The making of a town

The Grand Canal was eventually completed as far as Philipstown in early 1797 and to Tullamore a year later. The woollen industry was already in decline and when Coote surveyed the county in 1801 for his report to the Royal Dublin Society he wrote:
This county is very thickly inhabited; Philipstown which is the county town, and the only one in the barony, has hitherto sent two members to parliament, it has till lately been in a wretched state, and was rapidly fallen to ruin: now there is but little to recommend it. This town was originally part of the Molesworth estate, and through family connections, is now divided into three properties; the most considerable part of it is enjoyed by the Right Honourable Mr Ponsonby. The new leases now given are encouraging, and several new houses are erecting.

The Grand Canal passes at the northern end of the town, and before this navigation, was complete to Tullamore, it was of very material service to this town, but now of inconsiderable advantage. A new county goal is also erecting at the rear of the barracks, which are extensive, and commands the town; it is almost entirely surrounded with bog, consequently fuel must be cheap and abundant; and provisions are in plenty, yet no manufacture of any kind is carried on. It had formerly a garrison, and the ruins of lofty castle are situated on the brink of the river. This town is thirty-eight miles distant from Dublin.

The most colourful and comprehensive account of the former county town of Philipstown is that of Jonathan Binns based on a survey in 1836. Binns was commissioned to survey the barony of Philipstown and wrote:
From Dublin to Philipstown the road is uninteresting. On our arrival at the latter place, after issuing notices, and adopting the necessary preliminaries, we inspected the district and the farms in the neighbourhood.

The town is well built, and was formerly a place of note. It contains a capital Court-house and Prison, a large Catholic chapel, and a small Protestant church.

The Grand Canal, on which two passage-boats ply daily between Dublin and the Shannon Harbour, adjoins the town. Previously to the Union, (1800) Philipstown returned two members to parliament, and was a place of considerable trade. Lamentably, however are things changed now. It is robbed of its representatives - the assizes are removed to Tullamore - its trade has disappeared - many of its houses are in ruins, it shops are falling into decay, and its population, as these signs sufficiently indicate, are poor and wretched. Although surrounded by miles of unreclaimed bog land, its inhabitants wander about the streets in search of employment, and find none. Nor is the desolation confined to the town. There are several places, which bear the name of Inns or Hotels.

We took up our abode at the south end of the town, at a hotel kept by Mrs. Ellis, the post-mistress. Here after sufficient time to procure tea and coffee from Dublin had elapsed, we lived very comfortably, regaling ourselves in the meantime with excellent cream and eggs, and a joint, occasionally, of good beef or mutton. The chickens, like the generality of Irish Poultry, were half starved.

My bed-room was part of the Barristers dinning-room, in the palmy days of Philipstown: the sitting room which we occupied, looked out upon the street, and the windows were frequently crowded with miserable women, carrying children upon their backs, and soliciting charity with pitiful lamentations. To relieve all was impossible and to relieve only a few increased the number of those who begged. Under such distressing circumstances, my consolation was, that I was engaged in preparing a full and honest statement of their wretched condition, with a view to the introduction of legislative measures of relief. ( Presumably the Poor Law legislation of 1838 which established the workhouse.)
Lord Tullamore had hoped to avoid the need for a parliamentary bill to transfer the assizes this is clear from a letter to his mother of 3 September 1830.

I have had great pleasure in meeting Hardinge on the subject he is a quick , clear sighted man of business - and it is a great thing for Ireland to have got such a man in place of the last drowsy pompous, poetical humbug of a secretary. He had promised me the entire and cordial support of Government to remove the assizes to Tullamore.

This is the first attempt to alter an assize town in Ireland and it is next to impossible to discover in whom the authority and right is vested. He is much anxious as we are also, to avoid the necessity of an Act of Parliment of which we have great fears it will be necessary to resort to that course in which case the wishes of the county members to bring in the bill and I will support it - with all the Govt. influence.

The county town contest was also fought out at estate level with Lord Tullamore able to use his Croghan Hill tenants to advantage.
Tullamore to Countess of Charleville (29th September 1829)

I spent five days at Croghan. Barry Fox came with me. The people lighted five bonfires on the top of the hill, in defiance of the Philipstown people who had two, on the occasion of the judgement in the Court of King’s Bench. The people drank your health. I sent them a few barrels of beer and we rode up on to the hill at 10 o’clock at night. They came in a state of great enthusiasm and drank ‘destruction to Philipstown.

