Skip to content

Notorious Women !

Nineteenth century society recognised two types of women – the weak “Angel of the House” in need of protection and support and the woman of dissolute character. This view of women impacted upon the lives of women in Waterford in many different ways and often dictated how women were treated.

The Angel of The House

Today we live in a society that strives towards gender equality. However, the society we live in today is a product of our past and this exhibition is an exploration of the impact of nineteenth century views of women and raises the question of how these views may still impact on the lives of women in Waterford today.

The nineteenth century was a time of great change and these changes often generated both demands for further change and for life to stay the same.

At a time when greater industrialisation meant that more and more women were working away from home in factories, the domestic role of women became increasingly idealised. In 1854 The Angel in the House a poem by Coventry Patmore was published extolling the virtues of a woman devoted to her husband and meek in all things.

Man must be pleased; but him to please is women’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart of an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast.
And seems to think the sin was hers;
Or any eye to see her charms,
At any time she’s still his wife,
Dearly devoted to his arms;
She loves with love that cannot tire;
And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
As grass grows taller round a stone

Interestingly, today books such as “The Surrendered Wife” by Laura Doyle are re-visiting the idea that Man must be pleased; but him to please is Woman’s pleasure.

Unfortunate Females

Women as angels were considered the moral guardians of society but this role carried with it the responsibility for any lapse in morality. A number of efforts were made in the nineteenth century to control the spread of venereal disease. This was a particular concern of the military, given the spread of the disease among young men throughout their ranks.

Prostitution was often a feature of garrison towns where a large supply of custom could be found among the young men stationed there. Dungarvan in County Waterford was a garrison town and on 24th September 1877 the Dungarvan Town Commissioners resolved:

“that our attention having been called by the inhabitants of Bridge Street to the state in which the street is kept by being made the resort of prostitutes whose conduct is such that the inhabitants have to remove from the front rooms of their houses to the rear so as to avoid hearing the fearful expressions of those unfortunate females, we request the attention of the Constabulary to the removal of such a fearful state of the locality.” DUDC/1/5

In response to the spread of venereal diseases the government introduced between 1864 and 1869 the Contagious Diseases Acts. These gave the authorities the right to declare any women living in certain garrison towns prostitutes and forcibly examine them for venereal disease.

The authorities continued to look towards the treatment of women in the prevention of the spread of venereal disease and in 1918 re-affirmed this policy in Regulation 40d Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) which prompted the Irish Women’s Franchise League to protest vehemently against the introduction of the compulsory medical examination of women which they felt was an attempt to:

“make vice safe for men…and is…an outrage against the liberty, honour and integrity of every woman and as a deliberate attempt to perpetrate the evil double moral standard” WCC/GNA/92

The Dissolute Female

Given the weak nature of the Angel in the House it was believed that women should be protected from their fallen sisters – the dissolute.

The Boards of Guardians responsible for running the Workhouses in the county were careful to ensure that the dissolute women would not mix with the virtuous poor.

In 1852, the Lismore Union resolved:

That a classification of the female Inmates being deemed necessary so as to separate the notoriously dissolute females from those whose misfortunes compelled them to become inmates of the House – a portion of the Workhouse be allotted to their use to be called “The Dissolute Ward”. BG/LISM/11

and Dungarvan Union in 1855 :

Dissolute Characters – Master submitted a list of the Wet Nurses now in the House, having illegitimate children with the view of the Guardians selecting from amongst them those to be placed in the Dissolute Ward”. BG/DUNGN/

The Dissolute Wards of the Workhouses housed, in particular, unmarried mothers and prostitutes.

On the 17th January 1856 the Dungarvan Board of Guardians resolved that:

“…Anne Sullivan and Bridget Curreen – prostitutes; admitted this day be sent to the Dissolute Ward.”

The price women paid for being regarded as Dissolute can be seen in the courts. On 28th July 1841, the Waterford Mirror newspaper reported on the Waterford Assizes where the Hon. Baron Pennefather and the Hon. Justice Torrens, Judges of the Leinster Circuit arrived to hear the Assizes. The newspaper reported on the direction of the Judge who said:

“There were only 3 cases requiring any particular attention, which were offences against females. They ought accurately to examine the evidence in these cases and not find the bills if, they had any serious doubt – he meant that all cases should be accurately examined into, but these cases particularly so.”

This concern on the part of the Judge is clarified by the newspaper which provides the information that “The prosecutrix was a woman of uneasy virtue…”.

These views of the place of women in society appear in all aspects of life in the nineteenth century and can be seen in how women were treated in poverty, in poor health and in violence.

