'Famine fever' & Dungannon workhouse
As ‘Black 47’ began, the worst year of the Famine, conditions in Dungannon workhouse rapidly deteriorated. In early February it was reported that ‘fever of a very malignant type has broken out in the workhouse of Dungannon in county Tyrone’ forewarning what was to come. Further reports noted that ‘the mortality already is considerable.. the physician of the house, after nine days illness has died and the master and matron are both seized with the infection’. Death was not just amongst the ‘inmates’. Dr Dawson, the medical attendant in the fever hospital fell ill and died of the fever in February and in the same year so too did Rev David Bennett, the Presbyterian Minister in Dungannon and one of the Chaplains to the workhouse who had been appointed to the position in 1842.
James Hamilton was appointed medical superintendent in the place of Dawson, and was also in charge of Dungannon dispensary where he was noted as ‘giving the greatest satisfaction to his patients and to the public’ for over thirteen years. The problem had changed significantly from ‘instead of a person having a contract for coffins, there are now two carpenters at work in the Dungannon workhouse for that purpose’ In the weeks and months that followed fever and disease wreaked havoc on the workhouse. From the 4th March to the 21st June a staggering 270 people died. The worst single day was 8th May when fifteen people died. Some people were possibly buried without a coffin, a shroud or maybe without even a prayer in what was known as the ‘barley field’.
It was not until September 1848 that the residents of the workhouse and the wider Dungannon area could ease their preventative measures regarding these contagious diseases. For his efforts in trying stem the tide of infection in the workhouse and town, the Dungannon Board of Health presented Dr Hawthorne with an address of thanks: The Dungannon Board of Health take leave, now that cholera has subsided in this town to convey to you their most grateful acknowledgments for the eminent services that you have under Providence rendered in checking that destructive disease which has raged with such violence amongst us from the success of your treatment they have ample proofs of its superiority.
In that same month, Dr William Dawson of Dungannon praised these services and claimed that if they were more widely known more would have been saved. During the Famine the Dungannon workhouse guardians also oversaw the establishment of dispensaries in local districts, to facilitate the distribution of medicines and advice to the poor. The prevalene of cholera and typhus in the district meant that people were often afraid to lend assistance to the poor, so the onus once more fell to the operators of dispensaries to offer help. Towards the end of the Famine, the need to employ more people in these positions arose in Ballymagran and Clonavaddy districts, evidence that both the dispensary system worked and also that there was a need for these services.