The Poor Law Commission

‘The cabin generally of the most miserable description, the furniture corresponding. The bed, a small quantity of straw and an indifferent blanket; sheets none.’

Thus James Kirwan Esq. J.P. describes the housing, furnishings and bedding in the parish of Tuam, Co Galway in 1836 in answer to a questionnaire sent out by the Royal Commission for Inquiring into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland.

This commission, commonly known as the Poor Law Commission or Whately Commission, sat between 1833 and 1836 and produced three reports. It was chaired by the Rev. Richard Whately, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin. The objective was to assess the need for poor relief in Ireland and to propose an adequate system to accommodate this need.

The Whatley Commission set about an exhaustive and extremely detailed survey on the levels of poverty in every region in the country, and the cause of this poverty.

The commission did not rely upon the testimony of witnesses brought before it but sent out numerous assistant commissioners to collect evidence. These latter were directed to attend to fact gathering only and were not to make recommendations. The assistant commissioners examined carefully one parish in every barony of seventeen of the Irish counties. The witnesses who were interviewed were chosen with an eye to impartiality‘.

The appendices to the three reports and the supplements to the appendices are an extraordinary primary resource depicting life in 1830s Ireland. All of the witness statements mentioned in the above quote are included as are the answers to the questions which were circulated by the commissioners.

The following eyewitness accounts of life in Ireland in the 1830s come from the First Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland, specifically the questionnaires relating to the Nature and Causes of Disease, the so called Destitute Poor and the conditions of Agricultural Labourers.

On clothing and bedding:

‘Clothes limited to one suit, occasionally very bad, bedding generally loose straw, covered with a blanket alone; furniture scarcely any and ventilation very imperfect.

On the Subdivision of land:

‘In consequence of the great population, and the minute divisions of land, evils which are continually on the increase, by the tenants continuing to subdivide those already too small holdings, there is not the comfort among the small holders of land that one would wish.’

On health and food:

‘Hundreds of my cases are immediate or remote gastrointestinal irritations, induced by an unvaried consumption of the potato.’

On the destitute poor:

‘The cholera, which raged amongst us for the last two seasons, left us a number of widows and orphans living in want and poverty.’

‘There are very few bastard children. In case their fathers should refuse to support them, the mother generally worries him into compliance.

‘The strolling beggar is seldom refused lodging at the poorest householder’s.’

On agricultural labourers:

‘There is a pawn brokers in the town; tradesmen and decent housekeepers deal there; the lower classes of the poor have nothing worth pawning.

‘The general condition of the poorer classes in this union is generally deteriorating, since the Peace in the year 1815, in respect to their food and clothing, and, in fact, to their general means of subsistence. The population is rapidly increasing.’

The Whatley Commission concluded that the workhouse system which existed for England would not be suitable for Ireland because of the level of depravation and the lack of employment. They suggested employment, through public works, and emigration as a means to alleviate the destitution. This was not acceptable to Home Secretary Lord John Russell who favoured the proposal put forward by George Nicholls, a Commissioner of the English poor law, to extend the workhouse system to Ireland. An Act for the More Effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland which established 130 poor law unions with workhouse in each union was passed in 1838.

As well as holding the Reports themselves, UCD Special Collections holds many ancillary pamphlets relating to the question of poor relief in Ireland in the 1830s and 1840s as well as late 19th century books and pamphlets which discuss the merits and flaws of the systems with the benefit of hindsight.

  • This post was researched and written by Evelyn Flanagan, Head of Special Collections, UCD Special Collections.



Supplement to Appendix (E) First report of the commissioners for inquiring into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland.

Conway, Thomas G., “The Extension of the Poor Law to Ireland” (1969). Dissertations.  Paper 981.

Supplement to Appendix (B), Part 1, First report of the commissioners for inquiring into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland – Questionnaires relating to the ‘Nature and Causes of Disease.

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