A letter from the Poor Law Commissioners dated 27 October 1845 is the first documentary evidence in the surviving Workhouse Minute Books of the impending disaster. In this letter the Board of Guardians are authorised to 'substitute other descriptions of diet therein mentioned, in lieu of potatoes as they may think fit, subject to the approval of the Poor Law Commissioners, and until they shall otherwise direct.'
What is most striking when inspecting the Minute Books of these early years of the Famine is how little anyone knew about the potato blight disease. Despite a series of wide ranging reports into the 'State of the Potato Crop' which elicited information from Workhouses countrywide, including the Workhouse in Dungarvan Union, no-one was any the wiser as to the nature of the disease which affected the crop.
It was not for want of effort that no solution was found for the disease. Solutions as wide ranging as applying lime to the diseased potatoes to manufacturing the rotten crop into potato flour or starch were all discussed by the Poor Law Commissioners in Dublin to no avail. At a local level, the Board of Guardians of the Dungarvan Union were experimenting with various methods of sowing and different types of potato beds. It was resolved at the meeting of the Guardians held on the 8th of November 1845 'that half an acre of potatoes be set immediately and that the same quantity be set in December, a portion of each setting to be in drills and a portion in lazy beds such, settings to be made under the direction of Messrs Carbery, Anthony and Kiely (members of the Dungarvan Board) and that every third drill now undug be left so until March and covered up by additional earthing.'
Throughout November and December 1845 reports were gathered in by the local Board of Guardians from the various electoral divisions in the Workhouse Union (Dungarvan, Whitechurch, Ardmore, Kilgobnet, Kinsalebeg, Kilrossanty, Aglish, Grange, Ballylaneen, Colligan and Fews) on the state of the potato crops in these areas. The news in these reports cannot have been good as on the 7th of March 1846 the Guardians purchased a small quantity of Indian-meal with a view to testing it as a potato substitute.
There was some good news for the paupers, the Board resolved that a meat dinner be provided for them on Christmas Day 1845. This dinner consisted of 1 lb. of meat for each adult pauper, with the under 12's receiving a ½ lb. Also for breakfast on Christmas morning each adult had 1 lb. of bread and an allowance of coffee to look forward to. It was the best meal many of these paupers were going to see for many years.
Spring of 1846 saw the Guardians encountering problems with the supply of sour milk to the Workhouse. This deficiency in sour milk supply was made up by substituting ½ pint of sweet milk for every pint of sour milk that could not be obtained. It is not entirely clear why the problem with sour milk supply arose, although it is likely that as supplies of potatoes diminished the local populace were forced into buying larger quantities of sour milk to supplement their diet. This would have lessened the amount of sour milk available for purchase by the Workhouse. In April of 1846 potatoes were fetching a price of greater than 4 pence per stone in the Dungarvan market. The Master of Dungarvan Workhouse was instructed by the Board not to purchase potatoes, but to substitute a 1 lb. of bread for every 4 lbs. of potatoes that each adult pauper was receiving. It would be almost a decade (15th of December 1855) before potatoes would again feature in the diet of the inmates of the Dungarvan Workhouse.
Indian-corn flour was initially used as a substitute for the oatmeal in the stirabout the paupers had at breakfast. Attempts were made to procure the Indian-meal in the quantities required for the Workhouse. Initial enquiries were made to the Government Stores in Waterford to supply the meal; however in line with Government policy of the time, the Central Commissioners in Dublin Castle refused to release this Indian- corn for sale to the Dungarvan Workhouse. A private contractor named J. Walsh (of Waterford City) eventually offered in early May to supply 10 tons (6 months supply) at 11 shillings per hundredweight for yellow meal and 12 shillings per hundredweight of white meal. It did not particularly matter to the paupers whether the Board purchased yellow or white meal as both are almost completely indigestible by the human body. The most common use for Indian-corn prior to the Famine had been as an animal feed. Unfortunately the Board of Guardians were unaware that it's nutritional value to humans was very limited because the mills in Ireland could not grind it sufficiently to make it digestible.
The Dungarvan Workhouse was not alone in using Indian-meal as a substitute for oatmeal and potatoes, Workhouses all over Ireland seized on Indian-meal as a viable and above all economic solution to the problem of feeding their inmates. The price of bread (as supplied by Mr A. Brennan of Dungarvan) had increased from 6½ pence to 8 pence per 4 lbs. between March and September of 1846. This increased cost of foodstuffs, combined with an increased number of pauper inmates driven into the Workhouse by want, forced the Board to make financial economies. In the Autumn of 1846, having made enquiries of Dunmanway Workhouse about the effectiveness of treacle and water as a milk substitute, the Board resolved 'to change the dietary of milk to treacle and water for breakfast with bread and cheap soup for dinner.' Worse was to come; from early November 1846 an adult pauper's meal consisted of 10 ounces of Indian-meal mixed with treacle for both breakfast and dinner.
