Irish Family

Essential Resource No. 8



Whilst Workhouses existed in Ireland in the 18th Century, they were few and far between. It was not until the Poor Law Act in 1838, that a proper Framework for the provision of accommodation and care of the Destitute was introduced on a widespread basis.

Poor Law Act, 1838

The Poor Law Act of 1838 made provision for the following:

  • That Poor Law Unions be created throughout Ireland – each Union to be responsible for a large number of Townlands within its care;

  • Each Union to form a Board of Guardians, and to erect and maintain its own Workhouse; and

  • That Each Workhouse be financed by imposing a “Poor Tax” on Landlords in each Union.

  • That Each Union make provision for the assistance of those wishing to emigrate.

    Poor Law Unions & Board of Guardians

    By 1841, approximately 130 Poor Law Unions had been established throughout Ireland. Each Poor Law Union comprised its own board of Governors (or Guardians as they were more commonly known). Two thirds of the Guardians were elected by the Community, and one third comprised unelected Members who usually held significant posts within the Community – such as Justices of the Peace, Doctors, but excluding members of the Clergy. Elections to the Board of Guardians took place annually.

    During the 19th and early 20th Century the Board of Guardians met Weekly to discuss the administrative affairs of the Workhouse. Their activities often involved approving local tenders for Workhouse Dietary Provisions, and works needed on the structure/decoration of the workhouse, to dealing with unruly inmates, approving decisions to Board-Out Children with local residents, and so forth.

    The Workhouse and Its Staff

    All Workhouses were built to the same standard specification and were built to comprise either 400 or 800 inmates. They were always situated outside a Main Union Town, and the Workhouse and its grounds were surrounded by high Stone Walls on all sides, with Iron Gates at the entrance, separating the Workhouse and its inmates from the rest of Society.

    Workhouse staff consisted of the Master, responsible for the general running of the Workhouse, dealing with admittances, discharges, boarding outs, and general domestic affairs of the Workhouse. The Matron was responsible for the Women Inmates in the Workhouse. Other staff included Workhouse Chaplains (of all denominations), One Teacher, a Laundry Maid, Cook, and One Medical Officer.

    Life in the Workhouse, 1839-45

    Admission to the local Workhouse was based on very strict criteria. Priority went to the old and/or infirm, and destitute children who were unable to support themselves. The Guardians were also given discretion to admit the destitute poor.

    People entered the Workhouse for a variety of reasons - unemployment and the famine were the main reasons for admittance in the 19th Century, however the Workhouse also provided a safe-haven for unmarried pregnant girls, married women whose husbands had deserted them, and Orphaned Children whose relatives were too old or too poor to care for them.

    The Workhouse was a last resort for most people, who would take on any work, rather than face the gruelling Workhouse regime. The Guardians also applied the strictest of Work regimes to ensure that only the desperately poor would seek admission.

    Upon Admission what few personal effects and clothing the inmates came in with, were washed and put into storage, and Inmates were given a Standard Issue Workhouse Uniform to wear.

    Inmates were then categorized into male/female, able-bodied, old/infirm, infants/children. All Classes of Inmates were separated from each other, and communication between Classes was strictly forbidden. In the case of Families having been admitted, this meant that husbands and wives were banned from seeing each other, and mothers were banned from seeing their children (although this latter prohibition was later relaxed so that mothers were able to book appointments to see their children on a weekly basis).

    Living Accomodation

    Workhouse Living Accomodation was cold, damp and cramped – Sleeping Dormitories were situated in the attics, and consisted of Male and Female Dormitories, and Children's Dormitories. The Inmates were generally kept apart both day and night, with separate yards and duties. Beds consisted of straw mattresses placed on the floor, with old rags for sheeting. Beds were no more than 2 feet apart Disease was commonplace as no proper toilet facilities were in place. Baths were meant to be taken once a week, and Bathing Registers were kept for this purpose - the reality was often very different.

