Condition of the poorer classes in Ireland : Parish of Magherafelt

Rainey Street 1910

Condition of the poorer classes in Ireland : First report: Appendix A (1835)

Ulster, Co. Londonderry – Examinations taken by C.W. Borett, Esq. Joseph Pollock, Esq.
Parish of Magherafelt, Bar. Loughinsholin
Persons who attended the examination
Mr. John Archer, farmer – G.W. Blathwaite, esq, J.P. – Mr. John Boyd, farmer – Mr. Archibald Bradley, farmer – Mr. Allan Browne, shopkeeper – Josiah Bryan, esq – Mr. Duncan, Shopkeeper – Doctor Evans – Captain Graves, J.P. – Mr. Henry – Mr. Edward Hull, shopkeeper – Mr. Little, farmer – Rev. Mr. Nevin, P.P. – Doctor Shannon – Mr. Thomas Shannon, farmer – Mr. William Shingley, farmer – Andrew Spotswood, J.P. – Rev. S, Twigg, curate – Rev. T.J. Vesey, rector – Rev. James Wilson, seceding minister – Police, labourers, &c.

Widows and children

The number of widows with young children, having no support but their own earnings, is very large; they are in a more wretched state than the rest of the community, and some with difficulty procure one meal a day.
They can make, by spinning, 1¼d a day, and by working in the fields in seed time, July and harvest, 6d a day, but could not possibly maintain a family by their earnings. Widows are not remarkable for the sale of illicit spirits. Few could even purchase a sufficiency of whiskey to set themselves up. The trade in illicit spirits has, moreover, greatly decreased.
One widow received assistance from parochial assessment; but the majority of the ratepayers objected to the assessment, which could not legally be enforced.
The widows strive to hold land, but are seldom able to do so, as the landlords give no assistance. A widow who has a lease of land will not divide it, and let it to cottiers.
Profits are not sufficiently great to allow persons in trade to provide for the widows of those who worked for them.
After the death of the landlord, the neighbours assist the widow by giving her a day’s work occasionally; but the practice is not long continued; they never support the children.
Widows are frequently obliged to beg, and generally do so at first at a distance from home, from feelings of shame. If the widow is young, she is sometimes led by begging to prostitution; but this is more common among women who have had illegitimate children. Among females especiallu, habits of begging in early life are most destructive.
Widows are very commonly relieved from congregational collections. There is no distinction of religious opinions, and therefore no motive for hypocritical pretence.
Widows are in general worse off than mothers of illegitimate children, their families being usually more numerous, and having no one to look to for assistance. It is not possible for a husband in the labouring classes to provide for his widow or children.

Impotent through age

There are about 150 destitute persons in this parish, not quite a fortieth of the whole population; about 50 beg; fully 100 are assisted and supported in different ways; and about 60 who beg receive assistance also from relatives; extremely few are supported by their neighbours, and none by the richer classes. About four in 20 labourers are above 60 years old, and they usually become incapable of working when between 40 and 70.
Before the son is allowed to take the farm which belonged to his father, a bargain is generally made by the landlord or his agent, that the later shall be supported from the farm. It is common too for the children to pay the rent of a cabin and potato garden for their parent, towards whom their affection is generally strong. The duty of supporting the old does not influence any but the children, on whom it frequently presses very severely. The most affectionate (not the child who is best off) supports the parent. It is generally also the unmarried child, and the parents prefer living with them, and seldom go from one child to another. The pressure on the child from supporting the parent frequently leads to ill will and quarrels. The parent in general fares in the same way as the child, though he who is to labour must get more sustenance. Both suffer when work is scarce and provision dear. None of the aged are supported by their neighbours, or by subscriptions from the young labourers, but remittances from the colonies are often made to a considerable amount, some of £5, £10 and £15, generally to bring over some of the family.
The regular mendicant (i.e. a person begging or relying on charitable donations) is much better off than the poor housekeeper, and the later is often reduced to one bad meal in the day, while the former can spend money in extravagance. The disinclination to beg is therefore not so great as it ought to be.
Blankets and clothing are generally given away every winter from a subscription among the higher classes. A clothing society has been formed, with a capital of £35 from which 700 to 800 persons in the year receive assistance. The price of the article is paid by weekly instalments of 1d in the shilling. The present tax on benevolence is generally proportionate to the poverty, not to the wealth of the giver. The absentees contribute nothing.
Sickness is the chief claim to relief from the congregational poor list; relief from this source is deemed much more respectable than that derived from begging. There are 40 on the church list, and 20 on the Presbyterian. Many are relieved from the Roman Catholic chapel, but no regular list is kept: 3s. Half yearly is the maximum given to those on the church list, and 1s 6d weekly to those on the Presbyterian. Food is never given by congregations. There are no almshouses.
Those who beg obtain more than the necessaries of life; the others can barely support themselves; still there is a great disinclination to beg. A labourer could not lay by anything; in the town they are less sober in general than in the country, probably from associating with servants and stable boys of intemperate habits. The general opinion of the parish was favourable to a provision for the infirm through age.