Only hospitalised paupers (on the recommendation of the Medical Officer of the Workhouse) could receive alternative rations to the above. When questioned by the Dublin authorities as to the safety of substituting treacle in lieu of milk, the Medical Officer for Dungarvan replied 'although it is a fact, variety of food is conducive to health...he was of the opinion that the dietary of meal and treacle need not be disturbed, provided he might prescribe such changes as necessary in individual cases.' The Board ordered 'that the dietary do stand as at present.'Not surprisingly, over the following few months a serious outbreak of dysentery occurred in the house in which quite a few lives were lost. In early January 1847 treacle was discontinued as a food as it had obviously contributed heavily to the dysentery outbreak. The Poor Law Commissioners recommended to the Medical Officer on January 27th 'the expediency of adopting rice into the diet as a check to dysentery.' It was not until May that this advice could be acted upon. Rice was swiftly removed from the diet at the end of May when the dysentery outbreak had become less prevalent.
Meanwhile over the winter of 1846/47 some of the food suppliers to the Workhouse were encountering financial difficulties. Mr Brennan, the bread contractor, had entered into a 6 month contract to supply bread to the Workhouse at 8 pence per 4 lbs. However, such was the spiralling increase in the price of flour that he applied to have his contract re-negotiated a mere two and a half months after commencement. This the Board of Guardians agreed to do. Correspondence between the Board in Dungarvan and the Waterford City Workhouse indicates that this re-negotiating of Workhouse contracts was not an uncommon occurrence at this particular period of time. The Guardians attempted to lessen their dependence on bread contractors by building ovens and purchasing a mill for use in the Workhouse. Notwithstanding this, they still had great difficulty in obtaining flour and consequently Indian-meal and whole meal were used in the manufacture of bread.
April of 1847 saw deaths due to dropsy, dysentery and the first cases of sea scurvy. Mr T. Christian, the Medical Officer, recommended that the milk allowance to inmates be increased in order to combat the prevalence of these diseases. This the Guardians attempted to do but the only milk they were able to obtain was judged unfit for human consumption. Conditions for the poor in the surrounding area were even worse than the conditions tolerated by the paupers within the Workhouse. Mr Christian observed that many of the deaths occurring within the Workhouse were as a result of people gaining admission when they were beyond help. Following the robbery of 8 stone of flour from a cart bringing it from the Pouldrew Mills to the Workhouse in the early summer of 1847, all further deliveries were accompanied by a military escort.
The summer of 1847 passed with the paupers surviving on their predominantly Indian-meal based diet. The onset of winter however was to bring even more misery.
In October of that year the Master found he could no longer purchase milk for less than 9 pence per gallon at Dungarvan market. On one Saturday of that month it was reported that milk could not be purchased for less than 1 shilling per gallon. This prompted him to express the opinion that 'from the great quantity of all sorts of winter vegetables on the premises and a large quantity of peameal also, that the use of milk for dinner can be done away with.' Following consultations with Mr. Christian, it was decided to replace milk at breakfast time with a pint of soup made from the aforementioned vegetables and peameal.
By the end of October the entire group of able-bodied men within the Workhouse were in open rebellion. Having refused to walk to the mountains where they were to engage in their menial work, they complained to the Master 'that they had not a sufficiency of food allowed them.' The Board promptly gave each able-bodied inmate 8 ounces of rye meal bread extra per day, whereupon no more complaints were heard (at least no complaints that have been recorded in the official Minute Book).
An extra oven was built at the end of 1847. This extension to the existing bakery was necessary to cater for the increased numbers within the Workhouse, now almost at the thousand mark, and also to facilitate the making of biscuits. These were distributed to those not fortunate enough to gain admittance to the Workhouse. Within a few short months Indian-meal was substituted in place of these biscuits as it was found to be a more economical method of feeding the starving. Even this attempt at self-sufficiency was not entirely successful, as Major Bolton (who was a Poor Law Inspector) observed on his visit to the Workhouse in December 1848 'the bread was sour, bad and not sufficiently baked.' He recommended the employing of a new baker.
