The Voyage of the Constance

The continuing story of the emigrants from the Shirley estate

On 24 March 2018, Qantas flew the first direct non-stop 14,498 km flight from Australia to the UK in a little over 17 hours. The earliest Qantas flight between the two countries had taken four days and required seven stops along the “Kangaroo route.” Several VIPs were aboard to celebrate the inaugural flight with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce departing Perth on the 24th and landing at Heathrow on the 25th. Joyce was born and grew up in Ireland and moved to Australia in 1996. He has no reason to be aware that 169 years earlier, a ship laden with Irish immigrants had broken the record for the Plymouth–Adelaide route and created a buzz in its day. In contrast to the Dreamliner flight of 2018, the 1849 shipping voyage was something of a nightmare for the passengers. It was also a fateful journey for the story of my ancestors in South Australia.

The arrival of the Constance at Port Adelaide on 5 November 1849 caused a sensation in the shipping world. It had sailed in the record breaking time of 77 days, when the norm was closer to 120 days. It was the first (and last) government chartered vessel to sail the far southern latitudes of the Great Circle route. The British Admiralty was subsequently to prohibit government ships from sailing into the higher freezing latitudes close to the Antarctic. Of such fame was the voyage of the Constance that a painting of the ship was commissioned in 1853. It is held in the National Library of Australia.

Constance painting
The Constance, 578 tons, off Kerguelens Land, 20th October 1849, on her passage from Plymouth to Adelaide in 77 days. The artist was Thomas G Dutton.   Out of copyright. 

A voyage to forget

The voyage did not begin well. Within four days of leaving Plymouth on 19 August, there was sickness on the ship. Fever, diarrhoea, cholera and pleurisy had spread among the passengers. Before three weeks had elapsed, general sickness prevailed on board. The first death occurred only eight days after the voyage had started.

The Shirley emigrants from County Monaghan probably had no experience of sea travel. Not only was their journey from Plymouth to Adelaide an ordeal, but their passage from Dublin to Plymouth was not a good omen for what lay ahead of them. The surgeon superintendent on the Constance was later to report that the Shirley passengers had suffered severely from sea sickness on a rough Dublin–Plymouth steamer passage. Their relief at ultimately arriving on dry land in South Australia must have been immense.

For unknown reasons, Captain G B Godfrey decided to take the Great Circle Route, sailing down the coast of Brazil and South America into the higher latitudes close to the Antarctic, then east, where the ship caught the strong winds known as the “roaring forties” which blow around the Antarctic. Icebergs can occur at any time of the year but especially between May and October, making the area even more treacherous for shipping. The captain achieved a record sailing time, but the lives of the crew and passengers were put at risk.

clipper route to adelaide

It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for the passengers as the Constance battled mountainous seas and freezing temperatures in the southern latitudes. They would have stayed below deck, listening as the ship creaked and groaned and possibly wondering if the end of their days was nigh. It must have been a relief for them when the Constance sailed into the calm waters of St Vincent’s Gulf, and they were able to go on deck, see blue sky and feel the warmth of the sun.

Twenty three deaths, mainly from cholera, occurred during the voyage, a 9.4 per cent loss rate for the ship.[1] There was only one other ship with a higher death rate among 323 government-assisted voyages to South Australia between 1848 and 1885. It is remarkable that under epidemic conditions, the surgeon superintendent on board was able to contain the number of deaths to twenty-three. After arrival the passengers on the Constance declared their gratitude to the surgeon-superintendent for his attention.

Were they the victims of a nautical experiment or did illness on board influence the decision of the captain to sail the Great Circle Route? It is possible that if the captain had taken the usual but longer route, down the coast of Africa, round the Cape of Good Hope, and crossing the Indian Ocean, the death toll could have been higher.

Four more people died immediately after disembarking in Adelaide. Eleven others still suffering from fever were taken to the government funded Adelaide hospital. On recovery they were housed in the government Immigration Depot with their families. Another sixteen were visited at their lodgings by the Colonial Surgeon because the hospital was full.