Sick poor

There is no certain fund for assisting the poor and their families who have become destitute through long sickness. When a family falls into sickness, two respectable neighbours go around, and make collections for them. About 2cwt. Of meal, or £1 is generally collected in this manner; these collections are made more than once if the sickness lasts long in the family. It is, however, necessary in most cases for the members of the family to beg, especially if they are unable to borrow. There is no loan fund. The poor are very much afraid of contagion, and will not even go near the door of a house visited by it; they do not remove the children. Contagion generally attacks all the inmates. Last December, a poor woman, who was ill of fever, lay for three nights under a hedge for want of a house; the neighbours were afraid to remove her. The labourer cannot lay by anything for sickness, and the small farmers and cottiers are even worse off.
The parish would wish to be able to assist the sick by assessment. The medical gentlemen would prefer that the power of giving relief in food, clothing or other necessaries should rest with the parish after they ad furnished the parish committee with a certificate of the ill health of the applicant.
Dr. Evans has frequently known a respectable family reduced to begging and ruined by sickness. He tapped a woman the other day who had not a loaf of bread. He ahd known men return to industry after recovering from a severe attack, and others fall into low spirits and become desperate from destitution. The poor want food oftener than medicine. Relapses continually occur for want of the necessaries of life; after recovery from sickness a poor man requires attention and a sufficiency of good diet; yet he is then in general most destitute.
The funds of the dispensary are not half equal to the demands on it; the district extends in a radius of nearly four miles all round the town. A fever hospital is much wanted, with a ward for accidents.

Able bodied out of work

From December to March is the period at which a portion of the labourers are without work; they generally have a patch of potato-ground planted, on the produce of which they subsist during the winter months; they are not reduced to so few meals in these months, as in the months of May, June and July. There is no regular fund out of which they receive assistance.
They beg much more in the summer months; begging is not so common in the winter months, when least work is to be obtained. Individuals, who have been compelled by necessity to beg in the summer months, have continued it afterwards when necessity ceased to exist. The women and girls are very rarely driven to prostitution. When work fails the family, there are no instances in the parish of women, having families, being abandoned by their husbands. There has been no instance of able bodied persons, or their families, committing offences for the purpose of being sent to prison, in order that they might obtain food and shelter there.
There is no instance known of pesons having been guilty of robberies, with a view to relieving themselves from destitution.
Credit is very common in the country, but rare in towns. Farmers are the persons applied to; 50 per cent. Above the market price is frequently charged; 2s. or 3. are commonly added to the price of one hundred weight of meal, value 10s. Processes for such debts, at the quarter sessions, are discouraged by the assistant barrister, who reduces the amount, if immoderately high.
Nothing like a labour rate has ever been known, and country works have been generally undertaken when work was most plentiful. The wages of the labouring people could not enable them to lay by anything; but they suffer more from the occasional high price of provisions, than from want of employment. The very poorest marry earliest; it is common practice to borrow money in order to pay the licence. The only requisite then is to get a shelter for the night. The clergy are not often consulted. Farmer’s sons are observed to be much later and more considerate in their marriages than labourers.


