The Founding and Organisation of the Mendicity Institution

The Mendicity Institution was founded in 1818. It’s a name I often have to explain; the word ‘mendicity’ is the same as ‘mendicancy’ (i.e. begging) and the Mendicity Institution was originally founded for ‘the suppression of street begging in Dublin.’

A particularly severe winter in 1816 compounded the misery of the poor. A contemporary account paints a horrific picture: ‘The city presented a spectacle, at once afflicting and disgusting to the feelings of its inhabitants, the doors of carriages and shops, to the interruption of business, were beset by crowds of unfortunate and clamorous beggars, exhibiting misery and decrepitude in a variety of forms, and frequently carrying about in their persons and garments the seeds of contagious disease; themselves the victims of idleness, their children were taught to depend on begging, as affording the only means of future subsistence; every artifice was resorted to by the practised beggar to extort alms, and refusal was frequently followed by imprecations and threats. Mendicity developed a violent character…. the benevolent were imposed upon – the modest shocked – the reflecting grieved – the timid alarmed. In short, so distressing was the whole scene, and so intolerable was the nuisance, that its suppression became a matter of necessity’ (A year in Europe: Comprising a journal of observations in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Switzerland, the north of Italy, and Holland. In 1818 and 1819, Volume 2, John Griscom).

There was a House of Industry, to which the more objectionable beggars could be sent. However, it had limited accommodation and there was very much a revolving door policy in operation. It was funded from the licencing of cabs.

Dublin had been suffering economically by the Act of Union, the standing down of many soldiers and sailors after the Napoleonic Wars and the fragility of Irish cloth manufacturing in the face of the onslaught from the mechanised looms of Manchester.

However, within 6 months of The Mendicity Institution being founded there was a certain shift:

An extract from an “eloquent” sermon given by Rev. W. A. Evanson at the Bethesda Chapel on 11 October 1818 gives some idea of the achievements of the Mendicity Institution in such a short time: ‘The Mendicity Institution has banished from the city those hordes of beggars who had flocked from the remotest parts of the island, to join the depredators upon public bounty, and to dissipate with still greater rapidity of effect the moral virus of Mendicity. It has purified the highways of our Metropolis from a noisome crowd of importunate and vicious supplicants, and we can now pursue our accustomed occupations without disturbing assaults on our feelings or our purses’ (Dublin Outsiders p 22).

Some Dublin business men, inspired by the work done by philanthropists in Hamburg, Munich, Belfast and Edinburgh called a public meeting that was held in the Mansion House on 23rd May 1817. The public was told that an organisation such as the one in Edinburgh could save half the amount of 100,000 spent annually, in answering the demands of beggars on the street.

This quotation taken from the frontispiece of an early annual report is suggestive of the mood of that meeting. “I cannot but think it a reproach, worse than that of common swearing, that the idle and abandoned are suffered, in the name of Heaven, and all that is sacred, to extract from Christian and tender minds a supply to a profligate way of life, that is always to be supported, but never relieved” (Temple Hill p 133 – Spectator No 232).

The plan based on models operating in the aforementioned cities was to support beggars at subsistence levels, while training them for simple employment and encouraging good industrious habits, so that they might recover their strength and purpose sufficient to reassert their independence. ‘The revealed law, the Association maintained, is that he who will not work, will not eat’. It was also held that parents should support their children and adult children should support their aged parents. Every care was taken to ensure that the employment of beggars would not interfere with the normal channels of employment and would not take work away from a better class of person.

The affairs of the Association were managed by a committee of sixty and by a president, vice presidents, and secretaries – all of whom acted voluntarily; having under them a superintendent, an assistant secretary, a sub-treasurer, a schoolmaster, three schoolmistresses (one for the lace school, one for the infant school, one for the girls’ school and juvenile spinners), an apothecary, two street-inspectors, four clerks; a store-keeper, and a cook.


Funding was vital and the city was divided into 60 ‘walks’ and collectors appointed so that all Dublin’s 12,000 or so houses would be visited and donations requested. Initially donations were slow and there was a call to abandon the project altogether, but the collections went ahead regardless. There were many well known people on the original management committee, names that would inspire confidence including a Bewley, a Guinness, a La Touche, a de Vesci, and an Orpen. The patron was the Lord Lieutenant, the president was The Lord Mayor, the vice presidents included dukes, judges, archbishops and generals.

