‘Perfect liberty and uproar’

A letter from a schoolmaster on the orphan ship John Knox offers a fascinating insight into life at sea for teenage girls emigrating to Sydney in 1850.

After his arrival in Sydney in April 1850, Thomas Frederick Fitzsimmons Jones, a Dublin-born music master from London, wrote a seven-page letter to the NSW Commissioners of Emigration. In it, he candidly describes the cheek, trouble and challenges he’d faced during the almost five-month voyage from Plymouth as he attempted to teach subjects including English and arithmetic to 279 teenage girls.

Irish orphans at sea

The girls, ranging in age from 14 to 20, were orphans, mostly from famine-ravaged Ireland. They’d been selected from workhouses to emigrate to Australia under the British Government’s Earl Grey scheme (1848–50). In total, 4114 young women would emigrate under this scheme; 2253 were sent to Sydney, where they passed through the Immigration Depot at the Hyde Park Barracks, then providing temporary accommodation and a hiring office for single female immigrants. The colony needed women, both as domestic servants and as wives and mothers, and the orphans, whose future at home was bleak, were chosen as the first batch to stay at the new depot.

The voyage to NSW on the ‘orphan ships’ represented a substantial period of time at sea. A matron was appointed to supervise the girls, and in a genuine attempt to improve the lives and prospects of emigrants, ships would also allocate a schoolmaster. Jones, a fellow passenger who was emigrating to NSW with his family, was probably chosen on the strength of his own education.

Ireland had had a national school system since the 1830s, and all instruction was carried out in English. However, attendance rates throughout the 19th century were low, particularly for girls. This was exacerbated during the famine years, when many of these girls would have been of school age, as children were often required to work on family farms or find jobs to survive. So while levels of education among assisted Irish emigrants to NSW were typically higher than those of the non-migrating population, the John Knox orphans were different – almost half of them were unable to read or write, at least in English. (It’s not known how many were able to read or write in Gaelic.)

A tough gig

Jones had his work cut out for him. Bad weather, cramped quarters below decks and rowdy teenage girls on the trip of a lifetime would challenge the most experienced classroom teacher to build rapport and maintain focus, let alone a ring-in.

The opening paragraph of Jones’s letter sets the tone:

Gentlemen – It is with regret that I am compelled to admit that the improvement in the Education of the Orphan Emigrants has been far, very far short of what in the commencement I expected.

Based on the ‘perfect liberty and uproar’ with which the girls conducted themselves, he gloomily predicted that they would never submit to a life of quiet domestic service.

Many of his frustrations – from student misbehaviour to lack of adequate resources – could be those of any teacher, at any school, at any time in history. Classes were supposed to begin at 10.30am, but

it was very seldom I could assemble [the students] before 12, for as fast as they were collected, they went below again, hiding behind their bedding in the dark corners of the ship.

Some better‑behaved students were appointed as monitors, but with little success. Jones singled out the girls from Cashel and Cork as being the most troublesome: ‘almost all refused to attend their studies’.

Jones complained that girls he knew could read refused to, some who said they could read had exaggerated their abilities, while others ‘were indignant at being offered books which they said they had gone through long before’. He also claimed that many of the schoolbooks were destroyed or given away to the sailors. He does allow that some of the girls ‘certainly learned to read, and others improved in arithmetic’. But he acknowledges that ‘it was owing to their desire to learn’ and not necessarily due to his interventions – intrinsic motivation, a teacher’s holy grail.

It’s clear that this situation was new territory for the music master. Not only was he unfamiliar with ‘schoolroom practice’, but we know from his letter that he’d based his approach to teaching the girls on an account by surgeon-superintendent Dr Colin Browning, who had devised a system of education for male convicts undergoing transportation. This was a rigid and disciplined approach, heavily religious, and probably not best applied to a group of free young women.

A contrasting perspective

Jones’s letter provides a rare insight into the experience of a schoolmaster at sea. Interestingly, his candid perspective contrasts with a widely published account from Charles Strutt, surgeon‑superintendent on another Earl Grey orphan ship, the Thomas Arbuthnot, which arrived in Sydney in February 1850. Strutt and numerous private passengers stated that the girls on this ship were attentive and well behaved, and that many worked hard to learn new skills.

But unlike Strutt’s account, Jones’s letter wasn’t intended for publication. As well as recommending shipboard improvements and complaining about the pressures he’d endured, Jones laid some blame for the girls’ behaviour at the feet of the surgeon-superintendent on the John Knox, Richard Greenup, claiming that Greenup wouldn’t administer the punishments he requested.

After receiving Jones’s letter, the commissioners sought Greenup’s response. In his reply, the surgeon‑superintendent spoke approvingly of the girls, and alluded to Jones’s insistence on ‘threatening grievous punishment’ for the slightest infraction, as well as his general temperament: ‘Had he been calmer these scenes would not have occurred … but how difficult it was for him to preserve his calmness always living in such a turmoil’.1

It seems Jones had lost the students’ respect. Greenup states that he and the ship’s captain frequently discussed how ‘we could keep Mr Jones’s consequence amongst the emigrants’ by reminding them of the great opportunity presented to be tutored by such a well-educated man: ‘we did what we could’. Meanwhile, what the Dubliner Jones described as the girls’ ‘impertinence’, Greenup – who hailed from Halifax in Yorkshire – put down to good-natured ‘Irish readiness of repartee’.

In the end, it’s Jones who comes out of this sparring match the worse for wear. No doubt the students caused some headaches, but perhaps with a more empathetic and experienced schoolmaster the daily task of instruction would have been less of a battle.


1. Letter from R Greenup, Surgeon-Superintendent on the John Knox, 17 May 1850, to the NSW Commissioners of Emigration, NSW State State Archives Collections, Museums of History NSW.

Marbling on page insert

Chaperone's diary of the 1857 Fitzjames voyage to Sydney

Matron Susan Austen, chaperone to 98 single females aboard the Fitzjames, kept a diary of the voyage, She recorded the dramas that unfolded: fights, theft, sea-sickness, tantrums & her own despair at their behaviour

Sketch of Sydney in 1842

Hyde Park Barracks

A brief overview of the Hyde Park Barracks and a list of convict-related record series

Published on 
Edward Washington

Edward Washington

Program Producer – Learning

Ed is part of the learning team, which provides curriculum-based programs to more than 60,000 students and teachers every year. In 2019 he was awarded the Ruth Pope research scholarship and travelled to the UK to investigate - Conflict, contested history and memory, and reconciliation in Ireland and Northern Ireland, through museums, heritage sites and community projects.He is passionate about using objects, place-based learning and personal stories to engage students in history and archaeology.

Irish female immigration

A reflection of the Hyde Park Barracks on the glass as part of 'An Gorta Mor', The Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine

Remembering the Great Irish Famine

The memorial was officially unveiled on 28 August 1999 by Governor-General Sir William Deane

Enough rope

More than a kilometre of rope suspended the hammocks required to sleep 600 or more convicts in the Hyde Park Barracks dormitories between 1819 and 1848

Long corridor with wooden floor, painted brick walls and wooden arches above, leading to backlit window at far end.

If these walls could talk: Hyde Park Barracks Museum

One of the most significant convict sites in the world, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Hyde Park Barracks was converted into Sydney’s female Immigration Depot in 1848, temporarily housing an estimated 40,000 women during its 38-year history. The barracks holds evidence of these former occupants in its walls, floors and ceilings