Extensive correspondence between Mr. Christian and the Poor Law Commission at this time indicates that the Commission were not entirely happy with his performance as the Medical Officer when advising on house diet. In a defence of his position he attacked Indian-corn as the principle cause of dietary problems within the house. He also advocated more care be taken in the preparation of vegetable soup 'as a well fed people could best resist the threatened epidemic of cholera.' This letter written in January 1849 also contained the following recipe for the Workhouse soup:
Per 100 Gallons :
This quantity of soup would feed 800 hundred people, each person would have received one pint containing 3 ounces (87 grams) of solids. Mr Christian also asserts that 'from his experience of vegetable soup, milk was not required as a constituent part of an adult paupers diet being perhaps only of benefit to infants under the age of two.' By late January milk was not available for purchase locally in the quantities required by the Workhouse, so it is possible that Mr. Christian was making a virtue out of a necessity.
Three thousand people were resident in the Workhouse and it's auxiliaries at this time. This resulted in the Board of Guardians being unable to control the behaviour of the inmates to the extent they would have liked. From April of 1849 the level of reported theft within the Workhouse increased dramatically. From this time onwards many of the entries in the Minute Book become a catalogue of petty theft and corruption.
The Workhouse staff themselves were not immune to temptation. The Matron of the Shandon Cholera Hospital, a Mrs Driscoll, was discovered to be diluting the inmate's whiskey ration (received by the sick only) with water. A nurse in the Workhouse's employ named Mary Carew was caught passing 2 lbs. of bread to her sister over the Workhouse wall.
Most of the crimes brought to light by the visiting committee involved the theft of Workhouse bread. The bakery at this time was staffed primarily with paupers, due to a shortage of finance to pay for extra baking staff. A statement made by two paupers to the aforementioned visiting committee reveals an extraordinary level of corruption among the bake-house staff. James Power and John Murphy stated that they were not receiving enough to eat. When questioned further they complained that bread was allowed to turn mouldy in the bake-house store rather than being handed out to the starving. They further complained that bread was being sold to paupers with enough money to pay for it by the bakery's workforce. A pauper named Ellen Picket was implicated as the ringleader in the sale of bread. A few hours later her son Peter Picket was discovered assaulting James Power, no doubt to ensure his silence in the forthcoming investigation.
Peter Picket's intervention came too late to prevent the whole sad story being uncovered however. The bread stores were inspected and 'a quantity of black mouldy bread was found.' Power told of further incidents of bread being sold by the paupers in the bake-house and even detailed an instance when an attempt was made to smuggle bread out of the Workhouse in a coffin. A large quantity of rotten bread was discovered buried in the Workhouse grounds during the summer of 1849. At least ten people were reported to the constabulary for crimes relating to the mismanagement of the bread store at this time.
By June of 1849 oatmeal had at least partially replaced Indian-meal as the mainstay of the pauper's diet within the Workhouse. Unfortunately for the poor on outdoor-relief they still received their relief primarily in the form of Indian-meal. The quality of this meal often differed considerably from that which was contracted for, this being the case for many foodstuffs supplied to the Workhouse at this time. Prior to entering into a contract with a supplier the Board of Guardians required the supplier to supply them with a sample of the goods. This allowed the Board to determine a certain standard quality with which the supplier must comply when supplying future orders. Unfortunately, this system of contracting did little to prevent poor quality Indian-meal, milk, and other foodstuffs being continually supplied to the Workhouse. To the credit of the Board of Guardians (and especially the visiting committee who uncovered many of the abuses and problems) they did their best to maintain some standards as regards food quality.
For example, each relieving officer was told to enter into his 'distribution book' the quality of the meal he distributed on each occasion. These entries were then drawn together to comprise the basis of a report by him to the Board of Guardians.
The problem with this approach was that it merely served to confirm the extent of a problem (the supply of poor quality Indian-meal) that everyone seemed to be aware already existed. These well-intentioned reports on food, much loved by the Poor Law Commission and the Board of Guardians, did nothing to alter the source of the problem. It was a supplier's market and suppliers regularly exploited this fact.
Another major problem facing the Board was food storage. The Workhouse was never designed to accommodate such a large quantity of people as it was forced to accommodate during the Famine. Initially the auxiliary Workhouses were used for storing some food (such as turnips). The extent of theft from these stores was such that the Board was forced to remove a lot of the food to the main Workhouse for storage. A distribution system was set up, although it did not run particularly smoothly with several instances of auxiliary Workhouses being over-supplied or under-supplied by the main Workhouse. Space was at such a premium in the Workhouse at this time that bags of flour were stored in the dining-hall from which 'paupers were in the habit of constantly stealing.'
