The respectable classes of Dublin city have long expressed concern over the prevalence of alms-seekers, vagabonds and especially that creature most offensive to moral propriety: the sturdy beggar. It is a thread of outrage which transcends both religious affiliation and social class, uniting countless Dubliners over the centuries.
While approaches to the problem have varied through the years there have always been advocates of a “no nonsense” approach. Owing to the absence of much in the way of legal restraint, at least when it came to management of the underclass, things were easier in the late eighteenth century for those who desired to sort the problem “once and for all” and it was possible to take the type of “firm action” which today can only be dreamed of.
In order to clean up the streets the burghers of that time purchased an old malt house in Channel Row and had it converted into a House of Industry, where unwelcome and unsightly people were to be interned and, in the interests of their moral development, set to useful labour.
It seems however the beneficiaries of this enlightened scheme failed to appreciate its practical and moral advantages. Indeed, the general unwillingness of the inmates to accept the new order caused the unfortunate governors no end of problems. Early one morning in 1786 it was discovered that some forty “strolling women”, whom the police had collected from the streets and delivered to the institution the previous night, had disappeared, having exerted themselves during the night by driving a hole in the side of the building, through which they then departed
As if the beggars themselves were not difficulty enough, some of those charged with running the institution were on the lax side themselves, to the great irritation of the governors, who were obliged to employ people for the day-to-day management of their charges. In response to one flagrant violation of the rules by a porter, it was ordered that he “be placed in the public hall at the hour of 12 o’clock with his crime in writing on his breast, and chained by the leg ... as a punishment for drunkenness and taking a bribe at the door to let the poor elope”.
Those who remained within also caused some problems, owing to their tendency to remove for personal use all forms of portable property. Clothing and provisions disappeared constantly and even the bibles, made available for moral improvement, had to be chained down. On one occasion the corpse of a man who died disappeared, presumed stolen.
As one might expect, the governors took a dim view of any violation of God and man’s law pertaining to private property. Two women who were found to have stolen seven noggins and two trenchers were ordered to be chained, set to beat hemp, and fed on bread and water for seven days. Two boys who were sent for oil but sold some of it and falsified the dockets were punished with twenty-four lashes each on the naked back. In this case the watchful governors formed the view that the lashes were applied with insufficient enthusiasm and the next week the beadles involved were fined a week’s pay for the lax manner in which the strokes were applied.
Despite such exemplary punishments the problem of theft persisted and at a later meeting of the governors, it was noted:
It having appeared by the evidence of Mr O’Brien, Master of the Works that Sarah N- ... had stolen several articles the property of the corporation and several others the property of children of the Aslyum: Ordered; that the said Sarah N- ... be confined in a dark room till tomorrow at 2 o’clock when she shall receive on her bare back one dozen lashes with a cat; that the Master of the Hospital, the Master of the Works and all the beadles do attend.
And so life in this worthy Dublin institution continued. The wonder is, given that such firm measures were taken during this golden age of no nonsense, that beggaring, vagrancy and poverty itself were not permanently eliminated from the city.