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Sources in the National Archives for researching the Great Famine: the Chief Secretary's Office

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Immediately subordinate to the Lord Lieutenant and appointed by him, the Chief Secretary served as head of the Lord Lieutenant's secretariat. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, the destruction of the Undertaker system in the Irish Parliament and its replacement by the installation of the Chief Secretary as a member of the Irish Commons, brought him and his activities into the political sphere to a greater extent.

In the aftermath of the Act of Union, the presence of the Chief Secretary in parliament in London and his position as chief executive of the Irish administration increased his status relative to that of the Lord Lieutenant to the point where the latter was little more than his nominal superior.

Several Chief Secretaries would attain the rank of cabinet minister, while the role of the Lord Lieutenant diminished. During the eighteenth century, the separate administrative offices of the secretariat of the Lord Lieutenant evolved into one central office surrounding the activities of the Chief Secretary. Its business was the supervision of the workings of the various boards and offices that constituted the Irish administration.

As chief executive of the Irish administration, the Chief Secretary naturally had a role in the efforts to alleviate the distress caused by the Great Famine, with his office functioning as a channel for communication between the Treasury in London and such central government agencies as the Relief Commission, the Poor Law Commission and the Office of Public Works, on all matters relating to the disbursement of public monies in the administration of relief. The Chief Secretary's Office (CSO) also received reports, memoranda, letters and memorials concerning the distressed state of the country and the archives of the CSO preserved in the National Archives are an indispensable source for any study of the Great Famine.

The Registered Papers of the Chief Secretary's Office, spanning the years 1818 to 1924, consist of one main series of bound volumes which, together with a number of sub-series, are used as finding aids to a main series and sub-series of incoming reports, returns, letters and memoranda. The incoming communications or papers, and their finding aids, form the largest class of archives of the former Chief Secretary's Office. In all, there are 337 volumes which serve either as indexes to incoming papers, as registers into which abstracts of information relating to these papers were entered, and as indexes to these registers. Subjects covered by the papers include cholera epidemics, cattle plague, economic depression, breaches of law and order and rebellion and political unrest, as well as the more mundane aspects of the day-to-day government of the country, such as the preparation of Treasury estimates, the payment of gratuities and pensions to civil servants, the administration of justice and the prisons and the preparation and enactment of legislation. The incoming papers were received from a wide variety of individuals, institutions and government offices.

The title of the class derives from the way in which these papers were dealt with by the registry staff of the CSO during the period 1840-1922. When received at the CSO, each individual incoming paper was given a unique reference number allocated consecutively from a straight numerical sequence. The registry clerks then entered or registered details of each of these papers in ascending numerical order by reference number of the individual paper in large volumes. Thus the registers present information abstracted from each paper in ascending numerical order by paper reference number. Generally, the indexing and registration of papers was conducted on an annual basis, with the first paper received in a given year being allotted the number 1, the second the number 2, and so on. The complete reference number of each individual paper was then a composite of the series title, the number allotted and the year in which it was registered. For example, the complete reference number of the first paper registered in 1853 is cited as Chief Secretary's Office Registered Paper 1/1853 (CSO RP 1/1853), and that of the second as CSO RP 2/1853. Once the papers had been registered and the matter to which they related disposed of, the papers were then filed away in numerical order by reference number.

The system of recording information relating to incoming papers altered over the period 1818 to 1922 as various methods were experimented with in order to ensure that the registry of the CSO could produce quickly any available papers on a given subject. From 1818 to 1839, the registry clerks of the CSO indexed rather than registered all papers and the volumes for these years form annual indexes to incoming papers. It was not until 1840 that the Chief Secretary's Office adopted the system of registering details of all incoming papers in ascending numerical order by reference number in bound volumes designed specifically for the recording of information relating to each paper in tabular format across the full opening of each page, including columns for date of document, date of receipt, from whom received, subject matter of paper and how disposed of. The system of registration introduced at this date remained in use for twelve years and it thus spans the years of the Great Famine. It was also from 1840 that the practice of amalgamating related papers to form files was adopted as a consistent practice. So, if several papers on the same or a related topic were received in a given year, or over a period of several years, then they were assembled and filed under the reference number and year of the latest incoming paper. As previous papers on a particular subject were removed from their appropriate place for annexation to the latest related paper, the register entry relating to the paper removed was amended to indicate this fact by the inscription in the register of the reference number of the paper to which the removed paper was annexed.

