It is sometimes said that people only appear in records if they are doing something good or something bad has happened to them. The Poorhouse registers are an example of the latter. People only appear in these records if they have fallen on hard times, such as losing their job, becoming ill, a spouse dying or being abandoned by their parents. Before the creation of the welfare state, the Poorhouse was a place to go as a last resort. In most cases people were admitted for a few weeks and then head back out into the world to look for work or after receiving medical treatment. But every so often you find someone who keeps on coming back. So we decided to find out the story behind one of them.
The Dundee East Poorhouse opened on 19th November 1859 and was located on Mains Loan. The first admission register covers entries right up to May 1878. Unfortunately only two more registers survive, covering 1903-1908 and 1935-1956. As with many records, in essence, the Poorhouse Admission Register is just a list of names and dates kept for administrative purposes. But when you stop and think that behind the 15000 names in that register there are stories of 15000 lives, that’s when they become real.
Whilst recently looking for some unusual entries in the poorhouse register for an event I stumbled across the name Ann Toner. I noticed that she came into the Poorhouse many times. Ann is first admitted on 1st December 1859. She is 30 years old and a mill worker. She stayed for two weeks. Two months later she’s back again on 9th February 1860 but stays for almost a month to 6th April. She’s back again at the end of the year on 5th November 1860 and stays until the 15th March 1861. This is a bit longer than usual. She’s not noted as being ill in the admission register, but there is a clue to why she’s in the poorhouse this time later on in the register.
A Catherine Tonar (the surname for Ann varies between Toner and Tonar) was admitted on Christmas Day 1860. Catherine is 6 days old and her place of birth is noted as being the Dundee Poorhouse. A bit of investigating on Scotland’s People confirmed that Catherine was Ann’s daughter. This means Ann went into the poorhouse 6 weeks before she gave birth on 19th December. Was she forced into the poorhouse with ill health or complications or was she just unable to work at seven months pregnant? Further information can be found in Catherine’s admission entry. Unfortunately the baby died on 28th December 1860 at only 9 days old. Perhaps she was premature, or there were complications. I decided to look up her death certificate. This confirmed that the cause of death was syphilis. This may explain why Ann was kept in the poorhouse until March.
Over the next two years Ann is admitted to the poorhouse 6 further times. Her occupation is occasionally given as a Winder or Mill Worker. She stays for anything between 2 days and 5 months – generally staying longer in the winter. This suggests that she may have been homeless or had no long term accommodation. Things have definitely taken a turn for the worse when she is admitted on 22nd April 1863 when her occupation is given as Beggar.
Then it gets even worse.
On 29th October in the same year she’s back for 10 weeks and her occupation is given as ‘Prostitute’.
This is a very loaded word. How far this was true we will probably never know. It just so happens that there are only 3 other women given this description in the poorhouse admissions register. All were admitted within the same 9 month period. This could be a coincidence or it could be due to a very judgemental administrator.
Then there is no mention of her for 3 and a half years. She comes back in July 1867 for 4 days and is back being described as a Mill Worker. But this is the last time. She comes back into the poorhouse 16 more times. And for each of these entries her trade or occupation is given as “None”. Her conduct on one of these entries is noted as being “Always Bad”.
Her health is clearly declining. In April 1868 she has Rheumatism, and 4 months later she’s back with ‘Debility’. On 19th January 1870 she is admitted with a bruise of the eye and arm. (Did she fall or was she assaulted?) Her admissions from then on state that she has defective vision. But she also comes back in with bronchitis, a sore on her foot and more rheumatism. Her last entrance to the poorhouse is on 31st July 1873 at the age of 43. Her illness is given as ‘Weakness’ and she stays in for 6 days.
In all that makes 28 appearances in the Poorhouse Admission Register. As we don’t have the following register we don’t definitely know if that is the end of her story. But as the register goes on for 5 more years and she was weak on her last visit, its quite likely that Ann died soon afterwards.
I decided to look in the newspapers to see if I could find more about her – perhaps her circumstances meant that she had a few run-ins with the police. The first mention of her that I could find was on 8th July 1864 when she made an appearance at the Dundee Police Court. She was charged with being “drunk and disorderly and the means of collecting a crowd in Brown Street”. She was sentenced to 14 days imprisonment. The article notes that this is her 15th appearance before the court. Over the years Ann makes many appearances in front of Dundee, Broughty Ferry and possibly even Forfar Police Courts. Her offences include vagrancy, drunkenness, breach of peace and causing a disturbance. Newspaper reports also reveal that she is also known as Ann Rock or Roque. We do not know if this is her real name or an assumed name.
One interesting report is from 8th May 1868. She’s up before the Dundee Police Court again and the case is titled “An Irish Virago” (The OED defines virago as a domineering, violent, or bad-tempered woman). She plead:
“not guilty to the charge of behaving in a disorderly manner in the Office of the Parochial Board on Tuesday. Two of the Parochial Board Officers deponed that the accused came to the office and cursed and swore and caused great annoyance. They offered her admission to the Poorhouse, but she refused the offer, and said she would not leave unless she got temporary relief. The witnesses also deponed that on a previous occasion the prisoner smashed several panes of glass in the window of the office”. Northern Warder and General Advertiser for the Counties of Fife, Perth and Forfar – Friday 8th May 1868
She was sentenced to fifteen days in prison. Ann had just been in the poorhouse in April and did return on 25th August that year. She seems to have spent most of her time between short stays in prison and the poorhouse. As she was described as a vagrant she probably slept on the street or wherever she could lay her head. The last appearance I could find at the Dundee Police Court in April 1872 states that it was her 57th appearance. That summer and autumn she appears twice before the Broughty Ferry Police Court but then after that she disappears. There are no more court appearances in the Dundee area in the newspapers, and no poorhouse entries after August 1873. So what happened to her? I tried looking for a death certificate but couldn’t find one under either Ann Toner, Ann Rock or various other spellings of either name.
So what happened to her. Did she move on? Did she go back to Ireland? Both are possible I suppose, especially if she had family. However as she was a ‘vagrant’ there is a possibility that her body was found somewhere and her name was not recorded. If that’s the case then it is a sad end to a sad story.
There are many things we will probably never know about Ann. Where in Ireland was she from? When and why did she come to Dundee? Did she come over alone or with family? We do know that in her late 20s she worked as a millworker. But at some point she lost her way. We don’t know which came first – losing her job or struggles with alcohol. Either way she ended up desperate, doing what she could to survive. She lost her only child to a terrible disease, one which she would have suffered from too. If she did die in 1873 she was only 43. Her’s was a short and hard life.