Notorious Women

Poor health is closely associated with poverty and poor living conditions are a major cause of illness. In the nineteenth century many people suffered from lung infections and other illnesses associated with the damp and cold living conditions they endured. The Labourers (Ireland) Acts of the 1880s onwards were introduced to provide better quality housing for the labouring classes. The Boards of Guardians implemented this public housing scheme and they were responsible for choosing the tenants of the houses built under their direction.

On 19th April 1888 the Dungarvan Board of Guardians made the following resolution :

"..that no Labourers Cottage be let to a woman in this Union!". BG/DUNGN/59

It would appear from this resolution that women in Waterford did not have the same access to housing as men. They were dependant on a husband or male family member to provide a home. Today, Waterford City & County Council provides public housing based on a Housing Needs Assessment that does not take into account the gender of applicants.

However, women did have access to medical services. The Medical Charities Act, 1851 provided medical attention to more people, in particular, to those unable to pay for the services of a doctor themselves. Under this Act the Poor Law Unions were divided into districts and each district had a doctor in attendance with a dispensary stocked with medicine and medical appliances. As this system developed a network of dispensaries provided healthcare throughout the County and patients who visited the dispensary doctor could be given tickets to attend the Fever Hospital for further treatment and on the recommendation of the Medical Officer patients from the Fever Hospital could be sent for specialist treatment to other medical institutions.

On 7th April 1869 (BG/LISM/31) the Lismore Board of Guardians heard the following report:

"A woman named Ellen Walsh 52 years of age was admitted to the Infirmary on Monday about 12 o’clock suffering from Influenza, and she died next morning about 2 o’clock. She was brought to the Workhouse in the van from Cappoquin Dispensary and she was very cold as she had no covering on her and little straw under her. The Master suggests that it would be desirable to procure a mattress and bolster for the van for weak and sickly persons sent to the Workhouse. The Medical Officer was sent for on her admission and he saw her immediately and had everything done for her that her case required."

Women as carers for children were often responsible for visiting the dispensary doctor and as a result were often more likely to avail of medical services than men. Today, according to Women’s Health in Europe: Facts and Figures Across Europe women remain more likely than men to come into contact with health care professionals and to use their services.

In addition to providing a doctor the dispensary system also included the services of a midwife for each Dispensary District. The nineteenth century saw a number of advances in relation to childbirth, in particular, chloroform began to be used for pain relief in childbirth. Initially, the idea of a pain-free labour was objected to by religious traditionalists who believed that mothers should fulfil what they believed to be the edict of God to “bring forth children in sorrow”. The use of anaesthesia in childbirth received a great boost of support when it was used by Queen Victoria in 1853.

However, childbirth still remained very dangerous and there are numerous entries referring to “dangerous midwifery”, in the Board of Guardians Minute Books from 15th December 1869:

"In compliance with a requisition from Dr. Luther, Cappoquin Dispensary he procured the services of Dr. Flynn of Dungarvan to assist him in a dangerous midwifery case on the 10th inst…Dr. Luther was in attendance upon a Dispensary Ticket, Dr. Flynn’s fee is 2 guineas". BG/LISM/32

The advent of greater medical attention at childbirth was initially more of a hindrance than a help until it was realised that women giving birth in the more hygienic conditions kept by convents and nursing hospitals were more likely to survive than those in hospitals being treated by doctors who failed to wash either their hands or instruments as they went between patients. The discovery of germs and a greater understanding of contagion improved the rates of survival greatly.