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April 2012

Archive of the Month

The earliest policing records in Ireland secure & digitised at the RCB Library

April 2012

For the digitised watchbook presentation, please click here

In an exciting collaborative project with An Garda Síochána, Ireland’s national police force, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, the RCB Library is making available the content of the earliest surviving watch books in Ireland – from the parish of St John in Dublin – online for the first time, as April’s featured “Archive of the Month”.


Organised policing in Ireland only began with the Dublin Police Act, 1786 which eventually led to the creation of the Dublin Metropolitan Police Force in 1836. Before these auspicious dates, security and keeping the peace in local society was a much more tenuous activity. Until the 19th century, the principal instrument of local government in Ireland was the Church of Ireland parish. As the Church ‘by law established’ (or the official church of the state from the Reformation until 1871) the Church of Ireland parish was responsible for key aspects of local administration including burial of the dead, providing welfare for the poor, lighting and keeping clean the streets and overseeing parish security through the employment of constables and watchmen.

Provision of these local services was all financed by a parish cess levied on a house by house and street by street basis, and administered by the parish vestry (the committee responsible for the upkeep of churches and welfare of all the people within the parish boundaries irrespective of religion). In some cases the records of these activities have survived providing an unusually detailed insight not only as to how the parish carried out key functions of local government but also about the people that were engaged to carry out these functions and the nature of their work.

St John's Parish
 ©The Royal Irish Academy
Rocque's map of the city in 1756
Reproduced from a map in Trinity College Library, Dublin, with the permission of the Board of Trinity College.

The maps above show 1) the small geographical area of the parish of St John – as coloured on detail from Brooking’s map of Dublin 1728, and 2) where the Watch House on Wood Quay was located – at the letters “WH” on Rocque’s map of the city in 1756.

St John’s parish in Dublin was among the earliest of the Anglo–Norman churches to be created within the walls of the city, and dates from the 12th century. In terms of geographical space as this map based on Brooking’s early–18th century survey of the city shows, the parish occupied a tiny area – according to John Gilbert’s mid–19th History of the City of Dublin (Dublin, 1861) it comprised just 11 acres, 3 roods and 16, but was crammed with no less than 96 houses and 3483 inhabitants. The church (rebuilt in 1769) stood very close to Christ Church cathedral and on the corner of what is now the back of the Civic Offices, in Fishamble Street.  St John'sHere Henry Grattan was baptised in 1746, and across the street the first performance of Handel’s Messiah took place in 1743. While the church was closed in 1878, and demolished in 1884, its records survive and are kept safe at the RCB Library. Irish parochial records have not survived well, especially as a result of the 1922 calamity at the Public Records Office when over 1000 collection of parish records were destroyed during the Civil War. There are, however, notable exceptions, with those from St John’s being among the most important in the country for they form the oldest continuous set of registers, vestry minutes, churchwardens’ accounts and local taxation records in existence.

The St John’s parochial collection (a full list of which is available here as a PDF) includes the earliest surviving register of baptisms, marriages and burials, dating from 1619, and an even older vestry minute book, commencing in 1595. Both of these important archives which provide a bounty of information the people who lived and worked within the parish community have previously been published by the RCB Library. 

Register of St John the Evangelist parish 1619-1699   Vestry records of the parish of St John the Evangelist, Dublin, 1595-1658
St John’s parochial collection (RCB Library Publications)

Now, using digital technology, and thanks to the technical support of the Garda Síochána Historical Society, the surviving parish watch records, covering the period from 1724 to 1785 (the year before the Dublin Police Act came into force) are being made available for the first time to a worldwide audience.

Account of payments for the parish watch
The earliest account of payments for the parish watch, for the year 1724–25 which includes collective half salary paid to 11 watchmen. Each watchman received £6 per year.

There are nine volumes in all – two account books covering the period from 1724 to 1785 and seven registers for the period 1765 to 1780. Collectively they provide the earliest archival evidence of this system of local security available anywhere in Ireland, chronicling the activities of the parish watch of this particular inner city parish – one of 21 parishes into which the city of Dublin was divided.

As the pages of each of these volumes are turned in the digital presentation below, the local society of 18th–century Dublin in general, and of the activities of parish watch system in particular, come to life. At a glance the cursory visitor can see who the named constables and watchmen of this parish were; their salaries and expenses; when and where they were stationed and patrolled within the bounds of the parish – significantly only at night for there were no police on duty by day; the crimes committed; and the petty justice administered at the watch house, located on Wood Quay, in response. They are a unique resource and should be of interest to academic researchers in the areas of social history and geography, criminology and policing, as well as interested members of the general public in Dublin and beyond.

Watch schedule for the night of 5 Mar. 1767l
Watch schedule for the night of 5 Mar. 1767

Letter of authority carried by night watchman, Charles Gallagher
Letter of authority carried by night watchman, Charles Gallagher, who was assigned to duty for the night of 20 Oct. 1767 by Sandy Frost, constable at the watch house on Wood Quay.

Names of watchmen and locations where they were stationed for the night of 8 Jan. 1768
Names of watchmen and locations where they were stationed for the night of 8 Jan. 1768

Event log for the night of the 30 Oct. 1765
Event log for the night of the 30 Oct. 1765 describing crimes committed, recorded in the hand of John Morris, Constable

We are most grateful to Sergeant Paul Maher of the Garda Museum, Dublin Castle for digitising the nine volumes; to Charlotte Howard of the RCB IT Department for making the material accessible online; and to the Garda Síochána Historical Society for supporting the initiative in this commemorative year of Irish policing history.

For media coverage of the April Archive of the Month, see: www.independent.ie/national-news/earliest-set-of-irish-police-records-in-existence-go-digital-3067991.html



For further archival information please contact:
Dr Susan Hood
RCB Library
Braemor Park
Dublin 14
Tel: 01–4923979
Fax: 01–4924770
E–mail: susan.hood@rcbdub.org

For further information about the history of policing in Ireland see

To view the St John’s Parish Watch Books click here

A more extended discussion of the St John’s parish watch will be published in the autumn in the 2012 issue of Irish Archives, the Journal of the Irish Society for Archives.