Tullamore wrote on 30 August 1832, again to his mother, I ought to go to Ireland in the course of the winter about the courthouse by not going to the assizes they lost the presentments and the expenses of the Bill will, I suppose fall on me.

The judges, if they were consulted, approved of the assize transfer to Tullamore. But it was necessary to have enabling legislation passed at Westminster. Lord Tullamore as M.P. for Carlow (1826-31) moved the Second Reading of the Bill on 23 May 1832 telling the members that Philipstown was inconvenient.

The former town, his Lordship observed, was completely inconvenient, whether with regard to its position, for it was in the centre of the Bog of Allen, or as to its means of accommodation. The town was very small, and the Bar, Judges, and Jurors felt great inconvenience for the want of sufficient accommodation. A new Courthouse had been recently erected in Tullamore, at considerable expense; and independently of the reasons he had already assigned, which in themselves were sufficiently powerful,he thought that this was an additional argument in favour of the proposed Bill, for it would be most desirable that the Courthouse and gaol should be as close as possible to each other, as very great inconvenience attended the removal of prisoners from one town to another. He moved that the Bill be read a second time.

Mr Ponsonby moved an Amendment, that the Bill be read that day six months, on the ground that the removal of the Assizes from Philipstown would be a severe injury to the inhabitants of that town.
Lord Oxmantown supported the original Motion, and for the reasons which has been stated by the noble Lord who introduced the Motion. That noble personage, he added, could not be supposed to be influenced by any personal motive in this transaction, for he possessed property in the vicinity of both towns, and he could have no object or interest in favouring one beyond the other. He was satisfied that the noble Lord was influenced by the most pure and praiseworthy motives - namely a wish to facilitate the administration of justice.

Mr Crampton supported that Amendment. he conceived that sufficient grounds had not been stated for changing the Assizes. There was another class of persons besides the Bar and Grand Jury, whose interests should be consulted - namely, the farmers of the county; besides, the building of a new Courthouse would entail a very heavy expense on the county, and these were not times in which such burdens could be borne.It would appear that the new goal had been built with the view of affording an argument for the removal of the Assizes.

Mr Spring Rice support the original Motion, because he was of opinion that any measure which might be calculated to facilitate the administration of justice, should not be rejected merely on account of the expense of a new Courthouse. He thought sufficient had been stated to induce the House to support this Bill, and he should accordingly vote for the second reading.Mr Shaw also supported the Motion.
Mr Ruthven, from his geographical knowledge of the county, felt that the proposed measure would be a great benefit. Tullamore was eight miles distant from Philipstown, and it would be a monstrous inconvenience to bring persons such a distance for trail; besides, Philipstown did not afford sufficient accommodation. Individual interests should not be preferred to the public good. Bill read a second time.

Further comment was heard in the House on 30 May 1832 when Lord Tullamore moved that the House resolve itself into a Committee on the King’s County assizes bill.

Mr O’Ferrall said, that bill would be a great injustice in Philipstown, and he moved that the bill be referred to a Committee. Ever since 1786 there had been a family dispute between the noble Lord connected with Philipstown, and the noble Lord connected with Tullamore, and the whole business seemed to him a sort of family job. The question ought to be left to the Chancellor and the Judges. If the bill were carried, a considerable expense would be entailed on the county. Lord Tullamore said, that the bill was necessary for the convenience of the King’s County, and he could assure the House he did not take it up as a family affair. He was ill abroad when the gentlemen of the county began the business.

Mr Crampton thought the bill ought not to be passed without inquiry as to the existence of the inconvenience which it proposed to remove.

Mr O’Connell thought that the transfer of the courthouse of Tullamore was necessary.
Mr Henry Grattan said that the removal of the courthouse was unnecessary.
Mr Baring thought that, to prevent wranglings in that house on local and personal questions, the best course would be, to extend to Ireland the law, which in England leaves it to the Lord Chancellor and the Judges to determine where the assizes should be held.
Mr Robert Grant did not think that there was any occasion for a Committee. The facts which were admitted showed the necessity of removal.

