Heading for the workhouse 1846

Browse through the minute books of the four Dublin Poor Law Union Boards of Guardians to find out how they oversaw the workhouses in their care. The Dublin workhouses were among the largest in Ireland and took in people from all over the country. Perhaps your ancestors were on a Board or among the inmates of the workhouses. These records provide a fascinating insight into the social care provided for the poor of Ireland over 80 years in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Find out how the workhouses coped with the unprecedented demands of the Great Famine or the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. You can find out about life in the workhouses and read individual case histories that came before the Board in their regular meetings.

You can find a wealth of information in these minute books. Boards of Guardians were responsible for the funding, maintenance and staffing of the workhouses and resolved individual cases, problems and disputes for both staff and inmates

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The history of Irish workhouses

Floor plan of model workhouse 1839

Prior to the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 Ireland had no statutory poor relief. All relief for the poor had been provided up to this point on a charitable basis. The Act itself was a divisive one. Not a single Irish MP voted for it as those of a more liberal frame of mind were concerned that the law as it stood would not provide aid for the most vulnerable poor who desperately needed it and the conservatives, understanding the levels of poverty afflicting Irish society, were not willing to foot the bill to deal with them.

The Westminster government had planned to introduce Poor Laws into Ireland along with the overhaul of the British Poor Law in 1834. From the earliest stages though it had been clear that Ireland had far higher levels of poverty. In 1833 Dublin Church of Ireland Archbishop Richard Whately was put in charge of the Royal Commission on the Poorer Classes in Ireland. Whately interviewed people from all over the country, of all social classes, forming a detailed picture of the causes of such endemic poverty. In a series of reports between 1835 and 1839 he concluded that Irish poverty was caused by a lack of access to jobs and recommended that rather than bringing in a copy of the English poor laws there should be a comprehensive drive to create employment.

The government however, ignored Whatley’s suggestions and instead sent English Poor Law Commissioner Sir George Nicholls to work out how to fit the existing laws into an Irish context. Nicholls took six weeks travelling around Ireland before writing his report and subsequently helping to draft the contentious bill and oversee the setting up of the Poor Law Unions.

Under Nicholl’s plans there were 162 Poor Law Unions, which would later correspond to the civil registration districts. Dublin was divided into two unions, North and South. Each union was overseen by a Board of Guardians whose job it was to set up workhouses and make sure they were maintained. They also had to collect the tax to pay for the poor law relief. Guardians were elected by those who paid their cess tax, which was similar to rates for property owners or leaseholders of a certain income. Elections could be bitterly fought as sensitivities over political or religious divisions bubbled to the surface. One Dublin meeting to elect candidates descended into a brawl over concerns about Orange influence on the Board. The first Dublin elections, held in June 1839, were held “with great vehemence and no little acrimony”.

As the 19th Century progressed the work of the Board of Guardians was far more tightly regulated. Later minute books follow a strict format to ensure that suitable care was taken about health provisions and deserted children. For the poor, the Union provided the only social security available. Without a public health system the workhouse hospitals were often the only health care that they had access to.

Guardians also hired staff for the workhouses, teachers for the school and medical staff for the infirmary. They hired foster mothers and wet nurses for deserted children and, in later years, oversaw “outdoor” relief for those within the community. They also granted new clothing for inmates leaving the workhouse to go to work.