Flattening History: Conserving the Certificates for Adventurers 1665-1668

Flattening History: Conserving the Certificates for Adventurers 1665-1668

Zoë Reid, Senior Conservator, National Archives of Ireland

On 19 March 1642, King Charles I signed the Adventurer’s Act into law. The purpose of the Adventurer’s Act was to attract subscriptions to raise a private army to send to Ireland and crush the rebellion that had broken out in October 1641. The investors in this army, the Adventurers, were to be repaid in Irish land, seized from the defeated rebels. The Adventurers anticipated the total destruction of Catholic Ireland and made provision for the sequestration of 2.5 million acres. These plans were interrupted by the outbreak of civil war in England and Ireland remained unconquered until Cromwell’s campaigns, 1649-50.

When Cromwell decided that his soldiers should also receive Irish land in lieu of pay at the same rates as the Adventurers, a bitter row erupted between the two sides that was still unresolved when Charles II was restored to his throne in 1660. Charles II agreed to uphold the claims of both the Adventurers, as the Adventurer’s Act had been signed by his father, and the soldiers from the Cromwellian era as there was no other means with which to pay them. By then, two decades had passed during which time the rights to land had been bought and sold many times, or inherited. It took a further five years to figure out who was now entitled to what land.

These certificates are official copies of the investigations that took place in the 1660s and were intended to provide a final legal document that could be used to allow a patent to be issued, permanently confirming the rights of each new landowner and indemnifying them against any future claims. These rights were set out in two statutes, the Act of Settlement (1662) and Act of Explanation (1665). The results of these patents may be found in tabular form in the Books of Survey and Distribution.

When this large heavy parchment roll was unwrapped from the brown paper that had protected it for 95 years, it was found to contain 115 sheets of parchment certificates.

Fig 1: Certificates for Adventurers unwrapped

Parchment is animal skin which has been prepared for writing or printing, and is usually calf, goat, or sheep skin. Due to the size of the sheets, these documents are most likely sheep skin. Parchment was known to be long lasting, and it was the material traditionally used for important legal documents such as indentures, and land records.

Settling down to it

To provide access for researchers and for digistation, this large roll of certificates needed to be unrolled and separated. So how do you start to get something of this size flat? Well, if you have time, it can be an advantage. If a document, or in this case a roll of documents, is exposed to the ambient moisture in the air it can begin to change shape or ‘settle out’. This method of flattening of sheets is slow, but it does avoid the risk of damage. The roll was left to ‘settle’ and checked regularly and after nearly a year, I had the opportunity to start assessing it to see if it required more detailed conservation treatment.

Straightening things out

Each sheet was photographed to record the damage and to track the progress of conservation. Once imaged, a sheet was placed in a humidity chamber with the aim of relaxing the parchment without wetting it. An ultrasonic humidifier creates an extremely fine cold mist and the humidity in the chamber was increased to 85%. Each sheet was placed in the chamber for 20-30 mins; the time varied due to the difference in the thickness of each vellum sheet.

After being exposed to the higher level of moisture, the sheets were soft and flexible and could be manipulated safely to unfold edges and ease out creases. As these distortions were manipulated and straightened out, each sheet was placed on a metal worktop and held in place around the edges with small neodymium magnets.

The placement of magnets around the perimeter of the sheet was to restrict the movement of the parchment as the moisture evaporated. If the parchment is not held in position at this stage the sheet would have dried out unevenly and would be full of distortions making the text more difficult to read. Each sheet was left held in position overnight.

Progress was steady but slow. In order to increase the rate of conservation, I returned to a method which I had used previously on other collections to allow work to be carried out on more than one sheet simultaneously. Using cushioned fold back-clips with Velcro tabs and an adapted canvas stretcher frame, the humidified sheet of parchment was dried under tension to remove the distortions. This technique requires a fair bit of skill to master as it can be a bit fiddly, and the parchment needs to have no damage along the edges, which is why it could not be used for every sheet, but for many it provided successful results.

Fig. 2 Straightening sheets: two methods

What has this object taught me

The joy for a conservator working on documents like these is the combination of fine-tuning skills and learning about the material that you are working with by close examination. Every sheet is different! The quality and size of the parchment varies; there are flaws in the skins which tell us about the parchment-making process and as well as historical damage to the sheets. As I progressed my work on this roll it became easy to see the effect of years of environmental damage, such as light, dust and handling have damaged the outer edges of the sheet. All things considered though, the document roll is looking remarkable well, especially when you think about all that it has been through and that the certificates were written 352 years ago.

