History of Newry Workhouse : Part 1



John McCullagh B.A.  B.Sc.

This present work argues the thesis that similar nineteenth and twentieth century Poor Law provisions were much more stringently applied in Ireland than in England.

To set this in context we must first compare earlier poor law provision in England and Wales with that in Ireland.

1. England

In England  pauperism and vagrancy worried government authorities for two centuries before a Workhouse network was established over these islands in the mid-nineteenth century.  The first Poor Law dates to 1601 in Elizabeth ‘s reign.  The 1722 Workhouse Act in England extended an earlier system under parochial authority centred on towns.  Churchwardens and overseers offered admittance and people who declined to enter the workhouse could be refused relief.  This became the Workhouse Test of the next two centuries and the rationale behind the refusal of ‘outdoor relief’.  Sometimes the workhouse’s operation was let to a contractor whose increased stringency of administration led to a substantial reduction in the poor-rates, but as Archdeacon Cunningham said, ‘at what expense of suffering we’ll never know’.  The same holds true of the 1820s Southwell parish system administered by George Nicholls – for his efforts, soon to be raised to the status of Poor Law Commissioner.

2. Ireland

No poor law provision at government level existed in Ireland before 1838 and little enough at parish level.  Ireland of the eighteenth century was labouring under the Penal Laws which systematically suppressed the Catholic faith and that great majority of Ireland ‘s people who practiced it.  Land was seized and redistributed to English government favourites and soldiers who had served to suppress the Irish people.  The fraction of Irish land held by the Irish fell as shown in the table below :

Irish land ownership






% held by Irish






Towards the century’s end the Penal Laws began to be somewhat relaxed.  By a Relief Act of 1782 Catholics were again permitted to buy land, but the percentage held by them was little altered by the mid-nineteenth century.  The greater part of Irish land was owned by absentees whose affairs were administered by agents.  It was their job – and most went about it with crusading fervour – to maximise the rents that could be extracted from these lands.  The Irish became largely tenant farmers, or landless cottiers squatting on land offering their labour as part payment of rent.

As population increased, peasant tenants had no alternative but to sub-divide their small plots, using the best parcel of land on which to grow the ‘rent crop’ and surviving on what was left, growing whatever crop might give the maximum nutritional yield.  This was the potato, reputedly introduced to Europe from America by Walter Raleigh a century and a half before.  With little rotation of crops or access to manure to increase yield, it was merely a matter of time before disaster struck.

There were many years of potato crop failure before the mid-nineteenth century, but the English government took little notice and few measures to avert the inevitable.

On the other hand, they removed whatever small protection had been offered to native Irish industry by the short-lived Dublin Parliament of the previous century.  In 1824 the last tariffs that had protected Irish manufacturers were removed.  There were natural and innovative advances that favoured the larger island and further caused the partial collapse of Irish manufacture.  For example, English supplies of coal and iron allowed the building of steam-powered factories, manufacturing cotton and woollen cloth that could be supplied to the Irish market at cheaper than home-made produce.  This was encouraged despite the Union, theoretically putting the islands on equal standing.

New steam ships permitting the export of live cattle to England adversely affected Ireland ‘s meat processing industry.  Many Irish factories closed down and ‘cottage industry’, where people once earned a little from spinning or weaving at home, became obsolete.  All this dramatically increased the numbers of very poor in Ireland.

The 1836 Royal Enquiry into Irish poverty – ordered by Government and designed as a preamble to the introduction of the Workhouse system to Ireland – found that there were no jobs for the ‘able-bodied’ poor to take, and recommended public works relief schemes in place of Workhouses designed to deter the work-shy.  These recommendations were ignored.

Because of all this many people – including the present author – indict the Government for culpability over the Great Famine’s effects.  The blight virus that devastated the potato crop would always have brought great hardship and hunger, even in England had similar circumstances prevailed there.   But few now (or then) doubt that the Imperial Government would never have allowed famine – with consequent mass deaths through starvation and disease –  to reign as a result.   Most assuredly the English government would have halted (or severely limited) the export of the other products of English farms and diverted the bulk towards the relief of the worst distress. Such a solution in Ireland would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Though technically (under the 1801 Act of Union) at one and equal with England, this solution for Ireland was callously rejected  (see later).

