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The Workhouse

Earlier this year when I ask for ideas for blog posts Donna asked the question “Where might a man disappear to in a famine ravaged Ireland from 1847 to 1852?" She went on to ask whether it might have been into a workhouse. That's a good possibility along with the possibility that he might have gone to England or Scotland for work.

It is said that the workhouse was the most feared institution in Ireland, but it was one of the only places that a person could go during the famine to survive. Although there had been some type of workhouse or relief from as early as the 1700s, by the early 1800s the increasing numbers of near starvation adults and children required some type of action. The Workhouse System had been in effect in England and Scotland for many years, and an English Poor Law Commissioner, George Nichols, was sent over to Ireland to determine what was needed. The attempt to implement a system such as the one in England was doomed to failure in Ireland, the difference being that in England there were actually jobs available, whereas in Ireland, there was no work. Note that his all occurred in the 1830s, prior to the Famine.

The Workhouse was a place of last resort for the starving Irish, and even admission was no guarantee of survival. They were overcrowded and many of the inmates were close to death on admission. Disease was rampant and care was limited. There were so many deaths, the bodies were placed, without coffins, in large pits. The Workhouses were in effect in Ireland from the late 1830s until 1922 when they were abolished in the Irish Free State, and until 1945 in Northern Ireland.

So what type of records were kept and where are they? The Workhouses were managed by a Board of Guardians, make up of rate-payers (primarily landlords) who were elected each year. The number of votes each Guardian had was dependent on the size of their holding. Originally, there were 130 Poor Law Unions with an additional 33 added between 1848 and 1850. The records consist primarily of Board of Guardians Minute Books and the Admission and Discharge Registers.

The Admission and Discharge Registers are the most likely to provide information, listing name, age, employment, religion, condition on entry, spouse if married, where born, where they lived (townland) and the date admitted and dated discharged (or died). In the example below, Theresa Neil (line 2 - indexed as Nugent), age 23, a Servant and her two children, John and Margaret were admitted in good health and clean. Her husband was Thomas, and Theresa and her children were born in Dublin. They were admitted on 16 Nov 1946 and one child died the 21 Dec 1846. Theresa and her surviving child were discharged 1 May 1847.

The Board of Guardians Minute Books are the other type of record. These are the administrative records of the meetings of the Board of Guardians. You may think that since these are meeting notes, they might not contain your ancestors, but there are many different types of notations. You might find notations of births, marriages and deaths, some before civil registration that might not be anywhere else; assisted emigration; names of your ancestors who were being paid to provide goods or services to the Workhouse. Here are a few examples.

  • May 1855 Anne Daly had her passage paid to Auckland, New Zealand and received £2 for new clothing. (Dublin)

  • 24 Oct 1850 William Sandy and Celia Daly were married (along with four other couples). (Dublin)

  • 1883 Mr. James Mackey sent a letter to the Board of Guardians contesting the election of the Relieving Officer (Donegal)

  • 1851 James Maher, Jos Harney, Mathew Murphy paid for weaving; Thomas Shanahan, Patrick Flynn paid for paving stones; Patrick Byrne for sweeping chimneys. (Waterford)

The next question is where to find these records. Findmypast has records for Dublin, Clare, Galway, Waterford, Donegal and Sligo (note that not all are complete and cover varying years). Ancestry has the Dublin Poor Law records. One other record set from Ancestry is the Poor Law Union Removals From England, 1859-1860. These refer to the destitute Irish in England, who were returned to Ireland to their local Poor Law Union. The Mayo County Library has just put the Ballinrobe records online as PDF documents (not searchable). You will need to do some research for other records which may be in the County Libraries or Archives. I came across Poor Law records for County Longford in their County Archive (not online). One place to check is the Sources Database at the National Library of Ireland. Search on <Board of Guardians>. It will tell you where the records are located. PRONI has records for 27 of the Poor Law Unions that are now in Northern Ireland and according to their catalog, they comprise about 7,000 volumes (about 1200 linear metres).

If you're lucky enough to be researching in a locality with Poor Law records online, do take a look. If you'll be visiting Ireland, make a point of finding out what records survive and their locality. Below are some additional links to articles about the Poor Law.

Happy Hunting and Stay Safe!

The Workhouse Story - The Irish Workhouse Centre

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