An important aspect of rehabilitation was the different ways in which prisoners at Wicklow Gaol were employed in work and chores.


Employment of all classes of prisoners was seen as vital for a number of reasons.

  • It would make confinement and punishment easier to bear;
  • It would help to reform the character of the prisoner;
  • It could also become a means of future support to prisoners on release, both at home or in the event of emigration. They would thus be provided with a way of earning their living by honest means. In theory, they would not resort again to crime;
  • It created revenue for the Gaol and for the prisoners themselves.

Working for profit

Examples of small-scale manufacturing at Wicklow Gaol included the production of fishing nets and the picking of oakum (old pieces of rope, picked apart, tarred, and then used as waterproofing on boats and ships).

These products could then be sold, with the money raised offsetting running costs and a portion returning to the prisoners as profit.

In 1844 one third of the earnings from manufactured goods was given back to prisoners. Wicklow Gaol made a total profit of £127 -5s -3d for that year (close to €12,000 in today’s money).

Escape by net?

Fishing nets were produced and sold locally. The clients would have included the fishermen of Wicklow town, but also the fishing and ship-building communities of Arklow town, to the south.

The making of fishing nets was abandoned after a short time, however, as it was feared that they could be used as a means of escape by throwing them over the walls.

Picking oakum

Picking oakum was one of the most common forms of hard labour in Victorian prisons. Prisoners were given quantities of old rope, which they had to untwist into many corkscrew strands. They then had to take these individual strands and unroll them, usually by rolling them on their knee with their hands until the mesh became loose.

In 1862, girls under 16 typically had to pick 1 pound a day. Boys under 16 had to pick 1.5 pounds. Over the age of 16, girls and boys had to pick 1.5 pounds and 2 pounds per day respectively. The oakum was sold for £4 10s (€500 in modern money) per hundredweight (50.8 kg). Adult prisoners had to pick 2 pounds per day unless sentenced to hard labour, in which case they had to pick between 3 and 6 pounds of oakum per day.

Gaol Self-Sufficiency

It was considered essential that Wickow Gaol should be self-sufficient. This meant being able to maintain the building and clothe the prisoners from its own resources. The prisoners were expected to carry out chores to this end.

Specific tasks included:

  • Cooking;
  • Sewing and spinning wool;
  • Making/repairing uniforms and shoes;
  • Maintaining the yard;
  • Painting and whitewashing;
  • Pumping water.

Prison Work for Women and Girls

A matron, along with her assistant, was responsible for the female inmates and their prison work. Female prisoners were allowed to work together. The matron supervised the female prisoners who were engaged in knitting, sewing, mending, weaving, spinning and washing.

The female inmates were used to doing a number of laborious tasks. Most of these jobs were deemed to be ones that were fit for females only.

Mental health facilities in 19th century Ireland were non-existent,  so female inmates also took turns to feed, clean and care for the lunatic prisoners .

Mary Morris the Matron