Women & Health

Poor health is closely associated with poverty and poor living conditions are a major cause of illness. In the nineteenth century many people suffered from lung infections and other illnesses associated with the damp and cold living conditions they endured. The Labourers (Ireland) Acts of the 1880s onwards were introduced to provide better quality housing for the labouring classes. The Boards of Guardians implemented this public housing scheme and they were responsible for choosing the tenants of the houses built under their direction.

On 19th April 1888 the Dungarvan Board of Guardians made the following resolution :

“..that no Labourers Cottage be let to a woman in this Union!”. BG/DUNGN/59

It would appear from this resolution that women in Waterford did not have the same access to housing as men. They were dependant on a husband or male family member to provide a home. Today, Waterford City & County Council provides public housing based on a Housing Needs Assessment that does not take into account the gender of applicants.

However, women did have access to medical services. The Medical Charities Act, 1851 provided medical attention to more people, in particular, to those unable to pay for the services of a doctor themselves. Under this Act the Poor Law Unions were divided into districts and each district had a doctor in attendance with a dispensary stocked with medicine and medical appliances. As this system developed a network of dispensaries provided healthcare throughout the County and patients who visited the dispensary doctor could be given tickets to attend the Fever Hospital for further treatment and on the recommendation of the Medical Officer patients from the Fever Hospital could be sent for specialist treatment to other medical institutions.

On 7th April 1869 (BG/LISM/31) the Lismore Board of Guardians heard the following report:

“A woman named Ellen Walsh 52 years of age was admitted to the Infirmary on Monday about 12 o’clock suffering from Influenza, and she died next morning about 2 o’clock. She was brought to the Workhouse in the van from Cappoquin Dispensary and she was very cold as she had no covering on her and little straw under her. The Master suggests that it would be desirable to procure a mattress and bolster for the van for weak and sickly persons sent to the Workhouse. The Medical Officer was sent for on her admission and he saw her immediately and had everything done for her that her case required.”

Women as carers for children were often responsible for visiting the dispensary doctor and as a result were often more likely to avail of medical services than men. Today, according to Women’s Health in Europe: Facts and Figures Across Europe women remain more likely than men to come into contact with health care professionals and to use their services.

In addition to providing a doctor the dispensary system also included the services of a midwife for each Dispensary District. The nineteenth century saw a number of advances in relation to childbirth, in particular, chloroform began to be used for pain relief in childbirth. Initially, the idea of a pain-free labour was objected to by religious traditionalists who believed that mothers should fulfil what they believed to be the edict of God to “bring forth children in sorrow”. The use of anaesthesia in childbirth received a great boost of support when it was used by Queen Victoria in 1853.

However, childbirth still remained very dangerous and there are numerous entries referring to “dangerous midwifery”, in the Board of Guardians Minute Books from 15th December 1869:

“In compliance with a requisition from Dr. Luther, Cappoquin Dispensary he procured the services of Dr. Flynn of Dungarvan to assist him in a dangerous midwifery case on the 10th inst…Dr. Luther was in attendance upon a Dispensary Ticket, Dr. Flynn’s fee is 2 guineas”. BG/LISM/32

The advent of greater medical attention at childbirth was initially more of a hindrance than a help until it was realised that women giving birth in the more hygienic conditions kept by convents and nursing hospitals were more likely to survive than those in hospitals being treated by doctors who failed to wash either their hands or instruments as they went between patients. The discovery of germs and a greater understanding of contagion improved the rates of survival greatly.

Women & Poverty

Women were not considered capable of controlling their finances and properties and as a result they were particularly vulnerable to poverty in the past in Waterford. Until the first Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 a husband could take legal control of all of his wife’s properties and she had no right to property she herself may have inherited or indeed purchased. Further, until the introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1857 a legally separated wife did not have the right to keep what she earned and her husband could return at any point in time, take any money she earned, and leave her again.

In Waterford the impact of this control of properties and monies held by a husband over his wife’s interest can be seen in the case brought by Richard Chearnley, esquire against Andrew English. Richard Chearnley enquired of a barrister whether Andrew English could be compelled to pay his wife Susan (Chearnley’s aunt) an annuity (annual sum of money), which had been left to her by her father in his will. In response the barrister stated that Andrew English was his wife’s “paymaster” and could not be compelled by the trustees to pay the arrears of annuity due to his wife.

The vulnerability of women to poverty can be seen in the Minute Books of the Boards of Guardians for the Workhouses throughout Waterford. These records show a consistently higher number of able-bodied females than males in the Workhouses. Taking the years 1855-1858 and samples from different Workhouses throughout the County there is a clear indication that women were far more likely to enter the workhouse than men.

