Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast

Historic book rehits the shelves courtesy of Belfast City Council. Read the introduction below, and click Play Audio for a podcast with heritage officer Robert Heslip

The Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast is the key original source for history of the town in the Town Book of the Corporation of Belfastseventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and vital for our understanding of Irish history in the same period. 

The Corporation was the ruling administrative body of the town and the original manuscript recording their decisions, as well as the list of Freemen runs to 400 pages. The matters dealt with ranged from the trivial to defence of the town at times of tribulation, such as the 1640s.

RM Young transcribed and published the work in 1892, adding extensive notes and commentary along with a charming series of illustrations. This edition is a full facsimile of that edition - making a seminal resource available once again in affordable form. The following introduction to the book was written by Ruairí Ó Baoill.

The original of the Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast is a 400 page manuscript recording decisions of the corporation and listing freemen from 1613 until the end of the 18th century. It is a key source for the history of the town, especially for the 17th and early 18th centuries, when other documentary materials are scarce.

Robert Magill (RM) Young was an architect and an antiquarian who edited the manuscript and published it in 1892 as The Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast 1613-1816 through Marcus Ward and Co Ltd., with the addition of his own explanatory. 

Young was born at Athlone in 1851, two years before the founding of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, and educated at Queen's College, Belfast. He trained as an architect under his father (also Robert) and later joined the family firm in Belfast. Young was an active antiquarian during the first golden age of historians of Belfast, who included George Benn and William Pinkerton, and was a member of the Royal Irish Academy, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland and Honorary Secretary of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society. 

In 1895 he became co-editor of the second series of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology. Amongst his other publications was the 1896 Historical Notices of Old Belfast and its Vicinity, based on the materials collected by William Pinkerton for a proposed history of Belfast. In 1878 he married Eleanor (also known as Nellie or Lally) Reid. They had four children and lived in Rathvarna, off the Antrim Road. Robert Magill Young died at the age of 74 in 1925, a year after his wife.

Wood engravingThe Anglo-Normans established a settlement at Belfast in the late 12th or early 13th century. In the late medieval period there may also have been a small Gaelic presence, controlled by the Clandeboye O’Neills. Little is currently known about the nature, workings and precise location of these earlier settlements. It is only with the re-founding of the Town in the early 17th century that cartographic, documentary and archaeological evidence can be cross-referenced with any detail.

On the cessation of the Nine Year’s War in 1603, the area around Belfast was one of a number of land grants made to Sir Arthur Chichester. Although Belfast was incorporated in 1613 with a sovereign (mayor), twelve burgesses and the commonalty (freemen) of the Town, in the early decades these had little real power. Belfast is unique amongst the major towns in Ireland in that its development was controlled by one family, the Chichesters (created earls post-1647 and later marquises), until the mid 19th century.

It is uncertain where the Corporation met in its early days. There is a reference in the Town Book to the Towne Halle in 1639, possibly located in Corn Market. In the later 17th century it appears that the Corporation met above the new Customs House, which was built in 1664. This building is illustrated on Thomas Phillips 1685 map of Belfast, and was sited close to the entrance to Belfast Castle.

The Town Book is a very important strand of primary information that helps chart the development of Belfast, describing the working of the Corporation with limited political power but still having an impact on peoples’ everyday lives and business. It is in these aspects where there is detail and real interest. From the information contained within the Town Book we can get a picture of the activities of Belfast’s 17th and 18th century inhabitants and what life was like.

The usefulness of the Town Book for archaeologists and historians is that it often discusses things that we have no other direct evidence for currently, such as the early construction of houses and references to malting kilns. In 1638 it is directed that wooden chimneys were to be demolished to be replaced by ones constructed of brick, presumably to limit the dangers of fire. In the same year imports of salt, soap and aqua vitae (whiskey) are mentioned giving an idea of the essential commodities available to the town’s people.

There are, however, other references in the Town Book to aspects of the 17th century town that it has been possible to investigate archaeologically. The only town defences ever constructed around Belfast were a bank and ditch erected in the 1640s. In 1645 there is reference in the Town Book to 'moweing the grass about the Rampier' (ditch). 

However, the defences appear to have been used primarily by the townspeople as a convenient place in Wood engravingwhich to dump rubbish because in 1671 there is a reference to the necessity of repairing a stretch of the defences 'at the cost and charges of the Inhabitants of the said North Streete...' The repairs seem to have been unfinished for by the time of Phillips’ map, 14 years later, the exact circuit of the town ditch is incompletely marked out. In recent times stretches of the ditch have been uncovered during excavations at Donegall Street, Gordon Street and Queen Street.

These are only a small sample of the many and varied and aspects of town life that are contained within the pages of the Town Book. The information is both informative and entertaining. The work of Robert Magill Young in compiling the Town Book and his other contributions to Belfast history deserve to be celebrated.

The number of publications relating to the archaeology and early history of Belfast is growing, but the initiative of Belfast City council and Colourpoint Press in reprinting such an important and seminal source as The Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast 1613-1816 is a boost to anyone interested in the story of Belfast.

Ruairí Ó Baoill
Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork,
School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology,
Queen’s University Belfast,
Past chair of the Irish Post-Medieval Archaeology Group

The Town Book of the Corporation of Belfast is available in all good bookshops.