How long has this all taken?

The survey of the material recovered after the PROI fire in 1922 was carried out in 2017 and a short cleaning project for some of the material followed in 2018. I started the sheet-by-sheet flattening of the roll in September 2019 and I was aiming to have it completed before Easter 2020. Sheet- by- sheet flattening began in September 2019 and progressed at a steady pace, and the work was completed in early June 2020.

Zoë Reid: A biographical note

I am the senior conservator in the National Archives of Ireland, where I have worked since 2002. I specialise in the conservation of historic documents. My work can range from assessing the needs and treating a single manuscript to developing treatment options and workflow programmes for large collections of many thousands of archival records. Safeguarding the long-term preservation of the national collection and ensuring safe public access to the archives are principal goals. I am also a specialist in collection care and disaster management and collections recovery.

There are so many amazing things about Beyond 2022 and the conservation work that it is allowing me to do, it really does feel like once in a lifetime project! I am getting the chance to develop and refine conservation techniques on documents that have waited for nearly 100 years to be cleaned and conserved.

The project has given me the opportunity to collaborate with historians to understand more about the context of the documents that I am working on, and I have to say I love their enthusiasm. I am also getting the excuse to engage with heritage scientists to explore the documents in more depth, there is so much we can learn by using scientific analysis, to enhance our understanding of what we can see and also what we cannot see. It is also a pleasure to be able to share the results of all this hard work with researchers, other conservators, and the public.

As part of the conservation work, I am getting the opportunity to look at documents in detail, especially some of the older parchment documents. I literally get to hold history in my hands! At the same time, I am devising and refining techniques for working on the vast quantity of paper documents that there are. I am researching and drafting practical solutions to repair and strengthen the paper. A surprising amount of paper survived, most of it is brittle as a result of the heat of the fire, which essentially dried out the paper. As a result, the paper documents break and crumble easily. I will be focusing sometime over the next few months to work on these scorched paper documents.

One aspect about this project that I am finding of interest as well is learning more about the salvage process that happened during the aftermath of the destruction of the PROI. I am interested in trying to piece together the story of who went into the destroyed building to go through the rubble.

I know from official papers that there were rooms used in the Record Office to sort through material and I can tell from the neat brown paper parcels, that they had the space and time to identify the burnt and charred documents. One report mentions them cleaning the building debris off the archives. I also have learnt that they worked on extracting documents from the rubble for nearly a year and completed the work on the 8th June 1923.

Through small snippets of information, I am beginning to piece together an idea of how they worked to leave behind the legacy of the ‘Salvaged Parcels’. I am so grateful they did.

A Victorian NAMA’? The Encumbered Estates Court (1848-58)

A hostile depiction of an Irish Landlord, London Illustrated News (1845).

The creation of the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA) in 2009 constitutes one of the most dramatic responses to the Irish economic collapse of 2008-10.  Yet it was by no means without precedent. As a body designed to deal with ‘bad debt’ and unfreeze Irish markets (particularly the property market), NAMA bears striking similarities to a much earlier entity: the Encumbered Estates Court.  This Court was the product of another era when Irish landlords were notorious for being both feckless in their speculation and ruthless in their extraction of inflated rents: the nineteenth century.  While Irish landlords of the Victorian era were often pitiless in their dealings with their tenants, ironically, they too were often pursued by creditors. Having frequently indulged in lavish lifestyles that their rental incomes could not afford, many landlords were heavily in debt even before the Great Famine of 1845-50. Following the onset of the Famine, however, landlords discovered that their rents had dried up while their local taxes had skyrocketed. Many of these property owners had mortgaged their estates multiple times, meaning that they owed more than the land was worth.  These multiple mortgages (or ‘encumbrances’) made it impossible to sell the estates as the legal complications were too great, turning off potential buyers.

