Over the last number of weeks, we have traced the tumultuous history of Limerick at the turn of the 18th century. It was a time of great unrest, in which agrarian agitators and nationalist rebels posed a constant challenge to the authorities’ grip on law and order.
The near-constant violent ‘outrages’ inevitably give rise to a demand for better security.
We take for granted now that there is a body of professional men and women whose job it is, at least in part, to come to our rescue. We need only pick up the phone, and someone will, inevitably, arrive to help us. However, up until the 19th century, such protection did not exist in Ireland. In Dublin, Civil Patrol Men or ‘Charlies’ were paid by the Corporation from 1715, but until its reform in 1786, it was something closer to a neighbourhood watch than a modern police force. Some local magistrates formed groups of Baronial Police, or ‘Old Barnies’, but these were usually a rag-tag collection of poorly-trained locals. Often, the task of maintaining law and order fell to the army, who had trained in warfare with fellow soldiers, not policing private citizens. Militias raised to replace them were effectively private armies, subject to the whims of their local leaders or sponsors, with little uniformity of action or purpose.
The rich had servants who often doubled as security, and in the poorer sections of society, communities generally looked after each other. But the vast majority of people were left vulnerable to those who wished to do them harm.
The first modern-style police force was formed in Paris in 1667 by King Louis XIV. Their purpose was to effect some control over what was then considered one of the most violent and dangerous cities in Europe. Their remit was to ensure “the peace and quiet of the public and of private individuals”.
At the same time, London – which was not much safer – was paying night watchmen to do much the same. None of these groups were called police, though, and nor were they uniformed, or particularly well-organised.
By 1800, the need for a trained, cohesive body of men (for it was only men, for a long time) became pressing. Interestingly, it wasn’t in London that the first seeds of modern policing were sewn, but in Scotland and Ireland.
The City of Glasgow Police was formed in 1800, recognised as the first preventive police force, i.e., tasked with preventing crime as well as dealing with it.
In Ireland, the first quasi-civilian body tasked with keeping law and order came with the Irish Peace Preservation Act of 1814.
The Act was introduced by Sir Robert Peel, who was then Chief Secretary of Ireland, at the grand old age of twenty-six. It created the Peace Preservation Force (PPF, 1814 – 1822), which was designed to “provide for the better execution of the Laws in Ireland, by appointing Superintending Magistrates and additional Constables in Counties in certain cases.” They were to be installed in any area the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland deemed to be in a state of unrest or disturbance; he would ‘proclaim’ the territory, similar to how martial law would be declared today.
The PPF was designed to be a temporary solution, as it was envisaged that the brigades would be disbanded or removed when peace was restored. The first to be known as ‘Peelers’, the force was comprised of Dublin-trained constables and ex-soldiers, many of whom had served in the Napoleonic Wars. Some continued to wear their old uniforms, which must have made for a jarring sight in the Irish countryside. Initially, the cost of the force was paid by the locale in which they were stationed. This, unsurprisingly, proved unpopular among the landowners and gentry of the area. Local magistrates too resented the arrival of these new, out-of-town usurpers.
Historian Pat Feely recounted one such situation in Limerick: Major Going, the PPF magistrate installed here, “allowed an Orange lodge to be set up within the force…the police in Limerick paraded the streets of the city on 12 July with orange ribbons in their buttonholes.” He goes on to explain the result of the major’s endeavours: “Going’s Orangeism was undoubtedly a factor in the ferocity with which he was murdered in October, 1821.” During its short-lived period, four PPF officers were killed on duty.
He was replaced by a Major Richard Willcocks, who has been variously referred to by historians as the ‘father of modern (Irish) policing’ and ‘Ireland’s first truly professional policeman’. Generally considered to have been a fair and non-sectarian man, he was unusual, in that he was interested in, and cognisant of, the underlying causes of the lawlessness in his districts. Mr Feely notes that Major Willcocks referred to tenants in Limerick has having been “very unfairly and tyrannically treated” prior to their insurrection. He identifies unemployment as a significant factor and noted that the poorer people of the area believe that “the laws were only framed to benefit the wealthy and to hold themselves in bondage.”
In 1823 Major Willcocks was promoted to Inspector General of the Munster Constabulary, and his success in keeping the peace in the territory drew high praise from the government at the time. He retired in 1827 and was knighted for his services. He was also presented with a silver snuff box by his colleagues in the Limerick constabulary: it is currently displayed in the PSNI Museum in Belfast.
Another industrious member of the PPF was Major George Warburton, a thirty-nine-year-old chief magistrate. He was transferred to Co. Clare with fifty of his men in 1816 when three baronies in the county were ‘proclaimed’ in response to an outbreak of deadly violence. Historian Michael MacMahon wrote an exhaustive account of the major’s time there, drawing from the evidence given by him in parliamentary papers. In his testimony, he said he found in the county “an intimidating system of outrage in place and crimes of flogging and carding were widespread.”
