Anne Devlin: the heroine as laundress?

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 4 (Winter 1998), News, Robert Emmet, Volume 6

Anne Devlin’s gravestone in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, tells us that she was ‘the faithful servant’ of Robert Emmet, but that otherwise she lived ‘in obscurity and poverty’, dying in September 1851, aged seventy. It was through her connection with Emmet that she achieved fame, although that connection lasted for only a few months in the spring and summer of 1803. Nevertheless, as is well known, she paid heavily for loyalty to her master, suffering arrest, torture and nearly three years’ imprisonment. On her release in 1806 she disappeared from the historical record, being ‘re-discovered’ by Dr Richard Madden in 1842 and Brother Luke Cullen in 1847, both of whom were far more interested in her political associations in 1803 and before than they were in her subsequent life.
But what if there is a record of her for at least some of those ‘missing’ thirty-six years? What if we can penetrate the claimed ‘obscurity and poverty’ of most of her life and create a fuller and more balanced picture: one that portrays her, not only as a nationalist heroine, but as a hard-working woman, helped by friends of Emmet to support her family in reasonable circumstances?
In 1835 a government commission investigated the ‘state of the poorer classes in Ireland’ with a view to establishing an Irish poor law. In the copious appendices to the commission’s first report are accounts of the country’s many charitable hospitals, including St Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin, an asylum established in 1746 under the will of Dean Swift. As well as listing the hospital’s patients, the report also lists its staff. Among them is ‘Ann Devlin’, laundress, aged fifty-six, employed for nearly ten years and paid £63 per annum. Despite the commonness of the name and the different spelling of the Christian name, there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence suggesting that this was indeed Anne Devlin of 1803 fame.
We know that Anne Devlin would have been fifty-six in 1835, having been born in 1780, and that during her ‘obscurity’ she worked mainly as a washerwoman. In 1842 Madden found her living in John’s Lane, off Thomas Street, barely ten minutes’ walk from St Patrick’s Hospital. These facts are persuasive, but hardly conclusive. Yet there is further evidence.
When Devlin came out of prison in 1806, she was employed for about four years as a maid by friends of the Emmet family. Emmet’s father, Dr Robert Emmet, had served for over thirty years (1770-1803) as governor, physician and treasurer of St Patrick’s Hospital. The hospital on more than one occasion expressed its appreciation of his services and, even as late as the 1820s, there were still governors who had worked with Emmet. If friends of the Emmets helped Anne Devlin find employment after her release, perhaps they continued to do so into the 1820s.
But there is another interesting, if more speculative, link between St Patrick’s Hospital and Anne Devlin. She was married to a man named Campbell—probably William Campbell—who she told Cullen was ‘industrious and upright’. They had two children, William and Catherine, and her husband died in 1845. The master of St Patrick’s Hospital from 1812 to 1835 was Patrick Campbell, while his wife Sarah served as matron from 1824 to 1835. Ann Devlin, laundress, was employed by St Patrick’s in 1825—such an appointment would have been the responsibility of the matron and in 1835 she was earning £63 per annum. This is a remarkable wage, much higher than that of any other ‘servant’, even the senior male keeper. The only female member of the staff who exceeded it was the matron, who was paid £92, but she was classed as an ‘officer’, not a ‘servant’. Laundresses before and after received nothing like this amount of money—in 1843 the laundress was only being paid £15 per annum, while her four assistants received £5 each. Why was the laundress, Ann Devlin, paid such an exorbitant wage? As well as her link with the Emmet family, could Anne Devlin’s husband have been a relative of the master and matron of St Patrick’s Hospital?
The 1835 commission was very critical of St Patrick’s and its report was followed by a major reorganisation of the staff. Both Campbells retired on a generous pension and when next an unnamed laundress is referred to in the hospital records she is earning only a raction of Ann Devlin’s wage. It is probable that Devlin lost her job at St Patrick’s during the upheavals of the mid and late 1830s. With the Campbells gone and no member of the board now associated with Dr Emmet, Anne Devlin’s patrons had disappeared.
When Madden met Devlin off Thomas Street in 1842 she was taking washing into her home and was in bad health, suffering from, among other disorders, rheumatism, a common complaint of laundresses. Although obviously poor, she told him that ‘by our attention to business we earned for many years a competence equal to our wants’. So, according to her, her family’s poverty was only of recent origin.
After 1845, unable to work and with her husband dead, she spent her final years in increasing destitution and died, probably partly from malnutrition, in 1851 in a tenement off the Coombe. She clearly did not avail of the dubious charity of the South Dublin Union workhouse, although the investigation which helped establish it may give us a unique glimpse into her life, not as heroine, but as laundress.

Elizabeth Malcolm is Senior Lecturer in history at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool.

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