first report to the British Parliament on Irelandıs Boroughs
compiled by Henry Baldwin and John Colhoun and published
in the British Parliamentary Paper of 1835 offers a revealing
insight into the town of Athlone at that time.
To put things context the Act of Catholic Emancipation was
passed in 1829 and the Act of Union almost three decades
earlier and we were on the cusp of the potato famine that
would alter the face of Irish society forever. William IV,
Queen Victorias immediate predecessor was the reigning
The report doesnt reflect well on the members of the
local corporation and notes that the strongest feeling
of hostility exists between the inhabitants and its members.
The people rightly complained that money collected in local
tolls and taxes was being spent of paying local officials
which was contrary to the terms of the charter.
In short the report was a damning indictment of the self-interest
of the local gentry, who seemed to have little interest
in the development of the town and in the welfare of its
They were particularly unhappy with the lack of efficiency
shown the current vice-sovereign of the borough, one William
Marshall, who was deputising for the absentee sovereign
who was generally a member of the local Handcock family.
The Handcocks held the peerage of Castlemain and most of
the local burgesses (town governors) there were twelve
in all - were related to Richard Handcock senior and his
brother, the then Lord Castlemain.
According to the census of 1831 there were 11,406 residents
in the borough up from 7, 543 ten years earlier. Of those
5,699 lived east of the river side, with 5,707 on the opposite
The census indicated that 556 families were chiefly
employed in agriculture with 716 occupied in trade,
manufacture, and handicraft with 822 families not
comprised in the two preceding classes. It also mentioned
151 Capitalists and 255 labourers employed
in labour not agricultural.
According to its Royal Charter the limits of the Borough
were all that whole circuit and extent of land and
water, lying within the compass of one mile and a half,
from the middle of the bridge over the Shannon, commonly
called The Bridge of Athlone, with the exception
of the castle and its precincts.
At that time the county and provincial boundaries were dictated
by the river Shannon. The report noted the town extends
into the parishes of St. Mary, Barony of Brawney, in the
county of Westmeath, on the Leinster side; and into the
parishes of Kiltoom and St. Peter, in the barony of Athlone
and county of Roscommon, on the Connaught side.
The Borough received its first charter in 1606 during the
reign of James I. A second charter was issued in the name
of James II in 1687 but following the accession of William
III (William of Orange) the original one was restored.
The original charter laid down that borough have one sovereign,
two bailiffs and twelve burgesses in addition to as many
freemen as the sovereign felt was appropriate. The sovereign
was also permitted to appoint a deputy to take charge in
In addition to nominating a town clerk and a recorder the
corporation was empowered to make bye-laws while the sovereign
and recorder also acted as justices of the peace and didnt
take kindly to officials from outside the borough meddling
in its affairs.
Local Officials were elected annually by the freemen of
the town on August 1 and were sworn in on September 29,
the feast of St. Michael. The constable of the castle was
also a burgess and some of the money collected in local
tolls and taxes went towards its upkeep.
A weekly market, held on Thursdays, was also authorised
and there were two annual fairs in the town. The first was
began on Ascension Thursday and lasted three days. The second
began on the feast of St. Bartholomew the Apostle (August
24) and also lasted three days.
By the 1830s a second market was held on Saturdays
and the number of fair days stood at four, one each in January,
March, May and September.
Taxes collected at the fairs and market were split between
the upkeep of the castle and the municipal coffers. Members
of the corporation were exempt from all tolls, taxes
and tilliages throughtout Ireland except those owing
to the King.
The Sovereign served for just one year but it was common
practice for the same person to alternate as sovereign and
deputy. In the year 1831/32 the sovereign was paid £100,
paid for by tolls and taxes collected, which as locals rightly
complained was contrary to the terms of the charter.
This accounted for almost half of the corporations spending
in that year, while the town clerk was paid £20 while
£19 and ten shillings was allocated to the Town Constable
which included a clothing allowance.
Of the rest only £50 was spent on street repairs while
£8 was spent on repairs to the town clock. The report
notes that expenditure didnt appear to have been sanctioned
by the corporation or town council, but rather by the sovereign
himself. Receipts from customs and cranage amounted
to £220 leaving a balance of just over £10.
The report noted that while the common council
was charged with running the borough that in truth the corporation
was controlled by Lord Viscount Castlemain and that the
borough had belonged to the Handcock and St. George families
until the current peer bought out the latter family.
The then Lord Castlemain was also a burgess by virtue of
being constable of the local castle. Six of the remaining
twelve burgess were members of his immediate family, two
others were nephews and three more were related through
marriage including then Protestant Archbishop of Tuam.
Of the 227 freemen in the town, only nine were Roman Catholic,
while no Roman Catholic or Dissenter (a member of the non-established
protestant churches) had ever been elected as burgesses.
Freemen were obliged to take an Oath of Allegiance to the
reigning monarch. They were exempt from tolls and nominally
eligible for election the common council and or to be elected
The common council had twenty life members and at the time
of the report no Roman Catholic had ever been elected to
serve of on it. At that time 13 of its members didnt
even live in the town.
There was no police force in the town at the time, but a
serjeant at mace who acted under orders from
the corporation. The report bemoaned the lack of a night
watch and also recommended the establishment of a police
service. However, it did point to the large army garrison
stationed in the down.
There were two prisons, one on the Roscommon side and another
attached to the town office which was a place of the
most unwholesome description, and utterly unfit for the
reception of prisoners. Not surprisingly, the report
called for its closure.
While commenting that Athlone possessed great advantages
of water-communication for an inland town, it added
that its trade was by no means considerable
and also bemoaned its lack of any extensive manufactories.
On the plus side the river was navigable above and below
the town and recently a steam-boat had begun operating between
the town and the city of Limerick which will probably
result to the benefit of the town.
In short the Commission was highly critical of the corporation,
adding that it had done nothing to bring prosperity to the
town and probably never would and highlighted the hostility
and mistrust that existed between the members and the town
The municipal regulations were derided as being deplorably
bad. Yet for all the problems in the town the report
believed that things in the town were improving but concluded
the corporation will not bevefficient as an instrument
of local government until its officers are properly chosen.
Taken from Maroon & White 2004