Like Major Willcocks, however, he was also very aware of the dreadful socio-economic circumstances that contributed to the agrarian unrest in the area. He described to the parliament the mud, straw and turf shacks in which people lived under the system of conacre, saying that subdivision had become such a serious problem that parts of West Clare “appeared almost a continuous village, it was so stuffed with cottages and so divided into these small gardens.” He warned that the people were at very real risk of starvation, such was their reliance on the potato crop, and in some areas, individuals were renting “as little as one ridge in a field.” The wretchedness of the people he policed was “as great as human nature could almost be subject to.”
While he was largely successful in restoring law and order, a terrible harvest in 1817 brought a fresh wave of outrages, as starving villagers in Carraigaholt tried to rush a supply ship in the bay. During the skirmish, three people were killed and thirty-seven arrested. Bunratty and Tulla posed continuous challenges to the police and military presences, and Warburton identified Cratloe in particular as a centre for secret “networking” between local insurgents and Limerick “Rockites”.
Mr MacMahon writes that during the famine of 1822, Warburton was “active in coordinating measures for the relief of distress” by fundraising and establishing committees and research parties. Like Willcocks, he was promoted to Inspector of Police, of the Connaught division.
Following the enactment of the Constabulary Act in 1822, the PPF was largely replaced with a more formal system of county constabularies, which were organised by rank, answerable ultimately to the authorities in Dublin Castle. That said, Mr MacMahon notes that three areas were deemed so volatile that a PPF force was still in place in 1825: Tipperary, Cork and Limerick.
Accounts from 1827 show an expenditure of £3,003 on the policing of Limerick City. The rent of the ‘barracks, guard-houses and office’ came to £150, while the chief magistrate’s annual salary was £700, and his fifty sub-constables earned £30-35. There were also many expenses including saddlery, farriery and stabling of the horses, as well as medicines, candles and great-coats for the men. For context, parliamentary papers from the time carry contemporary wages in other industries: servants, for example, appear to have earned between £6 – 13 per annum, a butler £18, and a physician £52. Mr MacMahon quoted Daniel O’Connell as having said, in 1825: “The situation of a policeman is an extremely valuable one to the Irish peasant…and he would not lightly forfeit it.”
Concurrent to the national progress in policing, Limerick City was developing its own group of night watchmen. This has been initially established in 1807 by the commissioners in charge of “paving, cleansing, lighting and watching” the parish of St. Michael, or the newly-established Newtown Pery. Dr. Chris O’Mahony carried out much research into this subject, which he recounted in the Old Limerick Journal. The watchmen – who varied in number from 22 to 32 at different times – worked in shifts of ten or eleven hours a night, patrolling the streets. This amounted to a working week of some seventy hours. Armed with a long spear or hook-topped pole, they “checked that doors and windows had been secured; they apprehended drunks, strays, and any unruly or otherwise troublesome people and brought them to the watch-house”, which was based on Glentworth Street. There was also a sort of reserve group, known as supernumerary watchmen, consisting of recruits and trainees hoping for a vacancy in the body proper.
They were paid significantly less than the constables. In 1819 they received seven shillings a week or just over £18 a year. Fifteen years later, this rose to almost £21. When they petitioned for a further increase in 1837, they were warned that “any man who is not satisfied with the present rate of pay is at liberty to resign.”
There were some perks, Dr O’Mahony notes: a new great coat every two years, along with a hat and free medical treatment. Sickness benefit, pensions and redundancies were paid, in a fashion, depending on the inclinations of the commissioners at the time.
Unsurprisingly, the greatest challenges to the night watchmen were boredom and cold. One can imagine how long a winter’s night by the Shannon must feel, with little but an overcoat for protection from the elements. They did have narrow collapsible boxes – a distant cousin of the type you see sentries stand in at Buckingham Palace – but often the appeal of a warm, lively tavern proved too much. Discipline became an issue within the force, as men were regularly accused of abandoning their posts. Some of the excuses were quite novel: one said he was escorting a drunken sailor back to port, another insisted he had only stepped inside the pub to light a gentleman’s cigar. By 1836, the commissioners were taking a sterner stance, and at one point, ordered their constables to physically check that the men were still at their stations. They operated a sort of chit system, setting off with 75 ‘tin tickets’ in hand, giving one to each man they visited, who, in turn, had to produce these tickets at the commissioners’ office the next day.
The commissioners of Newtown Pery inspired others to follow suit: St. John’s parish established their own night watch, while, in 1830, the Collector of Excise appointed a watchman tasked with supervising the excise stores in Henry Street (perhaps part of Roche’s famed ‘Hanging Gardens’). Later, in 1843, Limerick Corporation established their own night watch, which operated from Watchouse Lane, off Rutland Street.
When, in 1853, Limerick Corporation and the Commissioners of Newtown Pery amalgamated, their night watches did too. This new force of men would continue to walk the streets of Limerick, night after night, until it was finally dissolved in 1923.