by mariocorrigan on June 20, 2008

The Caragh Orphanage — A Scandal without Precedent.
Andrew Rynne.
June 2008.
Just before crossing the Grand Canal at the Cock Bridge, a mile from Prosperous as the crow flies, heading eastwards towards Mondello and Caragh, you will see on your left hand side, hidden behind briars and bushes, an old ruin locally referred to as Tommy Everett’s house. This is the site of an earlier alehouse called The Cock and the establishment that gave the bridge its name. But tucked in immediately behind this ruin are the flattened remnants of a place with a darker and far more sinister past. For here is the site of the infamous Caragh Orphanage where babies, infants and children were much abused, starved and neglected during most of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
The Caragh Orphanage was founded by the Rev Samuel George Cotton and his wife Eliza in 1865. What motivated the pair to engage in an enterprise for which they were so hopelessly ill-equipped is not clear. Possibly the prospect of saving destitute children for the Protestant faith came closest to an explanation. For certainly Cotton was a zealous evangelist and an Episcopalian for whom proselytising came naturally. Opening an orphanage gave him an almost endless supply of infant souls to save from popery.
We get a good idea of Cotton’s general appearance and demeanour from Edward Marjoribanks biography of Edward Carson (1932.) Here he describes Cotton in 1892 as he approached his biblical life expectancy of three score and ten during his trial in Belfast before Chief Baron Palles with Edward Carson defending. The trial had been moved to this venue following the collapse of an earlier trial on much the same indictments held before the Leinster Assize in Carlow where the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict as required by law:
First, the said reverend client’s saint-like appearance and demeanour. Here was a venerable clergyman, approaching the Psalmist’s limit of human life, garbed in becoming clerical, and yet not offensively sacerdotal, cloth; his neck-cloth was of the old voluminous, innocent sort, tied in front in a rather awkward bow. No wonder the soft-hearted Kildare (sic) jury had disagreed! How should a shepherd in his quest for money on behalf of the stray, orphaned lambs occupy himself with the tying of a neckcloth? His bearing was that of a primitive Christian in the presence of a Pro-praetor. Nor did he have the disadvantage of faculties unimpaired. He suffered from not only the ordinary infirmities of old age and from the malice of his enemies, but he was pathetically deaf, so deaf that he was compelled to wear, attached to each ear, a little metal plate in the form of concave shell, that apparently served the purpose of an ear trumpet.
When, in the course of the trial, a strong point was made against him, of course he never heard: but one of his friends, a sort of interpreter of calumny, speaking into his ear, explained or quoted: then followed an extra-clerical look of the resigned and forgiving Christian martyr on his pained but benign countenance.
In a word, he seemed just the person to be father to the fatherless, and to desire nothing more in this world than to receive into his loving old arms those who the mysterious providence of heaven had deprived of their natural protectors. A veritable Dr. Primrose this, a Vicar of Wakefield, yet he found himself treated as if he acted like the Jenkins of the same story.
But if Cotton’s appearance was that of an eccentric, saintly, innocent father-like figure then his actions seriously belied such an image. Again and again in the press of the day we are reminded of just how appalling his orphanage in Caragh really was. Even allowing for the standards of the day it is difficult to see how any human being, never mind a clergyman, could oversee such cruel and humiliating treatment being meted out to defenceless children on a daily bases. They slept upstairs on stinking mattresses of straw or on the bare floorboards often with no more than a sack to cover them at night. Their clothes and underclothes were in a filthy state their feet unshod and their legs bare. The windows of their sleeping quarters and their schoolroom downstairs contained mostly broken panes of glass.
Their staple diet was Indian meal stirabout served mornings and evenings with boiled sheep’s head on Sundays. The babies were given fresh cow’s milk while the other inmates were occasionally given buttermilk. Meat was in very short supply and took the form of American bacon from Naas. Nowhere was evidence ever given of the children been served any bread, eggs or vegetables. Potatoes made rare appearances. Thus all the children would have been seriously malnourished and hungry most of the time. In appearance they were stunted, retched and anaemic looking. They were each made to have a cold bath every Saturday evening before retiring to their straw mattresses or bare floorboards. They dried themselves off with sackcloth. The bath water was not changed between each child washing. Fires were seldom lit and broken panes of glass never replaced.
Just as an example, a very poignant description of how bad things really were at Cotton’s orphanage was given in evidence by a Dr. John Francis McVeagh at the Petty Sessions held in Robertstown on Tuesday October 27th 1891. The reporter for the next Saturday’s Kildare Observer reports:
Dr. McVeagh said he visited the Orphanage on October 18th. He found the rooms in a most filthy condition. In the kitchen he saw a little baby named Thomas Collins, aged about eight weeks in a painful state of dirt, its little body all excoriated, clad in filthy rags and apparently dying from inattention and cold. He saw Mary Hurley, aged three months, in a similar filthy condition; with insufficient clothing; Minnie Burnett dirty, nine months, and insufficiently clad and fed. He next saw a batch of children among whom were Ellen Carson aged two years, Charlie Quillett, aged two, Patience Walker, aged four, Thomas Whitney, aged five, Thomas Warren, aged five; Benjamin Wallace, aged six, Henry Norton, aged four; and Elizabeth Winter aged four. He found these children in a most wretched state from improper food and clothing and from uncleanliness. Some of their underclothing, little that it was, was most filthy; their little limbs attenuated and the colour of their bodies mostly anaemic for want of red blood; their growth stunted, and no appearance of muscular activity. Several had blotches on their skin that appeared like burned holes from want of proper food. The sanitary conditions in the house and surroundings were the most appalling he had ever witnessed. The sleeping apartments were most wretched and filthy, several broken panes of glass, no fire, the beds dirty and two cots were dirty with stale and very filthy hay in them for beds. The air was foul throughout the house, all the little children shivering with the cold, and in a state of terrorism, afraid to speak. The wretched hole called the bathroom was most filthy. The kitchen was in a wretched state, with a small fire around which a few shivering children were trying to warm themselves. The force pump, which supplied the inmates with water, was bedded in a mass of gutter and ordure. .         
The orphanage was built within the grounds of Cotton’s Glebe House that still stands there today. Initially the two-story slated building was sufficiently substantial to accommodate up to forty inmates and staff. Most of the building remained standing up until recent times. Those cared for within these walls were babies, infants and children up to the age of fourteen years. These children were held by law under an Indenture of Apprenticeshipandorphaned either by virtue of the fact that both their parents were dead but more usually by virtue of their being born out of wedlock. All were instructed in the Protestant faith irrespective of their religion on entering this institution. This salvage from Popery was a very strong motivating factor in Cotton’s establishing his institution in the first place.

