Waterford County Museum, Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, Ireland. Charity Reg: 17397
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Occupations Of The Workhouse Inmates

Desperate Haven - The Famine in Dungarvan

18. Occupations Of The Workhouse Inmates

Knitting, Sewing And Embroidery


THE  Board  of  Guardians of  the above Union  will pro-ceed to Elect a competent Person to fill the above situation, on THURSDAY, the 16th of May Inst.,  at a salary of £20 per annum, with officer's rations and an apartment.No Person need apply who is not fully competent to in-struct the  Females in all the works usually taught in such establishments; she will also have to superintend not only the making up, but likewise the manufacture from raw material of all the Clothing and Bedding materials, &c., used in the several Workhouses in the Union. The Person applying must have acted previously in some other such establishment in a similar capacity. Tenders with certificates to be received by me up to 12 o'Clock, on  Thursday,  the  16th.  inst.,  on which  day the election will take place. Candidates to appear in person on that day.
By order,
Acting Clerk of Union.
Board-Room, 4th. of May, 1850.

In May 1849 there were 128 women in Kiely's store. The Board decided to employ these women at knitting and sewing. Catherine Hackett supplied wool to the Union at the rate of 12/6s per stone. By 4 April 1850 there was little improvement in the employment situation within the Union Workhouse and auxiliaries. Mr. Burke, Poor Law Inspector, reported that the women at Keating's were all idle, 'there being no wool for them to work.' It was therefore decided to advertise for a competent person to take charge of the industrial training of the female paupers at Keating's, at the rate of £15 per annum plus rations and apartment. As a result, Miss Ellen Tandy was appointed industrial mistress on 16 May 1850.

An example of the type of work done in the Workhouse appears in an advertisement placed in the Munster Citizen newspaper, dated 4 March 1852, by the Board of Guardians. It reads as follows, '95 suits repaired, 37 pairs of sheets repaired, 187 yards of flannel wove by weavers, 1734 articles washed, 33 sacks of corn ground, 272 lbs. of wool spun, 116 perches of land cultivated, 80 cubic feet of stones broken, 3 dozen of men's caps knit, 110 yards of calico wove, and, 12 lbs. of sewing thread spun.' 

On 15 April 1852 the visiting committee recommended that a trained instructress to teach the young female inmates embroidery, netting, knitting, etc., be advertised for at a salary of £15 per annum and rations and apartments. As a result of this advertisement Miss Mary Everard Keane was appointed. By August the girls were employed at spinning, carding, and sewing, at the main house. In addition 50 women were involved in spinning at Keating's Auxiliary. Offers to supply materials for embroidery were tendered by Messrs. Long and Merrick of Youghal. However, the Board of Guardians decided to accept the proposal of Mr. James Murphy of Carrick-on-Suir. The following list of articles was sought on 16 September 1852:-

200 stripes of muslin for embroidery patterns, stamped for beginners.
300 sewing needles nos. 7,8,9, and 10.
200 thimbles.
200 hoops for muslin embroidery.
100 pincers for same.
6 pairs of small sized scissors for fancy work.
1 lb. of French cotton.
6 spools of Moravian cotton.
100 crochet needles, - bone handles.
2 dozen of crochet patterns for beginners.
6 lbs. of crochet cotton.

The visiting committee, on 20 January 1853 reported very favourably on the progress of the children employed in embroidery and other fancy work, which they said, 'reflected with great credit on Miss Keane, being only 3 months in full operation.'
On 24 February 1853 the first proceeds were received from the embroidery work, amounting to £2.2.2. On 3 March the school received an order to make a large number of shirts for a supplier in Liverpool, at 3/-s. per dozen. The supplier agreed to supply the material. Mr. Hamilton, Poor Law Inspector, stated that the embroidery work was sold below market value. Embroidery works were also supplied to Mr. John Ritchie, 87 Talbot Street, Dublin. The Matron reported on 6 June 1853, concerning the progress of the school. She informed the Board that the proceeds of the embroidery work since the commencement amounted to £26.4.2. Over 30 girls, aged between 9 and 18 years had been able to support themselves outside, by their embroidery works, since the previous month of May. A number of them were also able to take their parents and sisters out of the Workhouse, and contribute to their maintenance. She also reported that there were 106 school girls and 14 adults at that time under instruction. She stated that 50 of these would in two months be capable of supporting themselves, should a suitable opportunity arise. In Waterford city a school had been established and employment given to over 800 girls, earning from 5/-s. to 6/-s. per week.