There are about 80 vagrants in the parish. Several respectable farmers stated that a dozen beggars on an average called daily at each of their houses. The cheapness of provisions lately diminished the number, which is largest generally in summer, owing to the increased price of potatoes and the failure of the cottier’s store. Magherafelt is also at this season much frequented by beggars passing through to Belfast and Coleraine.
There are about 50 house poor; the rest are strangers. Three fourths are women, and in many cases able bodied. The men are infirm, with the exception of the cottiers, who having closed their cabins, and one or two able bodied labourers, who from want of employment and the dearness of provisions have been obliged to beg. Most of the beggars go about in families, the average to each family being about three persons. Women form the greater portion, as it is more difficult for them to obtain work, and the wives and families of labourers who go to England or Scotland for employment are thrown upon the public. They have more temptation too to become beggars, as greater pity id felt for them, and more is given them in alms. Many women are strong and healthy. The house poor are infirm; the strangers occasionally able bodied.
There is no begging on Sundays. When provisions are dear women with large families are obliged to beg, and have often been known to continue mendicants when the necessity has cease. The cottiers come constantly own in summer from the mountains near Magherafelt to beg in the lowlands; they afterwards spread by degrees over the parishes, and are thus looked upon as the poor of Magherafelt. The labouring is of all classes the most prone to begging. A man can work longer at the loom than with the spade. Weavers often labour when wages are high; besides, a weaver, if sick, can do half a day’s work or less, while a labourer, if ill, is thrown altogether out of employment. Servants out of place or disabled fall back on their relatives. Cottiers, when begging, always go where they are not known, partly from shame and partly because they fear they might not be assisted at home. Those who go to England or Scotland for work pay their way, and sometimes travel by coach.
The districts from which the beggars generally come are Ballinascreen, in the county Derry, and the counties Tyrone and Donegal, generally mountain and bog districts, where they rent from the farmers, at exorbitant prices, small cabins with a half or a quarter of an acre of ground for potatoes.
Begging is constantly made an hereditary trade. Mr. Duncan had known individuals on the poor list for the last 30 years, whose children also got on the list and begged like their parents. In some cases begging had been traced for three generations. The majority, however, could not have avoided begging, being reduced to it by accidents, sickness or high rents. Not one in ten embraces mendicancy from choice, but many from laziness continue the practice when commenced.
A beggar may obtain in a day a bushel of potatoes and some meal. The earnings of a beggar in the country are supposed to be greater than in a town; in the former he might make 9d., and in the latter 6d. a day beyond what he requires for his own consumption. They obtain scarcely anything from coach or car passengers here.
The amount of relief is in general increased in proportion to the number of the applicants. It was stated by several witnesses that they had seen a family divide before they approached a house, and then ask for alms separately. The blind and crippled obtain the most, and are invariably observed to be the greatest drunkards. Mr. Brown had frequently seen blind beggars in a state of intoxication. An able bodied person will on the whole obtain more than any except the blind, maimed or mutilated, and much more than an infirm old man or woman. An able bodied man is often refused; an able bodied woman never.
Beggars sell their surplus earnings, and purchase luxuries, which the farmers and labourers who relieve them are unable to procure. Farmers constantly buy potatoes from beggars to feed their pigs. Beggars solicit charity from the poorest cottiers, and after obtaining it, frequently offer meal for sale. They purchase for themselves tobacco and soap, whiskey and tea. They wish to appear, while begging, dirty and rages. Many expose their persons mutilated or afflicted with sores, at fairs and markets, but these are the worst characters; they are in general improvident; but one case was mentioned where a beggar had been robbed of £40. If they have money, they naturally endeavour to conceal it.
They usually say they are out of work, but more commonly that they are driven to begging by the loss of a farm or death of stock. Women state their husbands are dead, or have deserted them; men, that they are broken down tradesmen. Beggars always appear worse clad than usual on helping days. Few go to church or meeting, except in the evenings, when they expect part of the collections; but then they are better clad. Cottiers with clean cabins will not lodge beggars. Dr. Evans had found, in the limb of a beggar which was amputated, pieces of copper, which had originally produced the sore which rendered amputation necessary. He had also known blue stone (Copper sulphate) used to create sores. One beggar pretended to have cancer, but fled when Dr. E. wished to examine it. Blindness is frequently counterfeited. The Rev. Mr. Wilson had known three persons, who pretended to be brothers, affect to be deaf and dumb. They were liberally relieved; but before they left the village they quarrelled, and the violence which ensued discovered the cheat. Certificates of loss of cattle, or burning of a house, are very common, but are generally suspected to be false. Beggars do not apply at the dispensaries for medicine. Children maimed, or peculiarly afflicted, are a good life income to their parents, and are made of course as pitiable objects as possible.