The Caragh Orphanage and its proprietor were never far from controversy or out of the news for very long. From reading the voluminous newspaper reports of the time the Rev. Cotton comes across as a cantankerous and litigious individual who easily made enemies.

The first time the Caragh Orphanage made it into the newspapers in an adverse fashion was in 1874 in what was then referred to as The Bennett Case. When Catherine Bennett’s husband died in 1873 she was left destitute with four children the three eldest of which she sought to place in the Caragh Orphanage. Eventually Cotton agreed to this and had Catherine Bennett sign an indenture of apprenticeship giving him charge of the children and allowing them to be raised in the Protestant faith.

Some time later Catherine Bennett appears to have had a change of heart and sought to take her children back. There followed an altercation in the Glebe House between Bennett, Rev Cotton and Eliza Cotton during which the Reverend claimed that Ms Bennett bit his hand twice while he attempted to forcibly eject her from his house. This kafuffle later led to a writ of habeas corpus being served against the Cottons which in turn produced a flurry of sworn statements of claims and counterclaims. Anyway, the net result was that on August 21st 1874 Mr Justice Fitzgerald ruled that the indenture of apprenticeship binding the children to the Rev Cotton’s care was not valid and that the children must be released.

But the case was damaging to the Cottons. In her affidavit sworn on August 6th 1874 Catherine Bennett states that:

In March last I visited the children and found them covered with vermin, and my boy, John, covered with sores. I want to take my children away because of the wretched way in which they are being kept and because I now want to bring them up Roman Catholics which was their father’s religion as it is my own.   

This was not strictly true. Their father was buried a Protestant and perhaps Catherine was a bit of a trouble maker. But the Rev Samuel Cotton could have saved himself an awful lot of trouble and very bad press had he simply allowed her take back her children without fuss. Then, as if to make a bad situation even worse Cotton, through the letters page of the Examiner, allows himself become embroiled in a very public, ill-tempered and pointless correspondence with a clergyman of opposite persuasion the Rev. Thomas O’Farrell Roman Catholic Administrator of the Diocese of Cloyne. Here the two men slog it out with Cotton as ever threatening to sue all round him and O’Farrell accusing Cotton of being a proselytizer and kidnapper. This open correspondence dragged on over two months and eleven acrimonious exchanges starting September 16th 1874. There were no winners of course but the Rev. Cotton, being the more vulnerable, had the most to lose.  

Things were quiet enough though for the next nine years with Cotton managing to keep his orphanage out of the limelight, Then in September 1883 reports of cruelty to some children at the orphanage came to the attention of the then fledgling Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children based in Liverpool. The Society asks that the local Constabulary in Robertstown make inquiries into these allegations.

Cotton initially appeared before the Kilmeague Petty Sessions on Tuesday August 28th 1883. He was unable to be represented on this occasion because his solicitor was on holidays. He also objected that he had not been given a copy of the details of the charges to him. He was given a copy and the court adjourned for a while giving him an opportunity to consider them. On resuming the Rev Cotton then objects to one of the magistrates on the bench; Mr Charles Bury, whom he accused of bearing enmity against him for the past twenty years. He also pointed out there was litigation pending between himself and Mr Bury over the matter of the sale of potatoes!

At the end of the day and after much ill-tempered bickering the case was adjourned and Mr Bury steadfastly refused the leave the bench.

