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Sources in the National Archives for researching the Great Famine: The Office of Public Works

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The Office of Public Works, or Board of Works, was in existence less than fifteen years when the scale of the crisis in the potato crop was becoming apparent at the close of 1845. (The OPW was established by an Act of Parliament passed in 1831 entitled an Act for the Extension and Promotion of Public Works in Ireland (1 & 2 Will. IV c.33).

The nature of the Board's response to the catastrophe, a subject of debate among historians, was to concentrate on providing employment for the destitute poor under acts passed early in the parliamentary session of 1846 for the sole purpose of affording relief by employment: 9 Vict. c.1 (public works); 9 Vict c.2 (county relief works); 9 Vict. c.3 (construction of piers, harbours and other works to encourage sea fisheries) and 9 Vict. c.4 (drainage).

In August of that year, when the scale of the crisis was becoming clearer, the government was given additional powers to employ the labouring poor by means of treasury loans (9 & 10 Vict. c.107). This resulted in a daily average of up to 90,000 people being employed that year. The details of the Board's activities were set out in special monthly reports which were subsequently submitted to parliament.

The establishment of the Board, which consisted of three commissioners, including the chairman, was altered by adding two new commissioners and consolidating the duties performed under the legislation relating to drainage, fisheries and Shannon improvement. The number employed on all works (not just relief schemes) during the week ending 26 December 1846, represented ten per cent of the working population. Under the legislation providing grants for the promotion of sea fisheries (9 Vict. c.3), 195 memorials seeking grants were immediately received, 35 of which were successful at a cost of just under 80,000.

Considerable difficulty arose with the nature and quality of the work performed on these relief schemes and in controlling the huge numbers of labourers involved. A major problem was that schemes were largely confined to local work, such as the building of roads, which was generally under the control of the Grand Juries. The limitation of schemes in this way proved unsatisfactory, as some areas desperately needed roads, whereas others did not, and where roads in adjoining districts were to be constructed, a measure of co-ordination was required. This was invariably lacking, resulting in the completion of many schemes for which there was no need or demand. In defence of the work carried out at this time, the Board asked that these works be judged only on the grounds of positive utility and considered solely as an effort to obtain labour in return for subsistence. Another perceived abuse was that of paying wages by the day rather than by the task, so enticing labourers away from farmers and other employers.

The number of destitute rose to almost 750,000 in late 1846, many of whom were unable to work. Between October 1846 and the autumn of 1847, a daily average of approximately 100,000 men were employed on relief schemes under the Poor Employment (Ireland) Act, 1846 (9 & 10 Vict. c.107). Although expenditure on distress was mainly in food relief under the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act, 1847 (10 Vict. c.31), overall expenditure remained at the same level.

Unfortunately, most of the Famine records were destroyed in the 1960s. There is still, however, some material surviving which is an excellent source for research into the period. The most comprehensive is that relating to the fishery, pier and harbour works carried out under the relief legislation mentioned above, where funds were made available for constructing, extending, repairing or improving harbours, piers, quays, landing slips, approach roads etc. The legislation also provided for making navigable cuts through shoals, connecting adjacent bays or inlets, erecting engines, beacons, or harbour lights, and other similar works useful for the encouragement and promotion of the sea fisheries. No grant was to exceed 5,000 or be greater than three quarters of the cost. The balance was to be provided by a loan charged either on the county, the district, or the proprietors of adjacent lands. The initiative in making application for such assistance was left to those locally interested. The works, when complete, remained vested in the Board of Works, and were to be maintained out of the rates and tolls collected for their use.

Any resident, proprietor or occupier of land near the sea coast could apply. Memorials signed by the various interested parties were forwarded to the Board of Works, who then requested the government to obtain a report on the feasibility of the project by the Inspectors of Fisheries. The Board was itself, however, responsible for the actual sites of the piers and had to undertake any necessary surveys in regard to these. If the survey and examination of the locality proved satisfactory, the Treasury could provisionally approve the work and sanction the grant or loan. A Provisional Declaration was then prepared, describing the proposed works, stating the estimate, amount of grant and/or loan, time of repayment of loan and rate of interest, indicating also the area to be charged for repayment. Copies of the Provisional Declaration, maps, plans, sections and estimates were then lodged, for not less than two weeks, in a convenient place (usually a court house) within the county or district from where the loan was to be repaid. A local newspaper was also notified and objections had to be forwarded to the Board within two weeks of the placing of this notice. A public meeting was then called to hear objections, after which the plans could be changed. If there were still objections, another meeting was held.

If the project was proceeded with, all preliminary expenses were to be part of the costs of the works, otherwise the applicants had to pay. When the plans and estimate were approved, the work was put out to tender. If a reasonable tender could not be procured, the Board carried out the work itself. When finished, the works were handed over to the counties as public property.

This material in the OPW archives carries a prefix OPW 8. Within this series there are files on over 220 fishery pier and harbour works carried out during the Famine. A full list of these is available at the National Archives.

Possibly the most interesting and useful document to be found on practically every file is the application form or memorial. Usually composed by a literate member of the community such as a clergyman, landowner or shopkeeper, they generally gave detailed accounts of the distress in the locality, and many were forwarded to the Board directly from the local relief committees. The signatories were local landowners, often indicating the exact location and extent of their lands, farmers, shopkeepers, clergymen, fishermen etc. Many of the files simply contain memorials and nothing more, indicating that the project was not proceeded with. If a project was approved, the file will contain other documents such as estimates (some of these were prepared in the locality and included with the initial application) and engineers' reports. These give descriptions of the structure and location of the various piers and harbours. Also on file are Admiralty sanctions, copy contracts, specifications, declarations (to which are often attached plans, sections and estimates), schedules of prices, schedules of tolls bye-laws, lists of plant and machinery required, public notices calling meetings of ratepayers, labour returns (including names, rates of pay and amounts earned by individuals), progress reports and details of expenditure.

See also the research guide to the records of the Office of Public Works