    Inmates' Duties

    Once admitted, Inmates were required to work a minimum 11 hour day. Inmates were put to work on a variety of jobs. Some Workhouses established Local Trade Workshops for eg. Weaving/Sewing/Knitting/Cobbling/Tailoring/Carpentry etc. Able-bodied Female Inmates would either be given Sewing Duties or Kitchen Duties (preparing and cooking Workhouse Meals, and Washing Up) Cleaning of the Workhouse, Nursery duties, or Laundry Duties.

    Able-bodied Male Inmates worked much harder, quarrying and smashing stones, building workhouse boundary walls, chopping wood, and grinding corn, tending the Workhouse Vegetable Gardens/Farms, digging cess pools, burying the dead, stoking the Workhouse fires, etc.

    The Daily Routine for Adult Inmates was as follows:

  • Inmates were awoken by the sound of the Workhouse Bell at 6am each day. The Workhouse Master then took a "Roll-Call" at 6.30am just before breakfast.

  • Breakfast usually consisted of a bowl of the cheapest porridge/grain with buttermilk (which was cheaper than normal milk).

  • Work commenced at 7am and inmates were required to work through to 12 noon when they were allowed between 1/2 and one hour for lunch.

  • Lunch usually consisted of a pint of Buttermilk and a piece of black bread.

  • Inmates would continue working from 1pm until 6pm.

  • Dinner was served between 6.30-7pm and often consisted of potatoes and Indian Meal. As you may have gathered, Buttermilk was given with everything. Soup was also given during the Winter months. Fruit may have only been given at Christmas/Easter, and was usually a gift from one of the Key Residents of the Local Town (eg. the Doctor's Wife). Meat was bought, but was usually kept for the Workhouse Master, Matron and his key staff.

  • Lights out at 8pm.

    Children were sent to the Workhouse School, and those children over the age of 12 were usually "Boarded-Out" with local Members of the Community. Usually Local Residents would write to the Workhouse Master asking for a child to be boarded out with them. Children were often boarded out with a local tradesman's family, where they would work as apprentices, and attend the Local School.

    Workhouse Punishments

    Punishments for any breach of Workhouse Rules were very harsh. An inmate who refused to carry out their Work Duties would be given 24 lashes plus no Dinner for one week. An inmate who used abusive language would be put into solitary confinement plus no Dinner for One Week, or more. Female Inmates who breached rules could often be forced to break stones for One Week, and so forth. After all, Workhouse Life was not meant to be pleasant.

    Leaving the Workhouse

    Whilst there were no restrictions on inmates leaving the Workhouse, the old inmates, with no immediate family able to take care of them, remained in the Workhouse until their death. For many families who entered the Workhouse, their stay was often on a temporary basis, and usually ended when the father (breadwinner) found work.

    The Workhouse during the Famine Years – 1845-51

    When the Poor Law Act was passed in 1838, it was not envisaged that Ireland would fall victim to a Potato Famine less than 10 years later. August 1845 saw the first reports of blighted potato crops across Ireland. Whilst Ireland had suffered from blighted potato crops on a number of occasions in the early 1800s, these had affected only one year’s crop, with all crops returning to normal the following year. When crops failed in successive years from 1845-1847, the affects were devastating for rich and poor alike.

    As Potatoes formed the staple part of the Irish Diet, the shortage resulted in dramatically increased Food Prices. Wheat & Oatmeal were sought as alternatives to Potatoes but were being priced out of everyone’s reach. As People became desperate for food, riots and looting were regularly reported in the local press.

    As the Famine continued to tighten its grip, those families that had scraped enough money together, emigrated in their thousands and the Famine Years saw the highest emigration rates in Ireland's history. Of those who remained in Ireland, faced with mass starvation, the Workhouse was the only survival option.

    By 1846 however, most Workhouses across Ireland were vastly over-subscribed, with thousands of people being refused admittance. For those fortunate to be admitted, their plight was far from over.

