Glenn Patterson’s Belfast

GP's Belfast.v2

As part of the AHRC ‘Poverty and Public Health in Belfast, 1800-1973′ Project, we commissioned a short film to address themes of poverty and social exclusion in the city from the past to the present.

Presented by Belfast novelist Glenn Patterson, this film is now available for viewing at:

The film has been produced for the project at QUB by Dr Olwen Purdue and made by Subterraneanfish

[Added 10.2.17]

PhD Success

Robyn Atcheson has been the PhD Student attached to our project since 2012. We are Robyn Atcheson photodelighted that Robyn has now completed her PhD and that she has been awarded a doctoral degree by the Board of Examiners.

Her dissertation is on ‘Poverty, poor relief and public health in Belfast c. 1800 – 1851′

[added 10.2.17]

Surviving the industrial city

 New Publication

We’re happy to announce a new publication arising from the project:

Olwen Purdue, ‘Surviving the industrial city: the female poor and the workhouse in late nineteenth-century Belfast’, Urban History, 44:1 (Feb. 2017)


In common with many British cities, but unlike the rest of Ireland, late nineteenth-century Belfast experienced rapid industrialization and physical expansion. Women formed a significant proportion of the city’s workforce, attracted by the employment opportunities represented in the burgeoning textile industry. Many of them were economically vulnerable, however, and could find themselves destitute for a number of reasons. This article sets Belfast’s Poor Law workhouse in the landscape of welfare in the city, exploring how its use reflected the development of the city and the ways in which the female poor engaged with it in order to survive.



[Added 2.2.17]

Launch of ‘Surviving the City’


Dr Olwen Purdue (QUB) with co-organisers Ian Montgomery and Janet Hancock of PRONI.

Last night we launched our project exhibition ‘Surviving the City: Poverty and Public Health in Belfast 1888-1914’ at PRONI. The exhibition highlights, through images and text from primary sources, the experience of poverty and poor health in the period of Belfast’s most rapid population and economic expansion, between the granting of city status in 1888 and the outbreak of the First World War. We explore the underside of ‘booming Belfast’ through a series of panels on ‘The emerging city’, ‘Growing pains’, ‘Charity’, ‘Work’, ‘Welfare’ and ‘Public Health’. We’ll be posting images of the panels here in the near future, but in the meantime, you can see them at PRONI before we tour them to public libraries and other sites in the city.

The end of the Irish Poor Law?

Many congratulations to Dr Seán Lucey on the publication of his new book The end of the Irish Poor Law? Welfare and healthcare reform in revolutionary and independent Ireland with Manchester University Press.

Seán’s book examines Irish Poor Law reform during the years of the Irish revolution and Irish Free State. This work is a significant addition to the growing historiography of the twentieth century which moves beyond political history, and demonstrates that concepts of respectability, social class and gender are central dynamics in Irish society. This book provides the first major study of local welfare practices and exploration of policies, attitudes and the poor.

This monograph examines local public assistance regimes, institutional and child welfare, and hospital care. It charts the transformation of workhouses into a network of local authority welfare and healthcare institutions including county homes, county hospitals, and mother and baby homes.

The book’s exploration of welfare and healthcare during revolutionary and independent Ireland provides fresh and original insights into this critical juncture in Irish history. The book will appeal to Irish historians and those with interests in welfare, the Poor Law and the social history of medicine and institutions.

The End of the Irish Poor Law?

The End of the Irish Poor Law?

WW1, Belfast Workhouse and Nurses


This is just a little snippet from today’s work in the archives, specifically the Public Record’s Office of Northern Ireland where I am looking through the Minutes of the Belfast Board of Guardians from 1917. At this time the rest of Europe was engulfed in what had become a long and attritional conflict. And while most of us are aware of the thousands of Irish soldiers who fought as part of the British Forces (among others), we sometimes forget the other connections that the country had to what was happening on the continent.

This extract from the minutes was too long for a tweet, and far too fascinating not to share.

