Before the Famine the area around Lurgan had been "prosperous and thriving" - but its workhouse saw some of the highest death rates in the country. Gerard MacAtasney on how bad management led to disaster

Lurgan Poor Law Union encompassed electoral divisions in parts of north-east Armagh, west Down and south-west Antrim – an area synonymous with weaving. Indeed, this industry enabled much of the population to gain a living largely independent of agriculture; hence, many people married early and occupied very small farms.

The average acreage per head of population was 1.1 acres and the local land agent, John Hancock, asserted that some land was subdivided to such an extent as to be almost impossible to plough. He also noted that the union was 'one of the most populous districts in Ireland.'

However, this seemingly safe environment came under increasing pressure as the spinning industry became increasingly mechanised leaving a significant number of workers under or unemployed – a fact which would have a huge bearing on the numbers entering the workhouse in the late 1840s.

Increasing numbers

The failure of the potato in late 1845 resulted in a loss of around one-third of the crop in the union, with the poor turning in greater numbers to the workhouse. By June there were almost 450 inmates, with a quarter of these being in the fever hospital.

This high proportion warranted a visit from Dr Stevens of the Fever Commissioners with consequences that were to prove ominous for the future. In his report Stevens recommended that additional accommodation would be necessary in order to cope with increased numbers of fever patients.

However, and arguably of greater significance, Stevens also reported that fever was much more widespread than it should have been because the medical officer, Dr Bell, had allowed non-infected children to enter the fever hospital with their sick parents. In light of this, the Commissioners concluded:

Dr Bell is unfit for his present office and we have therefore called an order to be prepared for his removal which we shall issue without delay unless he tenders his resignation.

However, the guardians reacted with ‘concern and surprise’ and in offering a vigorous defence of the medical officer they pronounced confidence in his ‘skill, humanity... and great kindness of heart.’ Indeed, far from dismissing him, they increased his salary.

The performance of Bell did not augur well. The second crop failure in 1846 saw increased numbers entering the workhouse and by the end of December it was full, with 805 inmates. This increase in admission rates was accompanied by a corresponding rise in the number of deaths.

From an average of fourteen per month for much of the year numbers rocketed and in the first week of January there were eighteen deaths recorded; in the second week, thirty-six, and for the week ending 16 January the total reached fifty-five deaths. 

‘Great mortality’

Concern was expressed by the Poor Law Commissioners in Dublin and they sent a letter to the guardians indicating their regret at the ‘great mortality’ in the workhouse and requiring a detailed report from Dr Bell. Bell proffered a number of reasons for the mortality figures: numerous people had entered the workhouse in a sick condition and had died shortly afterwards; people on the point of death had been sent in order that they would be buried at the expense of the union; the huge numbers meant that it had been impossible to provide dry bedding, thereby increasing fever and bowel complaints.

While the communications continued the level of fatalities maintained an upward trend. In the week ending 23 January, 58 died; 30 January - 68 deaths; 6 February - 95; 13 February - 67 

Lurgan workhouse deaths per week, January to March 1847

Given that large numbers were dying throughout the country, the Lurgan figures may be seen as a reflection of the times. However, on examining the general mortality levels, this belief proves to be ill-founded. The numbers dying in the workhouse in the first six weeks of 1847 represented the highest levels of such mortality in Ulster.

For example, in the week ending 6 February 1847, there were ninety-five deaths, and this represented slightly less than one-fifth of the province’s total mortality for that week (529); the second highest was thirty deaths in Enniskillen workhouse.

Nationally, the highest number was in Cork where 128 deaths had occurred amidst a workhouse population of 5,338, In the province of Connacht, the highest level was in Loughrea workhouse in Co. Galway where, with 524 inmates, twenty-six had died.

One of the worst affected areas

Lurgan’s total of sixty-seven deaths in the following week was second in Ulster behind that of Glenties, Co. Donegal, where, out of a total of 426 inmates, sixty-nine had died. The highest figure was once again Cork where 164 paupers had died.

It is worth noting that Glenties was later to be deemed as one of the ‘distressed districts’ by the British Relief Association - the only one in Ulster; as such, large- scale relief was required to stave off widespread poverty and hunger.

So, in the early months of 1847, the Lurgan area, described by a local paper as a ‘prosperous and thriving town’ was suffering a level of workhouse mortality on a par with the worst-affected areas in the country. Figure 3 shows the workhouse deaths for each month in the two years 1846 and 1847 and the devastating impact of the fever epidemic in the union.

A graph showing the workhouse deaths per month in 1846 and 1857
A graph showing the workhouse deaths per month in 1846 and 1847

Dr Bell’s explanation that many deaths had occurred from sleeping on wet beds does not appear to have been entirely satisfactory as members of staff, presumably enjoying better accommodation than the paupers, began to fall ill.

By late January, the porter had dysentery and the assistant ward master, together with the schoolmaster, were ill in fever. In February, the assistant ward master died and the clerk was suffering from the ‘high symptoms of dysentery’.

Dreadful visitation

In a desperate attempt to alleviate what the guardians called ‘this dreadful visitation’ the workhouse was extended while, on 5 February, the building was closed and did not re-open to large-scale admissions until May. 