To rectify this situation, a series of Acts were passed in 1848-49 which established the Encumbered Estates Court. Through this court, the state took ownership of properties and sold them on, without any drawn-out proceedings and accompanied by a fresh title deed which ensured there was no further legal threats or challenges to the new owners. The Encumbered Estates Court was composed of three commissioners who first met in 1849, acquiring premises at No. 14 Henrietta Street in Dublin (now the site of the city’s Tenement Museum).  Following its creation, the Estates Court was soon swamped with cases, and by 1854 there were fears that their location in Henrietta Street was unsustainable for the volume of business, as the street was often blocked by vehicles coming to the Court. There is a vivid account of the day-to-day activities of the Court, written in 1858, and describing it as a no-frills, no-nonsense place: ‘everything about it has the same naked unpretending air. The visitor will observe little of that tranquillity and silence which usually reign in courts of law’.   The highlight of its activities were undoubtedly the sales days, when the court room located at the rear of the building would double as an auction room. An account of one of these sales described how the various lawyers and land agents used it as an opportunity to gossip, particularly about rural disturbances: ‘one idler tells another how an agent was shot here a year ago; how a process-server was beaten almost to death there; and how the population of Ballyblank generally have from time immemorial been a very rough set to deal with’.

Advertisement for the auction of an estate by the Court.  Irish Examiner 28 May, 1852

Despite the rough-and-ready nature of the Court, commentators had high hopes that it could solve the problems of rural Ireland. It was believed that the Court was paving the way for a new landowning class, made up of businessmen who were better positioned to invest in the countryside. Obviously, the older generation of landlords felt differently. The legislation that established the Estates Court also allowed for the sale of estates without the consent of the owner, provided the level of debt was great enough. This meant that sales of an estate could be forced at a time of depressed land prices, something that existing landlords bitterly resented. The communist Frederick Engels once described how Irish landlords ‘live in fear of the Encumbered Estates Court’.

In 1858, the Encumbered Estates Court was dissolved and replaced with a new body known as the Landed Estates Court, which dealt with much the same sort of cases. This new Estates Court was moved from Henrietta Street into newly constructed premises at the Four Courts in 1860. While a mass influx of English buyers did not materialize to magically resolve the Irish land issue, these Estates Courts opened the door for a later institution, the Land Commission of Ireland. Set up in 1881 as, essentially, a rent-fixing body, the commission evolved into an institution facilitating tenant-purchase of farmland. Following a series of Lands Acts, commencing with the landmark Ashbourne Act of 1885, the Land Commission would bring about a social revolution in the Irish countryside. Between 1885 and 1920, the Commission oversaw the transfer of over 13 million acres of land through assisted tenant purchase.  The Land Commission survived the War of Independence (1919-21), being reconstituted in 1923 by the Irish Free State and continuing to function until its dissolution in 1999. 

The records of the Encumbered Estates and Landed Estates Courts were among the documents destroyed in the Four Courts in 1922. However, printed rentals from the Encumbered Estates Court survive, constituting an under-used source for those interested in the names of tenants on various mid-nineteenth century estates. Beyond 2022 hopes to recover the history of this often overlooked but hugely important body.


-Parliamentary Papers (1854) Incumbered Estates Court (Ireland) Copy of official statement &c relating to the removal of the offices of the Incumbered Estates Court from Henrietta Street to the Four Courts.

Chamber’s Journal of Popular Literature (16 October, 1858)

-Richard Denny Urlin ‘The History and Statistics of the Irish Incumbered Estates Court’ in The Journal of the Statistical Society of London vol.44 No.2 (June 1881) pp.203-234

– J.A. Dowling ‘The Landed Estates Court, Ireland’ in Journal of Legal History 26, no. 2 (August 2005)

The 1841 Census Commissioners v. the 1821 and 1831 censuses

The 1841 Census Commissioners v. the 1821 and 1831 censuses

Brian Gurrin, Research Associate, Beyond 2022

The 1841 census broke new ground in Irish census-taking. It was the first census to be taken on a specific day (6 June), with the forms distributed in advance, to be filled out by the householders. The previous three censuses had been viva voce inquiries, where the enumerator put the questions to the householder and took the details.

The Commissioners for the 1841 census were justifiably proud of their work, which succeeded in counting 8.175 million people. But they were troubled by an apparent glitch in the statistics. The 1821 census had reported a national population of 6.8 million, and the 1831 census 7.767 million, an increase of nearly 1 million people in a decade, but their census had upped the population by only 400,000 people.

They explained the difference in the decennial growth rates by arguing that the 1821 census had underestimated the population, since it was the first census undertaken, while the 1831 census had exaggerated the population, because its enumerators had been paid in proportion to the number of people counted. These comments gained widespread traction and have been commonly cited by historians for the past 180 years. However, I argue that both are invalid.

