4b. Cork, Mid 1700s

Population & Social Problems:


Whereas the merchant classes were enjoying the profits of growing trade links, life for the lower classes was not as easy. In 1730, the population was 56,000, by 1790 the population of the urban area had increased to 73,000. This was a significant increase in a relatively short period of time; 100 years earlier, in 1690, the population had been just 20,000.


This population explosion caused many social problems. Crime was a serious issue for the city. In the early 1740s Mayor Hugh Winter employed fifteen watchmen to walk around the city at night between eleven o’ clock and sunrise to protect the citizens. Eleven o’clock was they city’s cufew, and any person caught outdoors after that time faced prosecution or expulsion. Robbery was common, with money and clothing often reported missing. Items such as silk, lead, swords were targeted by thieves too, and the raiding of cellars for food was also common. There were two gaols in the eighteenth-century city, one overlooking South Gate Bridge and the other overlooking North Gate Bridge. These gaols housed debtors and malefactors.


Another huge problem was the number of destitute children left homeless on the streets. On the western side of the south suburbs was a long row of cabins called the Devil’s Drop. Here, the doors were thronged with children with little or no food. The origin of the name Devil’s Drop is unknown, but probably refers to the degrading conditions in which the inhabitants lived. On 12 March 1747, a workhouse was opened on what is now Leitrim Street. Local church wardens handed over all abandoned children (foundlings) to the care of the board of governors, who ensured they were clothed, nursed, taught to read and write and educated in the Protestant religion. Other charity foundation were also working to relieve poverty in the city. The Blue Coat Hospital cared for homeless children, and the Green Coat Hospital provided schooling. Bertridges Alms House; Captain Thomas Deane’s foundation and Archdeacon Pomroy’s school just east of St. Finbarre’s Church all attempted to help those in desperate circumstances.


In January 1740, the Corporation and members of the church met to discuss the urgent need for lighting in the city, and decided that money for this purpose would be raised from parish taxes. In March 1743, they ordered 400 lamps to be placed across the city and its liberties. In September, Thomas Whetcroft and Thomas Mitchell were appointed as the makers and keepers of the new lamps. They began their work in June 1744.


Floods were common in the city and caused great damage. Rare high tides and flooding have forced the inhabitants of the city to pass from house to house in boats. This had even happened even in the middle of North and South Main Street. Houses and warehouses on the quays had to protected from flooding every winter by blocking up their doors.


Accounts in 1750:


In 1750, Willes, a touring English gentlemen described the streets of Cork as being narrow, dirty and badly lit. Coaches were impractical, leaving Sedan cars the only suitable mode of transport. Another report was published in 1750, that of Dr Charles Smith who gave a detailed account of the history of Cork City and County, with descriptions of their contemporary state. Smith concerned himself first with the unhealthy and unsightly state of the city. He mentioned a report by a Dr. Rogers who outlined that great quantities of filth and animal entrails were spread over the streets. This had caused the outbreak of epidemics in the city, such as small pox. During the summer months, the people had to use dirty water, especially those living on the northside of the city. Crowds could be seen washing their dirty linen and other unclean “objects” in public.


In stark contrast to these descriptions of misery, Smith also detailed the expansion of the city in previous decades. In particular, he highlighted the building of the many quays, the most notable being the Custom House Quay (now Emmett Place), the Coal Quay or Ferry Quay, Kyrl’s quay and the North quay (now Pope’s Quay). The largest canal in the city was that which is now covered by St. Patrick’s Street – picture the footpaths on this street as the location of the old quaysides and the road as a canal. The Grand Parade was made up of three quays: Tuckey’s Quay (outside Argos), Post Office Quay (outside the Grand Parade Hotel) and the Mall (on the site of the Capital Cineplex).


Wealthy class living:

Life for the wealthy classes was quite opposite to the experiences of the impoverished. Smith described a large bowling green with trees planted on its margin, which was located in the newly developed western marshes. The trees created a shaded walk and bands played music to entertain the walkers. A weekly concert was held; the entry fees collected were donated to the infirmary. Next to the bowling-green was the Assembly house, long since disappeared, where the upper classes met twice a week to discuss the news and politics of the day. There were also two theatres. One was located on Duncombe’s Marsh, around present-day Princes Street, and it hosted the King’s Company from Dublin who performed annually in midsummer. The second was located in Broad Lane and was home to the Cork Company of Players. There was also a weekly Assembly and Academy of Music.


Charles Smith also described the daily life of those who lived in the mansions on the outskirts of the town, what are now Cork’s principal suburbs. The wealthy occupied large houses, were attended by servants and carried out their leisure activities in their elaborate gardens and plantations. Indeed, Smith compared the banks of the River Lee to the Seine in Paris and the Thames in London, albeit on a smaller scale. On the northside of the city, Smith noted there was a nice hamlet with several houses and pleasant gardens known as Sunday’s Well. He also mentioned large plantations of chilli and hautboy strawberries, now reflected in the placename, Strawberry Hill.


Further east, in what today is occupied by the areas of Mayfield and Glanmire, was a large house named Lota, occupied by Alderman Bradshaw. It was described as having ornate gardens with a profusion of plants, trees and ponds. On the southside of the city the most notable house in the Douglas area was Maryborough House (built between 1700 and 1730) and its surrounding gardens, now the site of Maryborough House Hotel. Other houses in Douglas included Donnybrook House, owned by Mr. Boyle Davis, and Chetwynd, owned by Mr. Emmanuel Pigot.


Nano Nagle:


In the late 1750s, one of Cork’s most famous daughters, Nano Nagle, began her work with the poor and destitute. After years spent as a novice at a convent in Paris, Nano returned to Cork in 1754 to fulfil her vocation to help the poor. Amidst the backdrop of influential charity schools for Protestants, she particularly wished to provide education and instruction in the Catholic faith. Her first school was a little rented cabin on Cobh Street, now Douglas Street. She provided food and medicine for the needy as well as classes in reading and writing. Over time she won the respect and support of many, eventually establishing her own convent in 1776 the Sisters of the Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, better known as the Presentation sisters. Nano Nagle died on 26 April 1784 aged 65 years, and her final resting place can be seen in the grounds of the Presentation Convent, which is still in use. An associated primary school run by the Presentation order also exists and is Cork’s oldest operational school. On the south channel of the River Lee a footbridge was opened opened in her name in 1985.