The Poor Law Commissioners had also been monitoring the situation and obviously dissatisfied with the previous report of Dr Bell, they decided to send Dr Smith from the Central Board of Health to investigate workhouse conditions.

Return of paupers, Lurgan Union. In the week ending 6 February 1847, there were 95 deaths in the workhouse in Lurgan. This represented slightly less than one-fifth of the province's total mortality for that week (529): the second was 30 deaths in Enniskillen workhouse. Nationally, the highest number was in Cork where, with a workhouse population of 5,338, 128 deaths had occurred.

The fact that Smith only visited two other workhouses, Bantry and Cork, and then made a trip of 300 miles northwards illustrates both the urgency which the Commissioners attached to the situation and their determination to effect a remedy as soon as possible.

Smith’s report noted that in the male and female infirmaries there was an average of two persons to each bed, although three and four per bed was not uncommon. The wards themselves were found to be in a terrible condition:

There are four wards in the Idiot Department [sic] that are without any flooring but the earth, and in two of them there are no bedsteads, so that the beds lie upon the wet ground.

One of them - in which at the time of my visit two wretched creatures were dying - was in an exceedingly foul condition; in one comer a pile of old filthy clothes, shoes, etc.; in another a large heap of straw; in another place a quantity of coals scattered about; the ventilation was very imperfect.

Further investigation found the floors and walls of the infirmary to be in a ‘very discreditable condition’ with ‘the windows almost universally closed, the atmosphere close and foul; the smell upon entering the rooms most offensive.’

Walls had not been white-washed, buckets, used as lavatories, were allowed to sit for hours without being emptied and medicines and drinks were served out on the floor where ‘the boards were in a filthy state’.

Due to overcrowding it emerged that, as a result of an inadequate supply of garments, the clothes of those paupers who had died of fever or dysentery were used by other paupers without prior cleaning and drying.

Woman looking over her son who has dysentery
Dysentery still kills people in the 21st century. In this photo, a mother watches over her son Faizel, who is suffering from severe dehydration and dysentery in a children's hospital, July 13, 2002 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Children then and now are particularly at risk of dying from diarrheal diseases. Photo: Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images

‘Neglect and discomfort’

Another area of concern was that of burials. Evidently, many paupers had been buried less than four yards from the fever hospital and in the centre of the burial ground was the well which supplied water to the workhouse. In fact, the graves had been dug so close to it that the water had become muddy and unfit for use.

Not surprisingly, in the light of what he had witnessed, Smith described the Lurgan workhouse as ‘a picture of neglect and discomfort such as I have never seen in any other charitable institution’. He thus recommended that all admissions should cease and the workhouse and infirmary be cleaned, fumigated and white-washed. 

Smith believed that the problems stemmed from the death of the master in early November and the fact that three weeks passed before a successor was appointed. During this period, overcrowding had developed and continued until the end of January.

This, coupled with the fact that many subordinate officers had been ill at one time or another, meant that ‘ventilation, whitewashing and cleanliness appear to have been neglected at the very time when the strictest attention to these important means of arresting the spreading of disease were most imperatively called for.’

He contended that, despite a heavy workload, ‘a little more activity’ on the part of Dr Bell, together with a stricter surveillance by the guardians, would have prevented much of the mortality, stating: 

It appeared to me that the guardians had no knowledge of the state of the infirmary as regards cleanliness, ventilation, etc. either from personal observation or otherwise. The reports of the physicians informed them of its overcrowded state and this was the only particular about it with which they seem to be acquainted.

In a damning conclusion, he maintained that ‘the chief causes of the evil in question are internal, and the result of defective management of the institution.’

Indeed, Henry Wynne, Chairman of the Moira Relief Committee stated that ‘the mortality in the Poor House of Lurgan is such as would prevent our guardians from sending any of our poor to the establishment at present.’

However, it appeared that no one was prepared to shoulder the blame for the deficiencies and only one member of staff, Dr Bell, resigned.

Those charged with appointing both the medical and administrative staff and contracting for food did not feel the need to take similar action and there were no resignations of the guardians.

Location of Lurgan workhouse as shown on an early Griffith's Valuation map which also delineates property boundaries adjacent to Lurgan town.

Book of Deaths

Meanwhile, the paupers in that institution, who relied on the administrators for their survival, died in such numbers that the only testament to their existence was a number in the Book of Deaths which was painted on a label and placed at the head of each grave.

However, as the following report illustrates, they did not even receive the dignity of an individual burial:

In the graveyard attached to the house, a large grave is made which fills nearly full of water a short time after it is opened. To its verge are brought the coffins containing the dead bodies - these coffins frequently contain two and three each - they are then put into the grave, in which they usually float.

One or two persons then stand on the coffins in the water until the mould is heaped upon them. There are frequently twenty bodies in the one grave.

The fact that mass burials took place illustrated how, in the early months of 1847, even the industrial heartland of north-east Ulster was devastated by the failure of the potato. The de-industrialisation of the cottage spinning industry meant that thousands who had previously survived and thrived on small plots of land were now susceptible to crop failure. The inefficiency and blatant maladministration of the workhouse officials compounded the problem. 

This piece is part of the Great Irish Famine project coordinated by UCC and based on the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.