Premises in Hawkins St were leased from the RDS. Within a few years the Mendicity Institution had moved via Copper Alley into Moira House at Usher’s Island. This was a once beautiful stately home. Neighbours were assured that there would be a wall erected between the house and the river and that the riverside entrance would be denied to mendicants who had to use the Island St entrance.

There was no hiding place; every householder and business in the city was approached and the donations began to come in. Each donation (or lack of donation) was noted by name and house number and printed in the annual reports. The streets were listed in alphabetical order in the annual reports and opposite the number of each house was the householder’s name and them the amount of their donation or a blank.

As well as the collections there were anonymous donations, to list a few:

From a dying lady per Mrs O’Beirne, Capel Street 11s-0d
An Old Officer 1-0-0
A Well Wisher 1-0-0
A Friend of The Poor 10s-0d
A friend who found one half of a thirty shilling note in La Touche’s Bank 15s
The Wandering piper collected at The Northumberland Buildings on the night of the 16th December 1838 £3-7-8
A gentleman who could not attend the sermons 1-0-0

Donations from outside Dublin in 1838 included
Her Majesty the Queen Dowager 10-0-0

There were collection boxes in private houses and shops; General Cope had one, Mr Hone of Roebuck had one, and the Club House in Sackville St had one.

Societies and organisations also made donations:

The Ballast Office gave 17-10-6
The Subscribers of The Private Reading Room, Commercial Buildings
gave the goodly sum of 63-10-10
The Feinaiglin Society 12-11-0
The Stewards of the garrison races, Phoenix Park 20-0-0

There were also the fines:

Fine on one of Messrs Guinness’ men for drunkenness 5s

The Register of Carriages passed on its fines, such as:
Fine on a man for upsetting Mr McGarry’s gig not keeping to his own side of the road 10s
Fine on the cook of the Institution 1s
Fine on a servant of the Institution 6d
Fine on one of Mr Tabbateau’s Porters 6d
Captain Bligh amount of a fine imposed upon him for assaulting two policemen £1

The Friendly Brothers had a penny a week society as did various other informal groups of friends and neighbours.

If you don’t work, you don’t eat

This was the harsh dictum of the Mendicity Institution; however, in reality it helped those who were incapable of work, the young, the aged and the infirm.

Various work was carried out and ‘picking oakum’ was one. This involved unpicking old rope that had been protected by tarring and varnishing and extracting the good fibres. These fibres were then used by mixing them with tar and using the mixture for sale as caulking or sealing the sides of ships. Breaking stones for road building, pulverising lime for building materials, spinning flax and lace making were also undertaken. Some worked carrying placards through the streets of Dublin, imploring the public not to give alms but to donate to the Mendicity Institution instead. Some were employed as carters to collect leftover food from houses in the city, to add to the pot. The Mendicity Institution was only open to people who had normally been resident within the ring of the two circular roads for three months. The intention was that the able bodied could earn enough in the Mendicity Institution, over and above what they were charged for their food, in order to pay for their lodgings. In order not to break up families, there was a girls’ and a boys’ school. By the end of 1818, there were 2,930 attending – apart from those working at the various tasks, there were 282 children in school, 319 elderly and infirm, and 400 younger children. It is important to note that though fever was rampant in the winter 1818-1819, the Mendicity Institution remained remarkably free from disease; a situation attributed to the improved diet of the mendicants. The Association regretted that it had no authority to take up or coerce the street-beggar. Indeed, the authorities had limited powers in that respect too, but having thus tendered assistance to all persons who may be reduced to the degrading extremity of seeking alms in the streets, they employed two street-inspectors, whose duty it was to point out to the police the more offensive and obstinate, sturdy beggars. The magistrates had the power of committing to the House of Industry the mendicants thus brought before them, for a limited period – a local Act of Parliament not allowing the committal of mendicants to any place of confinement, except to one in connection with the House of Industry. However, as the House of Industry had limited space, that was never going to be a permanent solution to the problem of the ‘sturdy beggar’.

This is the text that the inspectors employed by the Mendicity read out to (or handed to) those they saw begging:

Friendly Notice to all Beggars

‘If you are found begging in the street after this notice, you will be taken up and punished under the law, therefore if you really have no other means of sustenance, go to the Mendicity Asylum, you will get work and food. If you are unable to work you will be supported and if you have children they will be clothed, fed and educated. Then why disgrace yourselves, or cruelly expose your children to misery and ruin by continuing to beg.’


