Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Certificate read 'Place of Death: The Workhouse'

Consider what you might least like to see written on the death certificate of one of your ancestors.  Perhaps it might be the word 'Workhouse' recorded as the place of death. In September 2011, at the GRO research room in Dublin, I had a discussion with a man who was very upset about discovering this on the death registration of his great-great-grandfather:

Place of Death: Workhouse S.D.U.
[Translation: Workhouse South Dublin Union]

He was visibly upset by this discovery, and indignantly declared, "This is impossible. The record must be wrong. My great-great-grandfather had a good job, and their family was very well off". In order to ascertain that the certificate he was holding was definitely the one he had requested, I checked the entry he had found in the register books. It was correct.

We talked about his research in order to help him confirm that the person indicated on the certificate was indeed his ancestor, and we talked about the workhouse and what it meant to live, and to die there. We also talked about the fact that this discovery opened up the possibility for 'in person' research at the National Archives of Ireland, located in Dublin.

In the case of the Dublin Workhouses, the NAI has the registers of admission and discharge for the North and South Dublin Union Workhouses. Dating from 1839, each workhouse register includes a wealth of information. The registers include the date of admission, name, age and sex of the person admitted, along with his/her spouse's name if applicable, home address at time of admission if applicable, and his/her pre-admission occupation.

If an individual was admitted as a patient to the infirmary which was part of the workhouse complex, rather than the workhouse itself, then there are notes about his/her condition at the time of admission. The date of discharge is noted at the end of the entry, and may be the date the patient died at the workhouse, or the date he/she was institutionalized elsewhere, or quite simply his/her date of release.

Several times during our conversation, my fellow researcher mentioned that everyone in his family has always been a hard worker, and earned everything they had in life. Then, I realized that he was personally affronted by what he read on the certificate, that he believed his great-great-grandfather's death in the workhouse somehow reflected badly on him, as a great-great-grandson. It seemed clear this man had, perhaps sub-consciously, accepted the lie about those in the workhouse system which had been disseminated in the annals of history, that workhouse inmates were there because they were lazy and didn't work hard enough. This was certainly not the case.

George Nicholls, charged by the Crown with the task of founding the Irish workhouse system, concluded after his first visit to Ireland, (a visit of only six weeks in which he visited only 3 counties) that the workhouse system would work in Ireland, just as it had in England. Nicholls believed that the workhouse would serve to teach the desperately poor idlers in the land, who could not bear confinement, to desire employment outside the workhouse. He completely ignored the fact that for the labouring class in Ireland there was little or no work to be had.

Nicholls wrote,

'The Irish are naturally, or by habit, a migratory people fond of change, full of hope, eager for experiment.  Confinement of any kind is most irksome to an Irishman.' 1

In addressing Parliament over his objections to the workhouse system, the great Irish patriot, Daniel O'Connell said,

'The labouring classes [in Ireland] are anxious to procure employment; they never refused it; they in fact work for twopence or threepence a day rather than be idle.  There is no necessity, therefore, for poor houses in Ireland in order to stimulate its labouring population to look for work.' 2

It is no secret that we in the twenty-first century live in a world in which many believe hard work alone guarantees a good life. So too, it is sometimes easy to forget that we have systems in place which support us in employment, health, and other aspects of our lives. Sometimes we view the lives of our ancestors purely through the optic of the twenty-first century, and in doing so we forget their lives were, in so many ways, very different from ours. Many of our ancestors were living on the brink of disaster, perhaps one pay packet or one illness away from the workhouse.

When I conversed with the man in the research room I understood his dismay, because I have faced the same notation on the death registration of one of my own ancestors, my maternal great-grandfather, Francis Ball. I remember when I first laid eyes on that notation, I had a similar sort of reaction in terms of disbelief, albeit a less angry reaction. 'How can this be correct?', I thought. After all, Francis Ball was the second in four generations of successful cabinet makers. He and my great-grandmother Jane Early had married in St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral. They had five children. They had a life. His young sons Patrick and Christopher were apprenticed to him as cabinet makers. How could this be; how could such a man die in the workhouse?

When I looked at the cause of death, matters became much more clear to me.

Click on image to view larger version.
In the column for certified cause of death, the certificate reads: "Senile, dementia, syncope certified".  The working life of Francis Ball ended because of his dementia. With the income of the main breadwinner ended, there was neither money to care for him at home, nor to care for him in a hospital. In 1907, he was admitted to the workhouse infirmary for treatment on two occasions, from 16 to 17 July, and from 21 August to 5 September. In the winter of 1908, on 3 January, Jane Ball admitted her husband to the infirmary at the South Dublin Union Workhouse for what would be the last time. He would die there eighteen months later on 3 July 1909.3

Better care for Francis Ball at the end of his life might have been effected had he been of age to qualify for the Old Age Pensions act which had passed in 1908, but as the certificate attests he was only 56 years old, and those pensions were meant for the over 70 set. He would have been admitted to the workhouse under the Medical Charities Act of 1851, the foundational act for the Poor Law Medical service, which provided free medical treatment for the poor in the workhouse infirmary.

I find myself wondering what it was like on that last day of admission when Jane Ball and her sons took her husband, their father, to that place. Did they know he would never come home? As they walked away from there, did they look back as the 'occupiers' took him away, or was that sight too painful a prospect? One thing is certain, those sons never mentioned the loss of their father in the workhouse infirmary, neither to their children, nor to their grandchildren. That painful secret was left to the historical record.



O'Connor, John. The Workhouses of Ireland: The fate of Ireland's poor, Anvil Books, Dublin, 1995.


1. O'Connor, page 62.
2. O'Connor, page 65.
3. South Dublin Poor Law Union: Workhouse admission and discharge records: NAI/BG 79, 1907-1909.


  1. It must have been quite a shock for both of you. I didn't realize workhouses were still open in 1909. When did they close them up?

  2. Understanding the historical context of our ancestor's lives and decisions is so important, great article!

  3. Hi Charlotte, and Carol,

    I have been trying all morning to say thank you for your comments, but for some reason the blog would not let me before now. So, Thank You.

    Charlotte, throughout the country some workhouses were closed down and the buildings abandoned, but many were turned into either homes for the care of orphaned and abandoned children, or hospitals. Some of the S.D.U buildings now form part of St. James Hospital.

    Carol, you know I'm all about the history. :):)

    Cheers to each one of you,

  4. An evocative and cautionary story. I too have an ancestor who died in a (Scottish) workhouse. Part of me continues to wonder why his family didn't take him in, but the logical part of me knows it was practically impossible with large families to support.

  5. Hi Pauleen,

    As always, thank you so much for your comments.

    I find myself tormented by similar thoughts, especially when you know that there were other members of the extended family who were very well off, and thus were in a position to help. I find myself thinking a lot about my great-grandmother Jane and all that she had to deal with, and I realize that she didn't have the leisure to examine life, she just had to keep on going.

    Cheers to you,


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