Life in the Workhouse 1850-1900

In comparison to other workhouses in Ireland, the Dungannon workhouse farm was small in comparison and remained greatly under utilised in the aftermath of the Famine. Covering an area of just over two acres of land, only six men (three over 15 and three under 15) were employed, despite the fact that there were more ‘able bodied’ people in the workhouse in the early 1850s. Indeed, at the end of September 1854, according to one government report, there were 122 people left in the workhouse, many of whom woould have been capable of doing manual work. Some progress was made on matters in the years afterwards as a greater emphasis was placed on the workhouse being self-sufficient. In 1857, for example, a  half an acre of dramhead cabbages grown on the workhouse farm were exhibited at local shows and said to have been of a superior quality.

In the 1860s large numbers continued to arrive and avail of the workhouses services in Dungannon, an indication of the poverty which still abounded in county Tyrone. In January 1868 the chief clerk of the union, B. Banks, wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners in Dublin that their shoemaker in Dungannon workhouse was unfit to make shoes for the large number of people then in residence in the workhouse. ‘It is very desirable’, he wrote, ‘that the inmates of the workhouse should have shoes during the winter months’. The matter of the shoes took a number of weeks to complete. On 30 Jan 1868 (as per the Guardians minutes)

Ordered that the commissioners be informed that a committee was appointed to examine and report on the present supply, which they did on this week, and that the committee have bought two dozen men’s shoes, and two dozen women’s shoes, which they should consider sufficient, with the stock on hand, to supply all the inmates’

For the aged and infirm, the workhouse was the best option for many to spend their final years and increasingly in the 19th century one can see that many of those in residence were there in old age, on a long term basis, or because they were terminally ill.  While the average of those who died in the workhouse in the 19th century was 56, the number of ‘inmates’ who exceeded 80 years of age was far higher. In 1895 a man named Daniel McGuin who was resident in the workhouse claimed to remember the illuminations in Dungannon to celebrate the British victory at Waterloo. Veterans of several wars were also housed in the workhouse when they reached infirmity.

The oldest ‘inmates’ who died in the workhouse included Anne Oberry of Dungannon who died aged 108 in 1891, while Susan Blayney of Minterburn died aged 102 in 1896.