Poor inquiry: Her Majesty’s Commissioners for inquiring into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland

At the beginning of the 1830s, Parliament realised there were increasing numbers of poorer people in Ireland. In order to ascertain the levels of these ‘poorer classes’ and exactly WHAT Parliament could do to remedy this situation, the Government established a Royal Commission to investigate the matter.  The Commission conducted an extensive survey over three years (from 1833 until 1836) during which time a number of reports on its findings and recommendations were published.

The initial report to Parliament was entitled ‘Poor inquiry (Ireland): first report from Her Majesty’s Commissioners for inquiring into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland, with appendix (a) and supplement’.

Basically, a number of parishes were selected and public committee meetings were held and testimony was taken from rich and poor alike. The wonderful thing is that testimony was recorded verbatim, thus providing a wonderful insight into life in the early1830s. Luckily for us, Maghera was one of the parishes selected!

Condition of the poorer classes in Ireland : First report: Appendix A (1835)

Ulster, Co. Londonderry – Examinations taken by C.W. Borett, Esq. Joseph Pollock, Esq.

Parish of Maghera, Town of Maghera, Bar. Loughinsholin

Widows with Children

Persons who attended the examination

Samuel Airl – James Anderson – J. Barclay, shopkeeper – James Chambers – Alexander Clarke, Esq – J. Drips – W. Forrester, Esq, J.P. – Mr Henry, Apothecary – J. McCleland, shopkeeper – H McHenry, schoolmaster – P. McKenna – Rev. Spencer Knox, rector of Maghera and Tubbermore – A. Miller – S. Moore, grocer – Mr. Orr – T. Pettigrew, shopkeeper – D. Scullion – James Smith – A. Wilson – E. Wilson – Rev Mr. Vesey, Protestant curate – Four of the police, and several labourers.

There are many widows with young children having no support but their own earnings, but the number is not ascertained; some of them are in a very wretched state, but they meet with more sympathy that the other poor.

They cannot earn generally more than 1d. Daily, by spinning; some occasionally work in the fields. No woman could maintain a family by the employment open to her; only one widow here sells illicit spirits. No assistance is ever afforded by the parish.

No landowner, except Mr. Clarke, who holds a small estate, and resides in Maghera, assists the widows of those who worked for him. Absentees never do so; nor do tradesmen or manufacturers provide for the widows of men who had been employed by them. Tradesmen cannot, and the gentry will not assist them. They are not generally supported by their relations.

The labouring classes do not work for or on any way to assist them.

Many beg in their own neighbourhood, though at first unwilling to do so; they have not, however, been known to become prostitutes.

A few are relieved from congregational collections; the church list admits persons of all persuasions, the Presbyterian does not.

There is not any poor-box nor any general subscription. Widows are worse fed than women of immoral character.

The granting of maintenance for illegitimate children is not believed to produce incontinency, the difficulty of recovering being very great. A strong opinion was expressed in favour of continuing the law, as at present it stands on this head, in the court of the assistant barrister.

The lower classes could not possibly provide against destitution to their widows and children.

 

Deserted and Orphan Children

The number of orphans in the parish was not known; there were two deserted children, four being the average number deserted within three years. The number of desertions has decreased, owing to the vigilance of the parish officers. All deserted children are supposed to be illegitimate, yet would not, it is believed, be exposed but for the inability of the parents to support them. They do not often perish before they are discovered. No assistance is afforded them from private contributions, religious orders, or subscriptions from the poorer classes. In order to be assisted by parish assessment, they must be deserted under the age if 12 months. Their support continues here until they attain their fifth year. No presentments have been obtained, either for deserted children or orphans, the latter class never being taken charge of by church wardens, as there is no statute giving to them such power. Deserted children are put out by the churchwardens to nurse, to women residing in the parish, and are brought to the annual vestry. £5 is the limit of expenditure on each child allowed by the statute; and for some time past the expense has been paid by the Rev. Mr. Knox out of some balance of an ecclesiastical fund remaining in his hands. No complaints have been made with regard to the distribution of the money by the churchwardens. There is no foundling hospital. The children nursed by the country people generally become useful farm servants. In contrasting this mode of education with that afforded by an institution, Mr. Knox stated his experience, in which the parish agreed, that on the breaking up of an orphan house, he had endeavoured to obtain places for some of the children with farmers and others in this parish; and that, in consequence of their having been reared in an institution, and therefore being unacquainted with the mode of living by others in their station, he was quite unsuccessful. The children reared in an institution are moreover believed to be less healthy that those brought up among the peasantry, and the expense of the former system is much greater. Deserted children have been observed to turn out better than those of the peasantry around, the reason being, it is supposed, that they have their good conduct alone to depend on to induce any to become their friends; and very often their nurses become greatly attached to them. The practice of taking charge of deserted children leads, it is believed, to their desertion. It has decreased since the closing of the Dublin Foundling hospital. It was thought that the parish should be invested with larger powers of taking care of and supporting deserted children, and in some cases orphans.