There was no system of opening and registering of files on a particular subject and of placing all relevant papers in a file jacket as is done at present in many government departments and offices. Instead, files of papers grew or evolved through the amalgamation of individual papers on a related topic, sometimes over a period as great as twenty years, but more often over a period of two to five. Indeed, it was not until the early years of the twentieth century that the practice of even putting each file of accumulated papers in a file jacket was adopted in the CSO. Prior to this, associated registered papers were attached to each other using straight metal pins (hazardous to the physical wellbeing of the documents, to the maintenance of associated papers as part of the same file unit and even to researchers making use of them) and brass paper tacks, or tied together by means of lengths of silk or linen ribbon. In this way, registered papers filed under a particular number may vary in content from a single document to a large mass of papers extending over a period of years. In some instances, files of papers accumulating over a lengthy period of time became extremely bulky and were split into at least two files of more manageable size and the register entry annotated to indicate this. Therefore, from 1840, the annual registers also had to include a column to note the reference number of any subsequent communication on the same or a related subject.

In order to permit access to the information relating to individual or accumulated papers contained in the registers so as to facilitate their retrieval, indexes to the registers were maintained by the clerks of the CSO. There are volume indexes to the registers for each year and each one is divided into alphabetical sections, or cuts, in which all papers received in a given year were indexed under the initial letter of the name of the individual, organisation or institution from which they emanated, or under the subject matter to which they related, and the papers' respective reference numbers recorded. Within each alphabetical cut, index sub- headings/categories were created for the indexing of frequently received papers from a particular official (such as a magistrate), government office, etc., or on a recurring subject matter. For example, the alphabetical cut C tends to have index sub-headings under which were recorded all papers relating to crown witnesses and crown lands; and the alphabetical cut P, sub-headings for the recording of numbers of all papers relating to public works, penitentiaries and the police.

When the CSO commenced its registration system in 1840, incoming papers were divided into two categories: first division, which related to the maintenance of law and order, and second division, consisting of incoming papers relating to all other administrative matters. In allocating reference numbers, all odd numbers were given to first division papers and all even to second division. Separate registers were maintained for first and second division papers with separate indexes. In addition to dividing papers into the above two categories, there was a further refinement of the registration system whereby the reference numbers of all first division correspondence were given a numerical prefix to denote the county to which the content of the paper related: the reference numbers allocated to all reports of crimes and outrages committed in County Antrim were given the prefix 1, those committed in County Armagh, the prefix 2 etc. Alphabetical prefixes to the registered numbers of all second division papers were used to indicate their subject matter: A - the magistracy and the administration of justice generally; C - crown witnesses, their payment and the prosecution of criminals based on their evidence; E - religious and church matters; F - grants of money to charitable and other institutions; F - levying and payment of fines; G - the administration of prisons; H - Board of Health; I - policing; M - military matters; O - administration of the civil service generally; P - Metropolitan Police; W - public works; Z - miscellaneous.

Researchers who wish to make use of Registered Papers must first search the index to the numerical registers. In the case of research for documentation relating to the alleviation of distress, the indexes to second division correspondence should be checked. Once the registered number has been obtained from the index, the numerical registers should then be consulted. The relevant register entry will indicate from whom the letter was received, the date of letter and date of receipt at the CSO, the subject of the letter, and the way in which the matter was disposed of. The researcher should note the alphabetical prefix given to the paper reference number and whether a later paper was received by checking the subsequent communication column. Where there is an entry of a number in this column the register should be checked under this number and the step repeated each time the subsequent communication column contains an entry. It is only where this column is blank that the paper may be requested under the reference number of that particular entry. The researcher should also note that numbers of incoming papers relating to distress in famine years were given the prefix Z when registered.