Image 1: The 1841 Commissioners’ comment on the 1821 and 1831 censuses.

In the first instance, the 1821 census was not the first Irish census, but the second one. The first census had commenced in 1813 and although it failed to report a national population, and despite the survey not even commencing in some areas, it succeeded, nonetheless, in enumerating almost 5 million people during its tortured existence. Therefore, although the 1821 may have been the first experience of census taking for some, the majority of Irish people alive in 1821 would have been recorded in a broadly similar survey a few years earlier. This is not to argue that the 1821 was accurate – in fact, it is near certain that it was deficient – but simply to point out that the 1841 Commissioners’ comment regarding this being the first experience of a census for the population was not based on fact.

However, their argument that the 1831 census over-enumerated the population is almost certainly incorrect, but it is also unfair. In essence the 1841 Commissioners were disparaging the 1831 enumerators by intimating that many of the enumerators falsified their returns in order to boost their salaries. What is not widely appreciated, however, is that the 1831 census was subjected to a unique and unexpected verification process a few years after it was taken, which it passed with flying colours.

In 1834 the House of Commons established a Public Instruction Commission to inquire into the availability of religious instruction in Ireland. The commission was required to determine the religious breakdown in Ireland at the time, and they opted to reuse the 1831 census for this purpose. The census was copied in its entirety, and the copies were returned to the enumerators, with the request that they determine the religion of everybody recorded by the census. When this was done their work was made available for public inspection and public meetings were organised in each parish, to scrutinise their work. Any widespread fabrication of names in their census books would immediately have been exposed through this process. Yet, few returns failed this test.

There is no question that the 1841 census was ground breaking in its scope, scale and efficiency. But its criticisms of the two censuses that immediately predated it are invalid and speculative. The surviving census returns from all Irish censuses, including the 1821 and 1831 enumerations, are freely available online here: http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/.

Image 2: An extract from the 1821 census for Castle & Spiddle Gate, Athenry parish, County Galway, showing John Taylor, aged 22. Taylor, who took the census of the parish, lists his occupation as ‘enumerator’.

Brian Gurrin: a biographical note

I’m a numbers man. When I’m examining a source my first thought usually revolves around how I might be able to summarise it with numbers. You show me a census return: I think – what’s the mean household size in this townland, or parish, or barony? Or, maybe – how many Catholics lived in Protestant households there, and how might that have differed from comparable figures elsewhere? You show me a sheet from Griffith’s Valuation: I think – what’s the mean rateable value of the land? Or what is the typical value of a house there? For me – it all comes down to numbers. Numbers can efficiently, accurately and effectively put order on almost any dataset, no matter how large it may be.

I’ve always liked numbers. My first third-level qualification was in Physics, and when I moved to historical research it was inevitable that I would be drawn towards studying census data. I argue that, of all the inquiries organised by governments, the census is the greatest, because it is the only official survey which aimed to obtain information on every single person alive, and sometimes on those recently dead too. Any other surveys, inquiries or commissions, no matter how wide their remits, operated with mere subsets of populations.

Doubtless, you’ll be aware that Ireland’s demographic experience is unique in Western Europe, characterised by very rapid growth in the two decades on either side of the Union, and later a cataclysmic, prolonged collapse, commencing in the latter half of the 1840s. The first successfully completed Irish statutory census reported a national population of 6,801,827, in 1821, and the 1841 enumeration counted 8,175,124 people, but the 1926 censuses (one was held in each of the two jurisdictions) could only report a paltry 4,228,553. For me, however, those numbers are more than raw statistics. Each individual person counted by those censuses, and by all other censuses, was a human being, whose life story was briefly abstracted in the census forms that they or their enumerators filled out. It’s a tragedy that so many of the early Irish census returns were destroyed, either by government orders before 1922, or by military action in June of that year. Our understanding of the past would be so much more nuanced if all the census data from and after 1821 was still available to us. But even employing mathematical techniques to abstract what information has survived can open up new vistas on past times, and on past lives.

In my free time I enjoy reading, running marathons and playing around with numbers.  I’m currently reading a book called Alex’s adventures in Numberland which is a great read about the simplicity and elegance of mathematics; and this year I was aiming to run the London and New York marathons, before our world was turned upside down. I won’t tell you my best marathon time, but if you want to look it up it’s the 5 digits that occur from location 35273 in the beautiful mathematical number π. Well; didn’t I say I’m a numbers man?