Protestant Female Philanthropy in Dublin in the Early 20th Century

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1997), Volume 5

C.S. Andrews said of his youth in turn-of-the-century Dublin that as far as inner-city Catholics were concerned ‘there was no such thing as a poor Protestant’. However, the scale of charitable activity both directed towards, and organised by, Protestants in the city would seem to indicate otherwise. The nineteenth century saw a great increase in the number of charitable institutions in Dublin generally, but from the 1870s onwards there was an intensification of Protestant philanthropy in the city. Women in particular played a major role in this invigorated movement, both as administrators and recipients, working with the mainstream movements and, on occasion, carving out autonomous positions for themselves within specific organisations.

‘To advance God’s kingdom’

The scale of Protestant female involvement in charity work in Dublin alone was startling. Unlike Catholic charity, which was largely undertaken by religious orders of nuns, Protestant charity work was conducted by lay women, and generally on a voluntary basis. There were some full-time paid workers, such as matrons of orphanages and rescue homes, but the bulk of the work fell to the standing army of unpaid volunteers. By 1914, there were between 470 and 500 Protestant full time voluntary charity workers in Dublin, whose labours were augmented by over 1,600 women who gave assistance when required, such as at charitable bazaars and fetes. Why did Protestant women become involved in charity work to such an extent? Part of the reason lay in the general social expectation that middle class women would direct their attentions towards the less fortunate, for the general benefit of both parties (but particularly themselves). Thus Alma Gray, advising students at Alexandra College on the duties of privilege, declared:

Practically I think every woman who has any margin of time or money to spare should complete her life by adding to her private duties the noble effort to advance God’s kingdom beyond the bounds of her home…even greater in importance is the strengthening and uplifting of our own personal character, so that we may fulfil the end to our creation, and be a help and blessing to those who are daily dependent on our love, care and companionship.

Another attraction was the greater freedom it allowed women to participate in activities beyond the strictly domestic. Many of the inner city charities were in effect small businesses and had to be managed as such to ensure their survival. Women became involved at all levels of  administration, taking responsibility for the collection and investment of money, leasing buildings, compiling annual reports and allocating funds where required. In the case of the Fishamble Street Mission, an umbrella organisation which simultaneously managed eighteen separate clubs and societies between 1862 and 1924, women were solely responsible for a majority of the clubs—the Needlework Guild, the Dublin Biblewoman Mission, the Band of Hope and the Girls’ Friendly Society—as well as having a significant role on mixed sex committees such as the St John’s and Fishamble Street Temperance Society, the Sunday School and the Savings, Coal and Clothing Clubs. The latter three generated an average revenue of over £600 per annum, which was entirely administered by women committee members. Overseas, women charity workers often had greater scope to encroach on areas normally closed to them. The women members of the Dublin University Mission Society, for instance, routinely conducted religious services at the Mission Station in Chota Nagpur when men left to conduct campaigns amongst the Indian population. Male preserves at home and abroad were jealously guarded however, and female efforts to expand into arenas not traditionally theirs were frequently rebuffed. On the outbreak of the First World War, for example, women workers in Fishamble Street Mission volunteered to take responsibility for the various boys clubs now threatened with closure as a result of the enlistment of male volunteer workers. With the greatest reluctance, their offer of help was accepted by the remaining organisers of the Boy’s Sunday School, but it was decided to cancel the Boy Scouts and Boys’ Clubs for the duration of the war, rather than surrender them to the women’s hands.

‘Rescue’ work

Charitable work also allowed women, and particularly single women, to legitimately engage with issues which they would normally have little contact. The field of ‘rescue’ work—mainly the rehabilitation of prostitutes and unmarried mothers—was largely left to women. For Catholics, such work was conducted by orders of nuns. The predominantly Protestant-run charities however, such as the Magdalen Asylum, the Asylum for Penitent Females, the Prison Gate Mission, the Dublin Female Penitentiary, the Dublin by Lamplight Mission and the Dublin Midnight Mission and Female Home, were organised and managed by all-female committees, although several had honorary male figures on the boards of governors. Given the nature of the work, it was considered dangerous for men to be too closely associated with the task of approaching women in the street and persuading them to come to the Mission Home. Thus middle class women undertook the work themselves, waiting outside prison gates at dawn for the newly released inmates, and patrolling the streets for suitable candidates. The Protestant clergy did play an active role in the rescue missions by providing religious instruction to the inmates of the homes—indeed it was a requirement of most of the organisations that the women agree to attend religious services while in the homes—but their active recruitment of women to the institutions was strictly limited.
Given the nature of rescue work, female administrators felt obliged to defend their participation through a high rate of success. They therefore ‘targeted’ what they considered to be women who offered the best chance of rehabilitation. Those who had only just embarked on a career of prostitution, or, in the case of the ex-prisoners, those who had committed only one or two offences, were singled out by the charity workers. Habitual offenders and so-called ‘hardened women’ were avoided, as their relapse rates were high. The women committee members who drew up the societies‘ annual reports placed great emphasis upon their ability to reform apparently lost cases though, and the boast of the Dublin by Lamplight Mission (a society dedicated to ‘the rescue and reform of the outcast women of society’) that ‘the conduct of inmates is good, and not one per cent of those who leave return to their former evil life’, finds echoes in the reports of many similar organisations. This type of charity work was notoriously difficult however, with a high failure rate, although the administrators always played up their success stories. The editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette probably painted a more accurate picture when he wrote of the Dublin Prison Gate Mission in 1911 that ‘the writer knows of one who passed in and out over three hundred times, and then proved “it is never too late to mend” for the Grace of God found her in this mission’.


