These handwritten registers are from the Sligo Union workhouse, one of three workhouses in County Sligo. Thousands of people were admitted to the workhouse, usually with family members. The workhouses are a looming presence in Irish cultural memory. They were often places of despair. The names of over 3,000 children can be found. The records include a person’s name, age, condition upon entering the workhouse and when they were discharged or died.
Each record contains both an image and a transcript of the original material. The amount of information can vary but you can find out the following about your ancestor:
Status (whether married, single, widowed or a child)
Description – type of records
On image only
If a child, name (or workhouse number) of parent
If disabled, the description of the disability
Name or location of spouse
Number of children
Observations of condition when admitted
Electoral division and townland of residence
Date left workhouse or died
Sligo Union workhouse was one of three workhouses operating in County Sligo. The registers included here cover the dates 27 November 1848 to 17 April 1849 and 28 March 1854 to 3 August 1859. This is the period of the Famine in Ireland so the records are very significant. Also, they pre-date civil registration, which can help you to break through a genealogical wall. There are over 10,000 records and 297 images.
The workhouse was built between 1840 and 1842 in the north of Sligo, admitting its first inmate on 17 December 1842. The records show that 57% of the inmates were female. Of those who were widows or widowers, 71% were female. During the famine, additional sheds were erected to accommodate more inmates and a separate fever hospital was built.
The English workhouse system was introduced to Ireland in 1838. The Poor Law Commission divided the country into 130 poor law unions, which were eventually expanded to 163 unions, and a Board of Guardians was set up for each union. Elections of the guardians took place every 25 March. Only ratepayers were eligible, which meant the landless Irish were not. Two-thirds of the guardians were elected and one-third were ex-officio guardians. Usually, the local Justices of the Peace were given the ex-officio positions. Religious leaders or ministers were not eligible.
A poor rate was introduced to help pay for shelter and food in the workhouse. The workhouses were designed for the most destitute of the poor who could not support themselves. Conditions were harsh and inhuman. Inmates were stripped of their dignity, they were no longer a person but instead a pauper inmate.
The conditions within the workhouse were not to be more comfortable than those of a working labourer outside. The idea was to deter people from entering the workhouse and push them to seek support for themselves. However, labourers during this time were not living far better. Outside of the workhouse a labourer could live in a bleak one room cottage, with little furnishings and ragged clothing.
George Wilkinson, an architect practising in Oxford, was given the task of designing and building the Irish workhouses for a salary £500 per annum. The task, as explained in the Fifth Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners of 1839, was to produce a building ‘of the cheapest description compatible with durability; and effect is aimed at by harmony of proportion and simplicity of arrangement, all mere decoration being studiously excluded.’ Wilkinson did not waste any time. He arrived in Ireland in January 1839 and submitted plans for the Poor Law Commissions by February 1839.
The typical layout for a workhouse was to have an entrance block at the front for administration, board rooms and offices. Then a person would walk through to the main building, which was three stories high and made of stone. At the back were the wash houses, store rooms and kitchens. The wards, within the main building, had un-plastered walls, bare rafters and bare floors. Inmates slept on straw mattresses. The staircases were stone, steep and narrow. Open fires were used for heating, but the small windows were ineffective for ventilation, creating a smoky and depressing atmosphere. The buildings were encircled with a large stone wall, creating a prison like impression.
Every workhouse employed a clerk to the board of guardians, treasurer, medical officer, master of the workhouse, matron, porter, chaplain, schoolmaster and schoolmistress. Then additional nurses, servants or attendants were employed as necessary. Whole families entered the workhouse and then were segregated to different wards: females, males, school/children, infirmary and idiot. Females were further separated for maternity and nursery wards. The records show a married couple Hugh and Mary Callaghan, 71 and 72 years old entering the workhouse in August 1858. The couple were listed as debility (meaning weak or frail. Once separated husbands and wives rarely saw each other. Hugh was discharged in June 1863, but his wife died in April 1862.
Daily life in the workhouse was highly regimented, monotonous and disciplined. Idleness was forbidden. Men were employed to break stones or grind corn and women washed laundry and cleaned. In some workhouses inmates were made to spin the mill-wheel for hours, walking in circles. Meals were eaten in silence and no leisure time was given. Punishments were given for foul language, talking during silence, threatening assault, disturbing prayers, playing games, exciting inmates, disobeying an officer and more. Lack of water or toilet facilities in the overcrowded wards created foul smells.
After the creation of the Free State, one of the first actions of the new government was to abolish the cruel workhouse system in Ireland.