An archive of British imperialism: Irish Society records at the London Metropolitan Archive

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2009), Plantation of Ireland, Volume 17

‘View of the New Free School at London-Derry’. (London Metropolitan Archives)

‘View of the New Free School at London-Derry’. (London Metropolitan Archives)

Disappointingly little remains of the original manuscripts dating from the Plantation’s early decades in this collection, owing in part to a fire in London’s Guildhall in 1786. Nevertheless, the inclusion of later copies of items dating from 1609, such as a table of lands and landholders, helps in reconstructing other elements of the Plantation’s early history. From the 1660s, however, a much clearer and more complete picture of the Irish Society’s work and concerns emerges in the many extant letter books, court minute books, rent rolls and receipt books, even though the 1786 fire destroyed an unknown number of eighteenth-century documents as well. Following the fire, much greater care was taken with Irish Society records, including the construction of rooms in the Guildhall in 1826 for the storage of its documents. From this period on it becomes much easier to trace the history of Irish Society administration consistently. Rent rolls listing tenants and amounts paid are extant, for example, from 1829 to 1970, with gaps only for a few years in the 1830s and 1870s and again from 1957 to 1964.
Undoubtedly one of the strengths of this collection is the documentation it provides for the history of the Irish Society’s nineteenth-century activities. Its increasingly active role in education, social reform and philanthropy, in keeping with Victorian developments, is particularly well represented. Estate management and financial records permit the tracking of charitable donations to individual tenants as well as a concern with the construction and maintenance of schools, such as the Londonderry Free School, the Derry Diocesan School, Derry Poor School and Presbyterian Boys and Girls schools. These records are complemented by the collection’s inclusion of building plans for schools and blueprints for the construction of peasant cottages and farmsteads, many of these drawn up by the well-known British architect William Tite for the Irish Society’s 1834 Visitation Report, which warned against ‘the dirty and disgusting consequences’ of the ‘wretched state of Irish dwellings’.
Crucially, this archive also contains vital information on the environmental—no less than the economic—impact of plantation on fisheries and forests in particular. A concern with forests on the Irish Society’s holdings first surfaces in letters dating from 1631. By 1802 deforestation had become such a problem that Robert Slade, secretary to the Irish Society, described Londonderry as the ‘worst wooded county in the king’s dominions’. Deforestation itself was not always the issue, but rather the manner in which the Irish Society utilised its timber resources. Debate increased over the course of the nineteenth century as to whether the Irish Society was within its rights as granted by its charter to use natural resources for profit, or whether it was bound to operate as a steward of these resources to the benefit of its tenants and of British interests at large. Notable among the relevant documents on this subject is the legal case brought against the Irish Society by the Revd John Johnston in the 1890s. Johnston charged the Irish Society, as well as all of the London Companies, with failure to operate as a trustee of the public good, taking instead the profits from timber for private gain. Johnston, however, was not the first individual to challenge Irish Society practices, and other records for the later nineteenth century indicate that Irish Society tenants had become much bolder in challenging mismanagement in general by this time. The inhabitants of Londonderry and Coleraine, for example, had already brought charges against the Irish Society for mismanagement of property in 1875.
The Irish Society archive offers a wealth of still-untapped material on a critical and lengthy phase in the history of the relationship between Britain and Ireland. As it chronicles what began as the Plantation of Ulster—a British colonial venture incorporating business interests, a practice that would expand into the Americas, India and further afield—it acquires international significance as well and is important in any comparative study of the origins and evolution of British imperialism. Its placement in the London Metropolitan Archives ( secures both the preservation of and public access to this unparalleled resource. Plans for digitisation in collaboration with the CELT project at University College Cork, the Heritage and Museum Service (HMS) and the University of Ulster will enhance its accessibility for researchers and the public even further (Corpus of Electronic Texts,  HI

Valerie McGowan-Doyle lectures in Irish history at John Carroll University, Cleveland, Ohio.


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