In December of that year, the embroidress, Miss Keane, was allowed to live as an out-door officer, receiving £28 a year instead of her previous salary of £15 and rations. During 1854 there were various receipts for embroidery work from Mr. Murphy, of Carrick, who was the embroidery agent. Examples of some of the receipts are as follows: 2 February - £2.12.4½, 1 June - £1.18.2½ received for muslin work, 15 June - £2.19.8 received as proceeds of 145 pieces of sewed muslin work. A total of £15.5.0 was received for the full year.

From November onwards the embroidress and her pupils were employed in repairing all the womens', girls', and children's wear in the house. On 26 April 1855 a committee consisting of Edward Odell, Richard Longan, Andrew Carbery, and Lord Stuart de Decies, recommended that the Board dispense with the services of the embroidress. The Guardians discovered that they could have the same work done outside the house with less expenditure. The embroidress was given one month's notice on 10 May 1855.

Spinning and weaving were occupations carried on in the Workhouse for a period of time. The spinners and weavers made the cloths for the inmates of the establishment.

On 15 February 1849 William Robinson submitted a bill for erecting looms in the Workhouse. On 11 October 1849 the looms that had been in the boys' school-room were removed to the offices at Albert house, thus converting these offices into work rooms. Women were employed in making shawls at the main house, thereby making a saving on expenditure to the Board. For example 100 shawls had been bought from Mr. William Ryan costing 1/4s each. The Board ordered the Master to send all the looms down to Keating's store, plus the weavers, who were at that time inmates of the main house. These weavers numbered 86 in total. It was decided on 5 December 1850, to train boys as weavers. The Matron of Clogheen Workhouse offered the services of an experienced female weaver, Margaret Lonergan, to fill this post. This offer was accepted on 26 December, at the rate of 2/-s per week, and assigned to her a ward-mistress ration. A master weaver, Patrick Power, was also appointed, at the rate of £18 per annum without rations. He was placed in charge of the six looms at Keating's, which were worked by four adults who were weavers by trade, and two boys of the 4th. class (9-16 years). Six other boys were also under his instruction. Margaret Lonergan was at the main house, where she was in charge of six girls, varying in age from 14 to 16 years of age. There were also 8 other girls in the course of instruction.

By order of the Board in August 1852 the male idiot ward was converted into a weaving department. On 27 January 1853 the male weavers were removed from Keating's to the former male idiot ward. However, in March, the looms that had been in the infirm ward and idiot wards were again removed to Keating's, together with the weavers, thus reversing the directive given in January. The weaveress left in July 1853, when she was offered a post in Lismore Union. There were 8 persons under her instruction at this time. Ellen Golden was appointed weaveress on 18 August 1853. However, she tendered her resignation in November of that year. She had 13 weavers, both male and female, under her tuition. In 1854 the former female infirm ward was converted into an apartment for the working looms, and also for spinning and carding. A portion of the men's day room was also converted, to hold up to six looms.

It was calculated that the cost of producing one yard of material in the Workhouse was 7d, whereas the cost of purchase in a shop was 4½d. Therefore a loss was incurred when material was made at the Workhouse. As a result of these findings it was decided, on 9 November 1854, to give the master weaver, Patrick Power, a month's notice. The contract for weaving was given to people outside the poor house, irrespective of the pauper labour available inside. Tenders were also invited from weavers from Kilmacthomas. In April 1855 a weaver was appointed outside the Workhouse. He was given a loan of two looms that had been idle. An estimate of the value of these was made and the weaver's note was taken as security for them until his contract was completed.

In 1856 the Guardians changed their opinion and advertised for weavers to work within the Workhouse. As a result, Mr. James Fitzgerald was appointed. In 1858, some old looms were sold at an auction, realising £3.10.0. Finally, the Board decided on 14 July 1859 to dispense with weaving. The weaver bought the three remaining looms for 15/-s. Thus ended the Dungarvan Union's association with weaving.

