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Conceiving and constructing the Irish workhouse, 1836–45

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 February 2015

Peter Gray
Affiliation:
School of History and Anthropology, Queen's University Belfast
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Extract

The Irish workhouse has had a troubled history, attracting mostly negative commentary from the inception of the national poor law system after 1838 to the final abolition of the poor law in Northern Ireland in 1948. The popular historian of the institution opens his account with the bald statement that ‘the workhouse was the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland’. While one might quibble with this (the penitentiaries and asylums of the nineteenth century were surely as much feared, and perhaps with more reason; the record of the industrial schools and Magdalene asylums has more recently attracted the appalled attention of Irish society), the statement contains a kernel of truth. Designed with the deterrent principle of ‘less eligibility’ to the forefront, and irrevocably associated with the horrors of mass mortality during the Great Famine, the workhouses became in Irish popular memory (and in the bulk of historical commentary) associated with the suffering and degradation of their inmates. Nevertheless, the early history of the poor law and its associated workhouses is more complex than this suggests and deserves closer attention.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Irish Historical Studies Publications Ltd 2012

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References

1 O’Connor, John, The workhouses of Ireland: the fate of Ireland’s poor (Dublin, 1995), p. 13.Google Scholar

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6 See Crossman, Virginia, Politics, pauperism and power in late nineteenth-century Ireland (Manchester, 2006); Crossman, VirginiaGoogle Scholar and Gray, Peter (eds), Poverty and welfare in Ireland 1838–1948 (Dublin, 2011), chapters 1–4.Google Scholar

7 Tenth annual report of the Poor Law Commissioners, H.C. 1844 [560], xix.9, p. 35.

8 See Gray, Peter, The making of the Irish poor law, 1815–43 (Manchester, 2009), passim.Google Scholar

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10 Although the building was completed after Nicholls had left Southwell, its design influenced the ‘model’ workhouse plans approved by the Poor Law Commissioners in 1835 and disseminated to boards of guardians: Higginbotham, Peter, ‘Southwell Union (Thurgarton Hundred Incorporation), Nottinghamshire’, (accessed 3 Nov. 2011).Google Scholar

11 For Nicholls’s shifting position on the applicability of the workhouse principle in Ireland, see Gray, , Making of the Irish poor law, pp 130–4, 158–68.Google Scholar

12 Nicholls memo, 20 Jan. 1837 (T.N.A., HO100/247, fols 340-1); Report of Geo. Nicholls, esq. … on poor laws, Ireland, H.C. 1837 [69], li.201.

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15 See for example the positive referencing of Revans by the liberal-Catholic writer McMahon, Patrick in Monthly Chronicle, 4 (Oct. 1839), p. 443.Google Scholar

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25 Wilkinson’s, report in Fifth annual report, pp 81–3.Google Scholar For the most detailed description of the layout and construction of the workhouses, see Gould, M. H., ‘George Wilkinson and the Irish workhouse’, (M.Phil. thesis, Queen’s University Belfast, 2003).Google Scholar

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29 For its part, the Irish Penny Journal featured Wilkinson’s workhouse plans in its issue of 27 February 1841, and, in an article probably penned by Samuel Ferguson, praised both the aims of the poor law and the commission’s ‘intelligent and skilful architect’.

30 The Literary Gazette, 10 May 1845.

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33 Mandler, Peter, The fall and rise of the stately home (New Haven, 1997), pp 4051.Google Scholar

34 Fifth annual report, pp 81–3.

35 For the stylistic variations in front buildings within the ‘Elizabethan’ template, see Gould, ‘George Wilkinson and the Irish workhouse’, p. 137.

36 Hansard’s parliamentary debates, 3rd ser., lxvii, col. 1352 (23 Mar. 1843).

37 Thackeray, W. M., The Irish sketchbook, 1842 (London, 1857 ed.), p. 98.Google Scholar

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40 Nicholls was inclined to blame poor weather for the delays, while asserting that most had been completed in reasonable time and to a high standard of finish (Irish poor law, pp 259–60, 271–2, 284–5).

41 Northern Star, 5 Oct. 1839.

42 Copies or extracts of correspondence between the chief secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland and the commissioners of public works, relative to the workhouses at Londonderry, Strabane, and Castlederg: also, copies of reports made by Jacob Owen, esq., architect to the Board of Public Works, on the state of these buildings, and the cost of their erection, H.C. 1843 (244) xlvi.659.

43 Report from the select committee on union workhouses, Ireland, H.C. 1844 (441), xiv.495; Report of the commission for inquiring into the execution of the contracts for certain union workhouses in Ireland, H.C. 1844 [562], xxx.387.

44 Appendix D. to the eighth annual report of the Poor Law Commissioners, H.C. 1842 [399] xix.119, pp 196–202; Appendix to the report of the commissioner appointed to inquire into the execution of the contracts for certain union workhouses in Ireland, H.C. 1844 [568] xxx.551.

45 Tenth annual report, pp 36–7; Gould, , ‘George Wilkinson and the Irish workhouse’, pp 65–6.Google Scholar Balrothery was one of a number of workhouses identified by the inspectors as suffering from poor location as well as shoddy worksmanship: Collins, Sinéad, Balrothery poor law union, County Dublin, 1839–1851 (Dublin, 2005), pp 25–7.Google Scholar

46 Wilkinson, , Practical geology, pp 153–5.Google Scholar

47 Gould, Michael and Cox, Ronald, ‘The railway stations of George Wilkinson’ in Irish architectural and decorative studies, 6 (2003), pp 183201.Google Scholar

48 Connaught Journal, 29 June, 30 Oct. 1840.

49 The post-poor law usage of each Ulster workhouse is listed in Gould, , Workhouses of Ulster, pp 1828.Google Scholar For further information see Peter Higginbotham’s comprehensive listings at .

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