WorkhouseDateAble-Bodied FemaleAble-Bodied MalesVolume Code
Dungarvan29th September 18556529BG/DUNGN/13
24th November 18558336
26th January 185618484
Kilmacthomas7th July 185510613BG/KILTHOM/6
24th November 18556016
Lismore10th January 18576623
27th June 18576918
19th September 18575314
Waterford27th March 1858353130BG/WTFD/20
19th June 1858300114
18th September 185824093

In many cases, the men of the family remained outside the Workhouse looking for work, often leaving the country and their families behind them.

11th April 1868
The Board admitted the wife and 2 children of a man named Michael Brien of Deerpark, the family living in a state of utter destitution though the man could not be induced to enter the Workhouse. BG/LISM/31

The Boards of Guardians kept a close watch on this practice and pursued any men they believed to have abandoned their family while he himself was earning money that could be paid for their keep. Today women are not quite as vulnerable to poverty, according to the EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions of 2005 from the Central Statistics Office which reported that “While females were found to have a higher risk of poverty than males in 2004, there was little or no observable difference in 2005”. However, the same survey also found that consistent poverty was higher among females than males.

Women in rural areas could generate money by participating in cottage industries. With the advent of factory- produced goods in the nineteenth century this source of income was not as readily available and families had to either do without this income or do without the women who worked in the factories.

People entering the Workhouse had no means of support at all and no possibility of being able to support themselves. If it was discovered that there was any means at all or possibility of any means of support then they would be discharged from the Workhouse.

On 28th February 1857, a member of the Board of Guardians in Lismore made the following notice of motion:

Notice that on Wednesday next the 11th inst. I will move that all able-bodied women in the Work House not having more than 2 children be discharged from the House

On 7th March 1857, the Board discussed this motion with the following clarification:

The Board having received information from the Guardians of the several Electoral Divisions to which they belong that the following paupers could find employment at once if discharged from the Workhouse

A vote was then held and passed by 8 votes to 3 that a list of women whose names were supplied by the Master would be discharged to find employment. It was only on the further resolution of a board member that the Relieving Officer was directed to :

“…make full enquiry as to the probability of the parties named in the list proposed by the Master being able to get employment in the event of their being discharged from the Work House and that he do attend the Board with such Report at the meeting of the Committee”

On 14th March 1857, the Committee having received the report of the Relieving Officer recommended the following to be discharged from the Workhouse

  • Bridget Grady and 1 child – Cathe Barry and 1 child
  • Mary Geary and 1 child – Mary Flynn and 1 child
  • Eliza Connell – Mary Carthy
  • Jane Kepple and 1 child (To remain in House until May next)
  • Nancy Mulcahy and 1 child (when latter is well)
  • Mary Anne Cunningham


Today, unemployment payments can be withdrawn if you refuse a suitable job offer including Community Employment or a suitable FÁS course.

While living in the Workhouse “inmates” (as they were known) were not allowed to generate any income at all, they wore the clothes of the Workhouse and had to apply to the Board for a suit of clothes if they ever managed to get a position and leave the Workhouse. ‘Bridget Dunn’ and ‘Mary Reardon’ were reprimanded in 1862 for “clandestinely knitting stockings” and their materials forfeited so any attempts to generate income or indeed clothing beyond that supplied by the Workhouse were prevented.

Today, it is possible to work for a stated number of days for a stated maximum income while still allowing for claims of Jobseekers Benefit or Allowance. Within the Workhouses women were kept busy, where possible.

Report of the Visiting Committee to Waterford Union 5th April 1859

The exercising ground of the Unmarried mothers and their children is always in a more or less dirty state, slops are still frequently thrown on the grass instead of into the sink, which was settled in my last report, some months ago. I think it would be better, and more wholesome if it were all gravelled. The women are I fear not sufficiently employed, at Industrial work. The numbers in that Department are alarming. BG/WATFD/22

Women often worked in the wards of the Fever Hospital. Hospitals were often staffed by prostitutes and the poorest of women as it was considered a very menial job and it was not until after the Crimean War (1854-1856) and the work of Florence Nightingale that efforts were made to establish a qualified nursing profession. For some time the hospital wards and care for the sick remained the duty of the lowest in society – the women of ill-repute.

