The general valuation of rateable property in Ireland is a vital resource for those researching their Irish ancestors. Apart from several fragments and transcripts, no extensive census information is available prior to 1901. The results of the comprehensive valuation were published between 1847 and 1864 in a series of approximately 300 volumes. Whilst the official publication is a useful census substitute, it is the addition of the ancillary documentation generated during the survey, which further enhances this priceless primary source.
The notebooks created by surveyors and valuators as they visited every field and garden, every house, whether for human or animal, that provide an insight into Irish life. The first valuation notebooks date to the 1830s, therefore offering a glimpse into Irish households prior to the Great Famine and the ensuing mass emigration. The books also predate civil registration and, in some cases, church registers.
Three distinct primary sources were produced:
Preliminary notes; valuers chronicled their work using pre-printed notebooks. They recorded land holdings (field books), buildings (house books) and, using maps, they marked out the extent of each lot. Subsequently, during the tenement valuation, tenure books were also created. In addition office work generated other documentation including quatro and calculation books. Information was recorded for each townland in a civil parish, and each civil parish had its own book ensuring that today research is relatively straightforward (once the townland is known).
The published valuation.
The day to day working books, known as cancelled books. This material was updated as ownership and lessors changed. These books exist until rates were abolished in the 1970s and on some occasions to the early 1990s.
The published valuation, ‘more commonly known by the eponym Griffith’s valuation, in deference to its chief architect and director Sir Richard Griffith (1784-1878) … listed every occupier of property, the immediate lessor, acreage held, type of buildings occupied and value of the property.’
The genesis of the valuation and mapping of Ireland
In the infant years of the nineteenth century, Irish landowners lobbied for a national survey and land valuation. The taxation system, prior to Griffith’s project, was inequitable. Many maps of Ireland existed, but they were not to scale, boundaries were obscure and elevations were not accurate. A select committee chaired by Thomas Spring-Rice declared that the ‘obscurity and want of uniformity of the general system, as well as the inequality incidental to the mode of apportioning these taxes system’, necessitated a new map and survey of Ireland. The only other extensive appraisal of the country was the Down Survey, conducted in the middle of the seventeenth century by Sir William Petty and later the production of Grand Jury maps in the late eighteenth century.
The Spring Rice report provides some detail about the geography of Ireland at the start of the nineteenth century, ‘the Surface of Ireland consists of about 12,000,000 Irish acres or nearly 20,000,000 acres in English measurement, divided into 4 provinces … and a further civil subdivision, already alluded to in this Report, generally known as townlands … the ancient and recognised divisions of the country.’
Following the Committee report, the Ordnance Survey Office (OSI) was established in 1824, initially under the auspices of the Army. Due to the ‘general tranquillity of Europe’, the army was able to use their considerable and valuable corps of officers to undertake the precise and engaging work. The entire island of Ireland was surveyed using a scale of 6 inches to 1 mile and was completed in 1846 under the direction of Major General Thomas Frederick Colby. Ireland was the first country in the world to be mapped at such a detailed scale.
Whilst Colby and his team were revolutionising the cartography of Ireland, Richard Griffith, geologist and civil engineer, began to assess the productive capacity of all land and buildings in Ireland in a uniform manner. Griffith had numerous achievements, including, a survey of Leinster coalmines and reports on Irish bogs. He was appointed Inspector of Irish mines in 1812 and became Professor of Geology and mining engineer for the Royal Dublin Society around this period. In 1822 he was appointed Engineer of public works in Cork Kerry and Limerick.
However, his most notable contribution to Irish archival history must surely be his three valuations of Ireland. In 1825 Richard Griffith was employed as Chief Boundary Surveyor and two years later he was appointed as the first Commissioner for the General Survey and Valuation of Rateable Property in Ireland, following the Valuation Act of 1826, an Act which he was involved in drafting, and initiated by King George I. As Commissioner, Richard Griffith also had responsibility for the overall management of the Valuation Office. ‘The Valuation Office is Ireland’s State property valuation organisation and has carried out valuation functions since 1830.’
Tenements, townlands and Poor Law, confused?
Initially, ‘the Townland Valuation, was begun in the year 1830, under the provisions of an Act of Parliament, 7. Geo. I.V. cap. 62, which had been passed in 1826, four years previously.’ Fieldwork was initiated in Derry and was to be conducted in both rural and urban locations, covering the thirty-two counties of Ireland and was organised by barony. ‘Because the townland was the smallest land division generally recognized throughout the country by occupiers and governmental authorities, it was the unit by which the land would be measured and valued.’ The valuators worked systematically through each townland in each barony, recording the requisite information. To ensure accuracy and consistency, Richard Griffith issued a set of instructions ‘to the Valuators and Surveyors acting under him’. Each man was supplied with pre-printed books and instruments.
Land and houses were to be valued separately. Land was to be valued based on its fertility calculated by a scale of prices, deemed to be the current prices of agricultural produce, set out in the 1826 act. The issue was; these values had been determined ten years earlier in the immediate aftermath of the end of the ‘French war’, and therefore were significantly lower. The valuators were directed to divide the land in a townland into lots ensuring that each lot was the same quality and therefore value. To determine the quality of soil, the valuators examined the depth and nature of the subsoil. Having examined the quality, the valuator could then determine the amount of wheat and other crops that the land would yield enabling him to set a value by the acre. Houses were valued by the annual rent for which they would earn. This value was determined by the state and build of the house. The names of occupiers were not noted unless the house they held was more than £3 (£5 after 1836).
Nevertheless, more changes ensued. In 1838 the poor law was introduced. The Irish Poor Law Act was an attempt to come to terms with some of the problems arising out of widespread poverty in Ireland in the early nineteenth century by providing institutional relief for the destitute. The act was heavily influenced by a similar measure introduced in England four years earlier, and initially divided Ireland into 130 poor law unions, each with a workhouse at its centre, and administered by a board of poor law guardians. In 1844 the basis of valuation changed from townlands to tenements, the provision ratified by the Valuation Act 1846. Initially, the act applied to only six counties: Cork, Dublin, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford as they had not been assessed by the townland valuation (the townland valuation remained in force for the other 26 counties already assessed).
Under the Tenement Valuation, every holding was recorded including the names of the occupiers. Although the procedures were in the same vein as the Townland Valuation, the removal of the £5 threshold generated large volumes of documentation. In 1852, a further Valuation Act was ratified ensuring that the valuation in tenement was applied to the entire country. By 1864 the entire country was valued in tenements and the initial valuation was complete.
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 William A. Smyth, Sir Richard Griffith’s three valuations of Ireland 1826-1864 (PhD thesis, National University of Ireland Maynooth, 2008), p.1.  Report from the Select Committee on the Survey and Valuation of Ireland, HC (1824), 445, viii, 4.  HC (1824), 445, viii, 6.  HC (1824), 445, viii, 10.  https://www.osi.ie/about/history/  Valuation Office, Annual Report 2019 (Dublin?, 2020), p. 3. (https://www.valoff.ie/en/publications/annual-reports/annual-report-2019.pdf)  J. F. V. Fitz Gerald, A practical guide to the valuation of rent in Ireland (Dublin, 1881), p. 97.  J. R. Reilly, Richard Griffith and his valuations of Ireland (Baltimore, 2000), p. 12.  Richard Griffith, Instructions to the valuators and surveyors appointed under the 15th and 16th Vict., Cap.63 for the uniform valuation of lands and tenements in Ireland (Dublin, 1853), p. 1.  Ibid.