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The

Female Orphan House

Dublin

A tightly-knit society bound by family ties,evangelical christian zeal, connections to Dublin Castle and common literary tastes produced one of Dublin's earliest charitable institutions : 
The Female Orphan House.  

 

In 1790, Ann Tighe and Margaret Este joined forces to do something which had never been done before: found a home in Dublin for female orphans. The main driving force behind the project was undoubtedly English-born Margaret Este. In the late 1780s Este, a committed Methodist, conducted a study tour of English institutions that might serve as a model for her planned orphanage in Dublin. She was aided by Ann Tighe, the sister-in-law of prominent Methodist Theodosia Blachford. Both women had husbands with positions in the Stamp Office at Dublin Castle. Margaret Este became the first guardian of the orphanage while banker Peter La Touche was appointed the organisation’s treasurer. It started out with a fund of over £140 which was raised by subscription. 

 

On Christmas Eve 1790, friends of the Female Orphan House met for the first time at 42 Prussia Street (formerly Cabragh Lane). It was decided that the house would admit female children between the age of five and ten, instruct them in the Christian religion, educate them in reading, writing and suitable skills such as sewing, dress-making and book-keeping, or "casting up a sum" as they called it. At sixteen they were to be released from the house and found appropriate apprenticeships under an indentured system for seven years. The orphan had to be without both parents and recommended by a sponsor who was a subscriber to the house. Theodosia Blachford recommended several orphans in the first two years.   

 

The first Female Orphan House was located at the aforementioned 42 Prussia Street on a lease of £60 and with an annual rent of £9. Margaret Este and her husband Charles had property interests on the street (named after Frederick the Great of Prussia ) and this was the likely reason for the initial site. It was soon found to be too small for the orphanage's needs however. 

 

Thanks to further fund-raising, the Orphan House was able to plan a move to a larger, purpose-built site on the nearby estate of Charles Stanley Monck on the North Circular Road. The architect for this ambitious project was Whitmore Davis, who also designed Green Street Court House. There is evidence that the board was displeased with Davis’s progress as they had wanted to move into the new house within a year. 

The original Female Orphan House at 42 Prussia Street (formerly Cabra Lane). From A Brief Record The Female Orphan House, North Circular Road, Dublin, 1790-1892. The orphanage opened in 1790 but moved to the New House on the North Circular Road in 1792-3.

Considering the dimensions of the new house, this may have been unrealistic.When it was eventually completed in 1792-3, Park House as the new orphanage was known spanned over 120 feet in length, was 6 bays in depth and three stories high. The building was also known as Kirwan House in honour of its most high-profile fundraiser, the Rev. Walter Blake Kirwan, (1754-1805) who raised an impressive £755 at his first sermon on the orphanage's behalf at St Anne’s Church, Dawson Street, on 24 April,1792. The Jesuit-educated Kirwan had started out as a Roman Catholic but had converted to the Church of Ireland in 1787 because it offered "enhanced scope for doing good". Kirwan was a great fund raiser because of his powers of persuasion and his ability to draw large crowds, often out of curiosity. 

 

Unfortunately Margaret Este didn’t live to see the opening of the impressive new premises as she died in 1791. Her position as guardian was filled by Elizabeth La Touche (1756-1842) of Bellevue House, Wicklow.

 

The new premises allowed the orphanage to expand and to be more self-sufficient as it had access to extensive farmland at the rere of the building which extended beyond the Cabragh Road. There was also room for a chapel to be built on the grounds. After the move, the old premises at 42 Prussia Street was turned into a Male Orphan House which existed until 1802, when it was wound up for unknown reasons, possibly due to lack of funds. No trace of its records survive.

 

Between 1790 and the end of 1801, 75 or 45 % of the total 165 orphans sent to the house were Catholic. They would have had little opportunity to practise their faith as all the house officials were Protestant. Of the 165 orphans admitted in the first ten years of its existence, only four tried to elope, usually at the behest of a near relative such as a grandmother or uncle. A few were dismissed from the house when it was discovered that they were not orphans at all. Of the first 210 orphans admitted, only three were dismissed for misconduct. 

 

A large percentage of the orphans were apprenticed to officials associated with Dublin Castle, especially army officers. Major Henry Charles Sirr, better known as the arresting officer of Robert Emmet, took on several orphans in the early 1800s.

 

The historic admission registers of the house, which are available on microfilm at the National Library, show that attempts were made by the house to follow up on the orphan after graduation, particularly in the first years. Each entry on the register, recorded in a neat and meticulous copper plate hand, gave the child's name, age, sponsor, parish where born, parish where living, date of admission and religion. Perhaps the most interesting column was the last: the record of subsequent employment or fate of orphan such as death or dismissal. Valuable information on identity and address of employer was also provided here.  