As well as taking beggars off the streets, those who were destitute were helped to travel to places, where they had a promise of employment, or to be reunited with friends or family that would be able to support them. Those applying for transmission were required to labour in the Mendicity Institution for four weeks, while their cases were investigated. That generally sorted out the deserving from the undeserving, but written references and proofs or undertaking were required from local clergymen, police or prospective employers before the tickets were purchased, generally at a discount from the various steam packet and railway companies. Generally, the transmissions were to other parts of Ireland or to England, but there were a couple of French plumbers who wound up in Dublin, some Poles and a Russian sailor who missed his boat in Galway. Between June and December 1818, over 2,600 people were transmitted. The service continued until 1969 when Paddy Power, a 23-year-old living in The Iveagh Hostel applied for the fare to Navan for where he had a letter of admission for an operation. The final note in the transmissions book reads, ‘cancelled – did not turn up for bus.’ It is very similar to the service we provide today for the eastern European migrants. If one adds the 2,600 transmitted to the 2,930 mendicant being looked after at Island St, one can easily appreciate the profound effect on the city streets.


The determination of the Mendicity Institution to help those deserving of assistance meant that it was constantly in danger of running out of money. On two occasions it was felt necessary to parade the mendicants through the streets in order to bring home to householders the consequences of closure. On other occasions the clergy were appealed to, to make special collections. In 1831, the situation became critical; appeals to the Lord Lieutenant and his representations to the Chief Secretary on behalf of the Mendicity Institution were to no avail. With debts rising, the committee decided on July 5th to discharge all but the old and the infirm. While the discharge of so many did not immediately cause severe problems on the streets, it brought home very forcibly to the householders and businessmen of Dublin that the Mendicity Institution was in earnest. Money began to flow in again and this combined with a major drop in the cost of potatoes meant that the Mendicity Institution was able to reopen its doors.

The Poor Law

The years 1818–1840 were the heyday of the Mendicity Institution. In 1840, the Poor Law was introduced to Ireland and the North and South Dublin union workhouses were opened. The numbers in the Mendicity Institution declined to around four hundred and parts of the building were sublet. Subscriptions declined as most subscribers and supporters would have been paying rates to support the operation of the Poor Law. The Mendicity Institution only took in those people who, for whatever reason, were destitute but could not gain admittance to a workhouse. However, during the Famine the Mendicity Institution responded quickly in taking on staff and acquiring equipment, as the numbers relying on the Mendicity Institution climbed back up to 2,900 per day as it had been before the introduction of the Poor Law. Both the schools and the dispensary closed in 1852. Under the Medical Charity Act, the destitute had recourse to public dispensaries and the Association gave subventions to local schools that took in children of mendicants. In 1840, the Mendicity Institution advised the public that it was the last year they would be expected to support it as the burden of supporting the poor would be shared in future by ‘those miserable defaulters, to whom the Mendicity Institution now appealed for the last time to put upon record, but one redeeming instance of a free will offering upon the shrine of charity’.


Another aspect of life in Dublin in the 19th century was the constant threat from contagious diseases, such as cholera and typhus. During the cholera epidemic of 1832, the Association responded rapidly. It adopted a disinfecting process throughout the establishment, introduced an improved diet that included more meat, and the transfer of many mendicants to lighter duties. A local building was leased as a temporary hospital, staff were hired and only 10 out of 79 of the mendicants who contracted cholera died. The mortality rate in other hospitals and the workhouses was often as high as 60%.

Certainly, when cholera and typhus were in the air, the public responded generously to appeals from the Mendicity Institution. It was well understood that the beggars were a prime source of transmission for these diseases and their removal to the Mendicity Institution reduced the risk of the contagion spreading.

The Baths

The next major change was the opening of public baths in 1852. This had been prompted by excellent reports of the health benefits of baths that had been set up in English cities and in Belfast. A full dress subscription ball was held to raise money; Queen Victoria donated £50. They were the first public baths to be opened in Dublin and proved very popular, certainly Prince Albert was impressed when he visited the Mendicity Institution in 1853. There were first class, second and third class baths available, and they were priced accordingly. The difference between the various classes of baths was dependent on the warmth of the water, the number of towels provided and the quality of the soap. There were 34 baths in total, including a bath reserved for Jewish ritual bathing. The daily average peaked at 300 baths per day in 1879. With the opening by the Corporation of the more centrally situated baths at Tara Street, the numbers declined. This service continued until 1909.


In the 20th century the role of the Mendicity Institution and its role could be summed up by the resolution that was made in 1831 that ‘so long as the Mendicity Association existed, no human being need perish for hunger in the Metropolis of Ireland.’

