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Image: Sketch of Perth Crop 1856

Unlike India, many of the key people in Western Australia had brought their British prejudices with them, particularly against the Irish and Catholics. When the family arrived there was no Catholic church, or even a priest, in Western Australia. This did not stop Thomas and Eliza from standing up for the poor, most of whom were Irish. They encouraged the arrival of the Sisters of Mercy from Dublin and supported them in their struggle to help poor Irish and aborigines.When ship-loads of Irish girls from workhouses, such as that at Mountbellew in Co. Galway, arrived they were greeted with horror by the leaders of society who thought they would pollute the young men with their Papist doctrines. Thomas and Eliza actively supported the girls and one of their sons married one.

Read more about Mountbellew Orphan Girls

During the famine years Thomas and Eliza, who had by now built up a sizeable landholding, offered 100 acres each to Irish immigrants to get them started. It was in acts like this that Eliza shone, publicly showing her support, in defiance of any criticism. They were very active in the development of the Catholic Church, being the principal contributors to the building of the first such church and school outside an urban centre. The first priest lived with them as there was no church house for him. Thomas was involved in the appointment of Bishops and the Catholic Bishop of All Australia stayed at their house for several weeks. One of the chroniclers of life at that time was Rev Wollaston, the Anglican priest who was a great friend of the Littles. 

Read more about how the Famine affected your County of Origin

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Image: View of Koombana Bay 1840

The sudden death of Eliza in 1866 may have been caused by the stress of their financial difficulties brought on by two years of drought, sandstorms and crop diseases. This was followed in 1869 by the death of a son. 1870 saw the onset of a world economic depression which, for example, saw the price of a good horse in Australia fall from £30 to £5. Thomas was forced to apply for poor relief, along with most of the community of Irish he had built up in his area, but it was refused as many of them owed him money. Of course, they couldn’t pay and he refused to demand it as they were all in the same plight. The church that Thomas and Eliza contributed so much to is now the Thomas Little Memorial Hall, in memory of a founding father, and mother, of Australia.

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Image: Thomas Little Memorial Hall

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Stephen Lally's book Irish Pioneers in India and Western Australia 1797-1877 is the second of Stephen's Lallys stories of Irish emigrants in his family. 

The book is available on Amazon, worldwide searchable by title or author, ie. Thomas & Eliza Little, Irish Pioneers in India and Western Australia, 1797 - 1877, by Stephen Lally.

The IBAN everywhere but Australia / NZ is    9798831486698

The IBAN in Australia/ NZ is    9798834274728  



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