England : Earlier population increase and workhouse and ‘outdoor’ relief

The huge growth in population of both islands was a not insignificant factor in the spread of great poverty.  The population of England and Wales almost trebled from five to thirteen millions between 1700 and 1831.  By 1901 it more than doubled again to twenty-nine millions.  Demographic shifts have complex causes that in general are poorly understood.  Still we believe in regard to that population increase that a significant decline in mortality rates – possibly due to improved public hygiene and diet – was largely responsible.

The increase of population led to a greater demand for food, and prices rose while wages remained stationary.  Uncertain employment conditions and widespread distress of the working classes led to Gilbert’s Act 1782.  Under this, Justices of the Peace paid Guardians to give poor relief in amalgamated parishes. Guardians were expected to find suitable work for the able-bodied and they were empowered to supplement wages so earned from the poor fund.  Justices and Guardians were authorised to grant outdoor relief.  Only the aged, sick, infirm and pauper children were to be sent to the workhouse.

In effect outdoor relief in England became available from then.  The Act was widely adopted. T he ‘principle’ of no outdoor relief to the able-bodied had been breached.

The distress of the labouring classes in England continued and intensified.  In 1795 at Speedhamland in Berkshire the local Justices, though resolving it inexpedient to make a general assessment of wages under the Statute of Artificers [in other words, to state that a higher and fairer wage should be paid to labourers] still exhorted farmers to pay higher wages.  However under their powers they did grant allowances to supplement the wages of the needy poor.  The amount of the allowance was to vary with the price of bread and the size of the labourer’s family. I t was, in other words, means-tested.

A few months later an Act of Parliament extended this power to Justices all over England and Wales.  This allowance system remained the outstanding feature of Poor Law administration for the next forty years.  Outdoor relief was sometimes granted in the larger island without labour being required.  Rarely, direct labour was provided by parish authorities and less frequently, some wealthy ratepayers would each employ a number of paupers at settled rates of wages.

The allowance system granted instant relief to the poorest in danger of starvation.  This was vital at a time when England was waging a long war with Napoleonic France.

In time however the ruling classes came to rue the practical abolition of the Workhouse Test, the widespread granting of outdoor relief, the granting of relief to those in work in aid of wages, and the extensive discretionary powers granted to magistrates at local relief level.  These were the areas the government especially wanted addressed in the revised Poor Law Act of 1834.

It was felt that under the allowance system, labourers had ceased to look upon the receipt of poor relief as a stigma but more as a right.  The poorest, it was believed, were encouraged by it to enter into early and improvident marriages, secure in the knowledge that their children would be supported by the parish.  Many thought, with Thomas Malthus (chief architect with Adam Smith of the doctrine of political economy and the economics of laisser-faire that inspired British politicians and governments of the time) that poverty was a result of population increase.  Indolence, drunkenness and other vices were believed to be encouraged by relief measures.

Ireland: greater population density, more distress but less poor relief

The latter vices were freely and frequently attributed to the Irish poor although no Poor Law or state relief of any kind had applied here before 1838 – so that these assumed vices could not be the result of over-indulgence of government in the relief of Irish distress.  Ireland ‘s population also experienced a huge increase up until the mid-nineteenth century, returned at over eight millions in the 1841 Census.

Some commentators speculated that this constituted merely a conservative estimate; that the enumerators, especially in the congested western seaboard districts were unlikely to have diligently visited every isolated hillside cabin.  Yet in sharp contrast with England and Wales – with which, by a combination of bribery, corruption and repression it had been united since 1801 – Ireland ‘s population declined steeply in the later nineteenth century almost halving by its end.

The major cause of Ireland ‘s population decline was the Great Famine – which was no famine in the dictionary sense since only a single crop, the potato, failed.  This affected the survival only of the poorest of society and touched others mainly through the transmission from the poorest of disease, the cause of most deaths.  Yet economic circumstances beyond their control had forced some 30% of the population into that category. This was the figure of the government’s own Royal Commission Report of 1836.