Scapegoating the Shirley emigrants

The Destitute Board in Adelaide, which bore the cost of looking after the sick emigrants, was overwhelmed by the arrival of the Constance. The Board complained to Lieutenant Governor Sir H.E.F. Young, pointing the blame for the level of sickness amongst the passengers at the emigrants from the Shirley estate.

A great increase to the numbers receiving relief from the Destitute Board has taken place since the arrival of the “Constance” on 5th November, with Government emigrants. The greater part of the emigrants by this vessel were Irish and I am informed were in a very emaciated state when put on board in Plymouth in consequence of which low fever to a great extent, prevailed on board all the voyage . . . I am informed that nearly half those people were from one estate in Monaghan, and I beg leave to express an opinion that such a selection is highly objectionable, for considering the wretched state to which the peasantry of the south of Ireland have been reduced by famine and disease, it is not probable that a number of Irish emigrants, especially if taken from one neighbourhood, will be of that healthy and robust character so requisite in persons selected with the view of supplying the colony with an eligible description of labourers.

When I first read this critique, I pictured my ancestors disembarking in a bedraggled and emaciated state. And indeed, Peter Holland was admitted to Adelaide Hospital on 30 November, suffering continuous fever after 21 days in the colony.[2] Yet the criticism turned out to be unfair. Of the twenty one deaths on board, only four were from the Shirley emigrants: one adult woman and three children. Evidence was later produced that the Shirley emigrants had satisfied health criteria before departure.

The criticism of the Shirley emigrants received a strong rebuttal from the Shirley’s shipping agent in South Australia, in a letter to the Colonial Lands and Emigration Commission in London. In his letter, which is rather full of bluster and hyperbole, he denounced any claims that the Shirley estate was responsible for off loading persons unfit for such a voyage.

 ‘Mr Shirley’s emigrants’ letters teem with praises of South Australia: . . . they gloat in anticipation of their saving money, remitted it to their relatives, and being joined by them . . . the people sent by Mr Shirley were neither emaciated, ill provided, or ill suited for the colony of South Australia, but that on the contrary they were rough sturdy labourers, well provided for an ordinary passage to Australia, and I am delighted to assure you, by their letters, a well employed happy, moneymaking lot’.[3]

The journey of the Shirley emigrants on the Trafalgar in December 1849 was closer to the norm: their journey took 105 days and there was only one death on board.

There were no further efforts made to send out emigrants in a group from the Shirley estate to South Australia. Individuals and families later emigrated, following relatives who had preceded them, but there was no further organised emigration.Thereafter emigration to the United States became the most convenient and popular destination for all concerned.

There is a touching appeal from a tenant, Owen Corrigan, written from the workhouse in Carrickmacross to Evelyn John Shirley in 1852. Members of his family had sailed on the Trafalgar in December 1849:

I beg to remind you that in the month of December 1849 you were pleased to emigrate four of my family to Adelaide in Australia for which act you have earned their most fervent blessing as they state it’s second to no other country in the world . . . Shortly after they landed there they sent me [a sum of money] on receipt of which I moved my family from the Workhouse and did not return until I could hold out no longer.

His appeal for assistance to emigrate to South Australia was granted.

An ancestral bond is formed

Among the other Irish emigrants on the Constance was a family from County Tipperary: Cornelius Guidera, aged 24, Margaret Guidera aged 18, and Johanna Guidera age 13. Their story will follow in my next blog post.

There are no records to tell us what happened to these young people, the Hollands and the Guideras, in the years immediately after their arrival. They arrived penniless and without friends or relatives who could have lent them a helping hand. They would have had no choice but to obtain employment as quickly as they could, for new emigrants were expected to fend for themselves.

Two years after they arrived in South Australia, on 20 February 1852, my great great grandparents George Holland and Margaret Guidera were married at a Catholic Church in Adelaide. Their daughter Margaret was my great grandmother. She was born in 1861 on the family farm near Stanley Flat, a few miles north of Clare. I shall follow their story another time.

Peter Holland & Johanna Guidera
Peter Holland and Johanna Guidera.  The date of Peter’s photograph is unknown. The photograph of Johanna was taken in Broken Hill when she was in her seventies.

