My People Came From Wicklow: The Lawrence Experience of 1848

Lawrence Homestead – Slieveroe

Farewell to home

In May of 1848 an Irish tenant farmer named John Lawrence emigrated to Canada with his wife Martha and their nine children.  John would have already been over fifty years of age when the family sailed from the port of New Ross that spring, on a ship called the Jessie.

The youngest child in the family, also named Martha, would have still been a toddler and can be seen with her mother and brother in the tintype picture below.  For a family that had likely never been far from home, the journey ahead must have seemed daunting to say the least.

So what made the Lawrence family leave behind everyone and everything they had ever known and cross the Atlantic in search of a better life?  One factor had to have been the failure of the potato crop which had caused widespread famine across Ireland.  In 1848 there was no way of knowing how much longer the famine would last.  Worse still, families who couldn’t provide for themselves ended up in Workhouses such as the one in Shillelagh where they would split up, often to never see each other again. Political instability and religious divides between Protestants and Catholics also meant that armed conflict was a real possibility. The Irish Rebellion of 1798 would still have been a relatively fresh memory for those living in County Wicklow.

Martha Lawrence


The land that John Lawrence farmed made up part of the large Coolattin Estate, which was owned by Lord Fitzwilliam.  So when the Earl offered his tenants assisted passage to Canada, John Lawrence must have felt he had no choice but to leave Ireland for the sake of his children’s future.  They wouldn’t be the only ones.  The Lawrences were part of the Irish diaspora who left Ireland during the famine years.

After saying their goodbyes to friends and family, John and Martha Lawrence would have made the journey from their home in the townland of Slieveroe, to where their ship would sail from New Ross.  In his book Surplus People, author Jim Rees indicates that the distance from the Coolattin Estate to New Ross would have been about sixty miles.  It was a journey the Lawrences would have made by foot or cart over the course of several days.  It must have been heartbreaking to know they would likely never see Ireland again or the friends and family they had left behind.

Life at sea

The crossing of the Atlantic from New Ross to Quebec would not have been an easy one.  According to A History of Egremont 1840-1983 While We Still Remember, the Lawrence’s had “a very rough voyage and were ten weeks on shipboard”.  Many of those who emigrated from the Coolattin estate sailed on a ship called the Dunbrody, and a replica of that ship can be visited in New Ross, where costumed actors provide a glimpse of what life would have been like on a famine ship.  The Dunbrody also gives us some sense of the type of ship that would have carried the Lawrence family  to Quebec.

Replica of Dunbrody (Courtesy of Dianne Lawrence)


Dunbrody – Steerage Section (Photo by Dianne Kehoe Lawrence)

On board the Jessie, the Lawrences would have spent much of their time crowded below decks along with their fellow passengers.  Without electricity or plumbing, life on the Jessie would not have been a pleasant experience.  Undoubtedly many would have suffered from seasickness, and illnesses would have traveled quickly given the close quarters of the passengers and lack of sanitation. Conditions on ships like these were notoriously bad and the high mortality rates among the Irish sometimes led to them becoming called coffin ships.  Looking at the tintype picture above, it’s hard to imagine Martha Lawrence trying to care for her young children in those kinds of conditions.

Grosse Isle

Travelling down the St. Lawrence, the Jessie would have been required to stop at the quarantine station of Grosse Isle, in Quebec.  By the time Irish immigrant ships arrived at the island, many of their passengers were sick and suffering from typhus.  The sick were quarantined in fever sheds, and the authorities in Quebec and Montreal hoped to prevent the spread of disease further inland. Many of the clergy who looked after the sick became ill themselves and also died.

According to Wikipedia, Grosse Isle is the largest burial ground for refugees of the Great Famine outside of Ireland.  While we do not know if the Lawrence family suffered illness en route to Canada or how long they may have been quarantined at Grosse Isle, the entire family miraculously survived the ordeal, and continued their journey westward.

To truly go without

Continuing on from Grosse Isle, the Lawrences would have passed through Montreal and Toronto whose communities were not well equipped to meet the needs of the thousands of Irish who arrived during those years.  Ireland Park, which is located in Toronto, contains a number of life sized bronzed sculptures and serves as a haunting memorial to the Irish who arrived in the city at that time.

Ireland Park
Toronto Park Memorial

According to the park’s website:

In the summer of 1847, the Toronto waterfront witnessed one of the greatest human tragedies in the history of the city. Between May and October of that year, 38,560 Irish Famine migrants arrived from Ireland at a time when the city’s population was just 20,000 people.”

The numbers mentioned above are staggering, and one cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for John Lawrence and others like him, to obtain food and shelter to provide for the basic needs of their families.