One and a half million people were lost to the Irish nation in five years through disease, starvation and emigration.  Under the Act already alluded to they were technically citizens equal under the law with all other Britons of the most extensive and most prosperous Empire that the world had ever seen.  There were sporadic but recurrent potato failures before and after ‘The Famine’ which caused great suffering and hunger.  The ultimate cause was the iniquitous economic system imposed on Ireland.  This was underscored by landlord-favouring laws and policies designed to ‘clear’ estates at the Irish ratepayers’ expense.  A post-Famine ‘clearing’ of ‘congested districts’ brought in its wake a deep loss of faith in landholding, leading to a century-long flight from the land.

It was most unfortunate that our population was at its highest when this disaster struck (blight was, decades later, identified as a viral disease).  It could be argued however that it was fortuitous that circumstances in England at the time required a major revision of Poor Law provisions. T hough these provisions were intended to be more draconian than before, and to severely restrict those applying for relief by making the internal regime of the Workhouse as disagreeable as possible, the effect was to provide a central depot where all could apply for such relief. They also caused the government to have representatives on the ground who could less easily ignore the extremes of famine and distress.

When these provisions were made applicable to Ireland those material effects came into operation at exactly the neediest time in Irish history.  Many thousands of Irish people survived because some relief was available at Workhouses.

On the other hand, ‘Irish’ landlords deliberately used their existence, and the fact that they were financed from local rates, to evict tenants and cottiers, and they were not discouraged from this policy by the English government.

In Ireland, unlike in England , relief could only be provided within the confines of the workhouse, no provision being made for outdoor relief.   This proviso originally applied, under the 1834 Poor Law, to England too, but it was quickly breached there, though no parallel emergency prevailed. 

The direction was clearly breached in Ireland during the Great Hunger, an [undeclared] emergency for which the Poor Law could not prescribe. This precedent was increasingly followed in the next decades as the disproportionately high cost of indoor as opposed to outdoor relief became clear (see below). In Ireland there was no right to relief – it was discretionary and dependent on the availability of workhouse places.   The distinction was doubly unfair where only 7.8% of the Irish population lived in towns, compared with 44% in England:  there was no alternative work possibilities in rural Ireland.   If a workhouse was full, there was no obligation to provide alternative relief.  The Irish Poor Law was deliberately designed to be more stringent than its English counterpart.

Faced with the enormity of Famine conditions, the government did, under its Poor Relief (Extension) Act of June 1847, authorise Boards of Guardians to give outdoor relief in Ireland to the disabled and unfit, to widows with two or more legitimate children and even to the able-bodied if the workhouse was already full.  Relief could only last two months and was in kind.

Yet by July 1849 there were 221,583 people in Irish Workhouses compared with 784,367 who were getting outdoor relief.  This number tapered off as conditions improved, but the ‘principle’ [of no outdoor relief’ in Ireland] had been breached.

In that year too the British Government made ratepayers in the more prosperous east and north liable through the rates for the destitute west.  Newry Board of Guardians in a resolution, objected to this ‘rate in aid’ in the following terms;

‘that holding Ireland to be an integral part of the United Kingdom, and that Ulster [ it also applied to Leinster] has no relations with Connacht which are not equally shared by any other division of the British Empire, we repudiate the separating principle upon which the proposition of the government proceeds.’  Though endorsed by other Unions, the plea was ignored. 

British government views on Irish Poor Relief before the Poor Law Amendment Act 1838

If one is to go by the words of the architects of the system in Ireland, the supposed primary motive – relief of destitution – was not uppermost in their minds.  Among the first three Poor Law Commissioners in England and Wales was George Nicholls.  He had been chosen as one of England ‘s first Poor Law Commissioners precisely because of the strict regime he had inaugurated as overseer of Southwell parish.  This had resulted in a substantial reduction in poor expenditure and the secret of his success was attributed to his determined attempts to end ‘outdoor relief’.