These two families were joined together in another marriage, when Peter Holland married Johanna Guidera on 26 January 1854 at St Patrick’s Church, Adelaide. Peter and Johanna were to have fifteen children. Peter died aged 53 (not 56 as appeared in the death notice in The Northern Argus, the local Clare newspaper). Their youngest child was only two years old. Johanna was left to raise her large family on her own. She was much beloved by her children and grandchildren. She died aged 83 in Shepparton, Victoria.


Peter Holland grave
Peter Holland is buried on the hillside in the beautiful and historic St Aloysius cemetery at Sevenhill
Celtic Cross Catholic Cemetery Sevenhill
St Aloysius Cemetery, Sevenhill. Many of my relatives lie buried here.                                September 2016.  © Ramesh Thakur

[1] Robin Haines, Doctors at Sea, Emigrant Voyages to Colonial Australia, Palgrave MacMillan, 2005, p.27

[2] Trevor McLlaughlin, Stephanie James and Simon O’Reilley, Migration to Australia mid-nineteenth century: emigration from the Shirley estate at the time of the Famin, Clogher Record, Vol 20, No 2 (2010) p. 313

[3] Lorraine O’Reilly, ‘The Shirley estate 1814-1906 : the development and demise of a landed estate in County Monaghan’, [thesis], Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland). Department of History, 2014, pp 183-4

The Hollands from County Monaghan

George Holland (1829 – 1883) was my maternal great great grandfather. When I began my ancestral journey, I knew nothing about him.

In 2016 when on holiday in South Australia, we stopped on the main road a few kilometres north of Clare, where George Holland had a farm. My great grandmother Margaret Holland was born there in 1861, the 5th child to be born in South Australia. As I gazed at the land that was once their farm, I wondered what their lives were like in 1861.

The exact location of the Holland farm, Sections 48 and 49 on the road north of Clare. This is what it looked like in September 2016

George Holland is buried in the Jamestown cemetery. As I stood beside his grave, I realised how little I knew about his life. What county was he from in Ireland? Why did he emigrate to the far-away colony of South Australia?

Jamestown Cemetery-2
Holland family graves, Jamestown Cemetery

George Holland/Margaret Guidera

Some ancestors are very elusive. It can be very difficult to find any trace of them in the records. This was not the case with George Holland. The Holland family were tenants on the estate of Evelyn John Shirley (1788-1856). This estate was located in the southern part of County Monaghan in the Province of Ulster. It was the largest estate in the county, covering 26,000 acres with a tenant population exceeding 20,000 people in the early 1840s.

As a family history researcher I was delighted to find that a vast archive of documents relating to the affairs of the Shirley estate was deposited in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) in 1982. The Shirley papers document generations of history across several hundred years. Of particular interest to me was the detailed information on the assisted emigration from the Shirley estate between the years 1843-1854, when 2,000 people were assisted to go to the United States, Canada, England and Australia. Even more importantly, there is material relating specifically to two ships, the Constance and the Trafalgar which carried Shirley emigrants to South Australia in August and December 1849. My ancestor George Holland and his brother Peter were passengers on the Constance.

The Shirley estate had been in the hands of the Shirley family since 1646. The original Irish owners of the land were dispossessed in 1576 when Queen Elizabeth I granted this estate and the neighbouring Bath estate to the First Earl of Essex, Walter Deveraux.[1] When the third Earl of Essex died in 1646 leaving no heirs, his estate passed to his two sisters, one of whom was married to Sir Henry Shirley. The Shirleys lived on their English estate, Ettington Park, near Stratford-upon-Avon, County Warwickshire and their estate in Ireland was managed by land agents for hundreds of years. In 1826, Evelyn John Shirley commenced building a mansion on the estate, Lough Fea House, which still stands today. From 1829 onwards, Evelyn John Shirley and his family spent a few months each summer in residence at Lough Fea, though the house was not finally completed until 1837.