The Board of Guardians decided that milling should be established in the Workhouse premises. On 31 December 1846 a hand mill was bought from Mr. Kiely. In January 1847 a tender of £19.3.0 was accepted for the erection of an oven in the mill house. On 20 September 1849, the Clerk applied to Mr. Richard Perrott of Cork for an estimate and plan of a mill, such as that provided to Lismore Union. Mr. Perrott informed the Guardians that he could supply a mill for £150. This was accepted by the Board. The capstan mill was used for grinding corn and was designed by Richard Perrot, specially for use in prisons and Workhouses. It could employ 100 people at a time, walking in circles for hours pushing the wheel that worked the mill. The capstan mill was erected under the idiot wards on the men's side of the building. In February 1850 a carpenter was employed to cover in the mill works. On 21 February 1850 Henry Hill was appointed miller at 14/-s. per week, without rations. A month later, Thomas Greene was also appointed, at 15/-s. per week. It was calculated that each miller would grind 10 bushels of wheat (a bushel of wheat is approximately 65 lbs.) in 10 hours each day. It had been ascertained that one sack of wheat could be ground into wholemeal in one hour. (There is an anomaly in these figures.)

When Mr. Burke visited the mill on 27 June 1850 he discovered that 40 or 50 women were employed in pushing the wheel that worked the capstan mill, 'while men well able and better suited to be employed at it were weeding.' The Poor Law Commissioners ordered the rectification of this situation. However, in September it was resolved that the mill be kept working throughout the week, even if it meant that adult women should also be employed at it. By November a gang comprising 40 men was working the mill constantly. James Toohill was appointed miller at 10/-s. per week.

The working of the mill proved to be very unpopular with the inmates. The following is a report taken from The Munster Citizen newspaper, dated Saturday 27 April 1852. 'The sort of horse labour required from "paupers" in the poor house at the capstan mill, seems to be very unpopular, as every Board day we find the Master reporting that he has stopped some individuals rations for neglecting this work. Thomas Walshe, Thomas Hubbard and James Hubbard were brought this day before the Bench for refusing to work on the mill, on 19 Inst. and being convicted, they were sentenced to one month's "imprisonment" each in the County gaol with the very hardest labour that the governor can provide for them.' It again  reported as follows, in their issue dated 10 April 1852:

'Mr. Burke, at the Board of Guardians meeting of 1 April 1852 stated that children and women were alone employed on the capstan mill, whereas it had been intended only as a test for the able-bodied, as to whether it was sheer idleness or real want that drove them into the house. It was said by the officials, in the house, that a gang of able-bodied men could not be got to work the mill. He (Mr. Burke) could scarcely credit this when he saw so many able bodied men employed on trivial messages...to look for tobacco and whiskey about the town...It was never intended that women or children should be employed on the capstan.'

A committee of enquiry was then appointed to ascertain the truth of these allegations. [1] As a result, on 17 March 1853 (one year later), the Board ordered the cessation of employment at the mill of women with infants.  

On 3 February 1853 the Board ordered the miller to preserve the mill dust and not throw it out as was previously the case. This dust was thereafter used in fattening pigs, poultry, etc., on the farm, and it also sold well.

By 19 October 1854, the numbers seeking admissions to the Workhouse had decreased to such an extent that the Board decided to dispense with the services of the miller. The mills were discontinued in all Workhouses after 1855. On 26 November 1857 the Guardians of the Dungarvan Workhouse decided to sell the capstan mill. It was sold  on 15 April 1858, for £26.

Another occupation of the Workhouse was bread-making. This bread was used solely for the inmates. One of the suppliers of super fine and whole meal flour was Mr. Purser. On 3 January 1850 Michael Cooney was appointed baker at the weekly wage of 14/-s. without rations. A plan and estimate for a separate building, to include a bakery so constructed that the top of the oven would answer for a corn kiln and flour store on one side of the bakery, and a bread store on the other side, was drawn up.

The baker was discharged on 2 May 1850, for neglect of duty which resulted in much irregularity in providing meals at the proper times. Thomas Kiely was subsequently appointed baker at the rate of 15/-s. per week. Four boys were engaged in baking under the supervision of the master baker, on 19 August 1852.

It was discovered on 24 April 1853, that there was a deficiency in the bread returns of the baker. The Board considered him not guilty of fraud, but they did consider him inefficient. They therefore decided to dismiss him. William Glynn was appointed baker on 12 May 1853, at 15/-s. per week. He was employed in the Workhouse until 17 June 1858, when he was dismissed for absenteeism. At this stage the Board decided to contract the bread from Mr. Williams, and later, from Mr. O'Mara, both of Dungarvan, rather than have it baked in the house. The bake house was eventually fitted up, on 19 February 1863, as a day room for the able-bodied males.


