How workhouses contributed to the misfortune of the Famine

Government decisions were in accordance with grim teachings of Thomas Malthus

Famine victims: a peasant family in The Life and Times of Queen Victoria, from 1900. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty

Famine victims: a peasant family in The Life and Times of Queen Victoria, from 1900. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty

 

When the “ghost estates” of our most recent economic crash are long forgotten, a few remnants of an earlier construction bust may still be haunting Ireland.  Whether abandoned as ruins or reclaimed for modern use, about 10 workhouses from the 1840s and 1850s still stand as reminders of the Famine, for which the earliest were built just in time.

But there were 161 of them once, huge structures thrown up at great expense in a few short years. And although we tend to see them now as a symptom of the Famine, the truth may be more damning. They may have been a big part of the cause.

That’s among the startling conclusions of a book published recently by retired diplomat Dymphna Mayne Headen, who became interested in the subject while serving on a committee to preserve one of the remaining workhouses, at Bawnboy, in Co Cavan.

The 'Bastilles for the Poor' were designed for the truly destitute. Nobody would go there voluntarily

Years of research later, her main conclusion about the Famine is contained in the book’s stark title: “The Potato Was Not the Problem”.  On the contrary, she suggests, that “innocent vegetable” provided a convenient distraction from the real causes of the disaster, which were almost entirely man-made.

On its own, Mayne Headen believes, the blight of 1845-6 would have meant a “minor famine” that could have been relived easily with no deaths. Instead, a series of deliberate political decisions, including the construction of the first 130 workhouses from 1840, turned minor misfortune into a catastrophe.

The workhouses were first introduced in England where, however harshly, they made some sense. England was fast industrialising, with high rates of “vagrancy”.  The workhouses solved the latter problem, while also helping ensure that those who could work had even more motivation to do so. The “Bastilles for the Poor” were designed for the truly destitute. Nobody would go there voluntarily.

No industry

But in most of Ireland, there was no industry. Employment was agricultural and seasonal. People were routinely out of work for seven months a year, many permanently on the brink of poverty. 

Despite this, the government of Robert Peel went ahead with building workhouses here on the same model.  And as in England, they had to be paid for by the poor law rates.

Retired diplomat Dymphna Mayne Headen became interested in workhouses and the Famine while serving on a committee to preserve one of the remaining workhouses, at Bawnboy, in Co Cavan.
Retired diplomat Dymphna Mayne Headen became interested in workhouses and the Famine while serving on a committee to preserve one of the remaining workhouses, at Bawnboy, in Co Cavan.

This was the other sense in which Ireland could not support the new system.

Most people couldn’t pay rates, however small.  The burden instead devolved to landlords, many already under financial strain. They now faced the bill for these vastly expensive buildings that were going up anyway. But meanwhile, whether they liked it or not, they also now had a place for unviable tenants to go if evicted. 

The logic was not lost. Mass evictions followed.

Corn laws

In the midst of all this, the British government repealed the corn laws: a system of tariffs that, since the end of the Napoleonic wars, had protected British wheat from cheap imports, especially American. There had been growing pressure to do this from urban England, but the crisis in Ireland was the excuse, even as repeal added to the flood of farm labourers there heading to the workhouse.

Then in 1846, the new British prime minister John Russell introduced what Mayne Headen calls “the most disastrous relief scheme ever devised by the ingenuity of man”.  The poor now had to break stones and build roads to nowhere in return for food.  They could have been working on the next harvest instead.  And in fact, there was no potato blight in “Black ’47”.  But only one sixth of the usual crop had been sown, so blight was academic.

Calamitous as the various government decisions seem now, they were in accordance with the grim teachings of Thomas Malthus, the dominant economic guru of the age

In any case, Mayne Headen insists, it was “a gross exaggeration” to say, as Russell did, that five million Irish people were dependent on the potato. The MP Henry Grattan (son of the more famous one) said that in 1847, Ireland produced “twice as much grain as was sufficient to feed the Irish people”, but it was sent to London even as poorer quality corn was being imported for relief.

Calamitous as the various government decisions seem now, they were in accordance with the grim teachings of Thomas Malthus, the dominant economic guru of the age. But whether it was part of a deliberate social engineering project or not, the building of the workhouses has some striking parallels with more recent times. 

One of the differences (so far) is that, back then, the debt was forgiven eventually.  In 1852, a new British government wrote off the £4.5 million owed for Ireland’s workhouses. 

Thereafter, those giant buildings that haunted our grandparents’ generation were never again to be more than half full, until the Free State government abolished them in the 1920s.

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