Bantry Workhouse opened on 24 April 1845. Under huge pressure to assist victims of the Great Famine (1845-49) and unable to collect enough rates to fund its work, the board was dissolved in October 1847 ‘on the ground that through the default of the guardians the duties of the board have not been duly and effectually discharged’. The union’s affairs were managed by appointed vice-guardians up to October 1849, when a new Bantry union was created. The Castletown area had formerly formed part of the area of Bantry Poor Law Union, but two distinct unions were now created. Numbers of Castletown inmates continued to be accommodated in Bantry until February 1851. The area of the Bantry Union included the dispensary districts of Bantry, Glengarriff, Durrus and Kilcrohane, and Kealkil.
Each workhouse was managed by a staff and officers under the charge of a workhouse master, who reported to the board. Overall responsibility rested with the union's board of guardians, some of whom were elected, and some of whom were ex-officio members appointed usually from amongst local magistrates. The board appointed its own inhouse committees, and received reports from workhouse officers and from dispensary district committees and district medical officers. It also made resolutions on internal and poor law matters and, sometimes, on wider political or social issues. Poor law services were principally financed by a poor rate levied on property owners in the union’s districts, and collected by rate collectors appointed by the board. Central government also provided loans.
Each union was under the central supervision of the Poor Law Commissioners up to 1874 and thereafter of the Local Government Board (later Local Government Board for Ireland). These government-appointed bodies received reports from the board and its officers, appointed inspectors and auditors, sanctioned or rejected proposed expenditure, appointments, and policies, and made the final decision on major administrative issues. The PLC was responsible for abolishing the board and appointing vice-guardians in the period from 1847 to 1849, prior to the creation of the new Bantry Union and a distinct Castletown Union. On 31 August 1921 the board resolved to reject the authority of the Local Government Board for Ireland and to accept that of Dail Eireann.
The responsibilities of the guardians increasingly encompassed public health, and to medical relief for the destitute at the workhouse and ‘outdoor’ relief though a system of dispensary districts were added other functions including overseeing smallpox vaccinations, the boarding-out of orphan and deserted children, monitoring contagious diseases in animals, and providing labourers’ cottages and improved sanitation. The workhouse buildings included an infirmary and a fever hospital. The workhouse also provided nursery care and education to child inmates, and employed school teachers. Hospital and other medical services were available to all, not just the poor, although the latter received free treatment when inmates, or through the system of tickets issued by relieving officers and medical officers.
The guardians’ changing responsibilities were governed by legislation, including the Public Health (Ireland) Acts 1874 and 1878, Medical Charities Acts, Vaccination Acts, Dispensary Houses Act, the Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Acts (1848-49), Contagious Diseases (Animals) Act 1878, and Labourers’ Acts (1883-86). While these acts tended to increase the role of the board, the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898 saw most of its public health functions taken over by the newly-created Cork County Council and the Bantry Rural District Council. The board continued to administer the workhouse and its hospital, and to supervise some forms of outdoor relief.
In January 1880, a portion of the workhouse which had been used as a barrack since 1865 was returned by the military. From October 1919 on, the British military came increasingly to occupy the workhouse buildings, and in late 1920 the remaining inmates were moved to a temporary hospital at Bantry House, where the board now also held its meetings. Many inmates were discharged or sent to other unions, including Skibbereen and Clonakilty. On 18 Jan 1922 an order was received stating that the workhouse would not reopen once evacuated, and was effectively abolished. In August 1922 much of the workhouse premises, including hospital buildings, were burned. Hospital services continued to be provided in Bantry House until the abolition of the board, with patients from Schull union and elsewhere also treated.
The Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act 1923 led to the abolition of the workhouse system, and its replacement with the formation of the county boards of health and public assistance. The last recorded meeting of Bantry Board of Guardians took place on 30 April 1924.
Archival History ↴
The surviving records of the Bantry Board of Guardians were deposited in the Archives in the early 1980s.
Immediate Source Acquisition ↴
Content & Structure
Scope & Content: Bantry Board of Guardians ↴
The surviving minutes of Bantry Board of Guardians (BG/43/A) cover almost the entire existence of that body, with only a few gaps. Some of these gaps are filled by the four volumes of ‘rough’ minutes also present (BG/43/AA). The ordinary minutes include statistical information on workhouse inmates and details of workhouse life and administration. From the 1850s the volumes contain minutes of proceedings under the Medical Charities Acts and, from the 1870s, the Public Health Acts, documenting the board’s increasing role in health and sanitation, and the work of dispensaries and medical officers in the dispensary districts.
The Bantry area was particularly severely affected by the Great Famine (1845-49), and its impact on the local population, and on the work of the board and the workhouse, is documented in stark detail in these minute books. One consequence was the dissolution of the Board of Guardians in 1847, with poor law services administered by two appointed vice-guardians until a new Bantry union, and a discrete Castletown union, were created in late 1849.
Many selections from the minutes for this difficult period are included in the list below. Volumes for the last years of the union are also covered in some detail. Particular attention is paid to the military occupation of the workhouse, the gradual amalgamation and abolition of workhouses, and the removal of the board and the hospital to Bantry House. Selections from a few of the other minute books are also included. Throughout an effort has been made to reflect the daily provision of workhouse and dispensary services to the poor. Some resolutions relating to politics and other issues are included to reflect the board’s varied concerns.
The other series present consists of two minute books recording proceedings of the board as a rural sanitary authority under the Labourers’ Acts (BG/43/AL). Unfortunately, these cover only a few years between 1889 and 1893, although the board would have had responsibilities under these acts from 1883 until 1899. The minutes do, however, shed light on the beginnings of public provision of housing in the Bantry area.
Taken altogether, the records trace the provision and development of poor law services in the area, including the treatment of the sick and those with mental illnesses, arrangements for children, out door relief and medical treatment (including vaccination) in dispensary districts, the challenges facing the improvement of public health and sanitation, and the beginnings of the provision of labourers’ cottages. The minute books also shed light on dealings with other bodies including other west Cork unions, PLC/LGB, the Office of Public Works, Bantry Town Council and RDC, and Cork County Council. While predominantly documenting the provision of services to the poor, the records also record the views of the board on a variety of subjects, and reflect major developments in the Bantry area and west Cork region.
Board of Guardian records for other poor law unions in West Cork (BG/42 Bandon; BG/59 Castletown; BG/83 Dunmanway; BG/65 Clonakilty; BG/115 Macroom; BG/145 Schull)
Cork County Boards of Health and Public Assistance records, 1921-66
Bantry Rural District Council records, 1899-1925
Bantry Town Commissioners/Town Council records
Cork County Council records, 1899- (including rates valuation books)
National Archives of Ireland:
Archives of the Poor Law Commissioners
Archives of the Local Government Board for Ireland
Archives of the Department of Local Government
Descriptive Control Area
ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description. 2nd ed. Ottawa: International Council on Archives, 2000.