“…referring to the Nurses trained in the Belfast Infirmary… the Guardians had a list of 170 serving in connection with the War. They had Nurses in seven Hospitals in France, five Hospitals in Egypt, and some in Bombay, Mesopotamia, Salonica, Malta, and German East Africa. All the Nurses from the Belfast Infirmary joined as Staff Nurses, and in almost all cases they had been made Senior Sisters. The training they received in the Institution qualified them specially for looking after sick and wounded soldiers.” [1]

Hospital in Baghdad. Source:

Hospital in Baghdad. Source:

There’s not much mention of war time correspondence from the nurses but once the conflict had ended the minutes record various different letters coming from the nurses serving with the British Forces. In May 1919 the Guardians received a letter from a young woman from Killarney who had trained in Belfast between 1909 and 1913, informing them that ‘On her return from Salonica, after War Service, a few weeks ago she lost her luggage including her certs, and requests the guardians to furnish her with a copy.’[2] I wonder did she lose other precious letters, documents and perhaps even a diary in that lost luggage?

Earlier that month the guardians had received correspondence from two nurses, one in Bombay and the other in Mesopotamia. Miss B. who was on War Service in Bombay, had received demobilisation papers and was leaving India on 12th April. She notified the Guardians that she would report for duty at the Workhouse on her arrival in Belfast. Others decided to resign their posts and remain with the troops, including Miss T., who wrote from Mesopotamia (which corresponds to parts of modern-day Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey). She too had received the Guardians’ communications regarding demobilisation. Like all serving officers of the Workhouse her position had been held open for her but she decided ‘to remain in service in Mesopotamia’ and resigned her position. [3]

Nurse in Basra.  Source:

Nurse in Basra.

The injuries suffered on the trenches and beaches of Europe required medical attention long after the Armistice had been signed and some of the Irish women trained at Belfast decided to remain with the soldiers, treating them and possibly locals, in the hospitals of the conflict zone.

It is difficult to mention this region without thinking about the current conflict engulfing that part of the world. The British and French transformed (and not for the better) the Middle East in the decade after the First World War. Today persistent tribal and sectarian divisions have brought another devastating conflict to the region.

Click on the link for more on Mesopotamia during WW1;


[1] BG/7/A/97 – 19th June 1917

[2] BG/7/A/101 – 20th May 1919

[3] BG/7/A/101 – 13th May 1919.

Televising historical poverty: BBC and the workhouse


by Robyn Atcheson @randomrobyn

The celebrities in character (Source:

The celebrities in character (Source:

The recent BBC series 24 Hours in the Past reached its conclusion last week, following the fates of six twenty-first century celebrities as they worked and lived in the 1840s.  After spending a day in the dust yards, another in service at a coaching inn and getting fired from jobs in a pottery, the celebs were thrown into the workhouse.  As presenter Fi Glover explained,


“Homeless and broke, at the bottom of the heap, there’s only one place left to turn…”

The ‘time-travellers’ were sent to Southwell workhouse, currently under the management of the National Trust.  Leaving aside the numerous mentions of Dickens’ characters and the downright bizarre behaviour of some of the celebrities, this episode actually provided a fascinating insight into life in the workhouse.

As historians of the poor, we study the minute books of the Boards of Guardians, trace the admissions of paupers through indoor registers and analyse what life was like for those within the workhouse.  To see this environment resurrected and witness that lifestyle through the modern eyes of media personalities was astounding.  The historical context of the show and the attention to detail was impressive, with concepts and context explained by Ruth Goodman for the benefit of both the celebrities and audience at home.  But how do the experiences of the nineteenth-century poor of Belfast compare to what these modern figures endured?

Several themes were highlighted by the show, the first of which was the separation of the sexes and classification of the inmates.  Men and women were separated upon entry and slept and worked apart.  As all six celebs were adults, there was little discussion of children in the workhouse but there was an interesting distinction made for the more mature Ann Widdecombe (referred to as ‘Old Woman’ by the Matron).  The remaining participants were deemed ‘able-bodied’ meaning they were expected to earn their bed and board in the workhouse, not being included in the wider ‘deserving poor’ category.

