I am finally in receipt of Davis and Mary Coakley’s book “The History and Heritage of St. James Hospital, Dublin”.  Naturally after all the commotion I went through during it’s writing, I was anxious to see what part of Alexander Fraser’s life as master of the South Dublin Union workhouse might be mentioned. Some may recall that I had quoted  a memoir in my blog which had been written by one of the grand-daughters of Agnes, Alex’s wife (my maternal great-aunt). The writer would in fact, be my second cousin.

In my enthusiasm for the subject, I assumed that the person who had passed the memoir to me would have known if the writer was still alive but I was wrong.  Of course, one day I got an email from that person who was shocked to see her name “on the internet”.  I had made an agreement that the author could quote from the memoirs through my blog, huge mistake. However, I agreed to withdraw said quotes from my blog . She then agreed herself that the professor could use them.  Lesson learned.

The book is voluminous, naturally, there is so much history to the building and Alex’s time there received small mention after all. There is a photo of the family on the steps of the Master’s residence, Garden Hill and the few quotes aforementioned and a paragraph or two.  I haven’t finished reading the book yet.

My purpose in writing on the subject was not about the workhouse but about my amazing great-aunt Agnes, who you will find in my posts. She was the mother of 8 children of her own and took in 3 of her sister Sarah’s children when she died. The door to her home was a revolving one and she was mistress of the South Dublin Union for 26 years.  During this time, she was also a mainstay of her own family, helping her father in his old age. She was likely the person who saw my grandfather and his brother off when they came to Canada.

When Alex broke his leg in 1908 and died of pneumonia, she received nothing from the Union and was forced leave Garden Hill and manage on the small amount they had put away.  In spite of all, Agnes lived to be 104 years old. My mind often wonders if she learned something at the workhouse that kept her alive all those years. In the meantime, I will enjoy reading the rest of the book which I am sure will provide further enlightenment.

Victorian Workhouse Webinar


I have just attended a webinar from The National Archives in London entitled “Why Did the Victorians Fear the Workhouse”. The Presenter was Paul Carter the Principal Specialist in modern domestic records. He has a particular interest in poor law records.For this they use software called Blackboard Collaborator. Ear plugs are needed for the audio. You can see film of the presenter on the top left corner and a display board on the right with diagrams etc. On the bottom left there is a message box where you can ask questions. Paul was very approachable and knew his records. You are sent instructions before hand on how to connect to the webinar and it will be reposted on the website at the National Archives.

I wanted to know if Agnes, my great aunt, wife of Alex Fraser, Master of the South Dublin workhouse would have been compelled to be Matron since her husband was Master. It just didn’t seem possible that she could do that and raise a large family. Also, I hadn’t read anything in the memoirs about her actually working there, just some memories of having Christmas teas etc.

The answer was yes with the idea that she might be able to carry on if he died with the help of another man they would hire (This sounded like it was a common scenario). That didn’t happen in Agnes’s case, she apparently had to leave when Alex died. Whether we will ever find out why, I don’t know. BUT again another example of how amazing Agnes was. Matron of the workhouse, mother of 8 children, one of whom was lost in her last pregnancy, adoptive mother to her sister’s 3 children and hostess to an open house for all her family. And she lived to be 104 years old!

The webinar was brief but full of useful information, the diagrams giving us examples of what we might find in the records. This was related to English records but gave me an idea of where I might look in Ireland. The sure answer to my question would be to find the employment registers for the South Dublin Workhouse.

This was an interesting experience! Oh yes, I had to be ready by 8 a.m. because they started at 4 p.m. their time. That took a little figuring.



Violet was the second last daughter of Agnes and Alexander Fraser born July 3, 1899 at Garden Hill like the rest of the children.  Like her other two sisters, she was an accomplished pianist. The family moved to 42 Westfield Road in Dublin along with “Uncle” Charlie Waugh who lodged there for about 20 years. Agnes Fraser had decided to call the house “Feldberg” after the place in Germany where she had met Alex.