A Typical Order That The Tailors Received

Providing clothes for the inmates was one of the most important considerations of the Board of Guardians. They decided to have the clothes made in the Workhouse rather than buy them ready-made. On 20 November 1845 they ordered 300 yards of corduroy, at 4/-s. per yard, for mens and boys trousers, and also calico for lining. Ned O'Donnell was the supplier. James Geary's tender for tailoring was accepted at 6/-s. per yard. In order to eliminate waste and keep a check on the usage of material, the Guardians ordered that 'all cloths given to the tailor be measured and weighed, trimmings inclusive, and that he return them by count and weight of articles and weight of waste.' This ensured that all the material given to the tailor was used and accounted for. On 11 October 1849 Thomas Power was appointed master tailor in place of James Geary. He was sent to Keating's store, where he supervised the boys under his instruction. Crippled boys were often sent to work with the tailor, thereby learning a trade.

The tailor had 16 boys working under his instruction on 19 August 1852. His salary was reduced to 8/-6d. a week, as a result of a decrease in numbers in the Workhouse and consequently, less of a workload. In addition to making new clothes, repairing old clothes was a very important part of the daily activity of those involved in tailoring. Garments were repaired many times before they were finally discarded. At that stage they were no better than rags.

On 9 November 1854 it was resolved by the Board of Guardians that a month's notice be given to the master tailor. The tailoring work was then contracted to people outside the poor house, irrespective of the available inmate pauper labour. Thomas Bowler's tender to make boys clothing for £1.2.0. per suit and repairing suits for 4d. each was accepted on 22 February 1855. Thomas Power who was no longer an inmate of the house also received a contract from the Board. Three crippled boys who had been receiving instruction from the master tailor, Thomas Power, prior to his discharge, were apprenticed to these outside tailors. However, Thomas Power emigrated to England on 19 November 1855. John Cooney's tender to repair the clothing of the male inmates for 4d. per article, and for making boy's clothing at £1.10.0. per suit was accepted in January 1856.

Tailoring continued as one of the few occupations of the Workhouse after this period. The Board of Guardians continued to supply the materials for the tailor, rather than buy the articles ready-made.

Shoemaking was another of the trades taught in the Workhouse. The shoes and clogs made in the house were exclusively for the use of the inmates. Repairing shoes was an important part of the labour. All the materials bought by the Board of Guardians and given to the shoemaker had to be accounted for by him. All leather and wood was weighed out to the shoemaker by the Master from 15 May 1849 onwards, as a result of this directive. The shoemaker then had to return the same by count of shoes and clogs with the weight of waste included, so that the amount returned by him was equal to the amount originally given to him.

Clogs costing 2d. per pair were primarily worn by the fifth and sixth classes (children aged between 5 and 9 years, and 2-5 years respectively). Shoes were worn by all other classes. The school children wore no footwear during the Summer period. This time span ranged from the middle of May to the end of September or the beginning of October, as directed by the Medical Officer.

On 11 October 1849 James Morrissey was appointed master shoemaker at 7 shillings per week. He was dismissed however, shortly afterwards, and Thomas Brown appointed on 26 September 1850, at 7/6s. per week. He retained this position up until his death on 5 April 1860. The shoemaker had four boys employed under his instruction. Mr. P. Power was the supplier of leather. His half-year account to 27 June 1852 amounted to £11.8.9. Up until 11 November 1852, the shoemaker had twenty one boys under instruction. Eighteen of these boys were orphans.In 1860 Thomas Power was appointed shoe-maker. His tender to make shoes at 1/5s. and to repair them at 8d. a pair was approved by the Board.

A change in the cost of repair was made in September 1861. New prices were :-

heeling 2d. per pair,
patching 2d. per pair
soling 6d.2d. per pair
soling, welting, and general repair 8d. per pair.

One of the ongoing occupations of the inmates of the Workhouse was breaking stones. Limestone was bought, by the yard, from various sources. This was then broken down into smaller pieces and resold as road repair material. For example, 200 yards of limestone was bought on 22 April 1846, at 1/6s. per yard. This type of employment was performed, especially when there was no other source of employment available. All paths within the Workhouse grounds and its Auxiliaries had to be cleared when rented by the Poor Law Guardians. In May 1846 twenty men and boys cleared and repaired the foot paths from the main house to the Workhouse Chapel, by levelling, breaking stones and clearing channels. Refractory boys were also employed at breaking stones. In September 1860 a covered passage, 30 foot long, on the West side of the Workhouse was used as a shed for breaking stones. It was therefore possible for the inmates to work even on wet days.