The field of rescue work was a contested one as far as Catholic and Protestant workers were concerned. The folk memory of ‘soupers’ during the Famine left some Protestant charity organisations open to charges of attempted conversionism, and accusations of evangelical intent tended to have an adverse effect on subscriptions and supporters. For the most part, mainstream Church of Ireland members frowned upon aggressive conversionist tactics in charitable work, as it raised questions regarding the morality of charitable assistance, particularly when recipients were often in vulnerable positions. Many societies depended rather on conversion through good example, or through the encouragement of direct Bible readings, as in the case of the Ladies’ Irish Association for Promoting the Religious Instruction of the Irish People. Some societies did have an overtly evangelical agenda, such as the Dublin Medical Mission and the Irish Church Missions, whose constitutional objectives were, respectively, ‘to combine evangelistic teaching with medical work amongst the poor’ and ‘to adopt any measure that may tend to the conversion of the Roman Catholic population of Ireland by means consistent with the principles of the Church of England’. There were others, amongst them the Dublin Prison Gate Mission, who despite consistently denying allegations of evangelism and even forced conversions, were nevertheless regularly under attack for perceived sinister intentions.
Between December 1909 and November 1911, the Mission underwent a sustained campaign of obstruction by Catholics who opposed its policy of detention of women in the Mission house, and compulsory attendance at Protestant church services. The Mission defended itself by saying that although the women had entered voluntarily, they were in some cases refused permission to leave at will, on the grounds that such action ‘would inevitably throw them in the way of companions and influences from which it is sought to shield them’. The protestation that ‘any one of these girls…is perfectly free to leave the Home finally, whenever she may desire to do so’ had little impact upon Catholics who opposed the work of the mission. A heated correspondence raged for several months in the newspapers, with Catholic charity workers claiming that ill Catholic inmates had been denied visits from priests, and the Prison Gate Mission workers countering with the statement that ‘by far the greater number [of women residents] are entirely free to attend whatever Public Worship they please; or to consult any religious teacher they may wish’. However, I have found only one reference in the mission records to a Catholic priest being summoned to the institution, on the request of a dying woman. The simmering row finally erupted when the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians sent their own representatives to the prison gates at dawn, in order to prevent the Protestant workers from having a clear field. Name-calling and physical abuse resulted, with the objects of the missionaries also joining in the fray. Men on both sides refrained from any involvement, as the dispute was seen as an all-female affair. For the wider Protestant community, the fracas was generally viewed with some embarrassment, and publications usually supportive of moderate Protestant efforts in the religious field shied away from direct involvement with the controversial Mission. In June 1910 the editor of the Irish Times refused to print a letter from the Lady Superintendent of the Mission refuting the charges made against it in the press, and various Protestant religious journals, including the Church of Ireland Gazette declined to issue an appeal for funds on its behalf.

Class distinctions

When the disagreement over the activities of the Prison Gate Mission was at its height, the committee made the decision to employ a ‘respectable’ paid working-class woman to replace the middle-class volunteers who had previously been approaching the newly released prisoners. The action was sanctioned in the belief that the new representative would both be more acceptable to the mission subjects, and also better able to cope with the increasingly hostile environment at the prison gates. This raises an important aspect of charitable endeavour generally, class, and the necessity to retain distinctions between classes on an administrative and recipient level. In the later nineteenth-century, some charity workers believed that the involvement of middle class women in the lives of working class women would lead to common ground being found between the two, and links being established along gender, and not class, lines. In the Irish case, as in Britain, there is little evidence that class barriers were significantly breached. Charitable relief remained largely a process of middle class women dispensing relief to the lower classes, although the form of relief could, and did, vary.
Class distinctions, interestingly, continued to be maintained even when middle class women became themselves the objects of charity. Public attitudes towards unmarried mothers tended towards the censorious. Although many of the residential rescue homes were supported by public subscriptions, most in Ireland also had laundries attached, staffed by the inmates themselves. These provided an important source of revenue for the institutions, but also functioned as a means of providing ‘penance’ for the women, who were required to atone for their sins through hard physical labour. However, this emphasis on subservient manual work did not apply equally in all cases. The Rescue Mission Home was established in 1875 ‘for the reformation of a better class, socially, of young women than those in other homes’. It was one of the few refuge homes out of approximately ten administered by Protestant committees in Dublin which did not operate a laundry to contribute towards expenses. Instead, inmates were employed ‘at plain and fancy needlework’, in other words, tasks considered suitable for young ladies. Segregation of classes within charitable institutions also occurred. The Providence Home, a body ‘intended for Protestant girls of good moral character’, which took in single women on probation, after which they were placed in positions as domestic servants, actively excluded applicants who might possibly influence others for the worse: ‘No girl who has ever been in a workhouse is admitted’. The committee felt that well-educated girls  would have an improving influence on the rest of the residents but were concerned over the possible effects of close relationships. Thus, ‘one room is set aside for young ladies, but most of the inmates belong to the poorer classes’.

