The Irish Poor Law system was established by the Poor Relief Act of 1838. It consisted of 130 unions - groups of parishes - in each of which was a large workhouse. As a system of public charity it was extremely harsh in concept and operation, being based on the erroneous belief that it was required to deal with a work-shy population, who would abuse the system given the opportunity, to the great cost of the property-owning, tax-paying classes.
The workhouses were spartan centres with a deliberately irksome regimen designed to goad the pauper into leaving as soon as humanly possible. The buildings were cold and unfriendly with mud floors surrounded by high prison-like walls. All inmates wore rough workhouse clothing with the name of the union printed on it in large letters. The only possessions were their uniform and the bed they had in a large dormitory. Beds were sometimes iron-framed, and sometimes in the form of a wooden box rather like a coffin. For some the bed was just a raised wooden platform, or - in the case of vagrants or casuals - the bare floor. There were two poor meals a day consisting of a watery oatmeal soup ladled sparingly from the huge iron stirabout pot.
Nicholas Soyer, a French chef at the famous Reform Club in London during the Famine period, devised a soup for famine victims which was acclaimed as excellent by members of high society who visited his Model Soup Kitchen in Dublin. However, it was widely attacked for having no real nutritional value. One serving of Soyers soup was reputed to provide only one-tenth of the necessary daily intake of a working man.
Soyers Soup Recipe
2 gallons water
1/4 lb beef
2 onions (and other vegetables)
1/2 lb flour
1/2 lb pearl barley
3 oz salt
1/2 oz brown sugar
This recipe, and others like it, were widely adopted by the workhouses.
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The workhouses had strict rules which, if broken, could result in a term in prison. Under their rules, the whole family had to enter together, and as they entered they were segregated into different parts of the institution. There was no question of a father putting his family in for respite while he sought a livelihood outside to enable him to take them out again. Nor was there any acceptable provision for receiving relief outside the workhouse. The choice was to suffer the indignities of the workhouse or starve by the roadside.
As the numbers entering the workhouses started to alarm the authorities, another deterrant provision was initiated - the obligation on a family to give up any land it might possess in excess of a quarter acre. Of all the punitive provisions of the Poor Law, this was the one most resented by the Irish. Whole families died at the height of the Great Famine rather than give up their patch of land in return for the modicum of food they would receive in the workhouse.
By far the largest group in the poorhouses were orphaned and deserted children, and by the middle of 1849 they numbered more than 90,000. It was a stark medical fact that, because of the strain placed on the heart by famine fever (typhus) the mortality rate was highest among the middle-aged and elderly. The children were more likely to survive.
At the beginning
of 1848 the government became painfully aware that the large number of children
in workhouses was creating a major social problem for it. The extremely limited
chances of survival outside the workhouse and the behavioural and moral deterioration
of the children the longer they stayed inside, all made it obvious that the
problem would become a very longterm one unless some special measures could
It was in this climate that the goverment introduced a scheme in 1848 to encourage young female orphans to emigrate to Australia. This was an epic scheme involving the carriage across the world of entire shiploads of teenage girls. It also illustrates government ingenuity in solving simultaneously some of its colonisation and Poor Law problems.
By 1841 the population of New South Wales (the main area of colonisation) had risen to 117,000, and despite various schemes during the previous decade to attract female immigrants, there still remained a dearth of females. In some areas over 80 percent of the population was male, and in others women were as scarce as black swans in Europe. In these abnormal conditions homosexuality was rampant except in areas where aboriginal women, gins, cohabited freely with white men. Great numbers of illegimate half-cast babies were murdered and local religious groups were convinced that the abysmally low morality prevalent in the bush could only be improved by a plentiful supply of white women.
By March of 1848 the Emigration Commissioners had worked out a scheme with the Irish Poor Law Commissioners involving the selection of young orphan females betwen the ages of 14 -18 years of age to be sent to the Australian colonies where, it was hoped, they would in time become the wives of settlers.
The response of the Boards of Guardians to this scheme was enthusiastic and by May 1848, sixty-eight unions had provided lists of over 2,000 girls. And, in all, the Orphan Pauper Scheme, as it was called, organised the transport of 4,175 irish girls to Australian ports. Eleven groups sailed to Sydney, six to Port Phillip (Melbourne), and three to Adelaide.
The Poor Law Commissioners planned the scheme meticulously. For instance, the unions were instructed to give each girl an outfit consisting of six shifts, two flannel petticoats, six pairs of stockings, two gowns and two pairs of shoes. Catholic girls were given a Douay bible and a prayer book. The guardians were also to provide wooden boxes with strong locks for the girls to pack their meagre belongings. Generally it cost about 5 Pounds to outfit each girl and send her to the port of embarcation, Plymouth.