Rev. C.C. Ellison M.A.
As early as the reign of Henry Vl Navan was one of the six provincial towns in Ireland entitled to collect customs for the upkeep of its walls, streets and bridges. Edward lV, confirmed this right in 1462 and in 1469 granted the town its first Charter of Incorporation. This was confirmed with additions by Henry Vll in 1494. A new charter was granted by James I in 1623, while Charles ll after the Restoration (1661) confirmed this and granted four fairs yearly.
A Corporation Seal, dated 1661, is described and illustrated in the Royal Society Antiqitaries Ireland Journal 1920. (see below)
There was a fifth Charter given by James ll during his brief reign in 1689.
Under this Charter John Nangle of Navan was made Portreeve and Walter Nangle of Nangle's Court a Burgess
( J.H. Moore, "Notices of the Town of Navan." Journal Royal Society Antiquaries Ireland 1893)
Two of the old Corporation Minute Books are still extant. Formerly in the possession of the Metge family, they are now in the National Library. They cover the years from 1739 to 1808. The volumes of records for the years 1684-1706 and 1706- 38 were not bound, and in the case of the former the pages were not even numbered, making it " impossible to know how many leaves have been lost or secreted." There was great carelessness as well as political bias in the keeping of the records. When certain elections were legally challenged in 1754-55 the Town Clerk admitted that the Rolls of Freemen had been mutilated five years previously. They were not usually kept under lock and key, and he suspected that his servant maid had cut strips from them for her father, who was a tailor, to use as measures.
On 27th December 1753, John Preston Senior, Portreeve and M.P. died in office. On the evening of Sunday, 6th January 1754, Edward Noy, the Recorder, had himself chosen as Portreeve by two Burgesses, four freemen and the Town Clerk in the Inn owned by the Ormsby family. The choice was publicly confirmed next day in the Sessions House by the same small clique.
Noy immediately had over a hundred of his friends and supporters admitted as freemen. Informations, however, were filed against him in the King's Bench by Christopher Nicholson and Robert Longfield. Noy pleaded guilty and a new election was ordered. This took place on 30th July 1754, and the candidates were Thomas Barry and Thomas Carter. Barry was declared elected although Carter claimed a majority.
Impersonation was very much in evidence. For example, a certain Thomas Proudfoot tried to impersonate his uncle. John Holmes, a farmer of Tara, who was crippled with sciatca and used crutches. At the election Proudfoot " presented himself crouching as an old man and came in on crutches, and when he was detected he burst out laughing and ran out of court." In spite of this incident, it was claimed that he was later allowed to vote at the parliamentery election. Other persons voted in the names of deceased freemen.
On September 13th next the candidates were Peter Metge and Thomas Carter and the latter was eliminated on the basis of an alleged faulty nomination. The following year Nathaniel Preston was made Portreeve although again Carter claimed a majority of the legal votes. Such was the nature of many of the so called elections which are recorded in the Corporation books as being made by a majority, or " by unaminous assent and consent."
A political pamphlet relating to the 1754 election was printed in Dublin, entitled
" A Letter from a Burgess of Monaghan to the Parish Clerk of Ardbraccan."
It commences, "What is Preston? An abandoned c -r. What is Carter? A true and unshaken p- -t."
The writer states that
" The Borough of Navan has been so far from reaping any advantages from these gentlemen, that they have constantly opposed all schemes for its convenience and interest, and particularly the Navigation of the Boyne and a Bridge over that river, by which a communication has been opened between the town and a large tract of a fine, improved, and well inhabited country.I find they have endeavoured to supply their want of merit by their extra talents for conducting elections."
The pamphlet concludes: "Exert yourself, worthy Mr. Pentland, and don't suffer your Brother Freemen to submit to the galling and ignominous yoke of slavery."
(A copy is in the Library Trinity College Dublin)
The same ballot rigging methods were, however, used at the election for a parliamentary burgess on 20th October 1755, with the result that a petition was presented by Richard Hamilton of Stackallen, complaining of the undue election and return of John Preston Jun.
