Ancestry UK

The North Dublin Workhouse.

In 1844, German traveller J.G. Kohl published an account of his travels through England, Scotland and Ireland. On his visit to Ireland he visited the North Dublin workhouse.

   It had long been the wish of the British government to introduce the English system of poor-laws into Ireland, and a few years ago this design was really carried into execution. A poor-rate has been imposed upon all Ireland, and with the proceeds of this rate, and of some large parliamentary grants, workhouses have been erected all over Ireland. The number to be erected is 150. Of these, 100 had been finished in the autumn of last year. When the remaining 50 are finished, and put into activity, it is in contemplation to pass a vagrancy act for the prevention of mendicancy. Hitherto, it has been impossible to do this in Ireland, because there did not exist a sufficient number of charitable institutions supported by the state. I was even told that there existed till lately only six such institutions in all Ireland. There are indeed innumerable institutions of the kind supported by voluntary gifts, and in Dublin alone, including asylums, hospitals, charity-schools, &c., there are 50 such. Of all these establishments, in Dublin, only one, the House of Industry, was maintained by the state. It was the largest of all, for it afforded lodging and food to no less than 2000 paupers, beggars, cripples, orphans, lunatics, &c. This was the only house of charity that I was able to visit during my stay in Dublin.
   Since the adoption of the English poor-laws, all Ireland, like England, has been divided into a certain number of districts, called unions. Every house in such a district is estimated at a certain annual value, and the poor-rate imposed upon each householder, is certain per centage on the supposed value. The tax thus raised is then applied to the maintenance of the workhouse. Dublin and its environs are divided into two unions: the North Union and the South Union. The houses in the former are estimated at 394,0001. a year, and in the latter at 561,0001. The poor-rate collected in the North Union somewhat exceeds 80001., and in the South Union is somewhat less than 12,0001.
   For the North Union, the abovementioned house of industry has been fitted up as a workhouse. There is a rate-book, in which all the rated houses are entered. I was surprised to find houses entered there at astonishingly low rents. Many were valued at 20s. (and some as low as 15s.) a year. The occupier of a house rated at 20s., had to pay a yearly tax of 5d. Surely the tenant of such a dwelling might pass for a poor man himself! A line ought to have been drawn that would have exempted such wretched huts from the imposition of a poor-tax. Some cabins in Ireland, to be sure, would defy all estimate. What rate can be imposed on the miserable being who creeps for shelter behind a mud wall or under a shed of tattered thatch.
   At the head of the poor-law system for England and Ireland are three poor-law commissioners, who reside in London. Under them are assistant poor-law commissioners, who live in the country, each having under his care and inspection a district composed of several unions, respecting which he addresses periodical reports to the central commission. The reports are printed, and so are the annual reports of the central commission. The reports of the commissions of inquiry, appointed previously to the adoption of the present system, have also been printed; and all these reports together form a little library, which he who would know Great Britain properly ought not to leave unstudied. They are full of excellent remarks, and of highly interesting evidence, respecting the country, the people, and their condition.
   The guiding principle of the workhouse system, according to Mr. George Nicholls, is this, that the maintenance offered at the public cost shall, on the whole, be less desirable than the condition of the man who maintains himself by his own labour. To carry this principle into execution, he goes on to say, it might seem necessary, at the first glance, that the inmates of a workhouse should be worse clothed, worse fed, and worse lodged, than the independent labourers of the district. In point of fact, however, those residing in a workhouse in England are much better off in this respect than the family of an agricultural labourer; and yet the constrained labour, the discipline, the confinement, and the exclusion of certain amusements within reach of the labourer who maintains himself, engender such an aversion to the workhouse, that experience warrants our saying, that no one, not wholly without means, or not really in urgent distress, will apply for admission to the workhouse, and that those whom distress has induced to enter there, will leave it as soon as they believe themselves in a condition to gain their own living. The result of all this, Mr. Nicholls adds, will be, increased exertion on the part of the labourer, to maintain himself in independence.
