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Conceiving and constructing the Irish workhouse, 1836–45

  • Peter Gray (a1)


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.



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

2 Nally, David, ‘“That coming storm”: the Irish poor law, colonial biopolitics, and the Great Famine’ in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 98, no. 3 (2008), pp 71411.

3 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison (London, 1977);Ignatieff, Michael, A just measure of pain: the penitentiary in the industrial revolution (London, 1978);Driver, Felix, Power and pauperism: the workhouse system 1834–84 (Cambridge, 1993).

4 Clark, Anna, ‘Wild workhouse girls and the liberal imperial state in mid-nineteenth century Ireland’ in Journal of Social History, 39 (2005), pp 389410.

5 Crossman, Virginia, The poor law in Ireland 1838–1948 (Dublin, 2006), pp 1012.

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

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.

9 [Nicholls, George], Eight letters on the management of the poor (Newark, 1822);Willink, H. G. ‘Life of Sir George Nicholls’ in Nicholls, George, A history of the English poor law (new ed, 2 vols, 1898), i, pp 1115, xxxii–xxxv.

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).

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.

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.

13 Revans, John, Evils of the state of Ireland: their cause and their remedy — a poor law (London, 1836). For its reception see Gray, Making of the Irish poor law, pp 230–1.

14 O’Malley, Thaddeus, An idea of a poor law for Ireland (2nd edn, London, 1837).

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

16 Board memo, Poor Law, 9 Oct. 1838, in Fifth annual report of the Poor Law Commissioners, H.C. 1839 [239] xx.1, p. 26.

17 Chadwick to Nicholls, 10 Dec. 1838 (U.C.L. Archives, London, Chadwick Papers, 1486/14-20); Poor Law Commissioner to Treasury, 8 Feb. 1839, in Fifth annual report, pp 33–4.

18 O’Dwyer, Frederick, ‘Building empires: architecture, politics and the Board of Works, 1760–1860’ in Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, 5 (2002), pp 10875.

19 Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 6 Feb. 1836.

20 Cooper, Nicholas and Morrison, Kathryn, ‘The English and Welsh workhouses of George Wilkinson’ in The Georgian Group Journal, 14 (2004), pp 105–6.

21 Ibid., p. 122.

22 Poor Law Commissioner to Treasury, 8 Feb. 1839, in Fifth annual report, p. 34.

23 Evans, D. G., A history of Wales 1815–1906 (Cardiff, 1989), pp 55–8;Stewart, John and King, Steve, ‘Death in Llantrisant: Henry Williams and the new poor law in Wales’ in Rural History, 15 (2004), pp 6987.

24 Cooper and Morrison, ‘Wilkinson’, p. 123.

25 Wilkinson’s, report in Fifth annual report, pp 81–3. 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).

26 Nicholls, George, A history of the Irish poor law, in connexion with the condition of the people (London, 1856), p. 244.

27 Gould, , ‘George Wilkinson and the Irish workhouse’, p. 10.

28 Wilkinson, George, Practical geology and ancient architecture of Ireland (London, 1845).

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.

31 Wilkinson, , Practical geology, pp 120–30.

32 Pugin, A. W. N., Contrasts, or a parallel between the noble edifices of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and similar buildings of the present day; shewing the present decay of taste (London, 1836); for the illustrative contrast between friary and the panopticon-workhouse added in the 1841 edition, see Driver, Power, pp 61–2.

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

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.

38 Mr and MrsHall, S. C., Ireland: its scenery, character, etc., vol. iii (London, 1843), pp 344–8.

39 Forbes, John, Memorandums made in Ireland in the autumn of 1852 (2 vols, London, 1853), i, 144–5, 275, 279–80; ii, 228.

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. 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.

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

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

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. For further information see Peter Higginbotham’s comprehensive listings at .

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Irish Historical Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-1214
  • EISSN: 2056-4139
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