Trevor McClaughlin Reveals the History of the Belfast Girls

Belfast Girls in History

There is a historical basis to Jaki McCarrick’s play, Belfast Girls�

At the height of the Great Irish Famine the British government decided to send young adolescent female orphans to Australia from Irish workhouses. They were to meet the demand for domestic servants and to help balance the sexes.

The first vessel to arrive in Port Jackson, the Earl Grey, carried the notorious ‘Belfast girls’. On arrival, the Surgeon Superintendent Henry Grattan Douglass complained bitterly of the uncontrollable, potty-mouthed Belfasters, and recommended they not be allowed to disembark in Sydney.  (More than forty orphans were forwarded by steamer to Maitland and Moreton Bay).

At the ensuing Enquiry, Surgeon Douglass, Master of the vessel, Captain Alexander Robertson, and Matron Maria Cooper presented a united front.  Here are some extracts from the report.

Dr Douglass described the ‘Belfasters’ as foul-mouthed prostitutes; some of whom were married women; some had had children; and some were guilty of sexually transmitting disease.

Douglass asserted,

  • at least, two of the so-called orphans were married women who had run away from their husbands
  • they frequently and openly charged each other with being public women
  • two or three of them said they gave disease to various persons
  • they used the most abominable language, and actually fought with each other
  • It was reported to me, by my constables, that in the quarrels that took place, the women frequently charged each other with having had children; all…I can speak to from my personal observation is, that they were…addicted to stealing, and to using the most obscene and gross language
  • several of them constantly asked the men for alcohol.

Maria Cooper told the committee of enquiry,

  • about a third of the orphans were very disorderly
  • their language was exceedingly bad, profane beyond description and obscene
  • the girls from the various parts …invariably kept together. For instance, the Banbridge girls would not think of associating with the Belfast girls
  • with many of them, there was a confirmed habit of pilfering; they were constantly taking each other’s clothes

Captain Robertson when questioned, replied,

  • There were some very bad characters among them, who were bad before they came on board
  • they were constantly swearing, and using the obscene language that you hear from low women
  • the girls from Belfast are decidedly the worst, coming from a town where I suppose they have been upon the streets
  • there was petty thieving, such as taking each other’s stockings, handkerchiefs and articles of apparel. They would say somebody had stolen their clothes, and therefore they had the right to take the clothes of others.
  • we had great difficulty in getting one of them up the poop ladder.

Either Catherine Graham (16 yo from Belfast, to Moreton Bay) or Catherine McCann (17 yo from Belfast, to Maitland) was sent up the poop where she was verbally abused, reviled and mocked by everyone else.

There may not have been a young woman hauled up the mainmast of the Earl Grey. But just a few months before, young Dorcas Newman, from a Dublin Charitable Institution, had a rope tied around her middle and she was hoisted to the top of the mainmast of the Subraon. Sadly, Dorcas’s love affair with the Chief Mate ended in tragedy. She became pregnant, had a miscarriage, and died.

Jaki’s play may I suggest is less about being historically accurate than making a statement about contemporary issues? I imagine each production in Ireland, England, America and Australia, will emphasize different aspects of this very important play. Highlands Theatre Group, Break a leg!

For more information, please visit Trevor’s site.

Belfast Girls opens 18th of May 8pm at the Mittagong Playhouse.  Get your tickets here.

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