Considering the impact he had on this country, it is surprising that the name of architect George Wilkinson is not better known here. Born in Witney, Oxfordshire in 1814, and the eldest of six children, Wilkinson’s background was modest: his father was a carpenter and builder. There is little known of his education or training but he soon began to win contracts for work and in 1839 – when still not yet 25 – was appointed architect to the Irish Poor Law Commission, of which more below. Wilkinson thereafter spent the greater part of his life in Ireland, only returning to England a few years before his death in 1890. While living here, aside from his work for the commission, he was responsible for designing many other buildings, not least railway stations, perhaps the most celebrated of these being that on Harcourt Street in Dublin, as well those in Cavan and Sligo towns, Bray, County Wicklow, Athlone, County Westmeath, and Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim, among many others. He designed the fine redbrick offices for the Guinness brewery at St James’s Gate in Dublin, and district lunatic asylums in Castlebar, County Mayo, Letterkenny, County Donegal, and both Carlow and Limerick. His practice in Ireland was extremely and consistently busy but it began with a large number of buildings which continue to have a notoriety here: workhouses.
In Ireland, workhouses are today associated with the catastrophe of the Great Famine and its aftermath. However, as institutions they neither originated in this country, nor were they intended to deal with such a disaster. The workhouse was essentially an English construct, arising out of successive Poor Law Acts and specifically dating back to the 1720s when legislation was passed allowing a local parish either to purchase or rent a property ‘for the Lodging, Keeping and Employing of poor Persons.’ Here in Ireland, and some twenty years earlier, a ‘House of Industry’ was established by act of Parliament in St James’s parish, Dublin ‘for the employment and maintaining of the poor thereof’: in 1729, it also became a Foundling Hospital. Operational costs were covered by, among other things, a tax on sedan chairs and hackney coaches. In 1773 a similar House of Industry was set up across the other side of the Liffey, on what is now North Brunswick Street. Others followed in a number of Irish cities and towns including Cork, Belfast, Limerick, Waterford and so forth. Like their English equivalents, these buildings were never supposed to be an attractive option: they were intended to be places of last resort for those who were destitute and prepared to suffer what could be a harsh regime (in England the running of many workhouses was contracted out to third parties: shades of direct provision centres in this country at present). Circumstances, both in England and here, began to change in 1832 when the Westminster Parliament established a Royal Commission, chaired by the Bishop of London, to look at the administration of existing Poor Laws, some of them going back to 1601, and see how these might be improved. A report delivered two years later led to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which created a new administrative framework for providing relief to the poor, operated by a Poor Law Commission. One of the latter’s first tasks was to disband the old parish-level system of support and replace it with a nationwide series of organisations called Poor Law Unions, each run by a locally elected Board of Governors. Each union was to have its own workhouse, funded by a local poor rate. Workhouses were deeply unpopular in England and Wales, where they were first constructed, and often subject to attacks; some were even threatened with arson. Nevertheless, a similar system was proposed for Ireland by the government and in 1833 another commission, this one chaired by the Archbishop of Dublin, was set up to look into the matter. The commission’s report, delivered in 1836, did not recommend that the English system be replicated in Ireland: the problem here being lack of work rather than any unwillingness on the part of the local population to take up employment (which was thought to be one of the primary causes of poverty in England). More jobs, better housing, the drainage of bogs and improvements in agriculture: these were among the Irish commission’s recommendations. Unhappy with these proposals, the government in London sent over one of the English Poor Law Commissioners, George Nicholls, to investigate. Nicholls, who had never been here before, spent a mere six weeks traveling through the country, after which he returned home and declared that the English workhouse system was the best remedy for Ireland’s distinct issues. Despite violent opposition to the idea, the government proceeded with a Bill ‘for the more effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland’ which passed into law in July 1838. Under this legislation, the country was divided into 130 Unions, each of which was to have its own workhouse (during the years 1848-50 some of these unions were split, with the creation of a further 33, thereby increasing the final figure). In early 1839 George Wilkinson, who had already designed a number of workhouses in England and Wales, arrived in Ireland with the brief of producing plans for all of them here.
Employed on an annual salary of £500, Wilkinson was instructed by the Poor Law Commissioners to visit and inspect all proposed sites before coming up with a proposal for workhouses ‘intended to be of the cheapest description compatible with durability; an effect is aimed at by harmony of proportion and simplicity of arrangement, all mere decoration being studiously excluded.’ Within a couple of months, Wilkinson had come up with a design model which was almost universally applied in the construction of Irish workhouses. Built of stone in a suitably unadorned Tudoresque style and capable of holding on average up to 800-1,000 persons, each site was entered through a relatively small porters’ block, where prospective inmates were admitted and where the local guardians would hold their meetings. Behind and to either side of this were separate recreation yards for boys and girls, divided by a small central garden. Then came the main accommodation block, separated into dormitories for men and for women (and for boys and girls above), behind which were two further recreation yards, once more divided by gender and kept apart by a long building running down the spine which held the chapel and dining room. Finally, the top of the workhouse site would be occupied by the kitchens, a laundry, a mortuary and what was usually described as a ‘ward for idiots.’ Because they all followed the same model, workhouses soon began to spring up across the country: as early as April 1843, Wilkinson was able to report that 112 of them were finished, and another 18 nearing completion. But they remained deeply unpopular, among all classes. Those who had to pay for them resented doing so: in Westport, County Mayo, for example, although the workhouse was ready for use in November 1842, it took three years – and a change of Board of Guardians – for the necessary operating funds to be collected through poor rates. Meanwhile, nobody wanted to be admitted to places known for their harsh regime, poor diet and miserable living conditions: even in the summer of 1846, many workhouses were only half-full. Then came the worst years of the Great Famine when suddenly there was no alternative. Buildings never intended to meet such demand struggled to accommodate many more inmates than had been planned, disease, such as typhus, became rife, and large numbers of Unions sank into debt as they struggled to provide any kind of assistance to the starving local community. No wonder that the image of the Irish workhouse is forever tainted. And quite a few of them survive to the present day, either in part or whole, and often pressed into service for other uses, not least as hospital complexes: Wilkinson, it appears, met his brief to make them durable. The workhouse shown here, in Bawnboy, County Cavan, is one of those established in the post-Famine period. Simpler in style than the earlier models, it was built at a cost of £4,900 (plus £945 for fixtures and fittings) and opened in November 1853 when 52 inmates from its equivalent in Cavan town were transferred here. Designed to hold 500 residents, it never seems to have reached that figure: in 1855, 172 persons lived here and by 1901 there were just 70. Following the workhouse’s closure in 1921, the buildings were used for various purposes, some of them serving as a vocational school, while another section became a dancehall. Services were held in a Roman Catholic chapel as late as 1979. Then no new function could be found them, and a long, slow decline appears to have begun, despite local recognition of the site’s significance and efforts to save the buildings. This is how they are today, derelict and empty, silent witnesses to a particularly grim period of Irish history.