Missing home

No doubt the Lawrences would have also experienced much of the beauty of Canada during this time.  The extreme conditions they found themselves in meant they would have experienced the best and worst of humanity in the people they encountered.  Having left Ireland some months before, they would have certainly been homesick and have felt some degree of anxiety about the future.  The following poem, taken from Susanna Moodie’s book Roughing it in the Bush, which was first published in 1852, may have well described how the Lawrence family was feeling at this time:

Our fate is seal’d! ‘Tis now in vain to sigh,

For home, or friends, or country left behind.

Come, dry those tears, and lift the downcast eye

To the high heaven of hope, and be resign’d;

Wisdom and time will justify the deed,

The eye will cease to weep, the heart to bleed.

Love’s thrilling sympathies, affections pure,

All that endear’d and hallow’d your lost home,

Shall on a broad foundation, firm and sure,

Establish peace; the wilderness become

Dear as the distant land you fondly prize,

Or dearer visions that in memory rise.”

Just passing through

Martha Lawrence’s obituary indicates that the Lawrence family had stayed in Fergus, Ontario for a couple of years, which would have been about 1848-1850.  By the time of the 1851 census, the Lawrence family had moved north to Egremont Township, which is in Grey County, Ontario.

The following excerpt from A History of Egremont 1840 – 1983 While We Still Remember describes the conditions the Lawrences would have encountered as they travelled north from Fergus:

The Garafraxa Road in early 1850 was a rough, winding, narrow, cleared road extending from Fergus to Owen Sound.

The road with unbridged rivers and miles of swamp and bog, was so narrow that in many places horses and wagons could not meet.  It was not uncommon for implement carts and supplies to become mired and lost in the mud.  Swamp, stumps, stones and pot holes all took their toll on wagon wheels, axles and human endurance.

Nevertheless the road was a lifeline for the pioneer coming to Egremont.

The first settlers found the land covered with endless bush.  There were no services as we know them today.  (The Pioneer Experience, Jack Drimmie).

Home at last

By 1861, John Lawrence Sr. was about 60 years old and living on a 50 acre lot in Bentinck Township, Grey County.  This lot was made up of 13 acres for crops, 3 acres of pasture and 34 acres of bush.  In addition to growing spring wheat, John’s farm had produced 8 bushels of peas, 18 bushels of oats and 150 bushels of potatoes the previous year.  While farming and clearing bush would have been a monumental task without any type of mechanical assistance, John Lawrence must have smiled when he thought of how far his family had come since leaving Ireland 12 years before.

The Lawrences prospered in Grey County, where they continued their farming way of life.  They worked hard and raised large families.  Many of the men were members of the Orange Lodge.  My own Grandfather, Eric Alexander Lawrence was born in a farmhouse in Durham in 1924.  While many of these Lawrence’s would continue to disperse throughout the rest of Canada, they can all trace their roots back to John and Martha Lawrence.

Martha Lawrence (seated, middle)

Much has already been written and documented about my Lawrence ancestors, and I hope that my reflections on their experiences in coming to Canada will help to celebrate what they overcame in the face of adversity.  While nearly 170 years have passed since the Lawrences left Coolattin, the world is unfortunately still filled with people who are fleeing their homes due to starvation and conflict.  Thankfully Canada remains a place of cultural diversity where people can continue to seek a better way of life.

Closing thoughts

Are you an ancestor of John and Martha Lawrence, or do you have a comment or picture you would like to contribute to this blog post?  Please let me know by commenting below as I would love to hear from you!

In closing I will leave you with two short YouTube videos that relate to a trip that my Uncle, David Lawrence made last year to Coolattin, along with my mother and other members of my family.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

Further reading

For further reading on the Coolattin Estate, I highly recommend the book Surplus People: From Wicklow to Canada by author Jim Rees.  Mr. Rees was kind enough to write a short note when I gave this book to my mother for her birthday, and is a book I have picked up again and again.

The website Coollattin Canadian Connection is also a terrific resource, and if your ancestors emigrated from this estate, you will definitely want to bookmark it!  Kevin Lee, who wrote an article in 2016 (issue 3) of Irish Roots Magazine called ‘The Coollattin Papers – a unique source for famine historiography’, is another leading expert in this locality and period in Ireland’s history.  Mr. Lee’s article is definitely worth the read.

A History of Egremont Township 1840 – 1983 While We Still Remember provides many interesting pictures and insights into what life was like for the early pioneers of this township.

I also referenced Susanna Moodie’s book Roughing it in the Bush in this blog post, and although Ms. Moodie emigrated from England, it provides some context into the Lawrence experience as she references Irish immigrants of about the same time period.  It definitely contains some colourful characters!

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