Sunday, 12 August 2012

Pawn shop ledgers in Carrick-on-Suir

Last week I spent a few days with my wife and kids in Ireland, mainly to go camping in Connemara, Waterford and Down, but we also managed to spend a couple of days in Piltown, County Kilkenny, with my mother-in-law. Just up the road from Piltown is a town called Carrick-on-Suir, just over the county border in Tipperary, and the birthplace of my now deceased father-in-law Paddy Giles.

Carrick-on-Suir Heritage Centre
Every time I go to Carrick I try to get in some research, either with visits to the local graveyards in Carrickbeg, or at the local Heritage Centre, based within an old converted Presbyterian church building in the centre of the town. The centre has many interesting displays on all sorts of aspects of history, including the War of Independence, and the raising of the red flag over the town's creamery in 1922 just prior to the civil war in the 1920s. Within several glass cases there are also many rare gems - a physician's prescription book, letters from many former residents, and more. Each time I have visited in the past I have asked if it was possible to be able to see some of these rare gems, and have previously always been denied. On this occasion, however, my luck was in!

In one of the cabinets I noticed a pile of books with a small label stating that they were pawn shop ledgers. Intrigued, I asked if I could perhaps have a look at them, explaining that I worked as a genealogist but was in this case interested for personal reasons. The attendant unbelievably agreed! It took a few minutes to work out how to unlock the case, but once done I lifted down the books and began to browse.

Anyone who regularly researches will know that in many cases the records available for genealogical excavation tend to be better for those slightly further up the social scale, with property records, newspaper coverage, and more. In Ireland, much of the population was at the other end of the social scale, often destitute and barely able to make ends meet. One of the big surprises for me personally in the last few weeks has been to discover just how polarised the population of Carrick was in the War of Independence. I had always believed the town to be pro-independence, but in fact, hundreds of men had been recruited in the town to the British Army in previous years, and the wages sent back to wives and mothers was a much prized resource. Far from being supportive of Irish independence, many were in fact openly hostile to it, fearful for the loss of wages that would ensue. The lack of income for many of the population was a serious issue.

A key problem with Irish research is the lack of censuses prior to 1901 for most of Ireland. Carrick-on-Suir is a remarkable town in that it has a major exception, in the form of a census that was taken in 1799, now held by the British Library in London, and which acted in many ways as a forerunner to the later British decennial censuses. The census lists names, ages, occupations and addresses, and more. (A truncated transcript is online at The population in 1799 is therefore well recorded, as it is again in 1901. The problem lies in the middle. Griffiths Valuation is one of a few census substitutes which lists the heads of household for the middle of the century, but any new resource is always welcome.

So having placed the pawn shop ledgers on the table, I had a look to see what I could find. The records cover the period from 1864 to 1868, and are absolutely packed with details of those who took trinkets to the local pawn shop on the Main Street, often on a monthly basis. So detailed were they that in four hours I was only able to get through the records for July1864 to October 1865, and the few records available for 1868. Having previously built up a picture of the Giles, Donovan and Colleton families from the town from other sources such as parish and statutory records, I was now able to learn a great deal more.

Carrick-on-Suir circa 1925
For one thing, a new family member was revealed - a Rose Giles who like the rest of the family lived on the Ballyrichard Road and later at the town's Fair Green. Rose was noted as pawning a brown vest for 2s 1d on Tuesday October 25th 1864, and a pair of grey trousers and a vest just four days later for 4s 7d. In the period of a year she was in fact recorded a total of thirteen times, with other items pawned including a black cap, a handkerchief, an old calico shirt, with many of the same items apparently pawned on several occasions. Quite how Rose ties in I have yet to establish, but without these records, I would never have heard of her. Elsewhere, my sons' three times great grandmother, noted as 'Mrs Donovan' from Ballyrichard (and later Oven Lane), is also noted as pawning a pair of shoes and a dark frock coat on a couple of occasions, with her daughter, the boys two times great gran also noted as pawning boots from Oven Lane just four years prior to her marriage. On the Colleton side, a well established family of bakers in the town, there are also many other entries showing that a visit to the pawn shop was a way of life for many within the town.

Whilst Carrick-on-Suir is a huge town, it has no historical society, and so records such as these are lying around in display cabinets gathering dust, when they in fact contain a gold mine of information. When somebody next tells you that there are no records in Ireland - they were all destroyed, and all the rest - ignore them. Put your coat on, head for the area of interest and start to dig - you never know what you might uncover!