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Kingston and Toronto’s Famine Orphans

The fourth theme in the exhibit concerns the plight of Kingston and Toronto’s Famine orphans. It emphasizes the resilience of these child migrants who lost their parents during the trans-Atlantic voyage and in Canadian fever sheds. Some of the worst suffering amongst Irish Famine emigrants in Ontario occurred in the fever sheds along the Kingston waterfront, where over 1400 of them died in 1847. Their story is told in the annals of the Religious Hospitaller Sisters of St Joseph. They not only showed great compassion for the orphaned children in their care, but also demonstrated initiative and independence at a time when options for women were quite limited.

Professor Mark McGowan at Kingston’s Celtic Cross Famine Memorial in An Gorta Mor Park.

The Famine Irish in Kingston

Nun in habit leaning over sick man in bed in open air, priest kneeling at his side, a second nun sitting at a small table preparing medicine, a bridge, tents, and sheds in the background with other people on the shoreline of a large lake. Large tree in foreground.
“Drawing of Sister Bourbonnierre and other sisters visiting the Irish ill with typhus in Kingston fever sheds on the shoreline of Lake Ontario”. Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph, St. Joseph Region Archives, Kingston, ON, K-175.

The Famine Irish died in Kingston in greater numbers than anywhere else in Ontario during the summer of 1847. Approximately 1400 of them lie buried in layers in a mass grave to the south of what is now Kingston General Hospital. Many of them were weakened and exposed to infectious disease after travelling in cramped quarters or on deck for several days on steamers from Montreal, in conditions that were not dissimilar to the coffin ships that crossed the Atlantic. As Stephen De Vere observed after making the journey himself: “In almost every boat were clearly marked cases of actual fever – in some were deaths – the dead and the living huddled together. Sometimes the crowds were stowed in open barges, and towed after the steamer, standing like pigs upon the deck of a Cork and Bristol packet.”

The Famine Irish were cared for by the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph in fever sheds erected at the corner of Emily and King streets, on the Kingston waterfront. Their annals contain detailed and moving accounts of Irish emigrant suffering. Monuments to the Famine Irish can be found nearby in An Gorta Mor (Irish for the “the Great Famine”) Park, where a Celtic Cross was established by the Kingston Irish Famine Commemoration Association in 1998. In 1966, some of the remains near Kingston General Hospital were reinterred in St Mary’s Cemetery. They are commemorated by the “Angel of Mercy” monument. Local citizens who died in 1847 are memorialized by another Celtic Cross in McBurney (“Skeleton”) Park. Despite these monuments, most of the Famine dead remain in the mass grave near Kingston General Hospital, marked only by a commemorative plaque.

Kingston Orphans’ Christmas –
“A Painful Scene to Witness”

The main caregivers of the Famine Irish in Kingston were the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, or Hôtel Dieu nuns. They had arrived from Montreal two years earlier in 1845 to establish the Hôtel Dieu hospital. Like their fellow Hospitaller Sisters in Montreal and Sister Bruyère’s Grey Nuns in Bytown, they were overwhelmed by the Irish influx. They record the suffering of Famine emigrants in their Annals of the Hôtel Dieu hospital. In these annals, they speak with one voice to recount “the hardships our poor sisters had to endure”. The annals also pay tribute to their fallen Sister “who fell a victim to Typhus and had to be removed to an isolated room in our hospital. Poor Sr. McGorian died wildly delirious, and asking to be taken to the sheds where the sick were calling her”.

The Annals further reveal the feelings of affection that the Sisters had for the Irish orphans in their care. They recall the arrival of a large number of female orphans on Christmas Eve, 1847. In order to feed them all, the Sisters had to serve “them by rows, as we had not sufficient dishes to serve them all at once,…; ; the poor children ate standing, 10 at a time, so the meals lasted quite a while”. The Annals also recollect the anguish that was felt when the Sisters had to part with most of the children in their care. They attest to the pain of their separation and strong bonds that developed between Kingston’s Famine Irish orphans and their female religious caregivers in 1847 and early 1848.

Excerpt from History of the RHSJs Vol II 3rd Ed (LIB2000-607) p 220.

While waiting for their group of these sick immigrants to reach Kingston, the government had "sheds" built there also for them. The Hospitallers of St. Joseph had founded a Hôtel Dieu in this town only two years previously so they cared for these sick persons until late in the autumn.”
A young professed Sister contracted the malady and died. Other Sisters were attacked and recovered only after a long convalescence.

Excerpt from the Annals Hôtel Dieu Hospital, Kingston, Christmas Eve, 1847.

When supper time came, we had no dishes to give them their food, so we had to get that of the patients, which consisted of 18 tin plates and as many mugs, spoons, etc. The children had to sit down on the floor around the stove, they were chilled with cold and we served them by rows, as we had not sufficient dishes to serve them all at once, for the little girls, we got the dishes from the orphan girls ward (whom we had before the Emigrants came) and we took the top of a bed otherwise Tester on trestles for a table.
I forgot to say that the trestles were barrels; the poor children ate standing, 10 at a time, so the meals lasted quite a while. When bed time came we were very much embarrassed, having no other bedding, but what they brought and we were very sorry to put them in such disgusting beds, still we could not do otherwise for the time being.