As in the episode, many of the jobs and tasks in the Belfast workhouse were for the purpose of generating an income. The women were employed in oakum picking to sell the fibres from ropes while the men were employed breaking stones and crushing bones.  In the Belfast workhouse in 1846, oakum was sold for £25 12s 0d, the real price of this commodity in today’s currency is around £2,214.00 while bones and rags sold for £2 16s 11d, or £246.10 today.

Ann Widdecombe broke the rules of the workhouse three times before being punished by the Master and sent to solitary confinement.  In December 1845 a similar punishment was received in Belfast by Sarah D. for disobedience and was she placed by the Master in the probationary ward for one night. The Board of Guardians noted that they approved ‘of the punishment given to Sarah D., who they would have discharged but her being encumbered with three children’.  Even Officers in the workhouse were expected to maintain correct conduct at all times; Schoolmistress Miss Wallace was admonished by the Belfast Guardians in June 1843 before resigning from her post.

For not fulfilling their work targets, the celebrities were reprimanded with reduced portions of food.  Food, however, seems to have been standardised in Belfast workhouse in the 1840s as it was throughout Ireland under the Poor Law.  Attempts to alter the planned dietary due to poor quality potatoes in July 1843 were not well received by the central Poor Law Commission in Dublin who advised Belfast to rethink their proposals.

Southwell workhouse (Source:

Southwell workhouse (Source:

The experience of this television constructed reality highlights the similarities and differences between the recreated Southwell workhouse in Nottinghamshire and the Belfast Union workhouse.  Southwell opened in 1824, built to hold 158 paupers and later becoming a Union under the New Poor Law in 1836, while Belfast was designed to accommodate 1000 paupers and opened in 1841.  Southwell is now a National Trust site while Belfast workhouse forms part of the Belfast City Hospital.  Both histories of these workhouses have stories to tell and 24 Hours in the Past has introduced a wider audience to the austere and demanding routine of workhouse life in the 1840s.

*All Belfast workhouse facts from Belfast Board of Guardian minute books held at PRONI BG/7/A/2 – 5

Conference: Public Health and the Industrial City

Welfare and Public Health in the Industrial City: Belfast in Comparative Contexts c. 1800-1973

A Conference sponsored by the AHRC Project: Welfare and public health in Belfast and the its region, c.1800-1973

At PRONI, 2 Titanic Boulevard, Belfast on 16-17 April 2015

Plenary speaker: Prof Bernard Harris (University of Strathclyde), ‘Public health interventions and mortality change’

The full conference programme is available by clicking on this link: QUB AHRC Conference Schedule

This conference, bringing together research carried out by the QUB-based AHRC project team on welfare and public health in Belfast, with scholarship on other British and Irish cities in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, seeks to place Belfast’s modern historical experience of poverty, ill-health and the responses to them in a comparative perspective.

The conference is free and open to all, but if you’d like to attend, please email the project manager, Dr Georgina Laragy (, to let us know for catering purposes, by Monday 13th April.


Dear Poor Knitter


If your ‘poor attempt at knitting’[1] was the only record you left on the pages of history how would we expand that historical window to find a broader view of your life? How to make you significant and meaningful, not just to you, and not only in the past; but for our understanding of that past?  How could we demonstrate that as a poor knitter, you do have some genuine, albeit small, historical significance?

You left us no bonnets. There are no hole-riddled socks flattened in the pages of the book from 1905 in which I find you. You should not take this as indicative of how bad your knitting actually was; very few garments have survived into the twenty-first century, particularly those that might have clothed the poor. In the historical record, the words to describe you and your abilities are more prevalent than the wool you knitted, or the socks you yourself wore. The vision we have of your knitting is not based on the piece work itself, on that kind of primary evidence; rather the vision we have of you is conjured by the words typed out by Mrs Dickie in her report to the Local Government Board in Dublin. She had visited you, and your school-mates, on behalf of the Belfast Board of Guardians in July 1905. She was making sure you were doing well, making sure the Guardians’ and ratepayers’ money was not being wasted.

