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The Workhouse Farm

Desperate Haven - The Famine in Dungarvan

12. The Workhouse Farm

It can be reasonably assumed that prior to 1845 the main activity of the Workhouse farm comprised the setting and cultivation of potatoes. However with the onslaught of the Famine, changes were enforced on the farm. The Board decided at their meeting dated 24 December 1845 to contact Mr. Currey, agent to the Duke of Devonshire, about the possibility of his letting some ground at the rear of the Workhouse, and the terms sought for this land. The desire of the Board to rent additional land continued throughout the succeeding year. They reapplied in April 1846 for permission to rent the waste ground at the rear of the Workhouse, with a view to its reclamation and cultivation.

When that year's potatoes were dug up, the report given to the Guardians on 29 August was that they were 'unfit for human consumption.' They therefore proposed to sell them as food for cattle, at the rate of 3d per stone. Due to the lack of potatoes the Guardians decided, in January 1847, to cultivate the ground at the front of house with vegetables. Up to this stage bere barley was planted here. The vegetables were to be used in soup making, which was the main meal of the inmates.

Finally, in December 1848 the Board of Guardians acquired additional land on the Eastern side of the Workhouse. The Clerk was directed to inform Mr. Currey, 'that the Board have agreed with Mrs. McGrath for the field adjoining the Workhouse ground, and will be accountable for the rent as agreed from and after 29 September 1848, and will take immediate possession.' This field consisted of approximately six acres. The purchase price agreed on was £150. This extra land provided more food for the inmates, and it also provided employment for them. In October 1849 the boundary wall of this field with the Workhouse was moved, in order to include the field in the Workhouse property.

In 1849 the Guardians decided to drain the marsh at the rear of the Workhouse. On 13 January 1849 a letter was received from the surveyor respecting the feasibility of draining the marsh. He stated as his opinion that, 'taking into account the labour of the able-bodied men in the house he saw no difficulty in making it available for agricultural purposes. If the Board desired he would make a survey and estimate of the probable expense charging no more than his costs out of pocket.' In February the able bodied-men were sent to dig this land. Work on the drainage was halted for a few months due to inclement weather conditions. Drainage began again on 19 July 1849. The Board ordered the Master to make a drain 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.

The Guardians acquired land with Keating's store when it rented it as an auxiliary in 1848. This land was cultivated to grow turnips for the entire Workhouse population, and was known as the turnip field. On 25 September 1849 the Guardians ordered that the turnips be removed to the Union Workhouse, 'as the women are stealing and eating them. The land is to be used to enable the assistant master to provide industrial agricultural employment for the boys under his charge.' On 8 December 1849 the Master recommended that the Workhouse ground be tilled in the following way, 1.5 acres of onions, 0.5 acres of leeks, 1 acre of white carrots, and the remainder with cabbage and turnips. This recommendation was passed by the Board. On 22 December 6,000 cabbage plants were ordered.

However a report made by Mr. Burke, Poor Law Inspector, on 4 April 1850, stated that very little agricultural activity had occurred within the Workhouse grounds. 'The land at Keating's is in a most neglected state.' As regards the Workhouse he stated that, 'not a man is employed on the land.' The visiting committee observed that, 'not withstanding the seeds necessary for sowing the Workhouse grounds have been got for the last fortnight or rather three weeks a great portion of the ground still remains unsown and the season advancing.' Edmond Walsh was appointed agricultural gardener at £20 per annum, as a result of this report. However, his appointment was not sanctioned by the Poor Law Commissioners, on the grounds that he was not competent.

In May boys were ordered to cultivate the land. A letter from the Poor Law Commissioners recommended that the lands attached to the Workhouse be used for the employment and industrial instruction of boys, in preference to men. School boys were employed at weeding. By 12 December 1850 there was little improvement in the cultivation of the land, as evidenced by Mr. Burke. 'The Workhouse grounds are badly cultivated.'

Flax growing is mentioned for the first time, in the entry dated 17 December 1850. Mothers with children were ordered to prepare the flax. On 26 December, it was resolved that the Guardians act as a committee to ascertain, in their respective Electoral Divisions, the extent to which the occupiers of land would grow flax. The Guardians were asked to supply names and residences of the proposed growers plus the flax acreage undertaken.
The Workhouse Farm 1851 - 1859
The Minute Books for 1851 are missing. Evidently an agriculturist, Mr. James Robinson, was hired during this period. Mr. Burke reported on 15 January 1852 that, 'the boys are making fair progress in the cultivation of the land under the superintendance of the agriculturist.'  Keating's land was cultivated with parsnips. 6.5 lbs. of parsnip seeds were sown. Also ordered were 6.5 lbs. of carrot seeds, 15 lbs. of onion seeds, 6 lbs. of leek seeds, and, 5 lbs. of turnip seeds.

