A Letter to Henry Grattan: The life of labourers in 1796

I was quite excited to come across this letter written in 1796 by Rev Michael Sandys to Henry Grattan, who lived at Tinnehinch. Sandys was rector of the Parish of Powerscourt until about 1813. He wrote this letter in an attempt to highlight to Henry Grattan how the income of “an honest, sober, industrious labourer” matched his required expenditure, arguing that such a consideration was important as it was “the patient industry of these (labourers) that the higher ranks are everywhere indebted for most of their enjoyments.” To have such information available to us now gives a great indicator of what kind of life tenants in the Parish of Powerscourt lived.

Sandys estimates the cost of provisions and clothing of a labourer, and then considers how their income compares with the required expenditure.  Just as your heart goes out to Sandys for highlighting the plight of the poor in the parish, he comes up with a drastic suggestion; but I suppose you can’t have everything. The letter runs to some 32 pages,* so I have just highlighted the main points here.

Average Price of Provisions

Sandys estimated based on the cost and usage below, that the daily cost of provisions for a man was 8d, a woman 6d and a child, 3d.

[table id=10 /]

Annual price of clothing

The annual clothing of a man and woman was also considered, which was totted up to be 2 pounds annually (9d per week) for a man and 1 pound annually (6 1/2 d per week) for a woman. A child’s clothes was guessed to be 2 1/4 d per week. The following, Sandys considered, were the clothing requirements of a man and woman.

[table id=11 /]


Sandys goes on to detail the expenditure of a labourer. He says he does not consider the cost of fuel (because of the easy supply in the parish of turf), costs of lying-in or sickness (as provision is made by annual collection for such casualties), nor of churchings and burials (as “no fees are accepted from the poor by the minister, nor he supposes the Roman Catholic persuasion“), and the rent of a cabin, which is offset by the profit from the potato crop. The rent he estimates to be 2 guineas per annum for a cabin and a rood of good ground.

Income Versus Expenditure

A maintained labourer receives either (i) 6d per day in wages, or (ii) receives occasional labour  earning 1s 1d a day in wages without food, or (3) receives 10 d  a day working year around, without food. In the case of (i), the earnings just covered the expenditure (excess 4 1/2 d), assuming the woman could earn extra by knitting and nursing a child; in the case of (ii) and (iii), the income was not sufficient – 9 1/2 pence per week for (ii) and 2 s 3 1/2 pence for (iii). Worse still, these numbers did not account for children of the family! Sandys writes:

In this statement, no notice has been taken of children; and, from the three cases adduced, it is evident there is no provision made for them. If the joint labour of a man and woman be scarcely adequate to their own support—what are they to do? The must either deprive themselves of part of that support, or they must beg or steal!

Six examples

Sandys goes on to detail the expenses of six specific families in the parish. It should be noted that the differences between the expected and actual expenditure indicate that a family is not able to provide itself with basic provisions:

1. A man (70) and his son (10): By Sandy’s calculations above, the expenses ought to be 7s 10 1/2 d, they are actually 6 s 9 1 /2 d, and the man earns 5 s a week, a deficiency of 1 s 9 1 /2 d. “The man is clothed by the parish and is on the poor list.”

2. Man, wife, two children: Expected: 13 s 10 1/2 d, actually 9s 5 1/2 d, income 9s 4 d.

3. Man, wife, three children: Expected: 15s 9 1/2 d, actually 8s 9 1/2 d, income 9s 11 1/2 d. “This man is now paralytic and must be supported by the parish

4. Man, wife, and five children: Expected: 19s 11 1/2 d, actually 16s 1 1/4d, earnings 16s 2 1/2 d. (Sandys notes that where excess appears, it means the man has a piece of ground to till; if the labour alone was counted, there would be a deficiency)

 5. Man, wife, four children: Expected: 18s 1/2 d; actually 11s 6 1/2d, income 9s 5d.

6. Man, wife (sickly) and three children: Expected: 15s 9 1/2d, actually 6s 1/2 d, income 6s 1d. “This man is clothed &c by the parish.

Possible Solution

Sandys argues that this is not an acceptable situation—”the labourer should not be a pauper“—and quotes Berkeley:

the savages of America are in general better clad and better lodged than the Irish cottagers. The house of the Irish peasant is the cave of poverty, within, you see a pot and a little straw, without, a heap of children tumbling on a dunghill

Sandys even goes on to say that while drunkenness or theft probably occurs as a result of this kind of poverty. Just when you think he can’t show any more foresight in his thinking, he goes on to identify a solution to the problems. This is not, unfortunately, a lobby for higher pay. It is instead: get the children to work. If that doesn’t help, he thinks the price of provisions should be adjusted to match the price of pay. And failing those two, he finally suggests “If both these schemes prove ineffectual, let the price of labour be gradually raised.

Grattan’s Response

Grattan’s response is masterful, politically. He is “very glad to find that you have taken into your consideration the state of the labouring poor.” He is keen to extend such a study across the nation. He thinks the ideas show much merit and are worthy of examination. He thinks Sandys’ example should be followed by others. There’s not much in the way of a commitment to do anything.


*The entire letter is available to read in the online resources room in the National Library.

3 thoughts on “A Letter to Henry Grattan: The life of labourers in 1796

    • 😀 I was so focussed on how few stockings they had I never noticed that… maybe they did have them but the good reverend decided to omit them from his calculations, being the decent man he was!

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