Sophie, the youngest Fraser child was born August 20, 1901. Like her sister Violet, she had aspirations to go on stage. She took a job in the engineering department at Guiness Brewery where she spent her working life.  Around 1956, Alex inherited 50 acres of land near Harlockstown in County Meath and the family moved there. Sophie died in Canada in 1989. As stated in another post Alex died at Meath in 1964 the year after his mother.

I have actually been contacted by a couple who now have the house at 42 Westfield Road. People are always so excited to find information like this and I so enjoy hearing from them.

No Time for Grieving

Agnes finding herself suddenly bereft, also found that she was out of a place to live. The conditions of employment were that if one partner died the other had to go. She was not one to lay down and confronted the Board of Guardians but to no avail.

It did not help that Alex’s plan for retirement at Delaford, on a large farm, had fallen through. There had been some misunderstanding about a lease on the property and before he could buy it, the land returned back to its original owner. He had also lent money “on a handshake” and Agnes was only able to get half of it back. One who refused to pay was her own brother-in-law.

Agnes lived a full life and met challenges head on. She died in 1963 at the age of 102 years and is at rest with her husband in Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. The rather plain headstone says “Till He Comes”.

Obituary for Agnes McDowell Fraser

Obituary for Agnes McDowell Fraser

Till He Comes

Till He Comes


Life at Garden Hill

Garden Hill was part of the South Dublin Union where Alex became master. Below a map of the Union in 1907, the year before Alex’s death. You can see Garden Hill on the left.

. Picture from the website The Workhouse” The Story of an Institution by Peter Higginbotham. It is an interesting and informative website. If you are interested in the duties of the Master and Matron of the workhouse you can see them here.

If Agnes was Matron, she would be responsible for the care and welfare of the female inmates.  She would also be having her own family which in the end, came to a total of 8. When her sister Sarah died, she took in her three children. Her last pregnancy was difficult. She was carrying twins but miscarried one at 6 months.

Alex spent most of his life trying to improve conditions at the Union. Things had certainly improved since the idea of “the Union” had been implemented but money was always the bottom line. In 1895, the workhouse was visited by a “commission” from the British Medical Journal investigating conditions in Irish workhouse infirmaries. Their report noted that South Dublin had separate infirmaries for Roman Catholic and Protestant patients, staffed respectively by nuns (Sisters of Mercy) and deaconesses, with a large number of pauper inmates acting as nursing assistants. Although some of the deaconesses had been trained at Tottenham Hospital, the nuns lacked any formal nursing training. The nuns also only worked during the daytime, and acted only in a supervisory role in the male wards. A total of thirteen nuns and around half a dozen deaconesses had charge of more than a thousand patients, with some wards being “distinctly overcrowded”. Further details are available in the full report. The BMJ’s revelations contributed to the introduction of significant improvements in the standard of Irish workhouse nursing, with the employment of pauper inmates as nurses ending ending after the passing of 1898 Local Government Act.” (From the Workhouse website) It may very well be that Alex called for this inspection. As time went by and the unions were disbanded, the workhouse was converted into St. James Hospital where they discovered a part of it in the Trinity College additon in 2002. . In 1908, Alex fell while getting out of a car and broke his knee. The ensuing pneumonia killed him. He was only 57.

Two Obituaries for Alex Fraser:

Fraser Alex Obit Irish Times

Fraser Alex Obit Freemans Journ

Both obituaries show that Alex was held in “high esteem” in Dublin, the Irish Times commenting on his business ability and “unvarying courtesy”. The Freeman’s Journal shows us what family was in attendance (the woman didn’t attend, we don’t know why), church officiates, including John Holmes, his former teacher and the man who performed his wedding ceremony. Other attendees included the Board of Guardians and clerics for the Union, the Medical staff, even members of the public. It is a veritable who’s who of the city.

