Destitution was a harsh reality for many of Belfast’s inhabitants and, for those who could no longer support themselves, Belfast Union workhouse on the Lisburn Road was often the last resort. Workhouses had been introduced in Ireland under the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 as the first form of statutory welfare and conditions were deliberately harsh in order to deter people from seeking poor relief. Paupers were expected to work for long hours each day and were given the bare minimum to eat.
Belfast’s rapid growth put the workhouse under tremendous strain. In 1870 just under 15,000 people were admitted to the workhouse. By 1888 this had risen to 18,995 and in 1913 over 29,000 people were admitted. Workhouse registers and census returns for 1901 and 1911 provide details of those who were in the workhouse, including children, the elderly, the sick and others in need of relief.
By the early twentieth century the Poor Law had developed into a sophisticated local government system operating the workhouse and providing hospital care and various public health initiatives such as vaccination schemes, local burial boards, and local dispensaries, as well as a ‘Union School’ for the children of paupers.