Memories of the Workhouse

Herbert Simpson remembers

In 1981 in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Herbert Simpson provided this important account of life in an Irish workhouse in the 20th century. There are few accounts of this nature which survive. It is reproduced here:   My memories of life really begin 60 years ago in the old Dungannon workhouse. it is now gone and with an inflexible regime mourned by none but not forgotten by those who knew it. I was boarded out at 6 and there are things you never forget the other day I heard a snatch of an old song ‘Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do’ and suddenly the memories flooded back I was back after all those years in the workhouse dingy hospital with a broken leg someone was singing the sun to the accompaniment of another patient an amount organ. and those days as one approached the workout its main entrance consisted of two stone pillars supporting two heavy iron gates there was a large iron drinking trough for those were the days when transport was almost wholly dependent on the horse. From the left pillar a high stone wall ran down the side of quarry lane from the right and a similar war ran down the Cookstown road the area doesn’t closed and by the front of the main building was known as the garden. in this garden the tramps and some old man cultivated ground and grow vegetables for the workhouse master and Porter the master a very growth big man seemed totally devoid of sympathy and ex Sergeant major from the First World War he still barked orders to all in his charge. one day I cowered in fear and shocked bewilderment but I saw him mercilessly rush one of the boys in the bedroom the only time his presence seemed acceptable to the old man who also lived there was on Saturday evening it was dead he handed out the weekly allowance of tobacco. The old man waited with impatience for the 1 ounce per head. on receiving the weed an entirely new atmosphere was created in the room where they sat and smokes any trace of depression seemed to have taken wings tongues were loosed as smoked spat and talked and on these occasions I could safely stand close to the fire but I was running the risk of being prodded with sticks and ordered back out of the way. but the scene was always changing the pipes devoured the tobacco fast. Tempers again became frayed. The old men cursed the guardians for not allowing more. As for the master they became convinced that he would end up in hell. The Porter was a big man he had a kindly manner about him in sharp contrast to the master’s gruffness. In his duties about the yard he allowed me much the favour of carrying his big bunch of jingling keys.


The yard was surrounded on three sides by high buildings the Fort side was a low stone wall running from the porters quarters to the master’s office my companions in the yard or a lot of old men and a number of boys much bigger and stronger than I they gave me a few hidings and I had the in look to run foul of a massive half wit someone hit him from behind with a stone he turned with a snarl and as I was nearest he grabbed me by the trolls I was almost at my last gasp when I saw a flash of light matron’s arrival I was convinced how to save my life out of adversity a true friend was born there was a lad who used to rival the half-wit in terms of menace or so it seemed to me I usually avoided the bully boy because I didn’t want him to knock me about as he did the others. One lad, Jimmy, had a remarkable gift of telling stories which rated high with his companions. He was really in his element in the dormitory all boys had to be in bed by 9:00 PM at this hour and summer no one could dream of going to sleep boys Clapton applauded Jimmy stories as they sat up in bed the sunshine true intro the diamond shape windowpanes outside in the trees another roast the jackdaws and Starling chattered and to the sound of excited laughter I drifted off to sleep then one day Jimmy left he’d been boarded out with a bundle under his arm and accompanied by a stranger we saw in goal and they’re on the steps of the old stairs sat the bully crying for Jimmy on winter nights the Porter carried a big hurricane lamp this lamp was always a source of wonder to me chiefly because I couldn’t understand how it had been lighted I had seen the old Mans pipes and the gasland slighted by the matches but I couldn’t understand how a small match could reach down that all hurricane globe and my innocence I came to the conclusion the Porter must be have a box of very long matches. all boys in the yard but myself were attending the school so I often tagged onto the Porter when his duties took him to the other parts of the house normally no one was allowed to leave the house without permission but matron had a soft spot in her heart for me she was the masters wife and they had no children of their own consequently her affection was centred on me in this respect she never disguised her feelings but always referred to me as horribly often she turned a blind eye to my excursions to places totally out of bounds it was on one of these excursions in the company of the Porter that I first saw the morgue or dead house as it was known from time to time for tramps would carry a plain coffin from the dead house to a barrel ifield for burial the master a cleric and a few others followed no one took any notice of the little fellow that agnan behind I stood behind the character on the short committal service the biting wind blew his surplus around me I remember peeping out and seeing the Trump’s with Bowden bare head standing around the open grave young as I was the solemnity of the occasion was driven home I stayed with the Porter the left ramps and filled in and levelled the grave and they had a sleeper would rest quietly to the day would break and the shadows forever fade away.