Impotent through age

The number of destitute persons infirm through age in this parish could not be accurately ascertained, but was computed by Mr. Knox at 150, the population being 1,400. About 60 beg, and perhaps 90 are supported by their relations, with the assistance of their neighbours, in most cases. None are altogether supported by congregational collections; there are 20 on the list of the parish church, who receive small aids; none are entirely supported by the richer classes. No particular age can be pointed out at which the working classes become incapable of supporting themselves by labour; it varies according to circumstances, many being strong at 70.

The old among the agricultural population are as a matter of right supported by the younger branches of the family; this is confined, however, to the children, and often presses upon them severely, so that disagreement is occasionally the consequence. The aged generally live with an unmarried child, and vary few of the lower classes can afford them proper sustenance.

The aged without relatives are usually beggars; the young labourers do not subscribe for their support. When the young are out of employment, great inconvenience is felt among the cottiers in supporting the old. A few receive money from friends in the colonies.

Many go about with wallets, collecting food, and they are much better fed than those who depend on relatives; still there is a great unwillingness to beg.

None of the gentry subscribe to any regular fund, but many of the residents are very charitable; against them no complaints are made; but the absentees contribute nothing. The general opinion appears to be, that that duty belongs to the occupiers of the soil only.

Destitution alone, from whatever cause arising, gives a claim on the congregation collections: this is deemed more respectable than begging. There are 20 on the church list, 10 on the Presbyterian, and no regular list in the Roman Catholic Chapel. The largest sum given in each is 5s quarterly by the parish church, and 6d monthly by the Presbyterian. There is no almshouse.

None can, by any resource, obtain more than the bare necessaries of life. There is not, generally, any disinclination on the part of the labourers to allow their relations to enter almshouses.

Few labourers have ever been known to lay by anything; indeed, they cannot do so, the highest wages being 1s per day, and employment at that rate very uncertain; there are often unemployed in winter and wet days.

The general opinion of the parish is in favour of affording shelter to the infirm through age in an asylum, on a moderate scale.

Sick Poor

There is no certain fund to assist the sick poor, but collections are occasionally made for them through the country by two neighbours; they are very uncertain in amount; there is no loan fund. Relations attend the sick, but not strangers, and therefore cases have occurred of sick persons being laid behind a ditch; but such are very commonly put into a barn or other outhouse.

It has been observed here that alms asking in sickness has initiated into medicant habits.

The labourer cannot lay by anything for sickness, and it is generally said that the small farmers are often worse off than the labourers. There are no benefit or friendly societies.

It is thought that the power of giving food, fuel, &c. To those who had received a certificate of illness from a dispensary surgeon would be very desirable, and might be safe under proper guards.

Both the labourer and small farmer are often rendered reckless by the destitution caused by illness, and the community is a considerable loser by their continuance in a condition in which they are only a burthen to society, occasioned more by the want of wholesome food than of medicine. This dispensary seems to give satisfaction, but is not very warmly spoken of.

 

 

Able bodied out of work

Persons who attended the examination

Samuel Airl – James Anderson – J. Barclay, shopkeeper – James Chambers – Alexander Clarke, Esq – J. Drips – W. Forrester, Esq, J.P. – Mr Henry, Apothecary – J. McCleland, shopkeeper – H McHenry, schoolmaster – P. McKenna – Rev. Spencer Knox, rector of Maghera and Tubbermore – A. Miller – S. Moore, grocer – Mr. Orr – T. Pettigrew, protestant curate – Four of the police, and several labourers.

Many of the labourers are without work from November to March; at this season some of them weave, and others live as well as they can on their small store of potatoes, but are poorly provided for, there is no fund for their assistance.

The wife and children of unemployed labourers do not beg through the neighbourhood; there are many instances where women, with families, have been abandoned by their husbands.

No poor have ever been known to commit offences in order to be sent to gaol, nor have they stolen to relieve themselves from destitution, or committed outrages upon persons.

In the country the farmers give credit, the hucksters seldom do so now; the former generally charge one-fifth more than ready-money price; the debt is paid, in general, cheerfully, but some are processed at the quarter sessions for such debts; the barrister looks to the amount, and inquires if it is fairly due.

Mr. Clarke and Mr. Stephenson give work in ditching and draining, which they reserve or undertake to meet the distress of the season, when least employment is to be procured. Many are greatly relieved, and appear very grateful towards these gentlemen.