December of 1849 saw more problems for the Board. The turnip crop of that year grown in the Workhouse grounds proved inedible and was promptly sold as animal feed. This led to a sharp drop in the quality of the soup being served to the inmates. As this soup was the main form of sustenance for the inmates it was a disastrous occurrence. A visiting committee noted the 'badness of the soup for want of using the necessary vegetables' and recommended the purchase of onions, turnips or leeks.
In response to this report the Master of the Workhouse recommended that the Workhouse field be tilled in the proportion of 1½ acres of onions, ½ acre of leeks, 1 acre of white carrots and the remainder in cabbage and turnip. However no immediate action was taken to purchase vegetables despite repeated requests for these in various visiting committee reports throughout the winter of 1849/50. The failure to take action on this recommendation was not simply callousness on the Board's part but was probably due to either a problem of supply with vegetables or more likely financial constraints.
Indian-meal was still causing a lot of damage to the health of the paupers despite adding 2 ounces of oatmeal to every 6 ounces of Indian-meal from the start of 1850 onwards. A report dated 23rd of February 1850 recommended that 'for children between the ages of 5 years and 9 years white flour should be used in the soup in lieu of Indian-meal as dysentery was very prevalent among this age group.'
Throughout the Spring of 1850 the Workhouse entered into monthly contracts for the supply of barley, Indian-meal, flour, whole-meal, oatmeal and wheat. The price of whole-meal rose by 2 shillings per sack from £1.1s per sack in February to £1.3s per sack in March. The supplier of all of the above was a Mr. W. B. Purser a local merchant and father of Sarah Purser who was later to become famous as a stained glass artist. Mr. Purser would have been the single most important supplier of goods to the Workhouse throughout 1850.
The short term contracts the Workhouse entered into at this time must have made forward planning of the diet in the Workhouse difficult. As food prices were increasing at such a rapid rate merchants were very reluctant to tie themselves to a long-term contract. Contracts for non-essential foodstuffs such as sugar, tea, wine and whiskey were still negotiated on a six month basis. Bread baked in the Workhouse from May of 1850 comprised of half whole-meal and half barley. Reports of the time indicate that the bread was of very poor quality. From a survey by the visiting committee carried out at the time, a sample of loaves purporting to each weigh 28 ounces typically weighed 2 ounces less. It is probable that the deficiency in weight was a result of bakers retaining flour for personal use. This flour would then have been made into bread and sold to the bakers' fellow paupers.
As summer arrived the grounds of the Workhouse were weeded and the weeds thrown into an ash pit. This action was taken as many paupers in their desperation for something to eat had taken to eating the weeds and had become ill. Some of the more resourceful paupers had taken to bartering their rations over the Workhouse wall in return for fish supplied by the local fish-dealers. The Guardians disapproved of this practice as they considered fish to be a very poor quality food. To prevent the occurrence of future bartering all paupers were forbidden to leave the dining-hall before consuming their rations. Any breach of this order or any other Workhouse rule was punished by stopping the rations of the guilty party for a day. Such a course was often taken and occasionally the rations of an entire section of the Workhouse (women's, men's or children's) were stopped because of widespread outbreaks of ill discipline or dissent. The Winter of 1850 saw some decrease in food prices. Whole meal was now costing 18s/10d per sack, a drop of over 4/- in price since the proceeding February. As a consequence of the decline in the inflated food prices the Workhouse was again able to procure coarse and kiln dried wheat on six month contracts. Most other cereals continued to be supplied on a monthly basis.
Christmas of this year proved to be a low point in the behaviour of the Board of Guardians towards the paupers. The Master of the Workhouse suggested that '50 lbs. of flour lying disused in the store and 6 stone of sugar be distributed to the 1,243 inmates' for their Christmas breakfast in addition to their usual rations. He also proposed that 105 lbs. of beef added to the soup would make 'an admirable addition to the dinner.' In concluding his motion the Master stated he hoped the Board would adopt his suggestion on this occasion. The order made by the Board on this occasion makes depressing reading 'the paupers had latterly so misconducted themselves by refusing to work and damaging Union property that the Board will allow no indulgence.' It is true that paupers had refused to work on occasion but the nature of their work was often gruelling. A report by the Master indicated that it was usual for workers in the bake-house to work 'night and day.' Invariably when paupers were questioned on their refusal to work they replied they were not getting enough to eat. The paupers were naturally disgruntled by the Workhouse diet, and they had reasons.
Author: William Fraher