The Protestant Orphan Society

The importance of maintaining a strong sense of class was emphasised by the Protestant Orphan Society in particular, less as a stated policy than as a practical result of their selection process. The POS was established in 1828, following the case of a Protestant orphan family being raised in Catholic institutions, because there was no Protestant society to take responsibility for them. The board of governors had a literally paternalistic attitude towards its charges, declaring: ‘In caring for the orphans the society is looking after the interests of the members of the Church…When the bread winner…has been removed by death, an opportunity is given to the other members of the Church who remain to look after those who thus have become poor and destitute’. By 1910, as the Society increasingly perceived itself and the community it represented as being under threat from Home Rule, it was envisaging a broader sphere for its charges:

While these orphan children are brought up members of the Church, and while they are taught to love their Fatherland, they are also reminded that Ireland is but part of a great Empire…A good moral character is formed in their young minds—a character which will stand them in good stead, wherever their lot may be cast, and in whatever part of the Empire they subsequently may go to reside.

The demands made on the Society’s funds were great, and there were always more applicants than there was money to support them. The term ‘orphan’ referred to a child one of whose parents had died, and in most of the cases accepted by the Society, the surviving parent and applicant was the mother. Success in application depended to a great extent upon conformity and respectability by the whole family. Between 1921 and 1931 for example, the successful cases were all children whose fathers had been in employment at the time of death. In terms of wages and occupations, these men represented something of a working-class elite, many being tradesmen, and all earning on average £3-15s per week, a very high wage for this period. They and their families were regular churchgoers, and all were Anglicans (the society was theoretically open to all Protestant denominations). Unsuccessful applicants tended to be less well paid, less able to produce evidence of religious conformity, and many had Catholic family connections of some sort.
Although the Society after 1895 allowed children in most cases to remain in their mother’s care, strict control was exercised over all aspects of the orphans lives, including education, employment and marriage. The society provided apprenticeships and fees to orphans over the age of fourteen, in all cases to Protestant-owned businesses. Failure to agree to an apprenticeship or its terms meant a removal from the Society’s books. The POS was keen to protect what it recognised as a significant Church of Ireland base in Dublin—working class  Protestants.

Although the society exercised a good deal of power in its dealings with both orphans and their mothers, applicants nevertheless refused to always take the role of humble supplicants. When the society was unhappy, for whatever reason, with the home circumstances of an orphan, they made an offer of support on condition the child be given up to the Society’s orphanages. In all of the cases I’ve seen, no mother agreed to accept support under these conditions. The reaction of this woman in 1909 was typical:

I shall never give Ethel into any person’s care, or part with her: it was a dying request, not to part with her: I’m well able and willing to educate her, if I only had time…All I wanted was to get employment near a Protestant school and besides Ethel might not long be a burden on the Society.

The mothers always had one weapon they could deploy to put pressure on the Society, and which generally produced results: the threat of surrendering their children to the Catholic Church. Most women shied away from this drastic step, but some were bold enough to try it. One of the inspectors from the Society had a brief but memorable encounter with an applicant on the train from Malahide:

Mrs L___’s temper is (as I was warned) rather short and today when I remarked on her frequent visits to Dublin travelling second class (with her little boy generally) while some of our Malahide subscribers travel third she asked me rather sharply why I did not travel third myself and said if there was any more trouble in the matter she would hand the children over to the Roman Catholics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this particular application was unsuccessful. It is a matter for speculation whether or not the threat of surrender to the Catholic Church was actually carried out.
The arena of Protestant charity work in early twentieth-century Ireland was one in which women played significant roles, on both sides of the organisational divide. Their period of greatest dominance was between 1880 and 1930, perhaps as a result of the combined effects of an increasingly active role for women in public spheres, and a desire to consolidate the position of the Protestant community in Ireland before and after independence. A glance at the committee lists of the modern charities indicates that this tradition of female involvement remains strong.

Oonagh Walsh lectures in women’s history at the University of Aberdeen.

Further reading:

M. Luddy, Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Cambridge 1995).

A. Jordan, Who Cared? Charity in Victorian and Edwardian Belfast (Belfast 1992).

J. Robins, The Lost Children: A Study of Charity Children in Ireland, 1700-1900 (Dublin 1980).

J.D.H. Widdess, The Magdalen Asylum, Leeson Street, 1766-1966 (Dublin 1966).


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