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Sitting in the National Library of Ireland in the Manuscripts section is an account book of the Abbeyleix Baby Linen Society, started in 1845, by Lady Emma Vesey, Viscountess de Vesci, the wife of Thomas Vesey, the 3rd Viscount of Abbeyleix. The legacy of Lady Emma is notable, permanent features of the town such as Pembroke Terrace, designed at the bequest of her father George Herbert, 11th Earl of Pembroke, as a wedding present on her marriage to Thomas Vesey stands prominently in the centre of the town and housed many of the towns vital services such as the Hibernian bank, the post office, and the RIC barracks. In addition to that, Lady Emma and her Viscount husband Thomas, ensured the addition of running water to the workhouse in Abbeyleix in 1874, and the fountain known as the Southern Fountain was designed and built in 1877 as a remembrance to her husband. Other permanent features in the town commissioned at the request of Lady Emma are the two schools: the South School in 1843 (with a major extension being added in 1893); and the building we at Heritage House reside in today, the North Boys school, in 1885.
Emma was also known to be a prolific artist, and had a keen interest in architect. Here in Heritage House we have a copy of a number of her drawings and plans for the upgrade of Abbeyleix house. The Viscountess had a big part to play in the redesign of the house as designed by Thomas Wyatt, the cousin of the original architect of the estate and town, James Wyatt.
It is not just for the architecture that Lady Emma is known for however, her benevolent nature led to the creation of a linen society which allowed female tenants of the de Vesci estate to retain a manner of dignity and pride as they entered confinement during the final stages of their pregnancy.
There were a number of rules to joining the Linen Society and these are laid out in a document on the front page of the Linen Society Account book held in the National Library, as well as in a poster which was designed and printed by Lady Emma and distributed to the tenants of the de Vesci estate.
According to the rules:
Every person applying for assistance from the society must deposit £1.6d before the time of her confinement when she will receive a ticket acknowledging the receipt of it-
The ticket is to be returned on the day of the confinement when the sum paid will be doubled in oatmeal, sugar, soap and candles.
When the £1.6d is deposited a bag will be sent containing 2 pair of sheets, 2 shifts (nightdresses), 2 bed gowns, 2 night caps & c., & c.,(we think c&c were cloth nappies) will be lent.
If these are returned clean and whole at the end of a month, those who are Lord de Vesci’s immediate tenants will be given a suit of baby clothes.
She can receive assistance from this society but those who have lived ten years on Lord de Vesci’s estate and who have during that time borne good characters.
No one above the class of labourers can receive benefit from this society-
Those who are not Lord de Vesci’s immediate tenants must be recommended either by the person in their immediate neighbourhood, who will be held responsible to the society for the things lent being given up in proper order.
If things are kept beyond the specified day – if they are returned dirty or torn-the woman will be refused the assistance of the Society on any future occasion.
The bag is only to be made use of by the mother and child, and not until the day of confinement.
OS map of Abbeyleix, showing Abbeyleix Union
It is rather interesting to note in the Linen Society handbook the number of women who availed of the programme, it allowed women to receive necessary items for their stay in the Union hospital in Abbeyleix, and in return they received a set of baby clothes. While £1.6d may have seemed like big deposit to pay during an era when the potato crop had failed and many hundreds of thousands of people perished, life still carried on, women still got pregnant and still had to give birth, sometimes in awful conditions. If one simple gesture enabled these women to feel comfortable, and offered them some dignity, it was worth the deposit of £1.6d, it also meant that, as reflected in the account books, almost all women returned the items as they were given. The accounts books show not only the name of the woman availing of the service, the occupation of her husband was recorded, they’re address and what item of baby clothing she received in return. Sometimes it was a set of baby clothes, other times it was a baby’s petticoat, and on a very small number of occasions nothing other than the double return of the deposit in oatmeal, sugar, soap and candles as received as the baby had died. The account books also show that after the passing of Lady Emma, Lady Evelyn, the wife of the fourth Viscount John R.W., carried on with the society, and hired a lady known as Mary Murphy, the gatekeeper of the Blue Gate house in Killamuck to make the baby clothes.
The society continued until the last order on 29th April 1922. Lady Evelyn is as similarly as interesting as Lady Emma, as she was instrumental in the creation of the Abbeyleix Carpet Factory with her nephew Ivo.
While this is only a snippet of information into the story of the Linen Society in Abbeyleix, our archives here from the Union Workhouse reflect the number of women who gave birth during this time. We would love to know more however, and hear stories from you, the public, who had a mother, grandmother, or aunt who availed of the Linen Society or had a connection with the Union Workhouse that we do not know about. All stories, even the smallest or most obscure are welcome.
Thank you for visiting our page and keep an eye out for our upcoming exhibition ‘Handmade with Care’ the inspiration for which was derived from the story of the entrepreneurial women of Abbeyleix like Lady Emma and Mary Murphy.