Workhouse records in Ireland – what can they tell us? #1 Workhouse Employees

This is the first in what will be a series of blog posts and my aim is to cover a range of subjects of interest to those with Irish and Ulster ancestry. I’ll include a series of posts about records that haven’t been digitised yet but that are useful for giving us additional information about our ancestors.

This first post is about workhouse records – the surviving Northern Ireland workhouse records are held at PRONI and are not available online.

Over the last number of years there has been a large amount of Irish records digitised and made available online and for the 70 million people worldwide who are reported to have Irish ancestry and who are interested in researching their family tree, that is a wonderful advancement which does away with those many hours sitting in front of a microfiche trying to find a record of interest to you.

However, there are still many records held in various archives and repositories that have l not yet been digitised – these records can often help to build a picture of an ancestor and give us a glimpse into what their lives were like.

One example of this is my great grandfather Sam MCKEAGUE who was born in 1869. I had found him the 1901 Census of Ireland, working as a Porter in Ballymoney Workhouse, but by the 1911 Census of Ireland, he was living at the family farm and was an Assurance Agent. How long had he worked at the Workhouse, what did being a porter at the Workhouse entail and what was his life like there?

Ballymoney is in County Antrim, Northern Ireland and the workhouse there opened in 1843 – it closed in 1918 and later became the site of the Route Hospital. Peter Higginbotham’s website, The Workhouse says that the Porter’s room was located in the entrance and administrative block at the north end of the hospital. The building no longer stands as it was demolished in 2003 to make way for a building development.

At the 1901 Census, Sam was one of 9 members of staff who lived in, and who looked after 149 inmates. There would also have been visiting doctors and the hospital was administered by the Board of Guardians.

Peter Higginbotham lists the duties of a Porter which included keeping a record of everyone who entered or left the Workhouse, receiving those who wished to be admitted, preventing alcohol being admitted onto the premises, looking after the security and ‘assisting the Master and Matron in preserving order and in enforcing obedience.’

We’re more used to thinking of the Workhouse records in relation to the poor souls who were admitted to them, but the Minute Books of the Board of Guardians reveal information about the day-to-day running of the workhouse and the working life of the staff who were employed there.

We know from the minutes that Sam MCKEAGUE had an allowance of £3 every year for a new suit and this had to be approved by the Board. We know when he had holidays because he had to get the approval of the Board and this was also recorded in the minutes. The minutes tell us that in 1902, Sam had been ill and that the Assistant Porter John KANE was granted an additional £1 for the extra duties he had taken on when the Porter was incapacitated.

On 30 November 1901, a letter from the Porter was read at the Board meeting requesting that the Board define his duties; the Clerk was asked to draw his attention to the Duties of the Porter as set out in the Workhouse Regulations. Reading between the lines, it seems that there was some underlying issue or disagreement about tasks that Sam was being asked to undertake. The minutes record that Sam resigned from his position as Porter on 20 September 1906.

PRONI holds records for the 28 Poor Law Unions within the modern-day Northern Ireland, but coverage varies within each area – each main town had a workhouse. The records that you might be able to find include:

  • Minute Books – information about the day-to-day administration, staff and they can also contain information about those who were assisted to emigrate or those who ran away or flouted the rules.
  • Admission and Discharge Books – list the name, age, religion, marital status, occupation and any disability of those entering the workhouse.
  • Births and Deaths Register – lists those who were born and died in the workhouse.
  • Outdoor Relief Registers – Outdoor relief was introduced in 1847 because the workhouses could not cope with demand during the Famine and lists those given relief in the form of money or goods, but who were not admitted to the workhouse.
  • Vaccination Registers – gives the names of the child and its parents and the age of the child at the time of vaccination.
  • Infirmaries and Fever Hospitals – these were attached to the workhouses and some of these records have survived.

Note that the records are closed from 100 years from the latest date in each volume.


Natalie Bodle, a native of Northern Ireland is the author of the Roots Blog and founder of Roots Revealed. She is a professionally qualified genealogist and is a member of APG. She is also a qualified tour guide and a member of TGNI.

Roots Revealed provides genealogy research services to clients who are searching for their Irish, Northern Irish and Scots-Irish ancestors, in addition to genealogy tours and family history courses. For more information about the full range of services provided by Roots Revealed, please visit or get in touch by emailing



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