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