Organisation : Waterford County Museum
Article Title : Desperate Haven - The Famine in Dungarvan
Page Title : Women And Children In The Workhouse
Page Number : 19
Publication Date : 08 February 2011
Expiry Date : Never Expires
Category : Irish Famine 1845 - 1852

Women in the Workhouse
With the onset of the Famine, numbers in the Workhouse increased dramatically. This increase was evident in all classes, namely men, women, and children. Women always accounted for the greatest percentage of inmates. They were in the majority in a ratio of three to one. There was a number of reasons for this. As a result of emigration, farm labourers were in great demand. Therefore men and boys found work more easily than women.

Within the Workhouse itself there was a greater variety of trades taught to the boys, namely, weaving, tailoring, carpentry, etc., whereas girls were predominantly trained as servants. There was also some desertion of families by husbands and fathers, which meant that their wives and children had to enter the Workhouse to seek relief.

Unmarried women who became pregnant often entered the Workhouse to have their children. In a census taken on 2 April 1853, on the number of children under 15 years of age in the Workhouses in Ireland, a figure of 82,434 was recorded. [1] Five thousand seven hundred and ten of these were illegitimate. In Dungarvan Workhouse, the Master reported that on 25 March 1866, 12 of the 15 births in the Workhouse were illegitimate. It was reported on 3 September 1863 that there were 10 illegitimate children in the house.

There are cases recorded in the Minute Books which highlight instances where women, inmates of the Workhouse, became pregnant whilst residing there. In 1850 the ward-master at Kiely's store fathered a daughter to one of its inmates. He was dismissed as a result of this incident. In 1852 a 16 year old girl, who was a patient of the Shandon Cholera Hospital, was made pregnant by its caretaker. He was also dismissed. On 28 June 1855 a committee of inquiry was appointed to examine the general management and conduct of the fever hospital staff in Abbeyside. This was as a result of a daughter born to a widowed laundry worker there. The father of the child was the hospital porter. Both porter and laundry worker were dismissed as a result.

In 1854 the visiting committee recommended that a separate ward be provided for the mothers of illegitimate children. In January 1855 the female idiot ward, then unoccupied, was converted into an apartment for the women with illegitimate children. These 'dissolute females' and their children were not allowed into the dining hall with the other women. All their food was sent to them in their apartment. Thus there was complete segregation of these women from the other inmates. By 1869 they were accommodated in the upper ward of the new building. In early 1869 a fever epidemic spread through the town and surrounding district, as a result of which the Workhouse became fully occupied by the infirm classes. In June the Master proposed to accommodate the mothers of illegitimate children with the other healthy women. However, despite the pressure on numbers, the Board continued to adhere to their policy of segregation.

The Irish Poor Relief Act 1838 stated that unmarried mothers were liable for the support of their illegitimate children up to the age of 15. The natural father had no liability under this act. [2] This was one of the main reasons why a high proportion of births within the Workhouse were illegitimate, as unmarried women often had no option but to enter the Workhouse to have their children. A lot of them left the house soon afterwards with their children. The Act was amended in 1860's, making the natural father liable for the support and maintenance of his illegitimate child. For example, on 29 March 1873 Mr. Mahony, relieving officer, reported that he had called on a man in his district to inquire why he would not support the illegitimate child of one of his servants. She had claimed that he was the father of her child. The man denied this, and stated that 'as soon he settles her account he will pay whatever wages is due to her.'

On 13 October 1881 a young unmarried pregnant woman applied for admittance into the Workhouse. Eventually she was allowed enter. The man involved stated that he had no quarrel with the girl, and neither did he advise her to go into the Workhouse. He was living with his father. However, he said that he could not afford to pay her a weekly subsistence. The Board stated that, 'it was of the opinion that all such cases should be more thoroughly investigated prior to the admittance of such applicants, as all Unions are more or less the nurseries of immorality.'

The Refractory Ward

The refractory ward was located in the front building. Its purpose was to accommodate unmanageable women, and women of bad character. Prostitutes were also accommodated in this ward. There was a separate yard attached to this ward. Therefore there was no contact between this group and the other inmates of the Workhouse. In May 1852 the Board of Guardians ordered that the privy that was located adjacent to the refractory ward be converted into a refractory lock-up cell. The original cell or 'black hole' was converted into a privy. This reorganisation was necessitated by the fact that dangerous fumes were seeping from the original privy into the original black hole. In 1884 alterations were made to the boys' and women's' dormitories. A portion of each was partitioned off. The refractory ward was relocated there.

In 1885 segregation broke down for a time. The visiting committee reported on 6 August 1885 that 'the male and female hospital wards in the main building have not the supervision of the Sisters of Mercy, but are in the charge of the pauper nurses. They are open to the male and female inmates generally, and the Matron complains that females of the worst class cannot be prevented from intruding into the female hospital ward where milk and other necessaries are lying exposed. In the eastern sleeping ward on the ground floor prostitutes sleep in company with mothers of illegitimate children and a large window opens from this ward into the girls' yard.' On receiving this report the visiting committee recommended the partition of a portion of the ward where the prostitutes slept. This partitioned section was then to be used for their exclusive use. A separate yard was also provided for them. Young women of good character were separately accommodated at night in the front building. 

