The Workhouse during the Famine
The 2015 Annual Famine Commemoration will take place on Saturday, 26th September, in Newry. This is the eighth year in which the Great Famine has been marked with a formal Commemoration and the first time that the Commemoration will take place in Northern Ireland. In recognition of the fact that the Great Famine affected all parts of the island, the location of the annual Commemoration has rotated in sequence between the four provinces since the first Commemoration took place in Dublin in 2008 and falls to Ulster in 2015.
The advent of workhouses in Ireland predates the Great Famine. Although they were regarded as a last resort and were feared by many, they were nonetheless overcrowded during the Great Famine. This article looks at how events affected the workhouse in Newry.
A workhouse located in Canal Street, with accommodation for sixty paupers was established by the Newry Workhouse and Mendicity Association in 1834. Supported by public contributions from citizens of Newry and major landowners, the workhouse was seen as a way to better meet the needs of the poor and prevent street-begging. The Association also provided relief for the poor in their homes and provided employment in spinning for around three hundred poor women. Congregational collections from several places of worship in the town also supplied the poor with fuel, clothing and straw.
The Act of 1838 ‘for the more Effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland’ provided the means by which a system of workhouses was built around Ireland. It established the Poor Law Commission, dividing the country into Unions, each with their own Board of Guardians and workhouse with a poor rate levied to support the system.
The Union of Newry covered an area of 215 square miles and consisted of 23 electoral divisions, which were represented by 31 elected guardians and 10 ex-officio guardians. Built on just over 7 acres of land in Carnagat, at a cost of £8,827, the Newry Union Workhouse was built to accommodate 1,000 inmates. Other nearby workhouses included Kilkeel (300), Armagh (1,000), Banbridge (800) and Downpatrick (1,000).
The first paupers were admitted on the 16th December 1841. Amongst those admitted in the first few weeks were the paupers of the recently closed Newry Workhouse and Mendicity Association. Preference was to be given to the aged, infirm, those with disabilities who could not support themselves and children. Children often made up the largest section in the workhouse, amounting to just over half the number of inmates in January and May 1848. Able-bodied women were the second largest group; in May 1848 there were 324 females compared to 98 male paupers. Entry into the workhouse was in the form of a written order from the Board of Guardians or a Relieving Officer. The Master (or Matron in his absence) could admit paupers in urgent cases or on the receipt of a written recommendation from a Local Warden.
Paupers entering the workhouse were segregated into different wards; male, female, school and children’s wards, infirmary and idiot wards. Once inside the workhouse, paupers were known as inmates. They were issued with the workhouse uniform, made from poor quality rough material. There was no difference between summer and winter clothing, leading the Medical Officer in December 1846 to request extra clothing for the women and children and flannel waistcoats, stockings and shoes for some of the men and delicate boys.
No one capable of work was allowed to be idle, and jobs in the workhouse included breaking stones, grinding corn, mending clothes, laundry and looking after the children and the sick. The work was often arduous and unrewarding. A corn mill was built in 1849 and the report for the Board of Guardians on the 15th September 1849 states that some of the female paupers grinding Indian corn were working until they fainted.Their hours of work were from 7.30am to 8pm. In response the mill workers were to be relieved every quarter of an hour, rather than every half hour which had been the practice up to that point.
Refusing or neglecting work was just one of the misbehaviours that were punished, others included pretending to be sick, playing cards, entering other wards or wilfully disobeying orders from officers of the workhouse. Maintaining discipline in the workhouse was difficult. A punishment book was kept by the Master and details of punishment are noted in the minute books of the Board of Guardians. One male inmate was “whipped for picking the putty when soft off the windows newly glazed which occasioned the glass falling out”; a female inmate was confined to the lock-up for nine hours for “refusing to work and damaging her clothes”. They could also end up in court for more serious offences. One inmate was transported for seven years for “stealing a number of books and other articles from this establishment”.
The food in the workhouse mainly consisted of bread, stirabout (made from either Indian corn meal or oats) and buttermilk. During the Famine there were problems with the quantity of food available. In April 1849, the Medical Officer wrote to the Board regarding the “insufficiency of food for the inmates, they individually not getting their stated allowance; that complaints continue to be made about the thinness of the stirabout”. In light of the weakened state of the paupers he “dreads an increase of mortality”. The Master responds that he oversees the quantity of meal allowed for breakfast and has ordered that “the cooks employed to superintend the stirabout be locked up during the time of its being boiled in order to prevent any portion of it being abstracted”.
The harsh, cold winter of 1846/47 saw numbers entering the workhouse rise sharply. In mid November 1846 there were 712 inmates in the workhouse. Saturday 7th November saw seventy-one applicants admitted; up to that point the largest known to apply in any one day. A further twenty one able-bodied men unable to find work were refused admission. By the end of February 1847 the number of inmates had risen to 994. Numbers continued to rise and by May 1847 the stables had been converted into day rooms and sheds erected to provide extra accommodation. By the end of May 1848 there were 1,283 inmates. By mid February 1849 the workhouse could accommodate 1,500 (with 450 in an auxiliary workhouse). Six months later the number had fallen to 854 and a year later they were reduced further to 595.
The large numbers living in close quarters led to outbreaks of disease. A letter from the Medical Officer on the 9th January 1847 reports an increase in fever, dysentery and chest conditions. Typhus, measles, cholera, whooping cough and scarlet fever were also common. Later that month after reporting “20 new cases of bad fever and 52 new cases of measles, bringing under my care this week 36 cases of fever and 105 cases of measles” his request for help with his work is granted, allowing him to employ an assistant for three months. On the 30th January he writes “From the length of time I spend daily in the house in our too crowded wards I run the greatest risk of taking fever”. His words become reality by the beginning of March, when he too has fallen ill. The fever wards in the workhouse were unable to cope and although a separate fever hospital had been requested by the Medical Officer in January 1847, it would be October 1849 before the Union Fever Hospital opened.
The first few months of 1847 were turbulent times in the workhouse with the deaths of the Master and Schoolmaster and the illness of the Medical Officer leaving the workhouse in a disorganised state. By the 20th March 1847 the Acting Medical Officer reported that “there are 362 inmates of the workhouse under medical treatment of which there are 57 cases of fever, the Schoolmistress being one of these”. The death rate in the workhouse is reflected in the inspection by Mr. P.M. Barron in October 1849 in which he suggests “the necessity of the guardians marking out that part of their ground which they consider best adapted for a burying ground, as the small patch at present occupied for that purpose contains nearly 1,400 bodies”.
Newry’s workhouse continued to provide relief to the poor for another century. In 1900 a serious fire destroyed the main building. It was rebuilt with improved facilities and was in use until the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948, which ended the poor law system. The site later became Daisy Hill Hospital.
Over the coming weeks Newry and Mourne Museum will produce a number of articles looking in more detail at the effects of the famine on the Newry and Mourne area. Articles will include, emigration, effects of famine in South Armagh, and local encumbered estates.
Newry and Mourne Museum will host a wide range of events for schools and for all those who are interested in learning more about this period in Irish history, one that altered Irish life completely; everything from economics, politics and culture was changed.
These events form part of an extensive programme of activities organised by Newry, Mourne and Down District Council for the 2015 Annual Famine Commemoration taking place 26th September in Newry.