Life in the workhouse in the 20th Century

The workhouse system in the Republic of Ireland was abolished after Independence in 1922 but continued in Northern Ireland until 1948. Here we examine life in Dungannon workhouse for both staff and ‘inmates’ alike.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were several problems with the administration of the workhouse and the guardians complained of the numbers who were receiving outdoor relief. It was also a challenging place for workers where conflict with fellow staff made working conditions difficult. Between 1911 and 1915 several nurses gave evidence before a special inquiry when they brought charges of overwork and general disharmony in the house.

In 1929 the nurses were summoned before the guardians when they refused to do the laundry, claiming that it was not their duty to do so. 

Death was ever present, and the workhouse mortuary was frequently used as a place of inquest for the town of Dungannon and wider hinterland. For ‘inmates’ in the workhouse it was difficult to escape this. In the early part of the century the building also acted as a courthouse and petty sessions were held there. The diet of the inmates had hardly improved since the 1880s and with five ounces of bread for breakfast and potatoes for dinner and supper, ‘inmates’ while unhappy with their lot remained quiet. In 1918 an investigation was carried out to clarify whether they were getting the required rations as the guardians claimed they did not want anyone to go hungry. These reports usually concluded that the Dungannon workhouse was more efficiently ran than others in the north of Ireland. There were few comforts for the ‘inmates’ except for the occasional treat at Chritsmas and public holidays or those supplied by neigbouring gentry and others. Suggestions to curtail the supply of tobacco in the workhouse in the 1930s were dismissed by C.K.S. Roberts, the chairman, who claimed that ‘it would not be fair to do so, as the old men would be living in misery’.

Occasionally numbers in Dungannon workhouse increased, such as in 1919 when Cookstown workhouse was evacuated and most of the ‘inmates’ there were sent to Dungannon Workhouse and subsequently ‘boarded out’. In an effort to stem ‘the influx of tramps’ into the workhouse, in 1923 the guardians decided to order cold water baths to ‘casuals’ as a deterrent to those who were ‘using the system’.

In 1929 there was an application made by the guardians for a loan of £15,955 for the purchase of Northland House, the residence of the Earl of Ranfurly as a district hospital. Dr F.C. Mann, medical officer of the union, supported the idea stating that the present union infirmary 

was most unsatisfactory for the treatment of cases and had been erected in 1841 and very few improvements had taken place in the meantime. 833 patients had been treated there in the previous year ….the maternity ward was a disgrace to civilisation. The auxillary wards. In the body of the house were really death traps, and if a fire took place the bedridden patients could not be saved. The nurses were herded into loose boxes which was the only description applicable to their dormitories. If he had his way, he would have scrapped the building years ago’.

Plans in the mid-1930s to convert the workhouse were rejected, amid ongoing concerns that the workhouse was overcrowded. To relieve overcrowding it was suggested that beds could be placed in the church in the workhouse to accommodate ‘inmates’. In 1937 twelve new iron beds in the workhouse were purchased for women bringing the total numbers to 339. J.W. Crossle, presiding at a meeting of the Board of Guardians stated that the iron beds in use in the workhouse were more like ‘jail beds’ and he did not think it was ‘right to allow women to lie in beds which were as hard as concrete’. Mr Busby remarked that he wouldn’t ‘ask his dog to lie in the beds he had seen’ and that they should have been scrapped years ago.

Despite these obvious problems, it was still a place where people wanted to work. In 1920 a new suit of clothes for the porter of the workhouse cost the guardians £8 which ensured that he was respectfully dressed at all times. The master in the workhouse was received a salary of £202 per year, a fee that was less that his counterparts at Armagh, Newry, Enniskillen. In 1929 there were 310 applications for the position of porter at a salary of £30 per annum with rations, which was eventually given to James McAdam.

There could be light-hearted moments in the workhouse too. There was much amusement in 1922 when an old ‘inmate’ named Joe McNally claimed that the Dungannon workhouse was the best of the twenty or so he was in the habit of frequenting and boasted that he had been in every workhouse in Ulster!