Scotlands History\|Scots and Australia

Orphan girls

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In the middle of the 19th century orphan girls and single ‘unprotected’ women were assisted to travel to Australia to find work and husbands.

The last convicts had left Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, transportation to New South Wales had ended and the convict dormitories had closed in early 1848.

Hyde Park Barracks became a Female Immigration Depot.

Between 1848 and 1886 thousands of single working-class Irish, English, Welsh and Scots girls and women arrived in Australia and were temporarily housed at Hyde Park Barracks.

The Australian colony had always had far more men than women. If the colony was going to survive it needed more women of child-bearing age. It was also thought that women would have a ‘civilising’ effect.

British and Irish workhouses were full of unmarried women and orphan girls. Many working-class women were unemployed and feared the workhouse. Wives of convicts wanted to travel to Australia to be reunited with their husbands. Some women were tempted by a new life in Australia as opinions changed and the colony was promoted as an attractive place to live.

There is an unlimited demand for wives of all ranks, from the shepherd to the gentleman squatter, with his 1,000 head of cattle, and 20,000 sheep. The Colonists, as a body, whether emigrants or native born, make good husbands, kind, indulgent, and generous. They are all rather rough in their language to each other, but no one ever heard of a Bushman beating his wife...

...The Bush huts have not generally been very comfortable: but there is no reason why they should not be as well built and furnished as in English farm houses. Young widows and orphans of small means will find themselves in reality much safer in an Australian town than in any of the great towns of Europe, better protected, and with better prospects.

(Sidney's Emigrant's Journal, 1848)

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Brad Manera, Head Curator, Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

Hyde Park Barracks was built as a convict barracks and when the convicts stopped coming in the 1840s, the building was vacant. No-one was sure what to do with it, but in the meantime the world took over, and particularly in Scotland’s case there were problems with the potato famine and it was almost as bad in Ireland; cholera outbreaks; the second generation of clearances. The poor were being thrown off their land; enormous social problems and social upheaval occurring in other parts of the world. And one of the answers was to send them somewhere else.

In Australia’s case because predominantly the convict population was male, they decided to take all the fit young girls from around the British Empire and send them to Australia. Where do you put them? Well, suddenly here’s this large barracks building in the centre of Sydney that’s vacant, and so Hyde Park Barracks became an immigration depot from 1848 until 1886.

Around about four thousand people came to the Australian colonies in those first few years; two and a half thousand of which came here to Hyde Park Barracks.

What they wanted to do was to gather up the poor girls out of the work houses and send them across the world to somewhere that they might find employment and indeed husbands. So the girls could be from 14 to 45. They considered 14 a marriageable age, and so a lot of these girls were barely in their teens and they came out here in shiploads, sometimes two or three hundred at a time, and their journey wasn’t that much different to that undertaken by the convicts. They were at sea for up to three months at a time, sometimes even longer, four months, living in very cramped and crowded conditions on the ship, so yeah, it was a pretty hard existence.

Then they got here, to New South Wales and they were marched up from the coast to Hyde Park Barracks and they lived here in pretty rough conditions, on hard iron beds, on fairly strict rations. And they were organised into messes, just like the convicts had been. These were large dormitories; austere, cold in winter, hot in summer, cramped and so there were packed in here and they slept here. And indeed, they spend most of their day here. The girls that were here didn’t tell us what their daily existence was like. We can only make guesses at just how boring it must have been; mundane food and rigid hours of when you can be awake and when you can sleep; rigid hours about how much tuition you’re allowed to take, how much you’re going to learn about needlework and similar jobs like that; a limited number of visitors. So many of them would make their own fun. We’ve found evidence underneath the floorboards of this place that they were able to smuggle in or make sort of secret purchases of fruit, you know, if they’d come from an urban area, in many cases in Britain, they would never have seen fresh fruit. But they come here to Australia and they were fascinated by peaches. So many of their diaries and so on talk about the availability of peaches, and underneath the floorboards we’ve found piles of peach seeds. They obviously bought them in by the bag load. And also, we’ve found evidence of games; dice and little gaming pieces that obviously they made their own fun.

If we were trying to look at a day in the life of an immigrant girl, then it began pretty early. They’d have to wake up, clean out their bedding, make everything orderly because they were going to be inspected. Then they were organised into groups of six or eight to go and have a meal and then the rest of their day would be structured around making themselves ready for the next hiring day and making sure their clothing was clean. They might have some instruction on needlework or domestic chores, but essentially they were getting ready to go out into the workforce. And then twice a week they’d have hiring days. And on hiring days there’d be an ad in the paper and those who’d applied for a female domestic servant would come and be given a number of girls to interview. And they’d take the ones that they wanted, if they were found acceptable. And they’d go from Sydney off into the bush. It could be to some remote outstation where they’d definitely be the only European woman for hundreds of kilometres in any direction.

It’s too easy to remember the migration period as a time of harsh treatment, of girls having to be confined by rules. They didn’t get to make their own decisions about what was going to happen to them. But if they were lucky enough to be employed, and most of them were, and most of them were employed very, very quickly after they arrived here, then their whole lives changed. It could be a lottery. They could be employed by some sort of ogre, who gave them all kinds of horrible things to do, but in most cases, we find these domestic servants marrying the people that they’re working for, and becoming part of the landed gentry of Australia. And generations later, their children are investigating those family stories, and they’re coming back here to Hyde Park Barracks to learn about where that story began.


The journey to Australia took around three months. The girls suffered from seasickness and were usually infested with lice. Rations were meagre and conditions were in many ways little better than they had been aboard the convict ships. Many girls fell ill; some died and were buried at sea.

At Hyde Park Barracks the women and girls were given food and a place to stay until they found employment or were reunited with their families.

Every week there were ‘hiring days’ when ladies would come to find a domestic servant from among the new arrivals. The women and girls became household servants, laundresses, maids, needlewomen, cooks and farm servants. Between hiring days they would practise needlework and other domestic skills, write letters and receive religious instruction.

Female Emigration headline

The immigrant women and girls would often hide things beneath the floorboards at Hyde Park Barracks. Rats, which infested the barracks, would also steal small items and add them to their nests. In the 20th century archaeologists investigating Hyde Park Barracks discovered all kinds of objects hidden under the floorboards and in the Barracks' walls:

  • Peach pits: immigrant girls had bags of fresh peaches, leaving the peach pits behind.
  • Needles and pins: found around fireplaces where women would huddle for warmth and light to sew.
  • Scraps of cloth: rats scavenged bits of cloth from women’s dresses, providing rare evidence of the type of material used to make working-class women’s clothes in the 19th century.
  • Children’s toys: a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, a toy man on a saddle, a spinning top, cups from a toy tea service and marbles were found under the floorboards. They had been lost by children 200 years ago as they waited for their families to be reunited.

The archaeologists at Hyde Park Barracks also found mummified rats under the floorboards.

Most of the girls and women that came to Australia as assisted single women found work and husbands. They became wives and mothers, and lived very different lives from the ones they left behind.