The house divided on the Original Motion Ayes 50; Noes 38- Majority 12.
The house resolved into a Committee; the Bill having been considered the house resumed. The Act allowing for the holding of the assizes at Tullamore instead of Philipstown was passed on 4 July 1832 with provision for its taking effect from 1 July 1835 when Tullamore would become the shire town.
Mr O’Ferrall in his address to the House of Commons, was referring to a petition,which had been presented to the Irish parliament in February 1786 for the removal of the assizes to Tullamore. This petition would have been strongly supported by Lord Tullamore’s father, Charles William Bury ( later earl of Charleville), who on his coming of age in 1785 had set about improving Tullamore and had set aside a site for a courthouse at the junction of William St. with what later became Harbour St. (post 1798). The site selected for the goal in 1826 and the courthouse (1829-30) adjoined each other on high ground on the southern side of the town. The fact that both buildings were on the road from the landlords demesne to the town of Tullamore would mean that both the earl of Charleville and his son, Lord Tullamore, could look with pride at their involvement in these handsome buildings they had done so much to bring about. As for the transfer of the assizes it represented the end of a fifty-year struggle by Lord Charleville coinciding with his own involvement in the management of improvement in Tullamore. He had come to the town as a 21 year old youth soon after the ballon fire in 1785 and died in 1835, the same year as the courthouse was opened.

In a scrapbook kept by Lord Tullamore and containing among other things, newspaper cuttings, is a reference to a report on the agreement of the Grand Jury to proceed with the new building at Tullamore.

The very important question of transferring the assizes of Philipstown to Tullamore, has at length been decided, and the grand jury who assembled at these assizes, perhaps one of the most respectable that ever met in the county, and composed of gentlemen of the highest rank and greatest wealth in the county, came unanimously to the resolution of presenting for a new courthouse, to be built at Tullamore, in the immediate vicinity of the splendid new county goal.

We cannot refrain from expressing our surprise at the manner in which the presentiment was opposed by agents of Lord Ponsonby, evidently against the general sense of the public. The present courthouse is most incommodious and in a state of ruinous decay, the roof has been found defective, and sums of money have been squandered at various times in the vain hope of making it tenable. The town of Philpstown is a wretched village, affording no accommodation - no inn, no houses of entertainment, and situated in so remote a part of the county, that it has been found impossible to conduct the public business there with advantage. No attempt has been made by the proprietor to remedy any of the many defects, or provide decent accommodation for those whose duty and business oblige them to attend at assizes and sessions. It is upwards of fifty miles from one end of the county , and within twelve of the other! - and yet Lord Ponsonby, an absentee landlord, who we believe has never visited this estate, has though proper to offer every resistance in his power to the unanimous wishes of the governors, magistrates, grand jurors, and freeholders of the county. We heartily congratulate these gentlemen on their success, and know not whether most to admire their liberality or their independence.

In the same scrapbook is an original requisition for a meeting at the Tullamore town hall of 23 July 1833.

We, the undersigned request a meeting of the inhabitants of the town of Tullamore, at the Town House, on Saturday the 27th instant, at two o’clock pm for the purpose of returning our thanks to the Lord Tullamore, for his talented and successful exertions in having a bill passed the Legislature making this the Assize Town of the County and also to thank the Earl of Charleville, for his Lordship’s free grant of the ground upon which the building of the Courthouse has already commenced; and likewise to take into consideration a Petition to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, to enfranchise this rising and populous town, in order that it should return a member to represent it in the Imperial Parliament, in case the Town of Carrickfergus should be disfranchised , which has been recommended by a Committee of the House of Commons.

Notwithstanding Lord Tullamore efforts for his own town it did not secure him a seat for the county at Westminister in 1832. He had to content himself with representation on behalf of the electors of Falmouth and Penryn.

Regarding the design of the new courthouse it would appear from the letter of Lord Tullamore to Leveson Gower of 1829, already referred to, that Lord Tullamore was fully in favour of the Grecian design which is somewhat surprising given the Gothic style of Charleville Castle (1801-1812) and the county goal (1826-29). Writing from London, to his father, the Earl of Charleville, at Tunbridge Wells on 10 September 1832 Tullamore said:
I shall go to Tunbridge Wells to take leave of you before I set out for Ireland - I am busy with Sir Robt. Smirke, preparing for the courthouse but fear we must change our plans.

A further letter to his mother of 17 January 1833 elaborates on the choice of design.

We have selected a capital plan of courthouse as far as internal accommodation and convenience, but with Grecian elevation, which I fear will clash with the goal, but I couldn’t get them to give a decent Saxon, Norman, rustic or Elizabethan plan and the democratic party runs so high that out of all the plans, all Grecian, we chose the plainest exterior, fearing a traverse at the assizes. On the 29th we meet to declare a contractor.

In a letter of the 21 January 1833 Tullamore stated that what they had done at the last assizes was illegal and that the grand jury could not go on with the courthouse without new presentments.

