Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Complex History of Welfare: The Poor Law in Nineteenth Century Ireland

By Frank Parker


Public Domain Image

Prior to the reformation – the switch, over large parts of Europe, from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism – the poor were looked after by the monasteries. The funding for this came from the patronage the monasteries received from the landowners and from the tythes paid by farmers. Whilst the old, the sick and the disabled were provided with food, shelter and healing, the able bodied were provided with work, either in farms that formed an important part of the religious community or on building construction and maintenance.

For the able-bodied individual who could not find work near his place of abode the only alternative was to travel to a place where there was work available. Others might travel from place to place plying a particular trade, or offering a service, moving on when the demand for the service in a that area had been satisfied.

Throughout this period there were years when crops failed causing famine. Epidemics of disease occurred from time to time. The 'Black Death', the plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century, for example, reduced the population by 30%. Wars, too, took their toll on populations, although they also provided a source of income for those who chose, or were forced, to join one or other of the many armies that took part. With the men away fighting the bulk of the labour necessary to grow food fell to the women.

Wars were often responsible for the failure of crops. This was sometimes a deliberate act of destruction, perpetrated as part of the campaign. The poet, Edmund Spenser, who served in the English army at the bloody siege of Smerwick and received lands in County Cork for his trouble, later wrote a pamphlet advocating the widespread adoption of such a policy.¹ At other times it was the consequence of the absence of  farm labourers meaning that insufficient crops were sown.

Edmund Spenser - Public Domain Image

The destruction of the monasteries that followed the Reformation meant they were no longer able to carry on the work of alleviating poverty. In Britain, it now fell to the Parishes to administer poor relief under the first of a string of 'poor laws' that were introduced and amended throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

In order to qualify for relief you had to be able to prove a connection to the parish from which you were claiming. If you were a stranger, you would need to travel to the parish where you were born or where you could demonstrate a long-term affinity. Such relief, when applied to individuals deemed capable of work, was conditional upon the individual undertaking some form of work in return. It was funded by levying a rate (property tax based on the notional value of the property) on the landowners of the parish.

By the 18th century this idea, that assistance must be earned by performing work, had become well established. After all, someone else's labour had created the food, clothing and shelter with which you were being provided. It was only right that you should perform some service in return.

For those not completely indigent, survival depended on payment received in return for their labour, whether as agricultural labourers or in the factories appearing in the growing industrial centres. The balance between wages and the price of food and other necessities became an important factor influencing the extent of poverty.

The practical manifestation of the principle of work in return for relief for the indigent was the workhouse. The first of these was established in Bristol at the end of the 17th century. The movement grew throughout the 18th century as the larger parishes, and groups of small parishes set up similar institutions. By 1776 there were over 1900 such institutions in England and Wales, housing an estimated 100,000 individuals, most of them children, sick or elderly.

The Victorian facade of the former workhouse in Athy, County Kildare,
built in 1844 and now part of a community hospital complex -
author's own photo

The Dublin House of Industry was established in 1772 to care for vagrants and beggars. In times of more general distress the work of this and similar institutions in other cities was supplemented by ad hoc provision by the parishes raising funds by subscription. Reading accounts of the conditions that prevailed in the early 1780s, for example, it is clear that the response to widespread food and fuel shortages that occurred consisted of a combination of fire-fighting with limited financial resources and attempts by the government in Dublin to control markets and prices. Such attempts were actively opposed by merchants who often combined to frustrate philanthropic actions such as the donation of 2000 tons of free coal from the mine owner Sir James Lowther.

In addition to fund raising appeals by the parishes and government's attempts to control markets and prices, some landlords offered alternative employment to workers displaced by such events as the failure of the flax crop in 1782 that had left weavers unable to ply their trade. In rural areas many communities took the law into their own hands, waylaying cartloads of grain destined for the cities.