The 1913 Annual Report states that as many as 81,218 meals were prepared and partaken of in the Mendicity Institution. Such an amount of help freely provided gave it a unique and exceptional character, and proved one of its strongest claim on the liberality of the public. The food supplied was always healthy and nutritious. Many a hungry family was saved from the workhouse by the timely meal, and citizens were thereby relieved from increased taxation.

The 1916 Rising

The 1916 Annual Report tells us that “owing to the SF rebellion that took place in the city of Dublin during Easter week, the committee regret to say that the premises were taken possession of by members of the SF Society and as a consequence the house was considerably injured. The sum received from the government was £286 15s, but the committee had to expend £391 9s in absolutely necessary work”.

This laconic statement about a major historic event is typical. The minutes of the meetings read in a very matter of fact way. The Association had limited aims and was constant in doing the very best it could to forward those aims, to suppress begging and to improve the condition of the poor through training, work and education. It was apolitical and worked within the prevailing orthodoxies of the day. It was non-sectarian, both local priests and ministers were on the board by right. Orphans that were the responsibility of the Mendicity Institution were brought up in the faith of their parents. It was unselfconsciously loyal; in 1821 extra inspectors were employed to ensure the absence of beggars during the visit of George IV.


In 1856 the mendicants complained to the management committee that the stew was of inferior quality to that which they were accustomed. The committee investigated the matter. The stew was ox head stew boiled in 12 gallons of water. Boil for three hours, remove ox head, strip meat from ox head, dice the meat, return to the pot and add 7 lbs of oatmeal and 1 pound of salt and boil for 2 hours. What the committee discovered was that the staff were removing the ox head, stripping the meat from the ox head and keeping it for themselves. They were severely reprimanded and fined.

I think this is illustrative of the virtues of probity and economy that have served the Mendicity Institution well for nearly two hundred years. While a couple of years ago the committee was considering ending the food service as our numbers were down to thirty a day, the change has been dramatic and out numbers are back up to 80 per day. It seems it will get worse, one might wish that those men of action and probity who founded the Mendicity Institution were with us today, but in the meantime we will do our best to be faithful to their memory and example.

Vivid Poetic Appeal

In 1847, the then secretary Nugent Skelly wrote and distributed this poem in pamphlet form as a desperate appeal for funds. It may put you in mind of the work of the Scottish doggerel writer William McGonagle. However, the content is immediate and disturbing.


If you desire the truth to know
Of human misery and woe
And piteous want and deep distress
In all their frightful nakedness –
And if you have a heart to bear
Scenes that are rarely met elsewhere
Then come, ye healthy, come with me
And visit the Mendicity!

All who seek relief may come
The lame, the blind, the deaf, the dumb
Whose tale of suffering and of woe
Which patiently they undergo,
Might chill the bravest hearts with fear
And from the sternest force a tear.

That aged man whom you see here
Had once 600 pound a year
But spending at too fast a rate
He had to sell his whole estate
And now his tide of fortune out
His only meal is stirabout.

An infant just come into life
The mother – a deserted wife –
Whose fortune by her husband spent,
The villain off to England went
And went off with the regiment

A pale emaciated form
Of one, like you most nobly born
Who little thought that she should be a skeleton from poverty.
Her silken robes now turned to rags
Her bed of down now changed to flags

There’s a poor cripple from his birth
Without a relative on earth,
A fellow full of fun and wit
Who from his cradle begged his ‘bit’.
Who for some thirty nights has been
Without a single change of dress,
So that his state of — you may guess.

How many from the typhus bed –
By parching thirst and hunger led
Come here with gaunt and ghastly look
As if a moment’s time they took
From death – Death’s triumph just to show
Ere to the other world they go.

And now two dying babes are brought,
Who with their – now dead – mother sought
A place of refuge for the night
In a dark entry where they might
Avoid the snow and piercing cold,
The mother’s cloak around them rolled
But when the wretched three were found
The mother could not leave her bed
The infants lived but life had fled
From the poor mother who was dead!

Oh God of mercy, who could be
A witness of such misery
If by this picture you should gain
One moment’s thoughtfulness of heart,
Oh! Let your selfishness depart
And exercise your charity
To aid the good Mendicity.


We are indebted to the very fine and detailed history of the Mendicity Institution, written by Audrey Woods, and commissioned by the management committee. Audrey had access to the meticulously kept books of the Association that are with the National Library, and the book entitled Dublin Outsiders was published in 1998.