You were a ‘public child’, under the care of the state.[2] You were away from home, staying at St Mary’s Asylum for Female Blind in Dublin, because there was no one to take care of you, or at least no one who could take care of you and earn money to keep you at the same time. You were pressure on a struggling household and it is likely your parents placed you in the workhouse themselves so they could survive, one less non-working mouth to feed. That strategy meant you became a drain on the rates, and it was up to the state, through the Poor Law Guardians, to ensure that you would not be a drain on the rates for ever.

'Woman Knitting' by Otto Scholderer (1834-1902)

‘Woman Knitting’ by Otto Scholderer (1834-1902)

You appear in a single report, found in a volume of correspondence and taken largely out of context. But we can extrapolate a little from earlier documents found in this bound volume. It is clear from a previous report on boarded-out children made by the same Mrs Dickie that poor children created problems for government and local authorities. There are far more poor children in the historical record than middle-class or wealthy children. Swarms of disorderly, hungry, ‘street arabs’ could result in social chaos. They populate the records left behind by the clerks, inspectors, and relieving officers who worked for the Poor Law authorities.

What was to be done with these poor children? With you? How did the authorities ensure that the child, like the boots they wore, were not ‘allowed to become too much worn before being repaired’? That would be ‘extravagant in the long run’.[3] How did they ensure that the child not become indigent and lazy – pauperised essentially – before they could reach adulthood? The answer lay in industrial, technical or domestic training, and from a reasonably early age. “The greatest economy in the case of the pauper child is the expenditure upon him of whatever sum in reason is required to make him a healthy, useful member of society, fitted to earn a good living which will place him amongst the honest working classes, and for ever remove him and his family after him from being a perpetual burthen on the rates.”[4] This was not just about you, dear knitter, but about any children, grandchildren, you might have; subsequent generations would become free through your ability to knit! No pressure!

In the same school there were three other young girls who were being supported by the Belfast Guardians. You were the only ‘poor’ knitter, the rest were good. We know your name, and the names of all those Belfast girls who were in school in Dublin.  But to preserve the anonymity of your identity, and to protect and respect those who may have come after you, we will not write it here. Your names are all entered in a report, bound in a volume of papers all dating from 1905, that likely travelled on the mail carriage of the train between Dublin and Belfast, between central and local government, between the Local Government Board in Dublin and the Poor Law Guardians in Belfast. It is likely your name travelled more than you did, Mrs Dickie made her reports every year after all.

You were twelve when she wrote her report in July 1905. And you were ‘growing stronger and advancing well in [your] lessons’. But your knitting was letting you down. Despite your academic improvement, Mrs Dickie and the guardians were very concerned for your knitting. This skill might have secured you employment; working on a contract providing army socks could provide you with a means of support.[5] But if you could not knit, then you had to find something else to do with your hands. Basket-weaving was a popular skill taught to children like you then. But we don’t know if you excelled at making baskets. We only know you were a poor knitter, upon which so much might depend!

And we only know this because an adult, a local government board inspector, typed it out on a page, posted her report to the Local Government Board, who forwarded it on to the Belfast Guardians, who subsequently preserved it in their administrative records. The knitting of a young blind girl was important in that early 20th century welfare regime for what it tells us about the poor, disability, welfare provision and institutionalisation, as well gendered training and employment opportunities.

P.S. I found you in the 1911 Census in the same school. You were 18 and still knitting, along with 149 others from around the country! Perhaps you improved!




[1] Report on Children in Extern Institutions supported by the Belfast Board of Guardians, Mrs Dickie; 15 July 1905 to Belfast BoG and Local Government Board, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, BG/7/BC/35.

[2] Robbie Gilligan. “The “Public Child” and the Reluctant State?”, Eire / Ireland 44.1&2 (2009): 265-290

[3] Report on Boarding-Out Children by Mrs Dickie; 10 April 1905 to Belfast Board of Guardians, Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, BG/7/BC/35.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Report on Children in Extern Institutions, 15 July 1905.