Lough Fea House
Lough Fea House, near Carrickmacross, County Monaghan

Source: National Library of Ireland. No copyright restrictions

Background to the emigration of George and Peter Holland

The vast majority of tenants on the estate were living at subsistence level in the mid-19th century. Ninety-three percent of the tenants were Catholic, a proportion utterly different from other large estates in Ulster where most tenants were Protestants. The poor quality of housing meant that diseases such as typhus, dysentery and typhoid fever were common. The agent managing the estate between the years 1830 and 1843, Alexander Mitchell, was a tyrant who was feared and hated. Upon taking up his appointment, he surveyed the estate and increased rents by as much as 30 per cent. He infringed on the tenants’ ancient rights to cut peat on bog land to use for fuel for heating and cooking. He trampled on the rights of the Catholic tenants, particularly in regard to the education of their children, and being the agent of an absentee landlord there was no limit to his authority.

Mitchell died suddenly in 1843 of apoplexy in Monaghan town while attending the Spring Assizes as a member of the Grand Jury. It was recorded that when news of his death made its way to the inhabitants of the Shirley estate, bonfires were lit on every hilltop to celebrate the death of the ‘unscrupulous monster’.[2]

Mitchell’s successor, William Steuart Trench did a survey of the estate in 1843 when he assumed office. He reported that having visited a great number of homes across the estate he found that ‘even in Ireland, it has never fallen to my lot to witness destitution to the same degree and over such a large extent, as I have seen it on this property.[3] Trench was a strong advocate of assisted emigration as a way of reducing the numbers of poor tenants who were a drain on the estate.

Following the passage of the Poor Law in 1838, workhouses were constructed throughout the country to house the poor. The workhouse in Carrickmacross opened in 1840. The Poor Law tax bore most heavily on estates with large pauper populations. Agents and landowners calculated that it would cost less to send paupers to the New World than to maintain them in the workhouse for a year.

The records of those who were assisted refer constantly to the landholding status of the potential emigrant and that he/she will give up the land or has had his/her house knocked down. Among the petitions from the poor seeking assistance to emigrate there are many poignant examples of small farmers who had had their cottages demolished and were left penniless and homeless. Landowners wished to consolidate their estates by getting rid of tenants on the smallest plots of land. Evelyn John Shirley and his agent George Morant were strongly criticised for their eviction policies during the famine.

County Monaghan suffered greatly during the Famine. The population fell by 29 per cent between the years 1841 and 1851, from 200,407 to 141,758.[4] Yet even during the Famine, tenants were being ejected from their homes. Estate papers indicate that between 1846 and 1856, there were over 650 ejectment processes served on tenants. In the decade 1841-51 the population of the Shirley estate decreased by 44 per cent while the number of houses decreased by a substantial 42 per cent.[5] It is difficult to comprehend the suffering which lies behind these figures.

Some of those emigrants who were ‘key’ tenants from the point of view of farm consolidation on the estate, had to be coaxed and cajoled to go. This was especially true of the earlier forties, and of the Australian emigration in 1849.[6]

The policy of assisted emigration left an indefinable scar on local folklore. It was often depicted as highly exploitative of pauper tenants who were ‘exiled’, ‘rejected’, ‘dispossessed’ and ‘exterminated’ from their land.[7] This may not be entirely true. It was the memory constructed by those left behind and does not reflect the level of popular support for assisted emigration at the time. This support is evident in the numerous petitions to the Shirley estate office by people appealing for assistance to emigrate.

 George Holland was born on 23 June 1829 in the townland of Latinalbany, near Carrickmacross. His parents were Patrick and Catherine Holland.

The townland of Latinalbany, in the civil parish of Magheross. The size of the townland was 182 acres.  Source:

There is a document, dated 2 July 1845 granting Patrick Holland a lease for 16 acres, 32 perches in the townland of Latinalbany for a yearly rent of £10-14-0. Patrick Holland died sometime before December 1846. A cottier named Patrick Byrne then lived on the property. He was a son- in- law of Patrick Holland.[8]Patrick Holland Shirley estate

In 1849 the names of Peter, George and Ellen Holland appeared on a list of emigrants for South Australia. Beside their names was written “10 acres”, presumably the amount of land that had been given up. Assisted migrants were drawn largely from among the sons and daughters of small farmers.[9] Irish immigrants to Australia were not drawn from the poorest of the poor.