The poorest generally marry the earliest; the farmers’ sons, and those who are reared comfortably, seldom marry early.

Vagrancy

There are about from 70 to 90 vagrants, not including children, helped in the town of Maghera on every Wednesday. The number has often been double, and in a very dear season treble. The decrease of late is attributed to the present cheapness of provisions, and the improvements which have been made in the cultivation of lands, which are still in progress, giving more employment to men.

In summer many strangers are added to the resident beggars. Mr. Orr stated that poor cottiers who had two or three acres of mountain district near Ballinascreen were in the habit of shutting up their houses and leaving one or two, sometimes three cows at grass, and going away to beg in other parts of the country, where they are not known; but not many instances now occur of persons of persons begging who have the means of living at home. However, it was admitted that some poor persons from the mountains in the neighbourhood of Maghera are in the habit og shutting up their houses after having planted their potatoes, and going to the sea shore on the pretence of bathing, but in reality for the purpose of begging from strangers residing there. About one half the vagrants relieved in the neighbourhood are strangers. About two thirds are female with children. Able bodied men are seldom encouraged, but great compassion is felt for the women with children, the wages of spinning being very low, about 1½d. per day; and in general women have no other employment. The men are all infirm, and none who labour during the week are found begging on Sundays. Some women beg while their husbands wok in England or Scotland, but very few whose husbands are employed at home. One instance was stated of a thatcher whose wife begged in the neighbourhood where he was earning 1s 8d. a day. The proportion of cottier tenants who, having planted their potatoes, take to begging, is not known; but it is said that it is usual for those who have small patches of potato ground to beg in the interval between the old potatoes being exhausted and the new ones being ripe.

The cottiers and labourers here are nearly the same class, and they are generally more needy and more inclined to beg than any others. Many weavers are also cottiers and labourers, and are nearly in similar circumstances. Very few of those who are mere mechanics beg, and in such cases are generally the fruits of trades’ unions. Servants marry late, and have generally saved money, having constant employment.

The practice of cottier tenants going to beg into parts of the country where they are not known was more common formerly than it is now. The Rev, Mr. Knox said that these might “support life” if they remained at home. The practice of small farmers having, at an advanced age, transferred their property to their children and taken to begging has occurred in the mountain districts, but in no instance elsewhere. Those who go to England for work pay their way. But the Rev. Mr. Knox stated that he formerly resided in the county Leitrim, and that he had carefully ascertained that 670 men in one year had gone to work in England, and had left their houses shut up, and their wives and children begging.

The strangers generally belong to the mountains and bogs near Ballinascreen, in the county of Derry, and to the mountain districts of Tyrone; the resident beggars to the surrounding country within three of four miles of Maghera, and to the village itself.

The proportion of persons, the children of vagrants, themselves beggars, and who have been trained to begging from infancy, is not very great; but in general it is observed that those who have been reared by begging return to it on a slight excuse, particularly females. One instance was states as notorious; that the grandmother, mother and daughter are now begging in Maghera, and that the mother is (as was the grandmother) a prostitute. Almost all the home beggars have, through misfortune, been reduced to begging; most of them by sickness, age or the death of husbands, &c.; some few by improvidence, drinking, &c. Most of the strangers are believed to adopt that line of life, owing to the facilities with which relief is to be obtained.

It is supposed that the average quantity of meal and potatoes which one able bodied beggar would obtain in a day would amount in value to about 10d. Some witnesses said that a good beggar would earn more than two labourers; and an instance was stated by Mr. Forrester of a man who hired another to plant his potatoes while he himself begged. An able bodied beggar will obtain much more food than he could consume. They do not get much from passengers in coaches, car, &c. There is nothing given here to mendicants near places of religious worship on Sundays.

The quantity given in relief to beggars is generally increased in proportion to their numbers. It is the constant habit of strangers to divide the family; and the husband sometimes travels with his wife and children, but seldom calls at the same house in company with them. The blind and crippled receive much more than any others; and they have been frequently known to change to the amount of 2s., halfpence received on a fair or market day. It was stated that some strong women have been known to travel miles in a circuit daily, and consequently such are able to collect more. Able bodied persons without children are able to collect more in a day than those with children, from the greater facility of travelling.

They generally sell the surplus at a cheap rate, and purchase tea and tobacco, and sometimes spirits. Some of the shopkeepers stated that beggars were in the habit of purchasing some small articles of clothing; but they find it necessary to wear rags whilst begging, in order to excite compassion. It was stated that some women begged enough to enable them to save somewhat to purchase flax, and that then they commenced spinning; but that in general they either cannot or will not save.