   To make the clothing, lodging, and food of the poor in a workhouse worse than those of the majority of Irish peasants would be impossible, and were it possible it would be wholly inexpedient. The Irish are by nature and habit a migratory people, and fond of change. An Irishman would rather travel over the whole world in search of employment than submit to the discipline of a workhouse while in the possession of health and vigour. Confinement to an Irishman is more intolerable even than to an Englishman; and, however better the accommodation of a workhouse may be than what a mud cabin can afford, nothing but extreme need will drive an Irishman into the former, nor will he remain there one moment longer than the necessity continues. Under these circumstances the question may be raised whether the contrary principle might not be applied in Irish workhouses,—namely, to make the condition of the inmates better than that which they could procure for themselves. By such means the people might be induced to give up their wild wandering misery, which they drag about the world with them, and might be taught to submit themselves to the order and discipline of a workhouse, for the sake of enjoying a better, a more decent, a more human existence. The object of a poor-house ought not to be merely to act as an auxiliary for the enforcement of a vagrancy act. We ought to have views beyond the mere suppression of mendicancy, and to aim at the permanent improvement of the condition of those whom misfortune, ignorance, or prejudice, may have reduced to destitution. It may be doubted whether any such object is kept in view in the organization of the Irish workhouses, in which a system of terror may, in some measure, be said to prevail. As in the English houses, so here, the discipline seems to me to be rude, severe, and unmitigated by kindness. The governors, as they are called, certainly did not appear to me in the light of "guardians," or "fathers," to the poor, as we are wont to designate in Germany those to whom functions somewhat similar are intrusted. These governors have always great power over the poor, and may even inflict severe punishments upon them. All these arrangements are made with a view to the object proposed. The workhouses are not intended as places of retreat for the poor; they are rather meant to be houses of correction, in which the poor shall be taught to value more highly their personal liberty, accustom themselves to work, and learn to abstain from mendicancy.
   The food and clothing within an Irish workhouse is certainly better than the pauper could enjoy out of it, for of course the inmates of such a house are not allowed to go about half-naked and half-starved, the usual condition of the poor in Ireland. The food consists generally of potatoes, oatmeal, and milk, particularly buttermilk. Bread is given only to the children and the sick. The diet tables and other regulations of public institutions are of interest to the inquiring traveller, for they often afford him a convenient insight into the manner of life of a whole nation. When, therefore, I detail to my readers the fare of a pauper in an Irish workhouse, I give them a picture of the style of living of the great mass of the Irish people, of those at least among them who have it in their power to eat their daily fill.
   As among most classes in Ireland and England, the day is divided into three acts or meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. By the last is not to be understood the noonday meal, but the chief meal of the day. The lunch is participated in only by the children and invalids. The healthy and full-grown are excluded from it. The hours at which these meals are taken are later than with us in Germany. Nine o'clock is the hour for breakfast, and four in the afternoon for dinner. The breakfast, as in most parts of Ireland, among those who have the means of decent maintenance, consists of new milk and stirabout, a kind of porridge of oatmeal; the dinner is composed of potatoes and buttermilk. The children, for their lunch, receive bread and milk. On Sundays, holidays, and on every Thursday, a little brose, or soup, is given, in addition to the customary diet. An adult receives seven ounces of oatmeal and half a pint of new milk for breakfast, and four pounds of potatoes and a pint of buttermilk for dinner. The board of an adult is calculated to cost one shilling and fourpence three-farthings weekly. That of the children is more expensive, on account of the bread, and the more liberal supply of milk. The most costly of all is the board of the children under two years old, who cost one shilling and sixpence three-farthings a week, for which they receive one pint of new milk and a pound of bread daily. There is therefore a potato diet for adults, a bread diet for children, a rice and meat diet for the sick, and lastly, a fever diet for the class of patients always most numerous in an Irish workhouse.
   The clothing of each pauper has been calculated at a halfpenny a day, or threepence-halfpenny a week, so that the food and clothing amount to somewhat under two shillings a week. With the cost of the house, the salaries of officers, and incidental expenses, the maintenance of each pauper may entail on the community an outlay of three shillings weekly, or seven pounds sixteen shillings a year. The expenses have been on the decline for the last few years, in consequence of the decline in the prices of provisions. In some workhouses, also, the cost may differ from others, but these calculations I have given may be taken as a fair average.
   I was astonished by the appearance of the potato-kettle at this house. No less than 1670 pounds of potatoes are boiled at once. This enormous quantity is all divided into portions of three and a half and four pounds, and each portion is enclosed in a small net. All these nets are laid together in a large basket, and this basket, with its nets and potatoes, is deposited in the boiler. When the potatoes are supposed to have been sufficiently boiled, the basket is wound up again by a machinery, constructed for the purpose, and the poor are then marched up in military order, when each receives his net and marches away with it.
