When we read accounts by travellers who visited Athlone in the nineteenth century it becomes immediately obvious that the town was in a deplorable state and that mendacity was widespread. By the mid nineteenth century it was emerging that Athlone was clearly one of the 'Rotten Boroughs' of Ireland and that Athlone had suffered greatly as a result of centuries of exploitation by the two ruling families, the Handcocks and the St Georges.
The Handcocks (barons Castlemaine) bought out the St George interest in the town and by the nineteenth century they had sole control of the Corporation of Athlone.
Once the 'Act for the more effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland' of 1838 was passed they set about dividing up the country into 130 Poor Law Unions. The Irish situation differed slightly from the English one because of the presence of townlands in Ireland as the smallest administrative divisions.
In England a Poor Law Union was centred on a market town and the rural districts which belonged to it. These unions were aggregates of parishes whereas in Ireland they were to be aggregates of townlands. However, townlands, by their nature vary greatly in size and by 1838 they had not all been exactly delineated therefore there was an imbalance in size of the Unions and later they had to revisit this arrangement and increase the number of Poor Law Unions to 163.
The Formation of Athlone Poor Law Union
As part of the process of forming the Poor Law Unions assistant commissioners were sent to several centres around the country where workhouses were to be built.
The assistant commissioner who came to Athlone was William John Handcock who came in March 1839. He spent a week in Athlone and selected a site at Ranelagh as the site for Athlone Workhouse. This site was on a promontory between Athlone Canal and the River Shannon near the site of the No 1 Battery and at the rear of the Ranelagh School, the site was in the possession of the British Department of Defence.
The proposed Workhouse was to serve an area which took in a sixth of the County of Westmeath and a quarter of the County of Roscommon. When the commissioners decided on the grouping of townlands these were formed into new Electoral Divisions from which elected representatives of the Board of Guardians could be drawn. The Athlone Union which was declared on the 3rd April, 1839 took in the two divisions of Athlone and the divisions of: Moate, Ballymore, Noughaval, Kilkenny West, St John's, Tisrara, Cam, Taughmaconnell, Kilcleagh, Kilcumreragh, Drumrany, Bunown, Ballyloughloe, Kiltoom, Rahara, Taughnoy and Dysart, or at least the electoral divisions of these places which lay within the counties of Westmeath and Roscommon.
The Newly-Formed Union
Three days after the extent of the new Poor Law Union of Athlone was declared the assistant commissioner, Mr Handcock, met a large gathering consisting of the proprietors of land and the magistracy of the district. He gave them a detailed explanation of what was needed. He explained that the cost of building and fitting out the workhouse would be £10,000. This capital cost would be made available to them as a loan which would be repayable over twenty years. The loan would be interest free for the first ten years. They then estimated the cost of maintaining up to eight-hundred paupers at a cost of 1/10d per head per week and added to that the cost of servicing the loan and it was agreed that a rate of a shilling in the pound would be sufficient to maintain the Workhouse.
While the commissioners had the statutory function of seeing that workhouses were provided the responsibility for the costs of running them fell to the individual poor Law Unions.
By May 1839 the first Poor Law Guardians for Athlone Union were appointed, these included those who were elected from the electoral divisions together with a group of ex-officio Guardians drawn from the local magistracy. Their first act was to appoint a clerk to the Union. The person selected was a local man, Robert L O'Connor, who was initially paid a salary of £50 per annum. This was slightly below the guidelines which were as follows:
Clerk of the Union £60 - £80; Master & Matron of the Workhouse £50 - £80; Chaplain £50 - £80; Medical Officer (and medicines) £100 - £150; Auditor £20 - £30; Returning Officer: £10 - £20; Collector: £50 - £80; Schoolmaster & Schoolmistress: £50 - £80; Porter & Assistant Porter: £20 - £30; Other Assistants: £20 - £30
In the average Irish workhouse salaries worked out at somewhere between £450 and £650 per annum.
Alternative Site Needed
When the assistant commissioner decided that the site at Ranelagh which had been used by the British Army as a firing range and for other military manoeuvres was suitable as a site for Athlone Workhouse he hadn't consulted with the military authorities.
When the Guardians made their approach they were told that the army were not prepared to make the site available.
However, very soon a suitable site was found at the end of Northgate Street. This fine site of some seven and a half acres was known as 'Abbey Fields'. It was owned by William Sproule who had his orchard there.
Sproule was a public spirited man who when approached was prepared to sell the site for just short of £800 which was considered a great bargain being so close to the town.
George Wilkinson, Architect (1814-1890)
George Wilkinson, a native of Oxfordshire was only twenty years of age when he won a competition for the design of the Workhouse in Thame, Oxfordshire. His design was successful and soon he was designing other workhouse buildings in both England and Wales.
The Irish Poor Law Commissioners initially hoped that the Board of Works would be asked to produce a design for Irish workhouses.
A limited competition was held between three architects who were invited to submit their designs and it was decided that George Wilkinson be given the contract to design all 130 Irish Workhouse buildings - he produced three standard plans and the vast majority of Irish workhouses fall in to one or other of these plans.
They were designed to cope with three different scales: small workhouses to cater for 200-300 inmates; medium sized ones to cater for 400 to 600 inmates and large ones (as in Athlone) to cater for 800 to 1,000 inmates.
The only workhouses which were re-modelled from existing buildings rather than built to Wilkinson's plans were north and south Dublin, Clonmel, County Tipperary and Fermoy, County Cork.
What the workhouse was like.