Although Ellen’s name was on the list, she did not go. She was aged 17 at the time. Perhaps she decided to stay behind to care for her widowed mother. Catherine Holland died in 1852, three years after her sons left for South Australia. At some point Ellen emigrated to the United States, where she died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 25 July 1890 aged 58.

I wondered why South Australia was chosen as a destination for the Shirley emigrants, and not New Zealand or one of the other Australian colonies. The answer may lie with the family connection which Evelyn John Shirley had with the colony. In 1843 his daughter Louise Shirley had married Neill Malcolm, 13th Laird of Poltalloch estate in Argyllshire, Scotland. In 1839 Malcolm had purchased 4,000 acres of land in South Australia near Lake Alexandrina which he had named Poltalloch Station. Because of this large land purchase, Evelyn John Shirley was allowed to nominate emigrants from his estate at minimal cost. The emigrants to South Australia were subsidised by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission in London. The cost to the Shirley estate was only £2 per head for the fare.

I do not know if Peter and George had to be persuaded and cajoled to go to South Australia or if they went willingly. The list of tenants selected to emigrate to South Australia began with 335 names, but in the end only 140 people left, 95 of whom were on the Constance. The Shirley estate agent George Morant said in writing to London on 28 July I know not what the government may think of our failure in providing the full complement of Emigrants but if the people are fools enough to refuse they can not be compelled…..There could be numerous reasons why the number of selected emigrants fell so dramatically but I suspect some of them may have been reluctant to go to a destination on the far side of the earth.

The Colonial Land and Emigration Commission  required all emigrants bound for South Australia to be properly outfitted for the journey. The clothing requirements each emigrant had to meet before boarding the ship proved to be more costly than the Shirley estate had anticipated.[10] There were also other sundry expenses such as sheets, towels, soap and luggage boxes. The correspondence reveals that outfitting the emigrants was very troublesome for the agents and the preparations were somewhat frantic. They regarded the regulations as red tape, but their successful implementation meant that there were no coffin ships to Australia, as there were to North America.

Finally, on the morning of 14 August 1849, the departing emigrants were gathered for inspection in Carrickmacross. I imagine that it was with heavy hearts that Peter and George said goodbye to their mother and sister. The emigrants then travelled to Dundalk where they took a train for the short journey to Drogheda. They stayed overnight at lodgings in Dublin and from there they sailed to Plymouth, where they boarded the Constance on 19 August 1849.

Little did the departing passengers know that a horrendous voyage lay ahead of them, a voyage which became infamous in the history of sailing to Australia in the 19th century and became the subject of several official enquiries. George and Peter were to meet their future wives on the voyage of the Constance, young sisters from County Tipperary. But that is the subject for another story.

Griffith’s Valuation in the 1850s and the 1901 and 1911 Census returns reveal that many Hollands continued to live in the vicinity of Carrickmacross, including Latinalbany townland itself. Perhaps I may meet some distant Holland relatives when I visit Carrickmacross.



[3] Lorraine O’Reilly, ‘The Shirley estate 1814-1906 : the development and demise of a landed estate in County Monaghan’, [thesis], Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland). Department of History, 2014, p 131

[4] Ibid, p 191

[5] Patrick J Duffy ‘ “Disencumbering our crowded places”; theory and practice of estate emigration schemes in mid-nineteenth century Ireland’ in Patrick J Duffy (ed) To and From Ireland: Planned Migration Schemes c.1600-2000 (Dublin, 2004), p. 102

[6] Patrick J Duffy, Assisted Emigration from the Shirley Estate 1844-1854, Clogher Record, xiv (2), (1992), p. 17

[7] O’Reilly, op cit, p 192

[8] PRONI catalogue number D3531/S/58 (1844): Book recording names of tenants in occupation on the Shirley estate.

[9] Trevor McLaughlin, Stephanie James, Simon O’Reilly, Migration to Australia mid-nineteenth century: emigration from the Shirley Estate at the time of the Famine, Clogher Record, xx (2) (2010),  p.290

[10] Each of the males were allocated 5 shirts, 5 pairs of stockings, 2 pairs of shoes, 1 jacket, vest and trousers and 1 ‘suit reserved’. The females were allocated 5 shifts, 5 pairs of stockings, 2 pairs of shoes and one gown and petticoat each.