A time table was set out on 5 March 1863, for the able-bodied men:
6 a.m. - 9 a.m. work (breaking stones)
9 a.m. - 10 a.m. breakfast
10 a.m. - 3 p.m. work
3 p.m. - 4 p.m. dinner
4 p.m. - 6 p.m. work

In May 1888 a shed consisting of, 'a corrugated iron structure on substantial timber supports, 30 ft. by 16 ft., was erected against the boundary wall between the entrance gate and the elm tree. Such a shed would face the sun, and could be viewed from the window of the porter's lodge.' This shed was used by the inmates as a premises for breaking stones.

Men and boys were involved in clearing and draining land, thus making it suitable for cultivation. In 1849 able-bodied men were employed in making a drain, which ran from the back gate of the Workhouse in a straight line, to the sluice or sewer running under the causeway of the Youghal to Dungarvan road. In 1856 the boys were daily involved in making a water-course through the Spring field. They were assisted by able bodied-women. School girls were involved in weeding.

Another ongoing activity in the Workhouse was the clearing, emptying, and cleaning of cess-pools and privies. The privies were purified by the weekly application of lime.

The women were employed at cooking and laundry work. Originally the cooking and laundry for all the Auxiliaries was done at the main house. However this soon proved impractical, especially as regards the laundry work. Eventually, the fever hospital acquired its own laundry facilities. From August 1849 onwards, the girls at Keating's were instructed in washing procedures. A steam cooking engine was installed there in 1850, which was capable of cooking food and heating water for laundry purposes. A washing trough, plus 3 large tubs with double bottoms and stands were erected. In 1853 washing sheds were erected in the men's, women's, and girl's yards, at a cost of £6.8.0. by William Meagher. A steam cooking apparatus was in use in the main house, bought from Mr. Graham, Waterford. It was operated by a paid cook, and was in service up to 26 September 1862. This steam cooking service was abolished at this time and the services of the cook dispensed with. The cooking was then carried on by the inmates of the house.

In August 1864 a washing, wringing, and mangling machine was purchased for 15 guineas from Mr. Condon of Waterford. The purchase of this machine was necessary as a result of a decrease in the number of able-bodied women in the house. Some women inmates were appointed nurse tenders in hospital. They received a weekly wage of 2/6s. per week. Inmates also had to wash and cleanse any new admittance to the Workhouse. This was often highly dangerous, especially during times of fever and other epidemics. They were granted rations of porter as incentives to undertake this task.

A labour book was kept, documenting those working in the house and the type of employment they were engaged in. This book was regularly produced to the Board of Guardians.

From 1852 onwards notices were placed on chapel gates and Workhouse gates, to the several electoral divisions, informing farmers and trades people, etc., that paupers, both male and female over 15 years of age, could be hired out or taken out of the Workhouse. This accounted for the decrease in numbers that appeared on the Workhouse books, especially during the Summer months. An example of this practice is evident from the minutes of 11 May 1871:

Catherine Ryan hired at 15/-s. per quarter by Mrs. Walsh,
John Duggan hired at 10/-s. per quarter by Nicholas Veale,
Dennis Curran hired at 9/-s. per quarter by William Foley of Kereen,
Thomas Nugent hired at 9/-s. per quarter by Margaret Curran.

All were granted a suit of well-mended clothes.

A report by the Local Government Board Inspector, on 2 February 1888, observed that the arrangements for the industrial training of the girls were sufficient. However, as regards the boys, 'they received as soon as they were old enough, a certain amount of agricultural training from the Master.' No trades were taught in the establishment at this stage. He reported that the supply of farm labourers was greatly in excess of demand. 'Also in a school of that size where the number of boys was over 20, there were occasionally some who were physically incapacitated from earning a livelihood by agricultural labour.' He advised the Guardians to make some arrangements to enable the boys to be instructed in trades. On 13 September 1888 the visiting committee reported that they had spoken to Meade, the tailor, and Wade, the shoemaker, and that these were willing to teach their trades to such boys as would be sent to them, at £4 a year.

John Hallihan replaced Thomas Power as shoemaker. His prices were:-

making mens shoes 1/-s. a pair
making womens 10d a pair
making boys & girls shoes 9d. a pair
making childrens shoes 8d. a pair

Shoemaking continued as an important occupation for many years due to the fact that it was financially beneficial to do so.


  1. The Munster Citizen, 27 March, and 10 April 1852.


Author: William Fraher

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