'Minders' would have slept with lunatic prisoners in their cells

‘Minders’ would have slept with lunatic prisoners in their cells

Prisoners at Wicklow Gaol in the mid 19th century had a range of jobs allocated to them. Men were recorded as making shoes and clothes. They were also painting, whitewashing, and pumping water. Women sewed or spun wool, washed bedding and clothing, and ironed. The painting and whitewashing was undertaken twice a year, with the latter being used on internal gaol walls because of its antibacterial properties.

Although cooking was seen largely as a task for female prisoners, in 1866, men were also recorded as cooking for the prison. Both genders were recorded as ‘attending lunatics’, but it appears that it was largely female prisoners who did this job.

There were different types of prisoner who were regarded as being ‘lunatic’. Some may have had been mentally ill, whereas others were epileptic.

A view of Wicklow town today - not the view that its prisoners would have had...

A view of Wicklow town today – not the view that its prisoners would have had…

Attending the lunatic inmates meant that other female prisoners had to undertake a daily routine including feeding them, washing them, and ‘keeping them calm and making sure they didn’t self-harm’. They also had to accompany these ‘lunatics’ around the prison at all times, even having to sleep with them in the same cell. In 1866, eight lunatics were recorded as being incarcerated in Wicklow Gaol – six men and two female. A report by the Inspectors-General at this time noted that these eight “presented a sad spectacle” in the prison:

“one of the former being very violent, and disgusting in his habits; and another, an epileptic idiot of the most brutish aspect.”

The task – or collection of tasks – involved in looking after these particular prisoners could be so onerous that women could miss out on important opportunities in terms of education, despite the increasing recognition of the importance of education on the rehabilitation of prisoners. Although the other jobs that women were made to do, such as spinning and weaving, had a use that women could employ when they were released from gaol; but the care of lunatics was more to save gaolers an unpleasant job than to serve a useful purpose for other prisoners.