The House of Commons Committee of Privileges and Elections, having heard numerous witnesses on both sides, presented a lengthy report to the Speaker the following December, with the result that Preston's election was declared null and void, by 105 votes to 99, and Hamilton was seated in his place without a division.
From the evidence it appears that the provisions of the Charter and the Corporation rules were commonly broken. Hamilton complained that he and his agent, Theophilius Ormsby, were denied access to the books and rolls, which had been removed to Dublin by the Recorder, and that the Portreeve refused to allow any scrutiny of the votes and used the powers of his office to secure the return of his friends.
The members of the Corporation frquently met and conducted elections and other proceedings in public or private houses. The excuse offered was that the Sessions House was and had been for many years
"in a very ruinous condition, the windows, roof and floor thereof being greatly broken, and that in consequence there was a danger of accident, or if the weather was cold that their healths might be much endangered."
The information in this section is taken from the Journal of the Irish House of Commons. An article on the subject by "Viator" appeared in the Meath Chronicle of 20th April 1946.
This scandalous state of affairs in 18th century Navan was a commonplace in Ireland under the system set up by the Stuart Kings, whereby the Municipal Corporations were used as instruments for ensuring a majority for the Crown in the Irish Parliament. Many new "Pocket Boroughs" were founded for this purpose, and the ancient democratic rights of the older corporate towns taken away. None but those approved by the Government might hold any municipal office, and they in turn restricted the freedom of the towns to their own friends and co-religionists.
Following the Report of the Royal Commission on Municipal Corporations in 1835, the Municipal Corporations Act of 1840 swept away the stranglehold of the "Ascendancy" on the towns, and transfered the control of municipal affairs from self appointed cliques to the general body of the inhabitants.
(Webb - "Municipal Government in Ireland, Mediaeval and Modern.")
Under Navan's Charter, the Portreeve was to be elected on each September 13th, and sworn in on Michaelmas Day, the burgesses and freemen having been duly summoned and the town bell tolled. He also held the offices of Justice of the Peace, Coroner, Say- master M Controller of Weights and Measures) and Clerk of the Market.
The Report of the 1835 Commission remarks that
" as Coroner he never acts, and is exceedingly remiss in performing the duties of Clerk of the Market."
He appointed a deputy to act during his absence, and enjoyed the privilege of nominating three or four freemen during his year of office. He had the right to impose tolls and customs, and from the proceeds paid the salaries of the officials, retaining the residue for himself. He usually farmed out the collection of tolls and customs by auction, the rent paid by the collector ranging from £50 to £120. Members of the Corporation were free of tolls throughout Ireland, while no foreigner could practice any art or manual occupation in the town unless he was a freeman. There was " great extortion in the collection of tolls and the profits of the tenant must have been considerable."
Report of the 1835 Commission.
Every effort was made to evade these taxes, and an order was made for the repair of the breaches in the town walls, which were facilitating the entry of untaxed goods.
Corporation Minutes 1746
It was a common thing for a man liable to toll to evade payment by presenting to the collector a note from some freeman, certifying the goods or produce as his.
The Sergeants at Mace were paid 1 pence for every barrel of corn, which they could discover being sold without payment of duty.
Corporation Minutes 1757
The Meredyth Somerville family had purchased the right to collect a proportion of the tolls and customs, including those at the four Fairs. This source of revenue,originally held by the Nangles, had been earlier granted to Sir Hans Hamilton in 1663.
Navan had a weekly market, which was supplied with vast numbers of bacon hogs and porkers, butter in large quantities, country merchandise in great abundance, and the town was the corn depot of Meath. 100 head of store cattle and fat cows were sold weekly between September 1st and Christmas.
Thompson "Statistical Survey of County Meath" 1802
Disputes in the Market were settled by a Jury of twelve members, eight of whom were also Constables. Disputes over weights and measures were frequent, as these varied from place to place. The hunderweight in Kells, for example, was equal to 120 pounds, but in Navan to 112 pounds.