Deep in the bowels of the body of the workhouse was a little room where divine service was held weekly. the square room had hard austere air about it the big square stone tiles of the floor had been scrubbed until they were scrupulously clean the backless seats which had received the same treatment or arranged in two rows and either side of the room from the plain pulpit with the pink face minister looked down on his congregation 95% was made up of old men and women they weren’t dressed in their Sunday best for the simple reason that they had only the closed this stood up in the rest of the number was made up of boys and girls myself included and grinning like a clown with a massive half which red boy.

The girls were attired in long grey dresses over which large white pinafores were worn. their hairstyles was too long plaits tied at the end with pieces of White Ribbon. the master and matron up at the front were dressed in their Sunday best matrons face was almost hidden under the large brimmed hat. perhaps for some of those present at the services and summer days were treat the music for a short time at least seemed to dispel the dark clouds and as memories of youthful days flooded inipon them and new energy to face life grip them. the expressions of some of the congregation were somewhat cynical a woman sniffed snuff a man with rotting teeth horribly and secretly bitter chew of tobacco a girl wish he was grown up and a nice close like matron and the half wit wished he was on his way to the dining hall. in the yard one man always kept to himself in the summer he used to sit for hours alone on a seat at the upper end of the yard he had a strange habit when he sat of staring at his hands often replaced them pam’s down on his knees and stared at them then he turned the poms up and repeat the action all this intrigue me very much so curiosity getting the better of me I went one day and sat on the same bench but well out of reach of a stick after occupying this position for a few occasions I gradually moved closer to him later not having received any rebuke from him I deemed it safe to move up close beside him for his part I may as well never have been there the hand action was repeated over Andover again after which for long periods he would sit and stare into the distance and everyone word with purse between us then one day as I sat beside him swinging my legs backwards and forwards he reached down patted my knee and smiled wanly at me. smiling happily I looked up when he gave me a kindly look twice then I knew we were friends often after that I continued to go and sit beside him then he patted my hand or knee and smile is one smile still no words were spoken yet there seemed by now to be a strong bond between us until one day his favourite seat was empty more days passed and still it was vacant it was then I felt the first pang of childish sorrow for the loss of a friend. sometime afterwards in the rough and tumble with the bigger boys I sustained a broken leg. After fainting when a walk in hospital I found myself in bed the bed was in a corner of the ward the one next to me had a screen round it I was still too young to understand what this meant when night fell the only light in the ward with the yellow glow of a candle from the bed beside me the night nurse had failed to notice the screen and my side wasn’t fully extended it came as a sad shock to me to see my quiet companion of the yard later he was beyond noticing me now I drifted off to sleep early next morning on the woke up the ward was a star a playing coffin was brought in and there in full view of me the now still figure of my friend was placed in it. for tramps followed by the Porter carried a coffin out another unmarked grave would be added to the barley field. later I had another spell in hospital at that time little girl from the body of the house was there to marry was her name she was about my age varun dimpled with large lustrous eyes are tilted nose was peppered with freckles her mother was resident in the house and worked in the laundry during convalescence we played together in the yard adjoining the boiler house my illness at that stage had left me pale and weak perhaps that that’s why many of the visitors had been moved to pity me and gave me pennies. among the tradesman who used the yard was a bread man and from him one day Marion I purchased a cream cake neither of us had ever had the light before the novelty and grandeur of it appealed to us greatly. however one problem arose how to cut it Mary solved the problem she took it to the boiler man and asked him to slice it for her what a penknife blackened by tobacco he cut off a tin slice for each bus when it Mary asked for the remainder he flew into a rage and drove both of us out uttering threats of what he would do if we dare to appear there again he went in and slammed the door this action of his turned our feast very sour from Ben Allen and for quite awhile we bought avoided the boiler man and his premises however time is a great healer on slowly our relationship with him improved though not quite to the same degree for me As for Mary for one thing I was frightened aboard man and boiler while Mary seemed to have No Fear of either. then one day Mary and I had the company of another little girl of our own age she was the dog owner’s granddaughter and was spending a holiday with her grandparents her name was Susie and she was five years old when Mary and I chatter down I learned at her house at home was full to the eaves there was mammy and daddy her sister Julie brother Jack and the twins and the baby jacket Ida paper bag on the cat’s tail and daddy has said he was a bad boy as I listened to all this conversation it had the effect of reducing the strain stirring within me I felt a deep hunger to be part of a family like that the cold Spartan life of the yard was brought into sharp focus and contrasted with the merriment and fun which Susie enjoyed.