As the Twig is Bent…

In many ways, Alex Fraser mirrored Agnes’ beloved father. Like William, he was a man of great energy, drive, ambition and not a little charm. He was born 25 June, 1851 in Forveran, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. His father, Robert Cumming Fraser had come to Ireland as agent (steward) for Lord Waterford whose family seat was at Curraghmore House in Waterford.
Robert then took up a position with Lord Hawarden of Tipperary. Hawarden had a reputation for being a harsh landlord but by this time (1885) things may have settled somewhat with the passing of the Land Act.

Robert and Jean Fraser

Below, the Family Register showing Alex and his siblings.

Fraser Family Register

Fraser Family Register

Later in life, after Jean’s death, Robert went to live with Agnes and Alex in Dublin where he and William would engage in heated discussion over the Sunday sermon at Adelaide Road Presbyterian. He died in 1905. The James Fraser above married Sarah McDowell, Agnes’ sister. So, two brothers married two sisters.

The Amazing Agnes

Next in line, was Agnes, second youngest of William and Sarah. From the start, we get a sense of the type of character Agnes was. Bright, adventurous, courageous and disciplined. The same character that would get her through the life she would lead with Alex Fraser, her husband.
It goes without saying that like any father, William wanted the best for his girls and supported them in their pursuit of happiness. As we have seen earlier, William was an athletic and competitive person himself. He  encouraged his daughters to be the same though a few of the girls had more of their mother’s temperament  and preferred an early marriage to rambling around the world.
All the McDowell children were educated by the good Reverend John Holmes at the Presbyterian Manse in Tipperary Town. Some of the children came in the new horseless carriage, but many came in horse and cart. The McDowells rode in a donkey cart the long 5 miles in the warmer seasons and boarded during the winter. Agnes became good friends with Emma Holmes, the Reverend’s daughter whom she later travelled to Europe with.

At that time, women were not allowed to enter university but could obtain a “Certificate of Fitness to Teach”. Agnes wrote the university entrance exam and passed which of course made her father proud. For this, she received an engraved watch with her initials on it from Reverend Holmes and was then sent to finishing school in Dublin where Alex Fraser commenced courting her.
Agnes then took up a position as governess in County Armagh to a widower’s two daughters. She was very well liked by the family and eventually was proposed to by her employer but she wasn’t ready to settle just yet. She asked William to send her to Germany to study the language He set her up with a German employer in Friedrichsdorf. This was an idyllic time for Agnes and she spoke to her children and grandchildren about it often.
Eventually, Agnes decided to become engaged to Alex Fraser who was some 10 years her senior. This decision made, she headed for home. By this time, he had  won the position of Master of the South Dublin Workhouse, having started out working in the Storehouse. As a young man, Alex became involved in a court case against the supplier of milk to the workhouse who was selling them “adulterated (diluted) milk”. From “The Analyst” dated January 13, 1881.
“In the Southern Divisional Police Court, Dublin, James Grennan has appeared at the suit of the Guardians of the South Dublin Union, who alleged that he sold and delivered milk at the Workhouse which was adulterated with 20% of water. It appeared that the defendant was one of the contractors for the supply of milk to the Workhouse and Alexander Frazer, store-keeper of the Workhouse, demanded one gallon of the forty-five gallons that was being delivered one morning at the Union. This he had analyzed by Dr. Cameron who certified to 20% of added water. For the defense, it was stated that the contract had been from the beginning executed by a dairy keeper named Collins who had failed in getting the contract from the Guardians. Collins received all the money paid by the Guardians. It was also urged that inasmuch as Frazer did not pay for the milk, he had not complied with the act of parliament. The magistrate held that the Act had been complied with and fined the defendant 10£  with 2 guineas court costs and refused to state a case.”
One could certainly take this as an illustration of not only Alex’s character but his determination to rise to a position of some control, perhaps where he could do the most good.

In 1885, Agnes and Alex were married by the Reverend Holmes and commenced life at Garden Hill, the house attached to the grounds of the South Dublin Workhouse. Their life together would begin.