Wearing of rags, appearance of dirt and of being crippled, and methods used by vagrants to excite compassion; and sometimes it is found that they have got a change of clothes, using the ragged suit for the purposes of, mendicancy. The production and fostering of sores are not common among the usual visitors of the place, but it is believed that it is the habit of those who frequented fairs and markets.

The use of surreptitiously obtained recommendations is not known here; but the gentry are in the habit if giving certificates to paupers upon trivial occasions. The poor do not refuse to have their sores cured.

There is no asylum here into which the crippled could obtain admission; this is also as to the blind, the deaf and the dumb. Instances have been known of children having been carried about by beggars in a dying state, to excite compassion.

They are generally supposed to be liars, and the women to be prostitutes; these are generally accompanied by children. The beggars are not usually found engaged in great outrages, but sometimes are guilty of petty thefts, such as stealing clothes, &c.

Few of the confirmed vagrants could work, and therefore are not fit to emigrate; the only exceptions are the women. No difference has been observed in the relative affection of beggars towards their children, and the affection manifested by others among the poorer classes. Beggars do not often hoard their earnings; they borrow, but do not hire children to excite compassion.

Their families are in general large, though they seldom marry while beggars. One instance was mentioned where the Roman Catholic clergyman refused to marry a couple in such circumstances. Many of the infants of beggars are supposed to be illegitimate, and some are known to be so; the proportion cannot be ascertained. Some of the beggars are very old; One is 87. No difference has been observed between the mortality of the beggars and the other poor.

Nothing is known of the strange beggars. It is not known whether the prevalence of charity be injurious to the morals of the labouring classes; but the practice of lodging beggars tends to prevent cleanliness.

Vagrants generally prefer that mode of life, especially the females, many of whom might have remained home if inclined to industry. Some instances were stated by Mr. Forrester where beggars have been refused work; but in general it is not offered.

No attempt is made to ascertain how much the vagrant has already received.

A night’s lodging is often given, but not clothing; potatoes and milk are constantly afforded them, food being more convenient and less scarce than money, which the beggar would always prefer.

All are helped, and there is no fixed quantity given to each. Only a few are supported as pensioners; and in some cases a consideration has been given, by surrendering old leases to their landlords, and obtaining small annuities instead. A calculation has been attempted to be made, whether any farmers or shopkeepers give away much as would support an additional workman; but the result could not be ascertained with some regard to the farmers, though it is said that they do not give as much as the shopkeepers, some of whom give from 14d. to 18d. a week. One gentleman, Mr. Clarke, residing in Maghera, distributes, in halfpence, from 2s. to 2s. 6d., in addition to his other aids given to the poor. The shopkeepers in country villages have a helping day each week.

The relief of beggars falls generally on the middle class; the non resident landlords contribute nothing. The farmers and shopkeepers are more exposed to, and therefore more annoyed by, vagrants than the richer classes, who give less in proportion than the poor. The labourer with half an acre of ground gives readily, and even the4 day labourer who has only a cabin.

Some beggars receive more than they require, from the impossibility of ascertaining how much they have already received; yet it cannot be said that any obtain perfect relief.

Some give part of their potatoes, and afterwards are obliged to buy in summer; but no labourer has been pauperizes in this way. The farmers complain of high rents and charges on their land, and are very reluctant to consent to any additional tax. The gentry and shopkeepers feel the great evil of the present mode of giving alms to the strolling beggars, many of whom are quite strangers; they would gladly contribute to any modified scheme of poor laws.

The appearance of distress is often very great, and few can refuse to give, but custom or fashion does not influence; relief, however, is often exhorted by mere importunity.

If there were any means by which the beggar could be certain of obtaining relief, no regular system of almsgiving to strollers would be continued. Fear of violence sometimes influences females to give at farmers’ houses, when the men are working out; but such cases are very rare here. Few, and they only of the very lowest class, dread the beggar’s curse.

Fever, small pox, measles and whooping cough are frequently introduced and spread by mendicants; but they are not tale bearers or promoters of discontent. Few who have long been vagrants return to industry.

No punishment for vagrance has been inflicted; and while the vagrant may perish from want of food, there must exist a strong feeling against their introduction, nor would the relief givers sanction them; but if the public were assured of any moderate provision to relieve the wants of the hungry, they would willingly co-operate. Destitution has never led to the commission of outrage.

There is no house of industry nearer than Belfast; if there were such an establishment, public opinion would induce all to have recourse to it, and many would now willingly accept of such a shelter.

Beggars have not been known to refuse to enter a house of industry, or to leave it for the purpose of begging.

 

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