The case was resumed two weeks later and on September the 11th 1883 the Rev. Samuel Cotton was again prosecuted before a petty session of the magistrate’s court held in Kilmeague. This time he was represented and was prosecuted for committing an aggravated assault on four of the orphan children under his care. On the bench were: Major Hutchinson R.M. (in the chair); Captain Waring R.M.; Robert Mackay Wilson R.M.; A.J. Owen, Captain Rainsford and Dr. Hayes. Charles Bury was conspicuous by his absence on the bench although he was in court. Mr. Edward Lord appeared on behalf of the Crown and Dr. W G Toomey solicitor defended the Rev. Cotton.

Giving evidence before the court was Head Constable O’Sullivan from the Robertstown constabulary. He said that on August 2nd last that he visited The Caragh Orphanage and saw in an adjoining field a boy of between the age of eight and eleven years who seemed to be dragging something after his leg. On closer inspection O’Sullivan discovered that this child had a chain fastened around his ankle and that to this was attached a large wooden log. This boy’s name was William Nolan.

The child was not wearing any shoes or stockings and the padlocked chain seemed to eat into his flesh. Later O’Sullivan was to learn that the Rev Cotton held the key to this padlock.

When questioned about this at the orphanage Cotton seemed surprised at the fuss. He said that he had no choice but to so tether the boy to prevent his escaping again as he had done some days previously. He saw no reason to discontinue the practise nor had he any intention of discontinuing it. He was defiant but fully cooperative with the constable and sought to hide nothing.

Thirteen days later head constable O’Sullivan made a second visit to Cotton’s institution. This time he discovered two boys named Ross and Cleary aged about eight padlocked and chained together by their ankles with one of them further chained to a log. When questioned about this Cotton again seemed unperturbed stating that this chaining was necessary to prevent the children running away as they had done some time previously.

 Then a little girl named Ellen Kelly aged twelve years approached O’Sullivan and said: “I had that log on me night and day from the 2nd to the 11th of August and had to assist in the work of the house during all of that time.”

The constable asked that the log be given to him. This the Rev Cotton refused to do but did allow it to be weighed. A scales was produced and the log and chain were found to weigh exactly 4lbs and 12 ozs.

Later this log was produced in court and solicitor of the prosecution Mr Lord asked the bench to look on “that instrument of torture”  and then to imagine the feelings of the poor little child who had to drag it after her night and day for nine days.

Sometime around the 1stof August 1883 four children had escaped from the Caragh Orphanage and were later recaptured in Allenwood some five miles away. It is probable that they travelled via the canal towpath through Robertstown and Lowtown to better escape detection. Ellen Kelly was accused of being the ring leader and of encouraging the boys to steal potatoes along the way from a neighbour’s field called Scully.

The Rev. Cotton’s attitude to this ‘logging’ as it was called was that it was a just punishment for the escapees and would prevent and discourage them from running away again. He asked the constable if he could suggest a better punishment or course of action.

 But if he tried to make light of it the magistrates were not impressed. After all, at this time the Infant Life Protection Act 1872 provided some protection for children placed in private fosterage and Cotton’s actions in spancelling children together and to heavy logs must have violated that Act. His dismissive attitude was either a reflection of his ignorance of the laws of the land or of his arrogance or perhaps both. In any case the charges were not contested as to fact but the defence, through his lawyer Dr W G Toomey, attempted to characterise logging as a legitimate form of corporal punishment. He further contended that flogging, then legal, was far more injurious than logging since the latter was at least quantifiable while the former clearly was not.

The hearing in Kilmeague dragged on for two days after which the magistrates retired to consider their verdict. Within a short time they returned and fined the Rev Cotton £10.00. that is £2.00. each in the case of the three boys Nolan, Ross and Cleary and £4.00. in the case of the girl Ellen Kelly chained for nine days. Based on the average wages of the time £10.00 in 1883 would be about €6,000.00. in today’s money — a hefty fine indeed.

For any man in his situation at this time it would be normal for him to consider appealing against this high fine but to otherwise keep his head down until at least after his appeal. But that was not how the Rev Cotton operated because three days after being fined we find him rushing into print in the letters page of next Saturdays Irish Times:

Sir, I ask permission to remark that in your leading article of yesterday you are not accurate in assuming that the boy who was logged was working in a field.

He went into the field of his own choice but his work was in the printing office, where the log would not injure him.

The letter continues in this self-serving manner where Cotton again tries to justify chaining children to logs and even going so far as to blaming one of his victims – Ellen Kelly, for her own misfortune:

The girl, a very bad and vicious character, was chiefly employed at her desk in school sewing or washing, when a log was of no inconvenience to her.

Because this letter to the press is utterly pointless in terms of redeeming its author, one is tempted to view it more as the squawking of a self-publicist rather than the pleadings of an innocent man. For, as we have already seen, Cotton loved to see his name in print.  


The first part of an investigation into the Caragh Orphanage Case by Andrew Wynne


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