Where There's a Will...

'Rosie the Riveter;' J. Howard Miller (1918–2004), artist employed by Westinghouse, poster used by the War Production Coordinating Committee. Copyright creative commons 

Week 9 of the #52ancestors challenge is 'Where There's a Will...' Like most people I originally interpreted this as a legal will, or as an ancestor named Will. However, Amy Johnson Crow (the person behind the 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge) mentioned possibly talking about a person who was strong willed; an ancestor that possessed a lot of character. So today I am writing about Catherine Devitt, my third great-grandmother.

Martin Devitt, labourer and his wife Ann Campbell welcomed a daughter named Catherine in 1836. At the time, they were living in a small town called Milltown Malbay, located in the heart of Kilfarboy, in County Clare, Ireland.


Location of Miltown Malbay in County Clare, Ireland. Source: Google Maps

Miltown Malbay once had five mills, with the growing town being referred to as ‘POLL A MHUILLIN’ meaning “The Town of the Mill” or Milltown. In 1837, the town had 133 houses and 726 inhabitants, many of whom were evicted by the unpopular landlords, The Morony’s, during the Great Hunger or Great Famine - a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration in Ireland between 1845 and 1852.[1]


Main Street, Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare. Photographer: Robert French, c.1865-1914. Source: National Library of Ireland


The potato was a staple crop in Ireland as it was hardy, nutritious and calorie-dense, and was able to grow easily in Irish soil. By the early 1840s, almost half of Ireland's population (primarily the rural poor) relied heavily on potatoes as a source of income and subsistence. Ireland's heavy dependence on just one or two high-yielding types of potato left them vulnerable to famine in the event of the decimation of a whole crop. 

In 1845, two events occured which created the perfect environment for catastrophe. Firstly the country experienced a period of unusually cool weather, which left the soil very wet and waterlogged. Secondly, a strain of 'blight' - a disease which destroys the leaves and edible roots of potatoes caused by the mold Phytophthora Infestans - arrived from North America. The cool, moist weather allowed the blight to thrive leading to partial crop failure, with more devastating failures in subsequent years until 1849.

The British government allowed corn (maize) to be imported from North America which helped avert some starvation but on the whole their relief effort was inadequate. A change of leadership in the British government also saw a change in the relief provided; from not enough to non-existent. The new government shifted the emphasis from relief efforts to a heavier reliance on Irish resources. The financial burden was thrown upon Irish and absentee British landowners. However when the peasantry couldn't pay rent, landowners ran out of funds to support their tenants. Hundreds of thousands of Irish tenant farmers and labourers were evicted. Given that Catherine's father Martin was a farmer and labourer, it is an almost certainty that he and his family would have been evicted from their home as well. As with the British poor laws in England, an able-bodied man and his family would've been sent to the workhouse.

Famine memorial in Custom House Quay, Dublin. Created by artist Rowan Gillespie. Source: https://irishfaminememorials.com/2014/01/16/dublin-co-dublin-1997/

By August 1845, 3 million people were receiving rations at soup kitchens. Ireland's population of 8.4 million in 1844 had fallen to 6.6 million by 1851. One million people had died from starvation or typhus or other famine related diseases. The number of Irish who immigrated may have reached 2 million. The population continued to decline in following years due to overseas emigration and lower birth rates. With the number of agricultural labourers and smallholders in Western and Southwestern counties undergoing drastic decline, men and women alike were leaving their families behind in search of a better life.

On 9 March 1855 at the age of 20 years old, Catherine departed Liverpool, England as an Assisted Immigrant aboard the Hotspur. Her occupation was listed as a Domestic servant who could neither read nor write. Life at sea was often dangerous and hazardous particularly for those who travelled cheaply in steerage, the lowest deck located below the waterline. Storms were common in the Southern Ocean, and during bad weather ‘batten down the hatches’ meant that those in steerage would be confined without ventilation or light, conditions which were ideal for the spread of disease. Hygiene was poor at the best of times and even worse during bad weather. The use of candles or oil lanterns were restricted and sometimes forbidden due to the amount of wood, hemp and tar present on the ships.[2]


Example of steerage conditions about immigration vessels bound for Australia. Source: Illustrated London News, August 1850. 

Catherine spent 108 days in these awful conditions, braving the perilous seas in search of a better life. Her journey would have been made even more unpleasant given that she was two months pregnant at the time. It is speculated that this is the reason for Catherine’s journey to Australia. Given that she was from a Roman Catholic family and unmarried at the time, it is possible that Catherine’s departure was a result of forced emigration.


Emigrants Landing at the Queen's Wharf, Melbourne. Artist: Nicholas Chevalier, Engraver: Frederick Groose. Source: National Library of Australia.

Catherine finally arrived in Hobson’s Bay on 25 June 1855, along with 419 other Government immigrants, as brought across by agents, Bright Brothers and Co.[3] According to a Government report, the Irish immigrants aboard the Hotspur were ill-selected and badly suited for the Colony.[4] Catherine, along with any other single females who did not have family or friends to stay with, would have been transported to the Melbourne Immigration Depot on La-Trobe Street. It is here that all single females arriving to the Colony from Great Britain in search of employment and who had no one to stay with upon their arrival, were housed until such a time that they could meet with ‘situations’ or gainful employment.[5]

After disembarkation and arrival at the Depot, women were allowed several days for washing their clothes and making themselves presentable to visitors. An extensive mess room stood in the centre of a large plot of ground at the east end of La Trobe Street, and this was considered a dining room and sitting room by the women. On hiring days, it was devoted to the accommodation of the visitors, and was where any hiring took place. Women usually readily obtained engagements but there were also a few left that were generally incapacitated for work by ‘bodily affliction.’[6] Catherine was one of these women as she stayed at the Immigration Depot for at least four months after arriving in the Colony.

By 1867, every comfort is said to have been taken in providing for the comfort of women during the time they were in the depot with extensive sleeping accommodation consisting of a large dormitory of four wards, each containing 46 beds, with a lavatory close by which contained the ‘latest improvements’.[7] It is more than likely the conditions were quite rudimentary when Catherine arrived in 1855, just 20 years after Port Phillip was colonised by John Batman and party.


Immigration Depot. Engraver: Frederick Groose. Source: State Library of Victoria

Catherine remained at the Melbourne Immigration Depot until the birth of her daughter, Ann Fitzgerald Devitt, on 10 October 1855. It is unknown if or where she may have been employed after Ann’s birth as there is no entry next to her name on the ship’s disposal list, due to her confinement.[8]

Growing up in a country ravaged by poverty and famine; forced to leave her family and friends behind to spend over three months on, what is tantamount to a floating deathtrap, and arriving in a strange and distant land only to give birth to an illegitimate child. We can only surmise that Catherine had a will of iron, with a steadfast determination to survive. Join me next week for the continuation of Catherine Devitt's story.

~ Louise

My connection to Catherine Devitt, my 3x great grandmother.




[1] http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/places/miltown_history.htm
[2] http://museumvictoria.com.au/discoverycentre/websites-mini/journeys-australia/1850s70s/
[3] The Argus, 26 June 1855.
[4] http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/papers/govpub/VPARL1855-56NoA7.pdf
[5] ‘Melbourne Immigration Depot’, Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 27 August 1867, p.4
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ann Fitzgerald Devitt Birth Certificate, Reg. No. #1903

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