Dublin Under The Georges, 1714-1830

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Dublin Under the Georges
Constantina Maxwell

Life of the Poor

The city of Quang-tcheu [Dublin] … is much celebrated amongst the Quang-tongese for its size and magnificence, and is supposed to contain 400,000 souls, but this cannot be; for, in that case, 200,000 of them must, of necessity, be hurdled [sic] together in extreme filth and misery, which, in such a polished and charitable age and nation, it is absurd to suppose.
JOHN WILSON CROKER, “An Intercepted Letter from J. T., Esq., Writer at Canton, to his Friend in Dublin, Ireland (1804) (a satire on Dublin society, published anonymously)

Great exertions have been made, and are daily making, by humane societies and individuals, for relieving the Poor.
SAMUEL ROSBOROUGH, “Observations on the State of the Poor of the Metropolis (Dublin, 1801)

The Rev. Thomas Campbell, an Irish clergyman who was acquainted with London, while praising the elegance of the fashionable parts of Dublin, remarked in his Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland, published in 1777, that “the bulk” of the city was “like the worst parts of St. Giles”. “I must say,” wrote Mrs. Delany earlier in the century, “the environs of Dublin are delightful, [but] the town is bad enough – narrow streets and dirty-looking houses.” And practically every other eighteenth-century visitor refers to the filth and squalor of the Dublin poor. “Poverty, disease, and wretchedness exist in every great town,” wrote Curwen, an Englishman who made a tour of Ireland shortly after the Union, “but in Dublin the misery is indescribable.” .

The population of Dublin was variously estimated during the eighteenth century. Sir William Petty put it at 58,045 in 1682. Dr. Rutty, the Quaker physician who wrote “A Natural History of County Dublin”, estimated it in 1772 at 128,570, while the ‘Post-chaise Companion’, published towards the end of the century, gives the figure as 300,000, which represented the popular view. In 1798 the Rev. James Whitelaw,(1) the charitable Rector of St. Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street, determined to investigate the matter and to carry out a census of his own. With the sanction of the Government he took a number of assistants, and together they carried out a house-to-house search. This was not an easy task, for it occupied them ten hours a day during five successive months, and took them into the lowest and dirtiest quarters of the city. “My assistants and I,” wrote Whitelaw, “undeterred by the dread of infectious diseases, undismayed by degrees of filth, stench, and darkness inconceivable by those who have not experienced them, explored, in the burning months of the summer of 1798, every room of these wretched habitations from the cellar to the garret, and an the spat ascertained their population” He put the total population of Dublin at 172,091, but considered that another 10,279 persons should be added if the soldiers in the garrison, the staff of the Castle, the inmates of various institutions, and the students of Trinity College were included. The return under the Population Act of 1814 was 175,319 which shows that Whitelaw was not very far out; it also shows that Dublin had at the time of the Union a greater population than any of the towns in England, London of course excepted. (2)

Petty had shown that the inhabitants of Dublin were “more crowded and straitened in
their housing than those of London,” and by the end of the century-judging from the
account given by Whitelaw – the congestion seems to have grown worse. This was
especially true of the districts known as the Liberties, most of which lay to the south
-west of the, river – in the oldest part of the city.

Whitelaw writes:
‘The streets [in this part of the City] are generally narrow; the houses crowded
together; the rears or back-yards of very small extent, and some without accommodation
of any kind. Of these streets, a few are the residence of the upper class of shopkeepers
or others engaged in trade; but a far greater proportion of them, with their numerous
lanes and alleys, are occupied by working manufacturers, by petty shop-keepers, the
labouring poor, and beggars, crowded together to a degree distressing to humanity. A
single apartment in one of these truly wretched habitations, rates from one to two
shillings per week, and to lighten this rent two, three, or even four families become
joint tenants. As I was usually out at very early hours on the survey I have frequently
surprised from ten to sixteen persons, of all ages and sexes, in a room not 15 feet
square, stretched on a wad of filthy straw, swarm¬ing with vermin, and without any
covering, save the wretched rags that constituted their wearing apparel. Under such
circumstances it is not extraordinary that I should have frequently found from 30 to 40
individuals in a house. An intelligent clergyman of the Church of Rome assured me that
number 6 Braithwaite Street some years since con¬tained 108 souls. These however in 1797
were reduced to 97; and at the period of this survey to 56. From a careful survey twice
taken of Plunket Street, it appeared that 32 contiguous houses contained 917 souls,
which gives an aver¬age of 287 to a house, and the entire Liberty averages from about 12
to 16 persons to each house ….