When the 1836 report of the Irish Commission of Inquiry into poverty advocated work creation schemes instead of a parallel workhouse system, the British government sent Nicholls over to Ireland to come up with the ‘right’ answer.  He did, supported by George Cornwall Lewis who had been an assistant to the Irish Royal Commission. Lewis felt its chief merit to be that

by forcing the impoverished peasantry off their holdings and into the workhouse for relief, the landlords could consolidate the tiny holdings and create a class of capitalist cultivators’ .

As it happened, they found pasture more remunerative than cultivation and much less costly in labour terms.  Landlords (mostly English and absentee) had found an ideal route to divest themselves of their poor tenants at the Irish ratepayers’ expense.  That this soon became the norm was anything but incidental, as this table abstracted from the Censuses shows.

Size of land holdings in Ireland 1841 and 1851
















The trend continued and accelerated in subsequent decades, aided by the Encumbered Estates Act 1849 which facilitated this process for ‘Irish’ landlords, who were heavily represented in the Westminster Parliament.

The  Irish Poor Law system proved to be totally inadequate to the required relief of the Irish people.  However it is frightening to contemplate what might have been the further extent of the horror had not the Workhouse system been in force when the blight struck the potato crop so completely and for so many years in succession.

That there was no famine is attested to by our own John Mitchell who wrote [Jail Journal] that through these years, long lines of heavily-laden food carts wound their way continuously to Irish ports for export to England.  Poor starving peasants had to watch this source of their relief, the fruits of their own labour, pass by unhindered.

‘Cowering wretches, almost naked in the savage weather, prowling in turnip fields endeavouring to dig up abandoned roots… little children… their limbs fleshless, their bodies half naked, their faces bloated yet wrinkled and of a pale greenish hue – children who could never, oh it was so plain, grow up to be men and women.’

THE context OF THE ENGLISH Poor Law Amendment Act 1834

The nineteenth century saw the first large-scale growth of English towns, which trebled or quadrupled in size while the population doubled. It was the first Industrial Revolution. Mass production in the new factories of English towns offered consumer products but more vitally, remunerative work which attracted people off the land.

Yet many who arrived in these English towns and cities could find no work and paupers and beggars on the streets became a major problem.  It was this that goaded the powers-that-be into action.  Some were poor Irish migrants.  The middle classes, landowners and factory owners, businessmen and men of property, ratepayers all, were concerned also at the heightened risk to them and to their families of epidemics of diseases that knew no class boundaries.  Collectively they had little concern in relation to poverty that did not affect them and which they attributed to sloth and moral degeneracy among the lower orders.  Most of all they feared increased criminality and mob rule from the throngs filing into towns in search of work or of relief from distress.

Naturally they strongly objected when the Government prescribed that relief would be a burden on local ratepayers rather than on the central exchequer. Thereafter their every endeavour was to minimise the cost to themselves by ensuring that the Workhouse regime would be so harsh as to deter all but those in direst need from applying for shelter or of remaining for any but the shortest possible period.

This was the thinking behind – and when its provisions became manifest – the reality of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.  The English government was determined that it would apply also to Ireland for historically she had indeed more reason to fear mob rule in Ireland.  Also she did not want Ireland ‘s poorest migrating to England.  She would not contemplate the alternative suggestion of her appointed Commissioners that expensive public works schemes were required in Ireland, to be funded from the Exchequer to provide paid work for Ireland ‘s multitude of unemployed paupers.

Although general and non-prescriptive in its clauses, this Act (and its 1838 Irish counterpart) was radical in its effects. Though this present work deals mainly with its direct and immediate effects, it is possible that its indirect effects were more far-reaching and long lasting.  A not insignificant part of nineteenth century emigration from Ireland to the United States, England and Australia was of peasants, cottiers and paupers driven off the land by unscrupulous landlords.  Many spent some time in the Workhouse before emigration.

All of this was considered then (and ever since by conservative and revisionist historians) as an unavoidable natural consequence of the laisser-faire economic system. The descendents of these reluctant emigrants have ever since constituted a large part of worldwide Irish Republican militancy – financing, fortifying and inspiring the ‘armed force’ militants at home.

…   here is Part 2


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