From an article by Mary Hayden, ‘Charity Children in Eighteenth-Century Dublin’, 5 Dublin Historical Record (1942-3):-
“[C]hildren under the age of six years were not received [into the workhouse]. The younger ones were to be cared for by the authorities of the parishes to which they belonged. Now the greater part of these babies were foundlings – the practice of exposing children being scandalously common – and no parish wished to be at the expense of their upbringing.
It became common for the churchwardens to employ a woman, officially known as a ‘parish nurse’, but commonly known as a ‘lifter’, who made nightly rounds and ‘lifted’ any infants whom she found lying about. She transported them to the next parish and laid them in the first convenient spot. Sometimes she placed a lump of narcotic called ‘diacodim’ in the mouth of the baby, to stupefy it and prevent it from crying; of course it must have happened that the ‘lifter’ of the second parish moved the infant again, perhaps back. One can well believe that, after three or four such removes, the poor baby required nothing other than a grave.”
In 1730 the ‘lifting’ problem in Dublin had got so bad that a special Commission had to be set up to enquire into it, and an Act subsequently passed to put an end to the practice by providing for a special baby hatch or ‘turning box’ at the door of the James Street Workhouse, into which all unwanted babies could be left.
Alas, very few of the poor infants left in this box survived, and indeed they might have had a better chance on the streets. They were fed so little in the Workhouse, and cared for so badly, that it was inevitable that they would become ill; as soon as they did, they were transferred to a flea-ridden sick bay rife with disease and a stuporific concoction known as ‘the Bottle’ employed to finish them off.
Another Commission had to be held in 1797, this time into Workhouse conditions, which resulted in some improvement, but only a very gradual one. Hayden, writing in the 1940s, deplores the ill-treatment of unwanted children of two centuries previous as though it were a thing of the past; of course, as we now know, it wasn’t.
The luckier and extremely happy-looking Dublin baby above, who is being lifted in the only way babies should ever be lifted, gently, by someone who loves them, is from the archives of the Victoria State Museum.