Emigrants from the workhouse

With numbers increasing in the workhouse after it opened, and in particular the number of young people, the board of guardians turned their attention towards assisted emigration as a means of relieving pressure on the building and their resources. A number of emigrants were assisted in passage to America, Canada and elsewhere in the years before and during the Great Famine. On 31 Oct 1844 James Wilson of Dungannon, agent for American emigrant vessels,  announced the safe arrive of the ship Militades at Quebec. Amongst the passengers were 22 paupers from Dungannon Union. He wrote:

‘The paupers had reached their destination without any sickness or accident. Several of them had got situations as servants- one woman as cook, in a respectable family- and all were well pleased with the change they had made.  Not only relieved the rate payers of the union from the burden of maintaining a number of idle paupers, but also placed the latter in situation where, by industry and good conduct, they may secure for themselves future comfort and independence’.

Similar numbers were sent in 1844 and 1845.

 The emigration of these small parties of men, women and children was enough to temporarily relieve the burden on the workhouse. According to the Coleraine Chronicle in March 1846, commenting on the Dungannon emigrants: ‘it is gratifying to know that in every instance the emigrants obtained immediate employment in the land of their adoption, and each succeeding account tends to confirm that the guardians under the circumstances, they acted in a most judicious manner’. Another twenty ‘inmates’ were assisted in emigration to the USA on 20 May 1846, although little is known of their circumstances both before or after departure except that they sailed from Belfast.


In January 1846 a former inmate of the Dungannon workhouse sent a letter to the Board of Guardians outlining his voyage in 1845. Writing from Storrington Township, near Kingston in Canada the pauper outlined his voyage:

My dear and very worthy Master and Mistress, I embrace this opportunity to write a few lines to you hoping you and your family are in good health, as this letter leaves us. We had a very rough passage for the first three weeks, but the all wise God took care of us.  I never saw a man act with more attention, activity, sympathy, and wisdom, than the mate of the vessel.  He was just like yourself,  and acted on board as you do in the work-house. On the 2nd May we saw the first iceberg, as large as a little village, and when we came to the Gulf of the St. Lawrence the icebergs were as thick around us as stacks in a meadow, and had God not wrought a miracle we never could have got into America.  On the 19th May the pilot came on board, and the next day he ran the ship on a sand bank, where we had to remain until the tide and wind came to our relief. When the Doctor came on board and examined the passengers we were detained in hospital six weeks, during which time we saw Quebec twice on fire; the first fire was on the 28th of May, when four miles of the suburbs was burned, and five the second time.  Quarantine on Grosse Island is a small island in the river St. Lawrence, 30 miles below Quebec, and has on it a Church and a Chapel with clergyman, Doctors and Caretakers for the sick.  We were detained there three days until the ship was cleaned.  On the 8th of July, we left the hospital and came to Quebec, in a steamboat in three hours.  On the 9th we took the boat and landed in Montreal on the 10th, where we saw some of our acquaintances and heard from the rest.  The Minister of Grosse Island recommended us to situations in Montreal and sent letters with us, but when I heard how the inmates had exposed themselves by boasting of the large house they had left, I did not forward the letters, but set out for Kingston, and hired here for 10s. per month, Margaret Anne for 5s. and Wm James for 7s. 6d.  Strangers here must work hard and get no time for school.  They are fed like lords and worked like blacks.  Sir, I believe this to be a good country, and my children join me in returning our sincere thanks to the honourable gentlemen of the Union for releasing us from a prison-house and sending us to a land of freedom.  I pray that the Lord may reward them.

                  Your obliged servant, A. Beggs

During the winter of 1850 a bigger scheme of assisted emigration took place from Dungannon workhouse, this time involving as many as 196 women who were described as ‘in a completely destitute condition’. When notice was given of their arrival in Canada it was said that all of the women were ‘taken as servants in three days’. However, there were a number of charges were made against the guardians. The correspondent of the Tyrone Constitution charged the guardians with ‘inhumanity in sending out such a number of paupers in an unprovided state’. The newspaper reported:

About a fortnight ago there arrived from Ireland (shipped by the Dungannon workhouse) one hundred and ninety-six women. They landed at Quebec in a completely destitute condition but the excellent chief of the emigrant department there provided them with food and clothing, and forward them to upper Canada, to be disposed of by the indefatigable agent, Mr Hawke of Kingston. This gentleman, with a kindly feeling which does honour to his herd, immediately came up with them himself, and landed at our wharf with one hundred and twenty-two, the rest he sent on to other ports. On landing here, he provided them with food, and obtained the town hall as a lodging. Having given notice through our columns of their arrival, they were all taken as servants in three days’ time. This speaks volumes for the kind-heartedness of the people, for many, doubtless, were taken where their services were not absolutely required, indeed we know several instances of the kind ourselves, and we now mention the fact, not in the way of boast, for the warm-hearted people of Canada are the same all over, but in order that it may go forth to the needy in the old country. That everyone coming to this noble province will have a fair chance, and that honest sober labour is always sure of a full reward’.

The 1850 scheme greatly reduced the numbers of ‘inmates’ in the workhouse and by the end of the year there were only 291 people resident in the building, a reduction of more than half from the corresponding period in 1849.