Beggars are in general ill conducted, and are not trusted with work, or even with a night’s lodging in an outhouse by the farmers, unless locked in. Both men and women of this class are constantly drunk. OIne farmer has seen, a short time ago, two women passing by his house on the road sde, both drunk, one of whom threw down her child with considerable violence on the road. Petty thefts are frequently committed by beggars. Mr. Henry had had fowls, hats and clothes stolen from his house by them. Mr. Wilson had known a beggar, after lodging for a week in a house, and gaining some confidence, rise in the night and steal clothes, &c.; potatoes as well as articles of dress are often stolen; and some women educate their children to commit thefts. The only relief which beggars afford to each other is to point out the houses where assistance may be obtained. The practice of borrowing or hiring children is common among them.
Beggars have generally large families. Mr. Archer said they generally dispense with the ceremony of marriage, and take each other’s word; their children are supposed, in most cases, to be illegitimate. Starvation is not known here. Many beggars live to be 70 or 80 years old. An able bodied man could collect more by begging than by working; but many would refuse him relief. An able bodied woman could make five or six times as much by begging as by work.
There is no knowledge of the characters of strange beggars. Shame and the remuneration for labour restrain men from begging; but the female has no such inducements against mendicancy. Many of the strange poor are supposed to prefer mendicancy to labour; but this is not true of the home poor. Cottiers who follow a vagabond life in the summer months refuse labour. Many farmers had offered work to able bodied beggars, but with little or no success. Mr. Wilson had known work thus offered; but the beggars never stayed long, even though they might accept it at the moment; they went off in the evening with whatever they could steal. He had also seen beggars hide their bags, and then know them apply at a door, saying they were starving.
Mr. little had known small farmers readily help a beggar, whom they k new to be in the habit of selling from a bushel to a bushel and a half of potatoes at the end of the day.
Character is not inquired into; the appearance of destitution is the only consideration.
Lodging is constantly given to beggars by small farmers and cottiers. There are regular lodging houses in the town, where they usually pay for a night’s lodging about 1d. Clothing is very seldom given. Potatoes are often refused by beggars when cheap, or when the applicant is infirm, and unable to carry them. To a beggar who carries a can a pint of buttermilk is constantly given. Money is given by shopkeepers; food by farmers, as being more ready at hand, and less felt. The beggars would always prefer money.
All who apply receive relief, generally a handful of meal or two handfuls of potatoes each. Farmers holding 20 or 30 acres give, on average, 30s. a year. Those who hold the largest farms do not give the most. The lowest amount for a shopkeeper is 30s. yearly. Mr. Duncan said no shopkeeper, on an average, gives less than 1d. a day; I myself give £3 at least in the year. On helping days the resident poor receive from each of the shopkeepers generally a halfpenny each.
The beggars are supported principally by the middling and lower classes. The gentry, except on helping days, exclude the poor; but the shopkeeper and farmer’s wife can always be applied to.
The poor give much more, and feel much more what they give than the rich. Those who can give food give it, and share their meals with the destitute. Those who have nothing else to give, give lodging.
All agreed that by the present system some paupers received much more than they required; while others, and those the most deserving, such as the poor housekeepers, get next to nothing. Much is thus lost to the community.
The poorest often give the most. A stone of potatoes is frequently given away in a day by a farmer, and sometimes treble the quantity, besides meal. A penny a day is a fair average for a shopkeeper during the year. Many are obliged, at the end of the year, owing to the numerous calls on their charity, to purchase potatoes. They give as readily from what they have purchased as from their own stock; and any distinction on this account would be thought uncharitable. The shopkeepers are more anxious for a legal assessment. The farmers fear lest it should be unequally imposed, and not to wish to continue by law the present tax on the occupying tenant; they would not object to a property tax, or any system by which the head landlord should be compelled to contribute.
Relief is given partly from custom, but principally from feelings of charity, and sometimes in towns it is exhorted by importunity from the shopkeepers. Great importance is attached to a request made “for God’s sake,” but fear of violence never influences; the very lowest class only dread the beggar’s curse.
Typhus fever, measles and small pox are constantly spread by beggars. Mr. Wilson had known a beggar woman to carry fever into 12 families. Cursing, swearing and prostitution are the consequences of mendicancy. Many beggars, who appear devout while asking alms, swear when refused; they fabricate scandal, and are great newsmongers, but are not known to have ever produced political discontent.
Those who have long been vagrants never return to industry, but become a separate class.
No punishments have ever been inflicted for vagrancy; and the general feeling is strongly against any sever measures, unless the destitute could be certain of obtaining relief; if any provision, however, were made for the poor, it was the general opinion that laws against vagrancy would be enforced; now they would only refuse relief; but some petty thefts have been committed from destitution.
The nearest mendicity establishment is in Belfast; such a house would not be popular with the poor.

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