I found an entire family today who went into the Workhouse...parents and nine children. So I looked the Workhouse up and even by Poor House standards this particular one was awful...the family were there for the 1851 census when the rules were still terribly strict...the Master was referred to by some visiting inspectors as a 'despot' and the Matron of the sick ward was 'uncouth in her speech and manner'...and the teacher of the Workhouse school was plain cruel. There were three little boys who'd been transferred from another Workhouse and who arrived well-fed and cared for. But they wet their beds...so the teacher whipped them with a stick and made them sleep on the wet straw night after night until they were covered in sores and they caught scabies as well which was never treated. She kept them back when it was mealtimes as punishment for wetting so they lost weight...eventually the Doctor who came in once a week happened to see the state they were in and reported the staff to the Board of Guardians...but none of the staff were sacked...just given a warning.

The hospital or sick ward was inundated with soldiers suffering from syphillis...there were only two towels allowed each week for everyone to use...and there were 118 inmates in the House...and the straw they slept on wasn't changed from one weeks end to the next...

And the food! Onion Pottage for breakfast every day of the week with a mug of ale...and bread and cheese for dinner and supper with another mug of ale. There was no allowance for suitable food for the children and babies...most Workhouses did have milk and soft bread available for little children...this one didn't. No meat...no vegetables or fruit.

The Father of the family died two years later and his wife a year after that...I can only find four of the children who lived until adulthood and went on to marry and have employment. So I'm presuming the other children must have died. Now, oddly enough both the parents were buried outside the Workhouse in a churchyard...which means one of their relatives cared enough about them to ensure they had a decent burial...so I wonder why the children weren't distributed around the various Aunts and Uncles...the Father was one of nine himself and his wife had five siblings...

Charles was my third cousin through the paternal side...reading about where he and his family ended up made me want to go back in time and gather them all up and bring them home...and those three little boys whose fate was unclear. Of course Charles might have been a lazy drunk who couldn't be bothered to to care for his wife and their brood...perhaps he saw the Workhouse as an easy option...

Pottage...the staple diet of the peasants in Mediaeval times...was a mix of oats boiled up with whatever was available...but the Mediaeval peasants put wild garlic and herbs and turnips...with pieces of rabbit or fish...into their pottage. It was probably filling and tasty enough...three hundred years later people were fed on pottage and onions. And the onions were no doubt rotting and long past their best.

The information about the various Workhouses I mention comes from the actual reports...usually made by a member of the Board of Governors... who were local Magistrates and well-to-do farmers and Church people. The information about the diets is easy enough to find because records were kept of the recommended amounts of food to be fed to each inmate...

You need to keep in mind also that the Victorians regarded poverty...however caused...to be a result of sloth and idleness...so a Workhouse, even though it was never actually admitted to be...was almost a place of punishment for losing your job or your home. You were given the absolute bare basics to keep you alive but nothing else. It wasn't until the later 1800's when values began to alter, that Workhouse staff made certain the inmates in their charge were treated with a degree of dignity and respect. You'll maybe remember I've written about the inmates of a Workhouse being taken on trips to the seaside...and being given a good Christmas dinner with entertainment. But that was in the 1890's when the Workhouses as such were closing and being replaced with Old People's Homes and the sick were cared for in a hospital...

Once Parish Relief came into being...a person could ask for assistance from their Parish to help them out with day to day living...and then the advent of Old Age Pensions...the need for the Workhouse became less revelant.

It would be an unusual family indeed to have never had an ancestor spend their last days as an inmate in one of their local Workhouses...one of my more recent Uncles was described as 'being of dissolute and idle ways'...he died in a Workhouse...

They served a purpose of course...many more people in Ireland during the years of the Great Famine would certainly have died had it not been for the Workhouses cramming in as many people as they could, even when it went against the Masters better judgement. The food wasn't any more available in the House as it was outside but they did their level best to feed everyone at least once a day...there are still the horror stories which abound in written and oral memories of the inmates chewing on the bones of the dead for the marrow they contained...of typhus and cholera sweeping through and decimating the inmate population...of mass graves in the Workhouse grounds and the liberal use of lime to try to ward off the inevitable stench from the decaying corpses never buried quite deep enough.

I often heave a heavy sigh when it's about five o'clock in the afternoon because I've to think about supper and I loathe cooking...unless it's a cake...with a deep passion. But 150 years ago, had I been a victim of circumstance...I'd have had a piece of hard stale bread and a small lump of rancid cheese washed down with a mug of weak, badly made ale which would have probably given me tummyache at best and violent diarrhoea at worst...night after night after night.

The poor are always among us...and always have been. Perhaps the Workhouse was a step forward from the days when a beggar was driven out of town tied to the back of a horse drawn cart while being pelted with rotten vegetables...we are alarmed by the poor...those who sit on O'Connor bridge in Dublin with a small mongrel by their side as they wait for the passerby who'll put a coin in their pot...the young wasted men who drift about the Quays and ask for a cigarette...those old bearded men shuffling along with a plastic carrier bag muttering to themselves...the lad who approached Des and I while we were standing outside the train station...wearing clothes two sizes too big and as thin as a rake...he asked politely and said thankyou when Des gave him all his small change...and said, as the boy walked away...'There but for the Grace of God go I'...the poor alarm me...I don't want people to have to beg...I want them to have a warm home and a loved cat or dog to come back to...I want them to have good food on their table and a decent job to give them self-worth...

The Workhouses have long gone...the very poor are still here.