The Workhouse

The metropolis not only attracted and focused the social problems of the nation, but also gave a lead in attempting to solve them. In 1703, 2 Anne, c. 19, the Irish parliament established a workhouse in Dublin ‘for the employing and maintaining the poor thereof’. It was in some respects a prototype of those established under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, 3 & 4 Will. IV, c. 76. Dublin Corporation agreed to provide a piece of land and an income of £100 p.a. The institution was to be governed by a corporation whose membership included ex officio the Lord Lieutenant or Chief Governor, the Lord Mayor, the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop of Dublin. Each donor of £50 or more was to be eligible for election to the office of Governor or Guardian.

The 1703 statute was followed by another in 1707, 6 Anne, c. 13. This statute is mainly about servants, but clauses 7 and 8 are concerned with the children of the poor being trained to beg and the need for them to be taken into care. Clause 7 assumes the establishment of similar institutions throughout the country and arranged for their supervision.

It states that the county official in charge is to submit a return to every Quarter Sessions for the respective county of all in his custody, stating when and by whom they had been committed: ‘that so the Justices may in open court inquire into the condition and circumstances of each person, and either continue or discharge them, as shall seem to the court most just and reasonable’. The success of this statute was very limited.

The Dublin House of Industry was partly a national institution but, throughout the century, its administration was far from smooth. The elected Governors tended to disagree with the policies of their predecessors and, as it was in receipt of large parliamentary grants, its books were scrutinised by the Commissioners of Accounts. In 1797 it was discovered that the secretary had embezzled part of the funds. To resolve these and other problems, the Chief Secretary, Thomas Pelham, introduced a bill making Dublin Corporation responsible for electing seven governors to administer the affairs of the House of Industry. As with all such institutions at this time, its day-to-day administration was conducted with varying degrees of efficiency.

In the mid-1790s De Latocnaye reported that:

The House of Industry is a large establishment containing about 1,700 poor folk who, in part, support themselves by their labours. Their food is infinitely better than that found on the tables of the peasantry. They have meat once a week; bread, potatoes and other vegetables everyday; very clean beds; only their clothes remains as they were before entry; those who come of their own accord are allowed to go out one day weekly. Notwithstanding … the love of liberty is so rooted in the heart of man there are very few who come of their own will, and others are constantly trying to escape. Artisans and tradesmen are generally occupied in making things foreign to their experience, and perhaps to this cause is to be attributed the mediocrity of most of the goods manufactured.

A decade later Carr condemned the institution’s mixed objectives, variety of inhabitants, relaxed discipline and ‘most offensive’ sewers.

The Governors could authorise the apprehension and setting to work of all vagabonds and beggars found in the city. Materials for their activities were to be provided by the House of Industry. Destitute children between five and 16 years old were to be kept in the institution, trained for apprenticeship to honest Protestants, and then apprenticed until the men reached the age of 24 and the women 21. The Governors were given powers to ensure that the regulations of the institution were enforced by inflicting reasonable punishment – recalcitrant vagrants and beggars could be set and kept at work for any period not exceeding seven years.

Throughout the century the House of Industry’s income was augmented by the proceeds from licensing up to 150 hackney coaches and 80 sedan chairs plying within the city and the adjoining Liberties. Each licensee paid an initial £5 and £2 p.a. thereafter. In addition, a tax of 3d per house was levied in the same way as tithes. A number of statutes, including 1 Geo. II, c. 27, applied public taxation to relieve the destitute.

In passing them the Irish parliament not only recognised an important principle of social responsibility but also emphasised the need for both public and private support for the solution of communal problems.

There was a tendency for the poor to drift to the capital as a last resort, and the same was true of other cities, particularly Cork, where a House of Industry was erected by statute in 1735, 9 Geo. II, c. 25. Waterford and Limerick were also among the cities that followed Dublin’s example in establishing Houses of Industry. In addition, various charitable foundations were established throughout the country; for instance, the Belfast Charitable Institution was founded in 1752 by private subscription.

One of the worst social problems was that of destitute children. Abandoning unwanted children was for many a preferred alternative to infanticide, although its outcome in the harsh environment of the eighteenth century was hardly less certain. It was, however, legal, as 6 Anne c. 4, expressly forbade ‘the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children’. Despite repeated enactments and inquiries, the Irish parliament tried without success to solve this major social and humanitarian problem.

In 1727, 1 Geo. II, c. 27, decreed that the exposed and ‘very numerous’ foundling children found in the city and Liberties of Dublin were to be the responsibility of the parish in which they were found until they reached the age of six. At six they were to be admitted to the House of Industry, taught to read and write and, if possible, prepared for a trade.

But parliament expressed concern that most foundling children died before the age of six and, as the workhouse was neither large enough nor suitable for their reception, the only possibility of halting this mortality was that their welfare in infancy be made a parish concern. Each parish was to elect, annually at Easter, two or more Overseers of the Poor with special responsibility for supervising the nursing and maintaining of exposed or foundling children. A sum was added to the parish rate or cess for this purpose. The overseers were to account for this money and keep a register of the children stating where each was found, the time of their exposure, the names and abodes of the persons by whom they were nursed, and finally the circumstances of their death or removal from the parish.

The only way to care for abandoned babies was to find a woman with an infant of her own who could feed the foundling and then look after it along with her own children. She was to be paid an annual stipend for the nursing and maintenance of children in the care of the parish. The overseers were required to see each child quarterly, with ‘the intent that they may be truly informed of the state and condition of such child or children and whether they are sufficiently taken care of’.

Despite the good intentions of the legislators, the act proved unworkable: possibly, the bad harvests that followed its enactment placed an excessive burden on its operation, as two years later, in 1729, a further act, 3 Geo. II, c. 17, was passed. It had transpired that ‘to avoid the said expense, it is notorious that a wicked and detestable practice hath been carried on in some parishes if not throughout the whole city, of lifting or running from one parish to another the said foundlings to the utter ruin and destruction of them.’

To remedy this abuse a levy of 3d per £1 of the rateable value of every house in the city and its Liberties was made. This was to be collected and accounted for by the church wardens of the various parishes and paid to the Governors of the House of Industry, who would make arrangements for the nursing of the children until they were old enough to enter the institution.

The Dublin Foundling Hospital predated the London Foundling Hospital by more than a decade. The children entrusted to the hospital were to be ‘thoroughly instructed in the principles of the Protestant religion and the Church of Ireland by law established’. In 1772 in a further statute, 11 & 12 Geo. III, c. 11, which also consolidated previous legislation, the legislators decided that it was unsuitable for both institutions to exist under the same roof. The institutions were divided. A new House of Industry was built and the old building left to the Foundling Hospital.