Board of Guardians

Elected boards of Guardians managed Poor Law Unions. The 130 Unions established in 1838 were divided into 2,049 electoral divisions (later increased to 3,438 electoral divisions when the number of Unions was increased to 163). There were two types of Guardians. After 1847 half the members of each Board held office ex-officio - local magistrates for example - and the other half were elected.

The franchise for elections was determined by the valuation. All those with property valued at over 4 were entitled to vote but it was possible to have up to six votes if one held property over 200 valuation. There was a graduated scale between these points. Elections were held annually on 25 March, or the day most convenient to it.

The size of Boards of Guardians varied across the country, there being one member from each electoral district, although electoral divisions in towns could have up to four representatives depending on the town's population. Boards ranged in size from eight in the case of Corofin, Co. Clare to Cork city which had 50. However the vast majority were in the range 18 to 30 elected Guardians and the countrywide average was about 25.

Prior to the 1880s the sort of people who were elected as Guardians were, in the main, people of status such as landowners, businessmen or a substantial farmers. Certainly almost all the chairmanships and vice chairmanships in 1877 were held by landowners. By the middle of the 1880s, however, the composition of the Boards of Guardians was fast changing. Therise of nationalist politics saw more political competition for seats on the Boards of Guardians with tenants taking far more places than ever before at the expense of landlord interests. In 1877 elections were contested in only 259 electoral divisions (out of over 3,000) while in 1884, in contrast, 554 contests were held.

Much of this process of the politicisation of the Boards of Guardians can be traced in the newspaper reports of their meetings. Boards often met weekly and since their meetings involved both politics and money they were usually reported in some detail in the local press. Such reports are of more use for reconstructing what actually happened at meetings than the more formal minutes, which were limited in what they recorded.


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