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The Union And The Workhouse

Desperate Haven - The Famine in Dungarvan

1. The Union And The Workhouse

Sketch of Dungarvan Workhouse by Willie Fraher

Origin of the Poor Law System
The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 imposed the obligation of providing assistance to the poor on the Parish in which they resided. This method was retained by the Speenhamland System of 1785, a system of out-door relief devised by the Berkshire Justices of the Peace meeting at Speenhamland near Newbury. This provided a sliding scale of allowances, varying with the size of family concerned and the price of bread, to be paid from the rates to supplement the wages of agricultural workers. The system was an honest attempt to deal humanely with the rising problem of pauperism. The Speenhamland System was never authorised by legislation but was adopted by most English Counties except those in the North. After the Napoleonic Wars pauperism was exacerbated by a number of factors including the collapse in agricultural prices. In 1834 the Poor Law Report proposed to transfer the burden of relief to Boards of Guardians representing a 'Union' of parishes and elected by the ratepayers. The funds for such relief were to be raised via the Poor Law Rate (see appendices). No able-bodied man would receive relief unless he entered a workhouse, so ending the system of out-door relief. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 did not apply to Ireland. 

Formation of Dungarvan Poor Law Union

Entrance Porch to the Master's QuartersIn 1838 the 'Act for the Effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland' was passed. By this Act the country was to be divided into 130 administrative units known as Unions. A Union was an amalgamation of adjacent parishes to form one administrative unit. Each Union was to have a Workhouse run by a Board of Guardians which comprised of elected Guardians and local Justices of the Peace. The Workhouses were to be financed from the Poor Rate. The Boards of Guardians were answerable to the Poor Law Commissioners in Dublin. Before the introduction of the Poor Law the government did not become involved in poor-relief schemes unless there was a serious crisis. Therefore, it was left to the local authorities such as the Grand Juries in the counties, and the corporations in the cities and boroughs to assist the poor.

The Dungarvan Union was declared on 28 March 1839. It comprised an area of 163,826 acres and had a population of 57,640 in 1831. Its electoral divisions, with the population of each, were: Dungarvan East & West (16,028); Ardmore (7,407); Grange (1,874); Kinsalebeg (3,170); Clashmore (3,386); Aglish (4,762); Whitechurch (3,176); East Modeligo (592); Colligan (1,009); Seskinane (2,162); Kilgobnet (2,364); Kilrossanty (3,119); Fews (1,247); Stradbally (3,398); Ballylaneen (3,835).

The number of ex-officio Guardians (the Justices of the Peace) was 10, with 30 elected Guardians. Of this 30, eight were chosen from the Dungarvan division, three from Ardmore, with two each from Clashmore, Aglish, Whitechurch, Kilrossanty, Stradbally, Ballylaneen and one from each of the other divisions.

The Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland (1844) noted that: The whole Union is destitute of infirmary advantages; and at least 30,000 of its population are beyond the reach of dispensary relief. The medical charities are, a fever hospital in Dungarvan, dispensaries at Dungarvan, Ardmore, Bonmahon, Clashmore and Ringville.

Map Of Dungarvan Poor Law Union Showing Electoral Divisions

Ground Plan Of Dungarvan Workhouse

Entrance Building, Dungarvan Workhouse By The Architect George Wilkinson 1839


The Building of the Workhouse

Once the Unions had been formed the government set about building the Workhouses. The poor were obliged to reside in these institutions in order to avail of the only relief obtainable. It was intended that the staff of the Office of Public Works would provide designs and build the Workhouses. However, for various legal reasons this did not happen. Therefore, plans were sought from a number of English architects. The architect chosen was George Wilkinson of Oxford who was appointed in February 1839. He had already designed a number of Workhouses in England. The Commissioners made it clear that the design should be economical and plain, with the minimum of decoration. The majority of the Workhouses designed by him were in the Tudor/Elizabethan style.

Door with air ventsThe contract for the construction of the Dungarvan Workhouse was issued in December 1839 and was intended for completion by June 1841. The building was to cost £6,480, with £1,600 to be spent on fitting it out. It occupied an area of 4 acres, three roods and twenty-nine perches. The land was situated at the Spring, to the West of the town. It was leased from the Duke of Devonshire at £24.13.0 per annum. The occupying tenant was bought out for £220. The Workhouse was built to house 600 inmates. The Workhouse consisted of three sections. The entrance building was situated about 150 yards from the main block. It housed the Board room and clerk's office on the top floor, with a waiting room and porter's room on the ground floor. Also located within this building were the probationary, vagrant and refractory wards. At the rear of the building were the privies and fumigation closets. Behind these was a narrow garden (with the boys' and girls' yards on either side, separated by a wall) which led to the main block. The main section had a long facade of two storeys with double gabled three storey blocks at either end. A stone tower with mullioned windows and pointed roofs adjoined these end blocks. The central rooms contained the apartments of the Master and Matron. On the ground floor, to the left, was the girls' school with the boys' school on the right. The three-storey blocks contained the wards for the old and infirm. The children's dormitory was situated over the schoolrooms.

Beyond this section were the laundry, kitchen and a long narrow building which housed the dining hall and chapel. The men's and women's yards were situated on either side of the dining hall. The latter led to the final section of the complex, the infirmary. This included male and female wards, surgery, nurses' room and 'idiot' and 'lunatic' cells.

The entrance building was of cut sandstone, the main block of rubble stone and the infirmary had plain rendering. A number of drawings for Dungarvan Workhouse survive and are now in the Irish Architectural Archive. [1] There are about twenty-five drawings by George Wilkinson. These include elevations for the entrance front and main block dated August 1839. The original metal diamond-paned mullioned windows were later replaced with sliding sash windows and the carved barge boards were also removed from the gables. In the drawing the two towers of the main block are depicted with pointed roofs topped by oak finials. These roofs were removed in the late 19th century and replaced by a flat roof with cement crenellations. In February 1846 the Guardians had a wooden gate-keeper's lodge built. Michael Shelly was appointed gate-keeper 'to be employed 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. to prevent people from bringing in tobacco or spirits to the inmates of the house.'


  1. Irish Architectural Archive, Bin. 48, Roll 13.

Dungarvan Workhouse - Drawing by George Wilkinson August 1839 (Irish Architectural Archive)

Author: William Fraher

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