Sourcing a regional history of Irish workhouse children

Sourcing a regional history of Irish workhouse children

Workhouse ireland children 1895

One of our 2015 bursary winners, Simon Gallaher (Cambridge) writes about how he used his funding to research Irish Poor Law Unions and children’s lives between 1851 and 1911.

My BAIS bursary has made a helpful contribution to my archival research at the National Archives in Dublin, the Tipperary Local Studies archive, and the records of Cork City Council. This work from September to December 2015 is to examine what the records of several Irish Poor Law Unions may contain regarding the welfare of children from 1851 to 1911. These sources are essential for understanding how regional and local divergences characterised the poverty and poor relief of children in Ireland, a key question of my research.

Because of the bureaucratic and formulaic nature of poor law records, an extended period of time is required for their transcription and analysis. The main sources for identifying children in the workhouse are the admission and discharge registers. Unfortunately the majority of these for southern workhouses no longer survive. This partly determined the case-studies selected: North Dublin, Cork, and Thurles. In most cases, these registers are the only source in which poor relief applicants themselves were recorded. For each register entry the name, age, gender, religion, parental marital status, and date of admission and discharge were detailed. This information facilitates a demographic reconstitution of children in workhouse populations and hints at how poor relief was accessed and used by local families. Registers reveal the diverse reasons for admission of children, and the distinctions between urban and rural poverty, two themes which the Poor Law Commissioners often glossed over in their annual reports. Rural workhouses, such as Thurles, experienced pronounced seasonal demand for relief with the admission of whole families in winter and their discharge in spring. In contrast, North Dublin held many orphaned and deserted children who were long-term inmates, but also a rapid turnover of single parent families, particularly of young women with illegitimate infants.

The other sources I accessed were the minute books of the Boards of Guardians of each Union. These give an insight into the administration of local poor relief, the financial concerns of ratepayers, and the friction between Guardians and the centralised authorities on one hand and relief applicants on the other. Although children are relatively silent in these sources, Guardians’ policies on education and industrial training were often the most emotive subjects under discussion. Fear of proselytism was rife, and the question as to whether poor children ought to be sent out to employment immediately or provided with a degree of literary, industrial, and moral training within the workhouse was debated continuously. These local sources offer a new perspective on the Victorian dilemma of how bourgeois notions of childhood were to be applied to pauper children within a relief system characterised by less-eligibility and deterrence.

Yet despite a representation as such in official sources, children were not passive entities within this system. I was exceptionally pleased to find that the record of hired and boarded out children of the Tipperary Union has survived, albeit for the period 1912-15 only. In it, the agency of these children is revealed. Guardians experienced considerable difficulty in controlling these children, particularly teenagers. Many absconded from the workhouse or their apprenticeships, often in search for their parents and kin only to return through want or by way of the police. Some refused to attend school, like Michael Egan who told the Tipperary Relieving Officer that he considered himself too big for it. John Mahony had been hired out on a poor law apprenticeship to a shoemaker, but he refused to work as he thought the wages too low, much to the exasperation of the Guardians.  

The evidence in these records indicates that both poverty and the provision of poor relief for children in Ireland were undoubtedly local in character. What was consistent across all regions, however, was the moral perception of poverty, pauperism, and welfare expressed by local officials. Access to relief was not determined solely on the economic needs of an applicant, but also whether their character was deserving or un-deserving of public support. Children were often tarnished, in the eyes of society, by the immorality of their parents. Unmarried mothers, and their illegitimate children, were stigmatised in particular. On the night of 29th July 1871, the North Dublin workhouse porter refused the admission of a young woman ‘of ill repute’ and her nine month old child. When a passer-by complained of such treatment of a vulnerable infant, the porter replied “should the child have died during the night, whilst the mother was earning the wages of infamy, I would consider the mother alone responsible as she exposed her child avowedly for the purpose of prostitution.”

These demographic case-studies, minutes of Guardians’ policies, and the personal accounts of poor relief applicants have been invaluable for my research. They offer a layer of analysis which parliamentary reports, detailing nominally national policies and practices, cannot provide. The care of children under the Irish Poor Law was complex, controversial and often contradictory, and I am extremely thankful to the BAIS for providing the means to study it.

Image Source: Ref: A workhouse scene from 1895 (NLI, Irish Personalities List, NPA Box LXII)

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