Olde Athlone

The 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 Victoria’s immediate predecessor was the reigning British monarch.

The report doesn’t 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 inhabitants.

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 side.
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 his absence.

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 didn’t 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 Saturday’s 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 didn’t 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 as burgesses.

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 didn’t 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 dwellers.

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