Thompson " Statistical Survey of Co. Meath" 1802
In 1733 the Rector of Newtown, near Kells, paid " five Navan pecks of wheat "as part of his Crown Rent.
Visitation of the Diocese of Meath 1733
Resistance to the payment of tolls and customs gradually increased,since these were obviously going into the pockets of the rich, rather than being used for the benefit of the town. On 12th August 1828, they were discontinued altogether. The 1835 Commissioners reported that
" the Portreeve has no salary at present, and since 1827 has had no emoluments whatever, except those derived from the public crane."
The crane in Market Square was then largely disused owing to the faulty weights employed, and brought in a rent of only £5 a year, as compared to £30 or £40 in former years. The loss of the tolls meant that the salaries of the Town Clerk, Sergeants, and other officials went unpaid. Of the nine Burgesses, only one was resident. Three were brothers of Lord Tara, and among the others were Lord Ludlow and his agent. Of the nine Freemen, only two were resident. In fact for the past century the Corpoation had been completely dominated by the patronage of absentee landlords, and since 1800 Lord Tara and Earl Ludlow had alternatively nominated the Portreeve. He was usually non resident as well, and acted through his deputy, the Rev. Francis Dansey Hamilton, who also held the sinecure Vicarage of Athlumney.
"The town is neither lighted nor watched... the bye ways and smaller streets not repaired for several years...they and the bridges are in a very neglected state, and there is no fund to repair them. The Corporation is virtually extinct, and its existence scarcely known to some of the inhabitants."
Sixty five towns put into practice the provisions of the Act of 1828 empowering the townspeople to elect a local committee to see to the lighting, cleaning, and watching of their streets, the Corporations having failed to fulfill their duties. In Navan the Portreeve would not allow the Act to be put into effect, his excuse being that proper persons could not be found to act as commissioners.
The problem of what to do with the droves of semi wild pigs, which roamed the streets and rooted in the rubbish heaps, was a hardy perennial in the 18th century, in most towns. In 1742 and again in 1760 the Corporation ordered that no pig or hog shall be allowed "to strole through the streets" under penalty of a shilling fine for each offence, half to be given to the person apprehending the erring wayfarer, and half to the poor of the parish. In 1743 an order was made that the offending pigs should be houghed or slaughtered.
In Slane, when the Rev. Mervyn Archdall was Rector, The Vestry ordered the Constable to shoot the wandering pigs. But finding that he was neglecting his duty in this respect, the Vestry not only fined him five shillings for each animal seen in the street, but awarded him two shillings eight and a half pence for every kill.
Vestry Minutes, 29th September 1759
Pigs, however, were one of the poor cottagers' few sources of income, and it is doubtful if any Corporation edict could have got rid of them altogether. Thompson heard it asserted that they outnumbered sheep in Ireland at that time, and says that vast numbers of hogs, fed in Meath, were sold to dealers, who drove them to Dublin and Newry in order to provision the navy.
Races and Rejoicings
That life had its lighter side in the old Corporation days is shown by the mention, in the minutes for 1757, of a grant of "£6 allowed for "Rejoyceing Nights." This, together with the schoolmaster's allowance, was stopped, and the officials' salaries reduced in order to pay for a lawsuit to maintain the Corporation's rights. Education evidently did not rank very high in the annual budget, though the Corporation from time to time appointed a schoolmaster, who was usually the Church of Ireland curate. For example, in 1759 the Rev. John Jones was voted a salary of £6 per annum;"as an encouragement for keeping school in this Corporation when the said Corporation shall be qualified to pay the same by the Encrease of the funds, which at present is insufficient."
Corporation Minutes, 29th September 1759
In 1760 Peter and Theophilus Ormsby, sons of a Navan inn-keeper, were compensated to the extent of £39/12/3,
"on account of the loss they had on account of the Races, and other good services done by them in this Corporation, by supporting and collecting the Rights in the sd. Corporation."
Source: Ríocht na Midhe, 1963, Vol. 111, No. 1 by Rev. C.C. Ellison, M. A.
The Municipal Corporations Ireland Act 1840 abolished Navan Corporation