Women & Poverty

Women were not considered capable of controlling their finances and properties and as a result they were particularly vulnerable to poverty in the past in Waterford. Until the first Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 a husband could take legal control of all of his wife’s properties and she had no right to property she herself may have inherited or indeed purchased. Further, until the introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1857 a legally separated wife did not have the right to keep what she earned and her husband could return at any point in time, take any money she earned, and leave her again.

In Waterford the impact of this control of properties and monies held by a husband over his wife’s interest can be seen in the case brought by Richard Chearnley, esquire against Andrew English. Richard Chearnley enquired of a barrister whether Andrew English could be compelled to pay his wife Susan (Chearnley’s aunt) an annuity (annual sum of money), which had been left to her by her father in his will. In response the barrister stated that Andrew English was his wife’s “paymaster” and could not be compelled by the trustees to pay the arrears of annuity due to his wife.

The vulnerability of women to poverty can be seen in the Minute Books of the Boards of Guardians for the Workhouses throughout Waterford. These records show a consistently higher number of able-bodied females than males in the Workhouses. Taking the years 1855-1858 and samples from different Workhouses throughout the County there is a clear indication that women were far more likely to enter the workhouse than men.

Workhouse Date Able-Bodied Female Able-Bodied Males Volume Code
Dungarvan 29th September 1855 65 29 BG/DUNGN/13
24th November 1855 83 36
26th January 1856 184 84
Kilmacthomas 7th July 1855 106 13 BG/KILTHOM/6
24th November 1855 60 16
Lismore 10th January 1857 66 23
27th June 1857 69 18
19th September 1857 53 14
Waterford 27th March 1858 353 130 BG/WTFD/20
19th June 1858 300 114
18th September 1858 240 93

In many cases, the men of the family remained outside the Workhouse looking for work, often leaving the country and their families behind them.

11th April 1868
The Board admitted the wife and 2 children of a man named Michael Brien of Deerpark, the family living in a state of utter destitution though the man could not be induced to enter the Workhouse. BG/LISM/31

The Boards of Guardians kept a close watch on this practice and pursued any men they believed to have abandoned their family while he himself was earning money that could be paid for their keep. Today women are not quite as vulnerable to poverty, according to the EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions of 2005 from the Central Statistics Office which reported that “While females were found to have a higher risk of poverty than males in 2004, there was little or no observable difference in 2005”. However, the same survey also found that consistent poverty was higher among females than males.

Women in rural areas could generate money by participating in cottage industries. With the advent of factory- produced goods in the nineteenth century this source of income was not as readily available and families had to either do without this income or do without the women who worked in the factories.

People entering the Workhouse had no means of support at all and no possibility of being able to support themselves. If it was discovered that there was any means at all or possibility of any means of support then they would be discharged from the Workhouse.

On 28th February 1857, a member of the Board of Guardians in Lismore made the following notice of motion:

Notice that on Wednesday next the 11th inst. I will move that all able-bodied women in the Work House not having more than 2 children be discharged from the House
On 7th March 1857, the Board discussed this motion with the following clarification:
The Board having received information from the Guardians of the several Electoral Divisions to which they belong that the following paupers could find employment at once if discharged from the Workhouse

A vote was then held and passed by 8 votes to 3 that a list of women whose names were supplied by the Master would be discharged to find employment. It was only on the further resolution of a board member that the Relieving Officer was directed to :

“…make full enquiry as to the probability of the parties named in the list proposed by the Master being able to get employment in the event of their being discharged from the Work House and that he do attend the Board with such Report at the meeting of the Committee”

On 14th March 1857, the Committee having received the report of the Relieving Officer recommended the following to be discharged from the Workhouse

  • Bridget Grady and 1 child - Cathe Barry and 1 child
  • Mary Geary and 1 child - Mary Flynn and 1 child
  • Eliza Connell - Mary Carthy
  • Jane Kepple and 1 child (To remain in House until May next)
  • Nancy Mulcahy and 1 child (when latter is well)
  • Mary Anne Cunningham
  • Today, unemployment payments can be withdrawn if you refuse a suitable job offer including Community Employment or a suitable FÁS course.

    While living in the Workhouse “inmates” (as they were known) were not allowed to generate any income at all, they wore the clothes of the Workhouse and had to apply to the Board for a suit of clothes if they ever managed to get a position and leave the Workhouse. ‘Bridget Dunn’ and ‘Mary Reardon’ were reprimanded in 1862 for “clandestinely knitting stockings” and their materials forfeited so any attempts to generate income or indeed clothing beyond that supplied by the Workhouse were prevented.

    Today, it is possible to work for a stated number of days for a stated maximum income while still allowing for claims of Jobseekers Benefit or Allowance. Within the Workhouses women were kept busy, where possible.

    Report of the Visiting Committee to Waterford Union 5th April 1859
    The exercising ground of the Unmarried mothers and their children is always in a more or less dirty state, slops are still frequently thrown on the grass instead of into the sink, which was settled in my last report, some months ago. I think it would be better, and more wholesome if it were all gravelled. The women are I fear not sufficiently employed, at Industrial work. The numbers in that Department are alarming. BG/WATFD/22

    Women often worked in the wards of the Fever Hospital. Hospitals were often staffed by prostitutes and the poorest of women as it was considered a very menial job and it was not until after the Crimean War (1854-1856) and the work of Florence Nightingale that efforts were made to establish a qualified nursing profession. For some time the hospital wards and care for the sick remained the duty of the lowest in society – the women of ill-repute.