According to James Kelly “Acts of benevolence by landlords and clergy, and donations to institutions like the Houses of Industry, were vital for the control of distress in late eighteenth century Ireland. ... In Dublin the House of Industry was the most important agent of relief, but it worked with local committees and was heavily reliant on donations.... while in the countryside landlords, wealthy farmers and clergy were indispensable.” ²

Note, however, that whereas there were numerous workhouses in England and Wales there were only a handful in Ireland, even though poverty and famines, or near famines, were much more common there. After the Act of Union at the commencement of the 19th century the government in London considered various ways of tackling this problem which was beginning to effect social cohesion in England. A growing number of poor Irish families were migrating to England. Whilst they were not able to take advantage of the poor relief available there until they had established 5 years residence, their presence was perceived as a threat to both wages and social order.

Education was seen as one important way of ending poverty, by equipping individuals with the skills to enable them to obtain work. During the second half of the 18th century a number of Protestant organisations established schools in Ireland. Catholics had been banned from providing education as part of the policy of suppressing the old religion. Once the ban was lifted, Catholic schools also began to appear. Unlike the Protestant schools, however, these did not receive government support. By the 1830s, the government decided to establish a National school system which would be multi-denominational, run by committees containing both Catholic and Protestant members.

Although this put Ireland ahead of the mainland in terms of state funded education, Ireland was not progressing economically or socially. A number of government-initiated surveys and reports were commissioned but their recommendations were generally deemed to be too costly to implement. One such commission, headed by the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, recommended that the poor law, as established in England, would not work in Ireland because of the lack of available work. This was unacceptable to the authorities in London who sent one of the commissioners responsible for administering the poor law in England to look at the situation in Ireland.

The modern liberal view is that a person's ethnic origin has no bearing on his or her intelligence or ability to acquire useful skills. This was not so in the first half of the nineteenth century. The English establishment viewed the native Irish in exactly the same way as they viewed the natives of Africa.

The remarks of the poor law commissioner, George Nicholls, illustrate this perfectly. “They seem to feel no pride, no emulation; to be heedless of the present, and reckless of the future. They do not ... strive to improve their appearance or add to their comforts. Their cabins still continue slovenly, smoky, filthy, almost without furniture or any article of convenience or decency ... If you point out these circumstances to the peasantry themselves, and endeavour to reason with and show them how easily they might improve their condition and increase their comforts, you are invariably met by excuses as to their poverty ...Sure how can we help it, we are so poor’ ... whilst at the same time (he) is smoking tobacco, and had probably not denied himself the enjoyment of whiskey.”³

George Nicholls - Public Domain Image

His conclusion was that a new poor law should be enacted for Ireland which should include the provision of a network of 130 workhouses and that these institutions would not be permitted to provide relief other than within their walls. It was felt that this would deter all but those deemed to be the most deserving people from claiming relief. Each workhouse would have space for 800 persons, would be administered by a Board of Guardians and financed by a local property tax.

This policy was quickly implemented. When the potato crop failed in the second half of the 1840s this network of workhouses became the bases from which relief would be administered. They would prove to be utterly inadequate to perform the task, although, in fairness to the Boards of Guardians, they did their best with the limited resources available to them.


Footnotes:
¹ A Vewe of the Present State of Irelande was originally circulated in manuscript form in 1598. It was published by Sir James Ware in 1633 under the title The Historie of Ireland
²Kelly, James. “Scarcity and Poor Relief in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Subsistence Crisis of 1782-4.” Irish Historical Studies, vol. 28, no. 109, 1992, pp. 38–62. www.jstor.org/stable/30008004.
³Nicholls, George. A History of the Irish Poor Law, First published in 1856, available on-line at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/56957/56957-h/56957-h.htm The quotation is from an extract from his 1st report delivered in November 1836 and included in Chapter III.

Frank Parker is a former engineer who took up writing on retirement. He became interested in the history of Ireland shortly after moving there in 2006. He has written about the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland (Strongbow's Wife, 2013) and the Irish famine (A Purgatory of Misery, with Patrick Lillis, 2018). His latest, a historical novel based on the two and half years tenure as Poor Law Inspector in Kilrush, County Clare, of Captain (later Sir) Arthur Kennedy, Called to Account is published by TSL Books. He lives in the Irish Midlands.



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