On 4 March the visiting committee suggested that a portion of the land (Keating's store) be sewn with flax seed. An entry dated 6 May requested the Clerk to advertise for tenders for the supply of flax. The offer of Messrs. Thomas and James Hughes of Clonmel for supplying steeped and also prepared flax to the Union, to 29 September was accepted. On 3 June, the first piece of linen was manufactured in the house. The cost per yard of the linen was 4½d. The Master also had 49 stone of flax seeds on hands that were auctioned. Flax was also spun into coarser thread that was used for making shirts for the inmates. This was recognised as being more durable than the finer linen thread then being spun.

There was a great improvement in the management of the land due to the presence of the agriculturist. The visiting committee reported on 12 June as follows, 'We express our approbation of the manner in which the agriculturist has managed the Workhouse land, and of the splendid specimens of vegetables he has from time to time submitted to the Board which afford the first proof of the success of this admirable system of agricultural training in which the boys under him are rapidly progressing, and the committee have no hesitation in saying that as a class they are unsurpassed by those many similar institutions in the Kingdom.'

In July the agriculturist suggested that Winter vetches or cabbages be sown. Broccoli and Early York (cabbage) were thus ordered. The Guardians decided the following month that an account book be kept by the agriculturist, showing the quantity and monetary value of vegetables daily supplied to the Workhouse, as well as the quantity and value of any sold to the public. In the Minute Book entry dated 19 August 1852 there is a letter from the Inspector of National Schools. In relation to the male department it states 'the agricultural department reflects credit both on the teacher and on the pupils by whom the whole labour is performed. There are 6½ acres under cultivation, all tilled upon the most superior system. The work seems to be performed in a careful and willing manner. There are 70 pupils engaged on the farm.'

Drainage of the Spring field continued. The boys were assisted by able-bodied women in this task, while school girls were employed on the farm, according to Mr. Burke's suggestions. On 21 October the salary of the agriculturist was increased from £25 a year with rations and apartments to £40 a year without rations or apartments. There were 100 school boys working under the instruction of the agriculturist at this time. He complained that because the boys were without footwear (clogs) they were unable to work the farm.

In January 1853 the agriculturist suggested that the Guardians subscribe to the 'Farmer's Gazette,' as, 'it would add greatly to the information of the school boys.' He also requested an order for one barrel (30 stone) of potatoes, 'if only for experiment, and if successful they would realise a fair profit in the market.' This was ordered. In August the agriculturalist reported that he had 36 school boys employed at preparing the land for leek plants and cabbage seeds, and also at digging and cleaning the crops.

At the Board meeting dated 29 September a committee comprising Mr. Byrne, Mr. Fitzgerald, and Mr. Quinlan, was formed to report on the expediency of purchasing livestock for the farm. They reported as follows: 'As the quantity of vegetable peelings, vegetable tops, rinsing of the soup and stirabout vessels and boilers now thrown away as waste, is so great it would be advantageous to purchase two cows to be kept on the Workhouse grounds. The number to be increased if it can be found that a greater number can be kept with advantage.' The first cow was purchased at the fair at Affane for £10.15.0. Twelve pounds was allowed for the purchase of a third cow in December. Mr. Brogan, Agricultural Inspector, reported favourably on the keeping of livestock, 'as this will render the industrial training of the boys more comprehensive and efficient.'

In June 1854 the agriculturist reported that the Workhouse farm was entirely cropped with parsnips, carrots, leeks, onions, mangolds, turnips, cabbages, and flax. He informed the Board that he, 'has sufficient feeding for another cow. The profits from the three cows already on the farm amount to 14/9d per week. The profits from the three cows for this week will be £1, and the same during the Summer months, having now vetches on the farm, and not requiring to purchase hay.' An additional milch cow was then purchased.