He again wrote on the 3rd September 1833 to say:
I agree with you in regretting that the facade of the courthouse is not more in unison with the goal, as the juxta-position of both makes the difference in either more striking. I had a plan prepared from an idea of mine own of a Saxon Elevation and I had been able to accomplish it, I think whilst it would have been unique, it would have also been handsome but we have had many things to consider - economy, usage at to get the most accommodation at least cost - the accommodation at least cost - the plan we adopted accomplished that object and if an Elizabethan elevation had cost the same, the ignorant, the vicious, and the radicals in these Reform times, wd say Ldt- spent public money in ornamenting his town and squandered and frittered it away in pinnacles, carvings, to indulge in his taste regardless of the misery the poor endured in paying the tax for it. The present plan is bold and simple and the front in so intended and the height exceeding by at least 25 feet the jail walls. I am inclined to hope that it will command attention and attract it from the jail gate, which after all is of doubtful and spurious Gothic and is the only thing that can complete with it... Keane’s design for Tullamore which it would seem Lord Tullamore reluctantly adopted, was awarded first place in a competition, which exceeded twenty candidates. Among those who submitted designs were W. D Butler (awarded a premium), Williams Murray and William Vitruvius Morrison. Morrison had designed the courthouse at Tralee (1828) and Carlow (1830) both in the Grecian style. McParland comments that in William Morrison’s design for Carlow he most likely followed the design of Smirke at Gloucester Shire Hall and provided access to Semicircular courtrooms from corridors surrounding them. He used this arrangement again in Tralee. Keane had competed with Morrison at Tralee and Carlow and now at Tullamore defeated him with a design, which was very similar to Morrisons own. Morrison had made both Gothic and Greek suggestions for Tullamore courthouse but the Greek style had been favoured from the beginning.

Besides this the commissioners for the building of the courthouse at Tullamore seem to have agreed that it was a design similar to Smirke’s Gloucester that they wanted. Lord Tullamore’s letter to Lord Leveson Gower, said as much. This point was reiterated by Francis Berry, agent to the earl of Charleville and a commissioner, in a letter to William Murray of 15 November 1832: the overseas think the plan of Gloucester (and Kerry courthouse) a good model, lately erected by Sir Robert Smirke. The reference to Kerry courthouse was added as a marginal note. William Vitruvius Morrison had designed it.

The semi circular courtrooms were, apparently ultimately French in derivation but had an Irish precedent in Richard Morrisons hall in Sir Patrick Dunis Hospital, but more immediate in Gloucester Shire Hall with its Illissus-style partico and semi- circular courts.

Keane later designed a courthouse for Nenagh (1833-), Ennis (1845) and Waterford (1849), all in the Grecian style. McParland in reviewing Keane’s contribution stated that his courthouse formed a distinctive group of monumental Greek buildings, which though they lack the imaginative grandeur of Morrison’s work, worthily answered the demands of their grand juries.

McParland comments that in many cases the new courthouses were not given central sites, but were built on the outskirts where they benefited from the openness of their surroundings as at Tullamore, Waterford, Galway, Ennis and Cork. It may also have reflected the hectic building growth of the 1780s to the 1820s in Irish towns and the scarcity of suitable ground in more central situations.

And finally McParland has noted that ‘the conservative attitude to the architecture of classical antiquity in the 1840s belongs to a neo-classical tradition in public building that had been first significantly formulated by James Gandon in Waterford in the 1780s. More than any other type of building nineteenth-century courthouses had sustained, consistently over the whole country, a native Greek revival in architecture.

John B. Keane (d.1859) worked for Richard Morrison at Ballyfin in 1822. Apart from his courthouse he designed a number of churches, including Longford Cathedral and the churches of St. Laurence O’Toole and St. Francis Xavier in Dublin . He also designed the Queen’s College, Galway and several country houses. By a curious irony he was himself imprisoned in the Marshalsea goal after falling into debt.

Craig reproduces a plan of Tullamore courthouse and comments:
Keane was a resourceful planner. Most of his court houses stick to the ‘Waterford I” formula of a transverse hall crossed on its shorter axis, but now with staircases to right and left. From there inwards there is great variety: copious and convenient accommodation (including sanitary accommodation) for judges, juries, barristers and witnesses, all beautifully integrated into the plan. By this time, also, there was a considerable demand for office accommodation, and this, too is satisfied within the overall design, so that so this day many county councils still have their offices in the court house.

Copies of Keane’s drawings for Tullamore courthouse, dated 1833 are now in the Irish Architecture Archive, a set having been found in Lismore Castle c1989. A front elevation was possibly in the Charleville Castle auction of 1948 and is now in the possession of the author.

By Michael Byrne
Courtesy of the Midland Tribune