   In the school, belonging to this house, the Chinese-Russian calculating board, or numerical frame, had already been introduced, but only a fortnight before my arrival.
   Most of the people were employed picking oakum, the occupation assigned to the inmates of most of the prisons and workhouses of England, who are thus made to prepare lint for the wounds of the British men of war. This article is indispensable in the dockyards, where it is used for calking ships. Hundreds of thousands of hands are daily occupied in the workhouses, and houses of correction, in untwining old rope ends for this purpose.
   One of the most interesting parts of the establishment is the old clothes store, in which the variegated rags that the paupers bring with them are carefully preserved, to be returned to them on their departure. A pauper, on entering the house, receives in exchange for his motley drapery, the gray uniform of the house, with N.D.U.W.H. (North Dublin Union Workhouse) embroidered upon it in large letters. His liberty rags, together with hat, stockings, shoes, &c., are first carefully fumigated, and then, having been folded together, are marked with the name of their owner, and deposited in the old clothes store. The pauper may at any time have his discharge, by simply intimating a wish to that effect to the governor, but to allow him to take with him the clothes worn in the workhouse would never do, or many would enter one day and go away again the next, merely for the sake of a new suit of apparel. Their old rags are therefore restored to them, and their ingenuity is again taxed to discover the right entrance to their distorted sleeves. It happens almost every day that among the 2000 inmates of the house, one or other, weary of discipline and confinement, and longing for his former liberty, gives the governor notice to quit, and demands the restitution of his wardrobe. It so happened that, at the period of my visit, such an application had just been made, and the clothes store was, in consequence, open. All the theatres in Europe could not have matched, in point of variety, the wardrobe here displayed to me. It must cost the poor a painful struggle when they waver between the servile N.D.U.W.H. costume, and the ragged sans-culotte drapery of freedom. Most of them prefer the latter, with all the privations that accompany it. The liberty, even of a beggar, has something sweet about it, and the free, wild, nomadic life of the Irish mendicant, has become as much a thing of habit to him, as the hunting, fishing, pastoral life has to the wandering tribes of Russia.
   If a man remains twelve months in the house, conducts himself well, and holds out the hope that he will in future maintain himself by his own exertions, a suit of clothes is given him, to help him forward on the new and thorny path of life on which he is about to enter. Dublin is, or at least was, not long ago, the main place of rendezvous for all the beggars of Ireland. The great wealth and population of the town, according to Mr. Nicholls's report, hold out to beggars the hope of a richer harvest at Dublin than in any other part of the country. This harvest is increased by the gift of accidental visiters, who are drawn to Dublin by business and pleasure, and who are often more accessible to the mendicant than are the regular residents. The many charities in Dublin act also as a great attraction to beggars; and it often happens that Irish labourers, when they go to England in search of work, leave the whole or part of their families at Dublin, to subsist by beggary till their return. The Irish paupers, too, passed from English parishes, are generally landed, in the first instance, in Dublin, where they often accumulate rapidly. And thus, Mr. Nicholls concludes, "numerous streams of vagrancy concentrate in this city as in a reservoir."
   When these circumstances are considered, and the fact that for a long time there existed in Ireland no public institutions for the relief of the poor, except in the large towns, and that Dublin was the only place where the destitute and starving pauper could be certain of relief, that therefore Dublin could not fail to be the point towards which all the want and misery of the country would tend to flow; when all these facts are considered, I say, it is no wonder there should be so many beggars in Dublin; the wonder is that their number should not be much greater. The fearful picture painted by former travellers of the condition of the Dublin poor has, however, already ceased to be applicable. The horrible yet customary salutation of the Dublin beggar,—"Sir, I am very hungry,"—I heard much less frequently than I had expected. The new workhouses have, probably, already begun to exercise a beneficial influence; but whether it will be possible to carry out the enactments of the expected Vagrancy Act, is a question to which time only will enable us to return a reply. With 150 workhouses in the country, each capable of accommodating 500 paupers, provision will only have been made for 75,000 destitute persons. Before, therefore, the state can prohibit mendicancy, it must have been ascertained that Ireland does not contain more than 75,000 individuals unable to maintain themselves by their own labour. We do not, however, require any official return to assure us that the real number of destitute poor is very far beyond 75,000, and then the question is,—what right the state can have to prohibit begging, to those to whom it has not the shelter of a roof to offer.

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