Derry Workhouse: ‘Thirteen Steps’ to another world

Derry's Workhouse Museum is located at Glendermott Road in the city's Waterside. Photo: Peter Higginbotham.
Derry's Workhouse Museum is located at Glendermott Road in the city's Waterside. Photo: Peter Higginbotham.

As the Derry Workhouse shuts its doors, historian and playwright Patrick Durnin explores the lives of those in the workhouse. His play ‘Thirteen Steps’ will run at The Playhouse from Wednesday to Saturday, May 14-17.

“I wish to see the Poorhouse looked to with Dread by our labouring classes and the Reproach for being an inmate of it extend Downward from father to son: Let the Poor see and feel that their Parish, although it will not allow them to perish through absolute want, is yet the hardest task- master, the closest pay- master and the most harsh and unkind friend they can apply to”.

Local historian and author Patsy Durnin.

Local historian and author Patsy Durnin.

George Nicholls, 1822

The ‘Workhouse’ was the direct result of the Irish Poor Law Act (1838) which introduced the first piece of government welfare legislation for the relief of poverty in Ireland. The Act was modelled on the English Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) with its emotive workhouse system and financed by a poor tax levied on the rate-payers. Under the Act, relief could only be given within the workhouse.

To facilitate the Act, the whole of Ireland was divided up into what was known as Poor Law Unions which were geographical areas having a market town or city at its centre and where the union workhouse would be located.

Within a relatively short period of time from the passing of the Act and the formation of unions, massive workhouse buildings began to appear on the Irish landscape.

In Derry, the ‘workhouse’ was built on land known as ‘Friars’ ground on the Glendermott Road in the Waterside district which was purchased from a Major Bond. The ‘Workhouse’ opened its doors on November 10, 1840, having a capacity for 800 inmates, and became the first operational workhouse in Ulster. Those who climbed ‘The Thirteen Steps’ up to the ‘workhouse’ door to declare their poverty and enter had reached the depths of absolute poverty.

On entering, the poor were placed in ‘receiving rooms’ where details of age, sex, religion, employment or trade were recorded before being put into a probation ward. Here they were stripped of their clothes and personal possessions (to be returned when leaving), washed, deloused, examined by a doctor and, finally, dressed in the ‘workhouse’ uniform ready to begin life in the ‘body of the house’.

Daily life of inmates was organised in such a manner as to encourage them to want to leave as soon as possible. The method chosen to achieve this was through strict internal discipline and incorporating rules, regulations and work to be undertaken by all except the very old and physically unfit. Punishment of sorts was inflicted on all who dissented.

Employment in the ‘workhouse’, as declared by the authorities in England, “should be of a nature as to be irksome and to awaken or increase a dislike to remain in the workhouse”. Work for men and boys involved stone-breaking, farm-work, gardening, shoe repairing, general maintenance and the learning of various trades.

Women and young girls were engaged in the more domestic employment of scrubbing floors and furniture, sewing and repairing uniforms, laundry and kitchen work. As a result, pigs and cows were bought and bred for sale, small stones sold to building contractors, ‘wear and tear’ of clothes minimised and milk, butter and vegetables produced.

Punishment varied according to the type and nature of the offence. For wilful damage of workhouse property and assaulting other inmates or staff, the guardians did not hesitate in ordering that the offender “be sent for trial before the magistrate”. The minor offence of not keeping one’s person clean usually resulted in the loss of some meals. Unlawful escape ‘over the wall’ was also punishable but not for the reason that the inmates involved did not sign out but because of the theft of the uniform. Instances of child punishment were also recorded as was the case of two ten year old girls found guilty of swearing, the guardians ordering “that these children be confined for four hours in the refractory ward and deprived of supper”. The refractory ward was a very small, cold and dimly lit room and, considering that the amount of food was strictly rationed to three meals per day, the loss of one such meal was equally severe.

The severity of life in the Workhouse was increased by the psychological harshness experienced by inmates through the system of classification which separated male and female at ‘entry’. “Each class or sub-division of a class, shall respectfully remain in the apartment assigned to them without communicating with any other class or sub-division of a class”. This rule effectively destroyed the individuals emotional support system of the family for, as a result, marriage was temporary dissolved with husband separated from wife, parents from children and sister from brother.

Infants could remain with their mothers until the age of two years when they would be placed in a separate room to which the mother would have ‘reasonable access’. When the child reached the age of seven, such visits would be limited to one per day. Older members of the family could communicate at the discretion of the workhouse Master if the request was thought to be urgent.

Health care, religious requirements and children’s education were an integral part of life in the ‘workhouse’ and provided for by the visiting medical officer and Chaplains and the resident school mistress and master.

The great famine years (1845-1849) signalled the beginning of the end of the workhouse system of relief for the reason that it was never designed to cope with such a national disaster. As a result of the widespread want and human misery, the workhouses of Ireland became grossly overcrowded and the Poor Law commissioners in England (the body responsible for the Act) conceded to the granting of outdoor relief.

In the new century, the changing economy circumstances, new political structures, ad hoc welfare legislation and the unemployment and depression of the early 1930s all combined to further weaken the workhouse system. Eventually, the different social circumstances climaxed in the foundation of the welfare state in 1948 which effectively wiped the Poor Law and the workhouse system of relief from the statute book.

Derry’s Workhouse building complex was offered for sale by the DHSS in 1993 when the Waterside General Hospital vacated the site two years previously. Consequently, a private developer purchased the site and the part of the building formerly occupied by the hospital was demolished to make way for a housing development. During this development, upwards of 500 human remains were unearthed and later reburied by the public health department of the City Council in Ballyoan Cemetery.

Two buildings of the original workhouse are still standing. The front building, immediately at the top of Thirteen Steps on the Glendermott Road, functioned as the reception and administrative area of the workhouse. Here, the Poor Law Guardians convened their weekly meetings on the first floor and on the ground floor the unfortunate poor were quizzed, questioned and quarantined before being examined by a doctor and, ultimately, getting entry to the workhouse proper. This front building is now occupied by the owner of the site, McCormick Construction, and is used for administrative purposes.

The second and larger of the two remaining buildings, immediately behind the administrative block, was known as the sleeping dormitories and also contained the Master and Matron’s living quarters as well as the children’s schoolroom and nursery. The ground floor of this building is occupied by the Waterside Library. The first floor and attic space was developed by the Museum Service of the Cty Council as a heritage museum.

Now that the Council has decided to discontinue the workhouse exhibition, ‘The Thirteen Steps’ stands as the only record of the workhouse in Derry.

The play ‘Thirteen Steps’ gives a keyhole peep into the lives, social interaction and human emotions that took place in the workhouse.