Carol McGiffin and Mr Bumble the Workhouse Master


Having worked on various lines of Carol McGiffin’s Family Tree (Carol is probably best known for ITV’s award winning “Loose Women” programme) I recently was lucky enough to turn up a new twist to her ancestry when I found her Great Great Grandfather McGiffin’s wedding certificate, naming (and shaming) his father as “The Master of a Workhouse” or Mr Bumble as Carol likes to call him.

Normally this fact on its own would be interesting but not mysterious, the difference here is that the McGiffins when we first find them living in the slums of Lambeth are on the breadline, not where you would expect to find the family of a well to do Workhouse Master.

The Masters of Irish Workhouses were often ex-Army or ex-Constabulary NCOs. It was a very good solid middle class position to hold in an area, providing a good wage, lodgings, food, employment for members of their family, a place on the Parish Council, local power and respect, and ample opportunity to make money on the side from embezzlement of the pauper’s allowances (by cutting the quality/quantity of their rations), the hiring out of paupers as “free” (effectively slave) labour to your friends on the Parish Committee, and of course the opportunity to take advantage of any young women unfortunate enough to be an inmate.

Not all Masters of Workhouses were this vile, but you only have to read Oliver Twist to see how they were viewed by the public at the time. So it seems that he was a Master of a Workhouse before the Great Famine in Ireland (as the three McGiffin boys were born between 1834 and 1840) Margaret was probably not legally his wife, for if she was it is very unlikely that she would have ended up in a slum in Lambeth with three children in the 1850s.

It is much more likely that she was an inmate of the Workhouse in the 1830s who became pregnant by the Master of the Workhouse bearing him three sons at a time when the workhouses were not overloaded, and a girl would be prepared to be quiet about the situation in return for better treatment for her and her children. However, at the end of the 1840s the Potato Famine hit Ireland, and the workhouses were flooded with several times the number of starving inmates that they were built to hold, the system broke down, and it seems that it was in this period that Margaret came to London with her three boys. Perhaps the Workhouse Master was worried that his indiscretions would be exposed, perhaps Margaret forced his hand?

London as a destination is odd for people from Northern Ireland during the famine, as by far the majority of refugees from the famine who fled to the mainland UK from Northern Ireland went either to Liverpool, Glasgow, or Bristol (in that order), London was just about the farthest part of England that someone from NI could travel to (for example, the McGiffin name is not uncommon in NI, but during the whole of the 19th century there were only one or two families with the name in London who weren’t direct relatives). This implies that Carol’s ancestors were sent as far away as was possible, reinforcing the idea that the Workhouse Master may have paid for a passage to London, rather than one of the nearer UK ports. London was far enough away to ensure that an inconvenient woman and three children would not be coming back in a hurry, but was far cheaper than the fare to Canada or the USA.

So a small family mystery from the early 19th century was revealed by a diligent piece of research. Carol seemed thrilled by the revelation as it brings yet another piece of the jigsaw of her family history past into place. Thanks to http://www.timedetectives.co.uk.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I am descended from Robert McGiffin, which makes me a distant cousin of Carol. I am interested in Timothy Harrington , who Margaret came to England with. Also the place that they came from, Was it Portadown near Belfast. Could you direct me to further information on my family, please.

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    • Unfortunately Sylvia we don’t know exactly where they came from in Ireland, other than the McGiffins were in general a family from the North, so it is possible that Portadown was their port of origin.

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