April Archive of the Month – Earliest Police Records in Ireland Secure and Digitized at RCB Library
RCB Library Notes
Added on 02/04/2012
In an exciting collaborative project with An Garda Síochána, Ireland’s national police force (this year celebrating its 90th anniversary) the Church of Ireland RCB Library is making available the content of the earliest surviving watch books in Ireland – from the parish of St John in Dublin – online 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 that security and keeping the peace in local society happened at parish level. 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.
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. According to 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. Here 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.
The St John’s parochial collection forms the oldest continuous set of Irish parish registers, vestry minutes, churchwardens’ accounts and local taxation records in existence. It 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 which have previously been published in print by the RCB Library.
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. Nine volumes in all – two account books 1724–85 and seven registers 1765–80 – collectively provide the earliest archival evidence of this system of local security available anywhere in Ireland. They chronicle 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, local society in 18th–century Dublin and the activities of parish watch system, 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.
To view the digitised collection of watch books from St John’s visit:
For further archival information please contact:
Dr Susan Hood