During the last few months of 1854 and up to 26 April 1855, some members of the Board of Guardians wished to sell the cows, and use the land for planting vegetables. On that date a committee of enquiry was appointed to enquire into the accounts and management of the lands connected with the house, and the disposal of the crops for the last year. The relevant dates of enquiry were from 25 March 1854 to 25 March 1855. The committee members were Lord Stuart de Decies, Edward Odell, Robert Longan, Andrew Carbery, Richard G. Hudson, and, John Quinlan.

The findings of the committee were:

1). There was a loss of £17.3.7 on keeping the cows. They recommended  selling them.
2). Agricultural produce made a loss of £44.12.4½. (credit side £128.5.1½, debit side £172.17.6.) The committee concluded that the system of agricultural management adopted on the lands had not been for the advantage of the Union.
3). They recommended that the Board seek the resignation of the agriculturist.

The first two findings were carried. The third was withdrawn on trial for six months. The cows were sold on 22 June realising a sum of £23.1.0.

During all this period reclamation was still a priority with the Guardians. In August 1855 the tender of Mr. R. Roberts, to improve the sluice across the Youghal road by putting on a self-acting door and making it water-tight, was approved by the Guardians. They also intended to widen and deepen the drain from the Spring to the sluice, and make embankments on each side so as to form a reservoir for the Spring water when the sluice was inactive. In addition he planned to make catch-water drains at each side of the embankments to carry off the surface water through two small sluices into the main drain. The cost of all this work amounted to £76.12.0. The Guardians decided to let this land in its unreclaimed state. However they still intended to drain it. On 27 September Mr. Beverly Kiely rented this land, at a fee of one guinea per acre (approx. 12 acres). The date of commencement was 29 September 1855.

The agriculturist reported that the amount of vegetables consumed in the house for 1855 was £40, and the cash received for vegetables sold in the same period was £49.15.4. The agriculturist, Mr. James Robinson, was reported missing on 4 July 1856. At the Board meeting of 10 July the Guardians dismissed him and appointed the Schoolmaster, Mr. John Corry, as agriculturist. He was in possession of a training certificate from the Agricultural Inspector. All the boys were ordered to work on the farm for half a day and kept at their education for the other half. Mr. Corry was granted an extra £10 a year for this work. Meanwhile, the wife and six children of Mr. Robinson were taken into the Workhouse, as they were destitute. A warrant for his arrest in England was issued on 31 July. It was not until 2 July 1857 that Mary Robinson received £1 from her husband to enable herself and children to emigrate to Liverpool, to join him.

The agriculturist reported in November 1856 that the crops grown on the farm that year made on average about £20 an acre. All the work was done by the boys. The Agricultural Inspector reported that, 'even though there has been a change of management in the agricultural department its efficiency does not seem in any way impaired, but seems likely to be rather promoted, under the present arrangement.' In August 1857 the agriculturist sought an order from the Board to hire a few men from outside the Workhouse to reap the corn that was then nearly ripe. It was reported that there were no able-bodied men in the house. This order was given by the Board. A similar order was granted for the next two years. Seven men were hired.

In February 1859 the Guardians surrendered their possession of the Spring lands to the Duke of Devonshire. They had, by this stage, abandoned their original intention of reclaiming it. On 6 October 1859 another committee of enquiry was formed, this time to enquire into and report on the agricultural accounts. As a result of this enquiry, a number of officers, including the Schoolmaster and agriculturist, were asked to hand in their resignations. Mr. Matthew Shine, of Rathkeale, was appointed Master and Agriculturist, on 16 August 1860. He retained this position of Master until his retirement on 18 August 1889.

Potato blight reappeared in 1861. In September of that year, the Guardians stated that, 'not more than one third of the potato crop will be safe from disease.' The blight continued to affect the potato crop up to 1863. On 3 March 1864 Patrick Prendergast, assistant to Lismore National School was selected as Schoolmaster and agriculturist. However, he was also dispensed with on 29 September 1864. Patrick Ryan of Cloncoskeran was appointed garden agriculturist, at 10/-s. a week. His wages were increased to 12/6s. a week in July 1865.

In November the Guardians invested in four pigs. These pigs were fed on offal and vegetable refuse. Pigs were kept on the farm for some years. The number of inmates in the house continued to decrease. This resulted in the shortage of labour for many of the Workhouse occupations, including farming. Men were hired to work the farm from time to time. The main occupation of the farm was vegetable growing, with the school boys doing most of the work.

Author: William Fraher

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