Written by Patrick Bourke, RAHS Member
On 10 August 1832 the Red Rover arrived in Sydney Harbour with 202 free young unmarried Irish women onboard. This ship had left Cork, Ireland, on 10 April 1832. On 15 August the young women left the Red Rover and were housed in the Sydney lumber yard, which was at the southern corner of George and Bridge streets, until they could find employment. There is now a Royal Australian Historical Society green plaque on the wall of the entrance alcove of Moran House, 13-15 Bridge Street, to mark the site of the old Sydney lumber yard. The arrival of the Red Rover young Irish women at the Sydney lumber yard was described in the Sydney Monitor on 15 August 1832. In the newspaper report, which was quite positive about the young women, it was noted that Governor Bourke and Miss Bourke ‘have paid a kind visit to these free women.’ The women on the Red Rover have sometimes been referred to incorrectly as convicts, as was pointed out by C.T. Burfitt in 1909.It would be correct to say that the arrival of these free young unmarried women in Sydney in August 1832 was a challenge for Governor Bourke. He knew that these young women would arrive in Sydney in 1832 and had made some provision for them on their arrival. As well as providing the Sydney lumber yard for their temporary accommodation until they could find employment, Governor Bourke had appointed a small reception committee of women to look after their welfare and guide them in finding employment. The members of this Ladies Reception Committee were the wives and daughters of leading colonists.
From the records we have, it can be concluded that most of the young women were able to obtain employment soon after their arrival. Some did return to the Sydney lumber yard due to problems with their employment, while others were sent to the country areas. By the beginning of January 1833 only one young woman remained in the Sydney lumber yard.
Tracing what happened to these young women and assessing their contributions to Australia as good servants and valuable wives is not an easy task but Elizabeth Rushen and Perry McIntyre in their book, Fair Game: Australia’s first immigrant women, have made a well-researched and balanced assessment of these young women which has also included the 200 free young unmarried women from London who arrived in Hobart on the Royal Princess on 23 August 1832. Whilst several of the Red Rover women fell on hard times and committed crimes, many others fell under the radar, with their lives only being discovered through their descendants doing family history research. Some of them lived to a good age and had large families.
After the arrival of the Red Rover in Sydney on 10 August 1832, and the arrival of the Princess Royal in Hobart on 23 August 1832, another fourteen ships would bring approximately 2,700 more free unmarried young women from England and Ireland to Australia between August 1833 and February 1837 as part of a migration scheme to correct the serious imbalance between the male and female population in the colonies. The young women who came to Australia on these sixteen ships during the 1830s were depicted as butterflies by the artist Alfred Ducote in his picture E-migration, or, A flight of fair game (1832).The list of these migrant ships is on Liz Rushen’s website of Bounty Emigration Ships to Australia. You will also find on this website the names of the young free unmarried women, including my great, great grandmother, Mary Downey, who was arrived on the Red Rover on 10 August 1832. She lived into her 80s and had a large family. NSW State Records show that Mary Downey was initially employed by Miss Anne Bourke, Governor Bourke’s daughter. Anne Bourke was very likely on the Ladies Reception Committee for the women on the Red Rover in 1832. More information about the Red Rover women, including their initial employment in New South Wales, is in the NSW State Records.
The Australian television series, Who Do You Think You Are? which has aired on SBS TV since 2008, has also uncovered the lives of two young women who came to Australia on two of these sixteen migrant ships during the 1830s. The actor Lex Marinos’ ancestor, Marianne Mortimer, arrived in Hobart on the Princess Royal on 23 August 1832, and the actress Kat Stewart’s ancestor, Eliza Martin, arrived in Hobart on the William Metcalfe on 24 January 1837.
 ‘Government Lumber Yard’, Dictionary of Sydney, <https://dictionaryofsydney.org/place/government_lumber_yard>, accessed 30 June 2022.
 Sydney Monitor, 15 August 1832, p.2, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/15103181>
 Elizabeth Rushen & Perry McIntyre, Fair Game: Australia’s first immigrant women (Spit Junction: Anchor Books, 2010), p.72.
 Rushen & McIntyre, Fair Game, p.76.
 NSW State Archives, Women on the Red Rover and other early migrant ships (NRS5312, Reel 2795, [4/4822]).
 Who Do You Think You Are? Series 5. Aired on SBS TV on 30 April 2013; Who Do You Think You Are? Series 11. Aired on SBS TV on 23 June 2020.
Published online: 10 August 2022