Women & Violence

Women as dependants on a husband or male relative were as a result dependant upon the goodwill of that male authority figure. In 1840 a judge upheld a man’s right to lock up his wife and beat her in moderation. During the nineteenth century, legally, there were some improvements to women’s domestic situation when in 1852 a judge ruled that a man could not force his wife to live with him. However, in the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act a husband could divorce his wife for adultery but a wife had to prove adultery aggravated by cruelty or desertion.

Women experiencing violence in the home had no alternative sources of support. The Workhouses would not accept women and children if the husband was capable of paying for their upkeep so any woman leaving her husband could not find refuge in the Workhouse. Society also did not interfere in these matters so there was often very little hope of assistance from family, friend or neighbours.

Today, domestic violence is considered a crime. Organisations such as, Women’s Aid campaign to raise awareness of this issue among the public in an effort to overcome the affects of the long standing practice of society of not interfering and of earlier legislation whereby it was considered legal for a man to beat his wife in “moderation”.

According to the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland Report by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and Royal College of Surgeons 42% of women and 28% of men reported some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime in Ireland. Centres such as the Waterford Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre provide counselling and other services to those who are the victims of rape and sexual abuse.

Victims of rape and sexual abuse in the nineteenth century had no access to such services. Rape was a crime (provided it occurred outside of marriage) and the newspapers in Waterford contain reports of a number of cases of rape in Waterford.

On 8th March 1854 the Waterford Mail details the following case:

Denis Kelly, Nicholas Walsh and Thomas Power were placed at the bar, charged with committing and assault on the person of Bridget Foran, aged 18 years, at Bonmahon, County Waterford on the 15th January. It appeared that there were ten persons concerned in the outrage and only three could be identified. This case occupied the Court for nearly the entire day, the evidence we deem unfit for publication. The jury after an hour’s deliberation returned a verdict of guilty against the three prisoners – Sentence deferred

On 20th July 1842 the Waterford Mirror reported on a case in County Court:

Daniel Coleman was found guilty of the violation of Ellen Daly, at Tallow, on 21st March last. This trial occupied the Court for several hours. John Hutchinson and James Morrissey were indicted for a rape on Mary Connors on 26th March at Ballyscanlon. The prosecutrix, an ill-looking beggar woman from Clare, was examined at great length and detailed the injuries sustained. A male child of hers, 11 months old, was with her and the prisoners fractured some of the child’s limbs. Dr. Waters, junior, corroborated the woman’s evidence so far as the appearance of herself and the child went when submitted to him for medical attention. Verdict – Guilty

It is interesting to note that in this instance the newspaper reports on the fact that the prosecutrix was an “ill-looking beggar woman” and as such her evidence was corroborated “…so far as the appearance of herself and the child went…” by the doctor.

The newspaper reports contain the sentence of death in a number of cases for conviction for the crime of rape. A search of the Ireland-Australia Transportation Database (1780-1868) returns 39 records for a search under the terms of rape in Waterford. Among them is Daniel Coleman found guilty above of the rape of Ellen Daly. His sentence of death was commuted to 2 years imprisonment for this crime. John Hutchinson, convicted of the rape of Mary Connors had his sentence of death commuted to transportation for life.

Women Today

Life was very difficult in the nineteenth century particularly for the notoriously dissolute females. However, this was also the time that heralded great changes for women. A number of legislative changes took place to provide greater rights to women.

The nineteenth century was also the century in which the right to vote was enhanced and extended, first to disenfranchised men and finally to women. In England the campaign for women’s right to vote began towards the end of the nineteenth century, with the founding of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage in 1897. Women in Ireland also developed suffrage campaigns setting up organisations such as, the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association and the Munster Women’s Franchise League. In 1903 the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in England and in Ireland the Irish Women’s Franchise League was established in 1908.

In England, the suffrage campaign by women was interrupted by the outbreak of war and many of the call by many of their members to support the government in response. In Ireland, women had already begun to campaign for nationalism and in 1914 Cumann na mBan was established. Many women participated in the fight for nationalism in 1916 and beyond. With the introduction of the Representation of the People Act in 1918 the right to vote was granted to women over the age of 30 and Cumann na mBan campaigned heavily for the nationalist cause in the General Election of 1918.

Today women and men enjoy the same right to vote. However, statistics show that often neither men nor women choose to exercise this right that was so hard won by those nineteenth century campaigns. Much has changed for women today and many of these changes are a result of the campaigns begun in the nineteenth century. Each year International Women’s Day is held on March 8th to give women and opportunity to celebrate the economic, social, cultural and political achievements for women and it also presents women and men with the opportunity to question how much has changed in society and whether women have indeed found equal rights and an equal voice in the world.