Excerpt from the Annals Hôtel Dieu Hospital, Kingston, January 22, 1848.

In August following, Bishop Phelan told us to place them [the orphans] out as the Government decided not to pay any more for them and we were too poor to keep such a number without some special help. And as we were strangers, we placed none without a ticket or note from the Bishop or His V.G. When anyone came to ask for a child, we used to place them in rows and people took their choice.
I assure you it was very painful to witness such a scene, when any of them heard their name mentioned, they knew they were going, they began to cry and could not be consoled at seeing themselves separated from their companions in misfortune and from their Mistresses, who had also done their share of weeping.

Excerpt from Annals Hôtel Dieu Hospital.

When the tide of Emigration had set in in Ireland, the ship that conveyed the poor Irish Refugees became infected with the dreadful germ of Typhus Fever. Pent up in the great floating Morgue or Death Trap, nearly all the poor exiles fell a victim to Typhus fever. When the Boat reached our City, the terrified inhabitants were afraid to allow it to land, fearing the spread of the living plague. The General hospital was rapidly vacated, as was also its many sheds adjoining, the infected patients placed therein and notices placed here and there requesting nurses or sisters to attend their needs.
Two of our good sisters at once offered themselves, Srs. McDougall, Professed Sister and Sister McGorian, a novice in white veil. With maternal tenderness they nursed the poor sick Emigrants, watched at night by their dying bedside and closed the weary eyes when death came as it often did to claim its victims. The sufferings and hardships our poor sisters had to endure were incredible, owing to poor accommodations and unsanitary surroundings. Finally they too fell a victim to Typhus and had to be removed to an isolated room in our hospital. Poor Sr. McGorian died wildly delirious, and asking to be taken to the sheds where the sick were calling her.

Professor Mark McGowan on Famine Irish orphans in Kingston

“A Most Outrageous Attack” –
Riot on Kingston Wharf

Black and white illustration of three masted steamship viewed in profile on the water, with Mail Packet Princess Royal inscribed on and below its paddle wheel, and a Union Jack fluttering from it stern. Princess Royal is also written at the bottom of the page.
Princess Royal Steamship 1841, Captained by Henry Twohy whom John Young accused of treating Irish emigrants “like cattle”.

In general, Catholics and Protestants worked together to alleviate the suffering of the Famine Irish in Kingston, but on occasion religious tensions did surface. One such incident occurred on the Princess Royal steamer on Kingston’s wharf on August 1st and 2nd, 1847. The Princess Royal was captained by Henry Twohy, whom John Young had accused of treating his “living cargo” of Irish emigrants “just like cattle” when they arrived on the Toronto waterfront on August 13th. Almost two weeks earlier, Captain Twomy was involved in another altercation in Kingston on August 1st when Father Higgins boarded the Princess Royal to provide care for an ailing Catholic migrant. On board, he was taunted by members of the crew who shouted “Down with the Pope”.

The next day, crew members of the Unicorn docked nearby stormed the Princess Royal in retaliation, and a riot almost broke out on the wharf. Captain Twohy summoned the army, but the crowed was dispersed by Bishop Patrick Phelan and Kingston’s Mayor, Thomas Kirkpatrick, before any violence occurred. Nevertheless, a war of words broke out in Kingston’s press about who was responsible for the incident, before Father Higgins was absolved at an inquest later in the month. The Princess Royal incident was sparked by sectarian animosities that were similar to the false charges of proselytization levelled against Sister Bruyère in Bytown and the Slabtown murders on the Welland Canal in 1849. Ultimately, they reveal that religious tensions lingered beneath the surface and occasionally flared up as a result of the Irish Famine migration to Canada West.

Black and white newspaper column under heading Kingston August 1, 1847
Outrage on Princess Royal British Whig Kingston August 7 1847.

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Black and white newspaper column under heading Outrage on board the Princess Royal
Princess Royal Riot British Whig Kingston August 18 1847 abridged.

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Photograph on yellowing paper of side profile of Steamer with three masts and smoke stack, paddle wheel, and pennant flying in wind, with bow to the left and three people standing near the stern. Inscription beneath image.
The Royal Mail Steam Packet "Princess Royal," Lake Ontario, John Gillespie, Picture, 1844.

Professor Mark McGowan on the Kingston Famine Irish Riot

Toronto’s Widows and Orphans’ Asylum

Unlike in Bytown and Kingston, orphaned Irish children in Toronto were not cared for by female religious but an institution that was specifically created to house them: the Widows and Orphans’ Asylum. The asylum was established “for the care and maintenance of the destitute widows and orphans of the Emigrants of 1847” in the Bathurst Street Barracks complex in late summer. According to the Report of the Managing Committee for the Widows and Orphans Asylum (Toronto: Roswell and Thompson, 1848), it was originally intended only to care for emigrant women and children whose providers had died in Toronto; but it opened its doors to “other destitute widows and orphans then wandering through our streets friendless and helpless” (8). The institution was short lived, and closed its doors after the crisis had abated in the summer of 1848. More importantly, the Asylum was unique in Canada for its meticulous record keeping and insistence that the orphaned children it placed with families and in apprenticeships were given contractual terms of agreement so that they were not exploited as they moved into a new phase of their lives.

Mark McGowan Toronto Famine Orphans