“This crowded population [Whitelaw goes on to say] wherever it obtains is almost
universally accompanied by a very serious evil – a degree of filth and stench
inconceivable except by such as have visited these scenes of wretchedness. Into the
backyard of each house, frequently not 10 feet deep, is flung from the windows of each
apartment, the ordure and other filth of its numerous inhabitants; from which it is so
seldom removed, that I have seen it nearly on a level with the windows of the first
floor; and the moisture that, after heavy rains, oozes from this heap, having frequently
no sewer to carry it off, runs into the street, by the entry leading to the staircase.
One instance out of a thousand that might be given, will be sufficient. When I attempted
in the summer of 1798 to take the population of a ruinous house in Joseph’s Lane near
Castle market, I was interrupted in my progress by an inundation of putrid blood, alive
with maggots, which had from an adjacent slaughter yard burst the back door, and filled
the hall to the depth of several inches. By the help of a plank and some stepping stones
which I procured for the purpose (for the inhabitants without any concern waded through
it) I reached the staircase. It had rained violently, and from the shattered state of
the roof a torrent of water made its way through every floor, from the garret to the
ground. The sallow looks and filth of the wretches who crowded round me indicated their
situation, though they seemed insensible to the stench, which I could scarce sustain for
a few minutes. In the garret I found the entire family of a poor working shoemaker,
seven in number, lying in a fever, without a human being to administer to their wants.
On observing that his apartment had not a door, he informed me that his landlord,
finding him not able to pay the week’s rent in consequence of his sickness, had the
preceding Saturday taken it away, in order to force him to abandon the apartment. I
counted in this style 37 persons; and com¬puted, that its humane proprietor received out
of an absolute ruin which should be taken down by the magistrate as a public nuisance, a
profit rent of above £30 per annum, which he extracted every Saturday night with
unfeeling severity. I will not disgust the reader with any further detail, and only
observe that I generally found poor room-keepers of this description, notwithstanding so
many apparent causes of wretchedness, apparently at ease, and perfectly assimilated to
their habitations. Filth and stench seemed congenial to their nature; they never made
the smallest effort to remove them; and if they could answer the calls of hunger, they
felt, or seemed to feel, nothing else as an in¬convenience ….

“In July 1798 the entire side of a house 4 storeys high, in School-House Lane, fell from
its foundation into an adjoin¬ing yard, where it destroyed an entire dairy of cows. I
ascended the remaining ruin, through the usual approach of shattered stairs, stench and
filth. The floors had all sunk on the side now unsupported, forming so many inclined
planes; and I observed with astonishment, that the inhabitants, above 30 in number, who
had escaped destruction by the circumstance of the wall falling outwards, had not
deserted their apartments. I was informed, that it had remained some months in this
situation, and that the humane landlord claimed, and actually received for it, the usual
rent …. The most dense population, as might naturally be expected, is found within the
walls of the ancient city, comprehending the parishes of St. Werburgh, St. John, St.
Michael, St. Nicholas Within, the eastern part of St. Audoen, and the Deanery of Christ
Church. This space, containing an area of nearly 45 acres English, had in 1798, 15,683
inhabitants in 1,179 houses; which gives an average of 349 souls nearly to an acre, or
13.3 to a house. There were at that period 137 houses waste. The density of population
however varies within this space; for St. Nicholas Within has only 215.5 to an acre, or
10.5 to a house; while in St. Michael’s it amounts to 439 to an acre, and almost 16 to a

To be continued

(1) The Rev. James Whitelaw, statistician and philanthropist, was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated in 1771. His most important service was his census of the City of Dublin, carried out 1798-1805. His most important work was his History of Dublin, in which he collaborated with John Warburton, Keeper of the Records in Dublin Castle. Neither lived to see the publication of this work, which was completed by Robert Walsh, at that time Curate of Finglas, Co. Dublin. Whitelaw founded several charitable institutions, the most useful of which was the Meath Charitable Loan (1808) for the benefit of unemployed members of the Coombe. He died of a malignant fever contracted from visiting his poor parishioners in 1813.

(2) The population of London, calculated from the parish registers of baptisms, was 674,350 in 1700 and 676,250 in 1750. According to the census returns of 1801 and 1811 it was 900,000 and 1,050,000 respectively. See M. D. George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century, pp. 329-30.

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