Probationary Ward
There were two probationary wards; one for the men, and one for the women. These were located in the front building. Each probationary ward was divided into an upper and lower probationary ward. There was a yard attached to each. The probationary ward was used to accommodate women who were being held for some misdemeanour. They were detained in this ward for a certain period of time. For example, on 9 February 1854 sixteen women were sent to this ward for not properly washing clothes in the laundry. This resulted in the wastage of soap. Anyone caught stealing was sent to this ward for a number of days.

The probationary ward was not always used for its original purpose. Most of the time it was used for other purposes. For example, on 9 March 1854 it was resolved that the nurses and children then occupying the lower probationary ward be removed to the former nursery. The spinners, on each week day except Thursdays, were employed in carrying on their work in this part of the ward, pending the erection of additional buildings on the Workhouse grounds. On Thursdays the probationary ward was used for Board meetings and as a waiting room for those seeking relief. In September of that same year the Agriculturist requested, and received, the use of the female probationary ward to store onions. It was mainly used as a store from that time onwards.

Boarding Out Workhouse Children
There was a high death rate amongst young children in Irish Workhouses which was a cause of concern to the authorities. By 1859 the Poor Law Commissioners acknowledged the problem: 'A great rate of mortality prevails everywhere, as well as in Workhouses, in the class of children under 2 years of age; but that rate is much increased in the Workhouses in regard to children who are without mothers. There is no doubt that the best substitute for the mother, in such cases, is obtained by placing the child during infancy, at nurse...and this course we have recommended that the Guardians of Unions may be allowed to pursue.'

The 1862 Poor Law Amendment Act allowed the Boards of Guardians to send out to nurse orphan and deserted children under five years of age. The age was extended to 10 years in 1869. The scheme was seen as a new form of outdoor relief. When the child had been sent out to nurse its name was entered into an outdoor relief register. The relieving officer was given various duties to ensure the children were being properly cared for. He was to ensure that the child was vaccinated and had to visit the children at least every month and submit a report to the Guardians.

In 1863, the first year of the scheme, only 77 children in the entire country were put out to nurse. By 1866 the number was 473 and by 1872 it was 1,540. In the South Dublin Union the nurses were paid £7 for each child under one year and £5 per annum for older children. However, the payment varied in each Union. The first child sent out to nurse from Dungarvan Workhouse was Peter Gallagher, an orphan aged 4 years. He was sent to Mary Veale of Garranbaun in May 1863 and she was paid £5 per annum.

In August 1868 the Poor Law Auditor submitted the following report on the children out at nurse: 'The attention of the Guardians is requested to the cases of the children Mary Spratt, Margaret Kennelly and Peter Gallagher, at present out at nurse. The two former children are at present over five years...Peter Gallagher being at present over 8 years. Resolved, That the Commissioners consent be requested to have...Mary Spratt and Margaret Kennelly continued at nurse outside till they attain the age of 8 years, as, from their delicate constitution, the Board considers their being so kept at nurse will be beneficial to their health.' The Guardians ordered that Peter Gallagher be sent back to the Workhouse. However, there was a happy outcome for young Gallagher. The minutes of 20 August record that Margaret Veale had agreed to keep the boy without payment. 'He is in good health, well cared, and is going to school. Ordered, that Peter Gallagher be left with Mary Veale.'  

The Poor Law Commissioners came under pressure to change the age limit of children at nurse to over 5 years. This happened in 1869 when the Board of Guardians was allowed to leave a child out at nurse up to the age of 10. There was a considerable increase in the number of children out at nurse between 1863 and 1872.

The minutes for 10 February 1870 record the names of other children. 'The Master reported that the children to be sent out to nurse are:- Bridget, Mary and Johanna Casey, aged respectively 8, 5, and 1¾ years, father and mother died of fever at Abbeyside. First two charged to Dungarvan and the last to the Union at large. Also Hannah and Cecilia Keily, father dead, mother married a second time and gone to America, leaving these two children deserted. They are aged 3½ and 2½.' Bridget and Mary Casey were sent to nurse to Mary Daniel and Johanna Casey was sent to Mrs Power of Clonea. Hannah and Cecilia Keily were sent to Norry Driscoll.

The first annual report of the Irish Local Government Board published in 1873 gives a breakdown on what happened to these children at nurse between the years 1862 and 1872. Out of a total of 3,035 fostered out, 618 were returned to the Workhouse, 231 were adopted by their nurses, 71 were adopted by relatives and friends, 24 were claimed by their parents, 439 died and 110 were taken care of by other means.

At their meeting in November 1873 the Dungarvan Board of Guardians issued the following instructions to the relieving officers in charge of the children out at nurse: That all children be brought to the Workhouse for inspection on Board day once every three months and that the Master should pay unannounced visits to the children, at least twice a year and report on their health, appearance, diet, clothing and living conditions. The sending of children out to nurse was eventually replaced with the opening of the large industrial schools and by the introduction of legal adoption in 1952.


  1. Nicholls, Sir George, (1856), A History of the Irish Poor Law, p.390
  2. Burke, Helen, The People and the Poor Law in 19th. Century Ireland, England 1987, p. 191.

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