    Workhouses had not been created with a Famine in mind. Living Accomodation which was normally damp, cramped and unsanitary, became even more dangerous to live in. Whooping Cough, Influenza, Typhus and Dysentry were rife, seeing the death of thousands of inmates across Ireland. Workhouse clothing was in such short supply, that clothing from deceased inmates would be given to new inmates without washing or de-contaminating them first. This led to the further spread of disease. Those who died in the Workhouse during the Famine Years were buried within the Workhouse grounds in unmarked graves.

    It an attempt to cull the spread of disease, Fever Hospitals were quickly erected, often in makeshift buildings: The Fever Hospitals were run by One Medical Officer and One Nurse, with Inmates helping too.

    By 1847, with most Workhouses on the verge of bankruptcy, an Amendment to the Poor Law Act was passed, enabling Poor Law Unions to provide “Outdoor Relief”(which consistuted food rather than money) for a maximum period of 2 months, to destitute families living within their Union - provided they owned less than 1/4 acre of land. Outdoor reliefe enabled families to continue to live in their homes, rather than seek shelter in the already oversubscribed Workhouses.

    The Workhouse & Emigration

    As already stated, one of the Provisions of the Poor Law Act empowered the Board of Guardians to use Emigration as a means of tackling the scale of poverty & destitution within their Union.

    In the early years Many Boards of Guardians used this provision to send Destitute Inmates to Canada.

    By 1848, during the height of the Famine, with Workhouse Inmates reaching approximately 1/4 million throughout Ireland, in an attempt to reduce Workhouse numbers, a System was introduced to send Female Orphans to Australia where they would work as Domestic Servants. (The System was restricted to Female Orphans to prevent families seeking admission to Workhouses simply to obtain Free Passage abroad.) The first Ship, the Earl Grey arrived in Sydney on 16th October 1848, and the System, which proved very unpopular, continued until 1850.

    The Workhouse, 1850s-1948

    By 1851 the Potato crops were beginning to return to normal, however it took many years for normality to return to Ireland. After the Famine, Workhouses continued to fulfill an important role in Society, providing shelter and food to the destitute until 1948 when Workhouses were replaced by the Welfare State System.

    Many Workhouses/Fever Hospitals were converted into Community Hospitals, and many of those still exist today - some, such as that in Co. Derry, has been turned into a Museum, to remind us of the harsh times that our Ancestors endured.

    Workhouse Records

    Workhouse records are an invaluable tool when undertaking Irish Family Research, and especially so during the Famine Years. We have listed below the Records that were usually kept by each Workhouse, however, whether all records still exist very much depends on each particular Union. Remember that all Board of Guardian Meetings were reported in the local press on a weekly basis during the 19th Century and usually on a bi-monthly basis from c.1915 onwards, so if you are unsuccessful in locating original minute books, etc, you may be able to find what you are looking for in the local press instead.


  • Minute Books

  • Register of Admissions & Discharges

  • Register of Orders made – eg. For Removal of an inmate to another Institution, for Medical Relief, or for Child Maintenance.

  • Register of Births, baptisms, deaths, burials occurring in the Workhouse

  • Register of Inmates' Next-of-kin – details of names & addresses

  • Register of Children in Workhouse & those Boarded Out

  • Fever Hospital Records

    Where to find Workhouse Records

    Depending on where your Ancestors came from, many Northern Ireland Workhouse Records, can be found at the Public Records Office (PRONI) –, and some may still be in the custody of the local council responsible for that Union. Records for Workhouses in the Republic of Ireland, can be found at the National Archives in Dublin –, or again, may be in the custody of the local council.

    PRONI has its own special page devoted to Poor Law Unions:

    County Clare Library has its own Webpages devoted to the history of the Co. Clare Workhouse:

    Click here for an alphabetical list of Workhouses (listed by County), together with details of who to contact for further information. In most cases, County Libraries house many Workhouse Records, and details of which may be found from the above Link.

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