 

The Female Orphan House's reach extended far outside Dublin too. Many orphans came from parishes in Kerry, Down and Queen’s County. Occasionally an orphan came from outside Ireland as in the case of 8 year-old Elizabeth Walsh, born in the West Indies, who entered the house in 1805 from Portmarnock parish. In the early days the occasional foundling was also taken in in contravention of the house's own rules. 

 

Nineteen of the orphans admitted in the first ten years died in the house. Many of the children had inherited delicate health from their parents who had died young themselves. Tuberculosis, which was usually noted by the term “decay”, was the major cause of death. 

 

The dead orphans were buried in St Paul’s Churchyard on North King Street. This graveyard was closed in about 1860 and the remains, which were the subject of an exploratory excavation in 2008, lie under a car park and waste ground beside the church. After the closure of St Paul’s a plot was opened for the orphans at Mount Jerome Cemetery. 

 

In 1793, a pamphlet was published and distributed in the form of a letter to Elizabeth La Touche, penned by an anonymous author called Eubante. (Thought to be Joseph Cooper Walker, writer, antiquarian and collector of Italian works of art). Entitled Hints for a system of education for a female orphan house, the pamphlet recommended the need to widen the scope of female employment. Trades such as watch-making, weaving, stay-making, drawing, music and midwifery were suggested . Mary Woolstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman had been published the previous year and her principles were much in vogue.

 

In spite of this the curriculum of the house remained traditional and, with a few exceptions, there was little opportunity for graduates outside of domestic service or variations on the theme. The best that an orphan could hope for was a position as a governess at a private school. This was what happened to Elizabeth Brannigan, for example, who entered the house in March 1791 and left to take up a position as governess and teacher at Mrs Grace’s Boarding School in Dublin.

 

The orphan's uniform consisted of a green gown with white cuffs. The house was well known for its needlework and reputedly made shirts for King George IV. It was rewarded for its efforts with a donation of 100 iron beds from the king in 1821. When the orphanage was founded there had been plans to open a shop selling the the clothes that the orphans had made at very competitive prices. It isn't known whether these plans were ever implemented as they may have proved controversial to the city's clothiers.   

 

The admission records show that the Orphan House frequently tried to place their charges in apprenticeships with relatives. On the other hand, sisters who entered the house were usually separated and could wind up in opposite ends of the country. For example sisters Elizabeth and MaryAnne Howard from Castleknock were aged 10 and 8 respectively when they entered in 1801. Elizabeth was apprenticed to a Mrs Kyle of Holles Street Dublin, while Mary Anne went to Captain Purdon of Westmeath. A few orphans ended up working in Park House. This is what happened to Mary Caulfied from Castledermot who came to the house in 1791 and was appointed house cook in 1812. 

 Map from A Brief Record The Female Orphan House,North Circular Road, Dublin,1790-1892.Richard Browne's Memorial Farm named after couple Richard and Ann Jackson Browne, who bequeathed £2000 to the orphanage in 1890.  

 

The orphans rose at 6 in the morning and retired to bed at 10pm. Their day was divided into three segments. Eight hours for work and instruction, eight hours for play and worship, eight hours for sleep. There was meat provided three times a week and dinner was seved at 2pm. Each orphan's upkeep was set at 3 pence a week or 10 shillings a year. Porter was also provided in the children's diet for health reasons. 

 

The regime moved with the times in the latter half of the 19th century. From 1870 the orphans enjoyed a month by the seaside each year with their much-loved summer camp based at Sandycove.

 

As orphan numbers dwindled dramatically in the 20th century, the house merged with other similar institutions. Pleasant's Asylum in Camden Street had been established for Protestant orphan females in 1818 following a large bequest from local philanthropist Thomas Pleasants ( 1729-1818). Unlike the Female Orphan House, the original raison d'etre of Pleasant's Asylum was to provide orphans with an education and set of accomplishments to equip them for marriage, and a dowry of up to £300 was provided to help them on their way. But by the 20th century the purposes of both institutions had become almost indentical and they were amalgamated in 1949. 

 

In the 1950s only thirteen orphans remained in Park House on the North Circular Road. The decision was made to transfer them to the local parsonage.

 

Park House was auctioned on October 5th, 1958. The governors were hopeful that they could preserve the church on the grounds with its stained glass window dedicated to the La Touche family. There was little interest shown in its survival however and the church suffered the same fate as the other buildings.

 

The entire complex was demolished in the late 1960s to make way for a hotel, but a large modern office block was erected on the site instead. It remains there to this day, giving little clue of what stood before it since 1792.