The legacy of the Dublin Paving Board can still be seen in the antique setts and granite kerbstones of the city’s historic Georgian core. Finnian O’Cionnaith reports
Civil

The 18th century is frequently revered as the period when Dublin as we know it truly came into being. While our focus is habitually directed towards the iconic Georgian buildings that have survived from this period, these in reality make up only a portion of the city’s fabric and heritage. When it comes to understanding the Dublin’s evolution, there is an equal amount of history below our feet as above our heads. The founding in 1774 of the Commissioners for Paving the Streets of Dublin, commonly known as the Dublin Paving Board, was part of a wider movement towards the end of the 18th century to improve Dublin’s outdated and overwhelmed urban infrastructure.

Throughout this period, many aspects of the city’s medieval origins such as defensive walls, wooden housing and tower gates were removed and replaced with straighter and wider roads, uniform housing, stronger bridges and better public services. The Wide Streets Commissioners built many of the streets during this era that are now considered fundamental aspects of Dublin’s identity. The Ballast Board oversaw the growth of the economically vital docks and harbour, while the Pipe Water Committee strove to see that the rapidly growing population had access to comparatively clean water.

Dublin, with its independent parliament, was the heart of Ireland’s political and economic life. While the Paving Board’s control over street paving, cleansing and lighting may seem like trivial issues on the wider stage of city’s history, without these services, the city’s development would have invariably come to an undignified, embarrassing and very public halt.

Georgian street life


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A lamplighter on Essex Bridge from ‘View from Capel Street looking over Essex Bridge’ by James Malton (1797) (courtesy of National Library of Ireland © NLI)

Home to the elite of Irish aristocracy and politics, with a thriving middle and mercantile class as well as throngs of unskilled unemployed poor, 18th-century Dublin experienced many problems still found in the modern city. College Green was noted as a major traffic blackspot, an era of economic austerity was giving voice to wider political grievances, anti-social behaviour was a growing concern and the public were greatly disturbed over the privatisation of public services, including the Paving Board, which itself was rocked by a series of financial scandals resulting in tribunals, investigations and humiliations for those involved.

Apart from such familiar issues, there were also problems unique to the city at that time. Dublin had a population of troublesome wild pigs and was troubled by ‘faction fights’ (recreational riots between the city’s gangs, which were frequent and bloody). The city was plagued throughout by potholes so large they could be described as ‘chasms’ and it suffered from overcrowding on an almost incomprehensible scale: hundreds of people could be frequently found occupying single, dilapidated houses in poorer neighbourhoods.

The Paving Board was tasked with tackling many of these problems and to bring better order to the warren of Dublin’s streets. It was not, however, the first institution to try to improve Dublin street life and services. Records dating as far back to a decree made by King Edward III in 1336 show that those in power understood that a properly functioning street network was vital to the Dublin’s success. Attempts had been made earlier in the 18th century by Dublin Corporation to control how the streets were maintained and lit, usually through the city’s parochial boards under the supervision of the Lord Mayor. However, each embodiment was soon outpaced by the growth the city. By the 1770s, it had become clear that a more modern, powerful, independent and central authority was required and this came into being as the Dublin Paving Board.

Central to the Board’s work was, as its name implies, paving. Many of Dublin’s streets at the time were indeed paved. However, it was often done ad hoc, with period commentators complaining of poorly surfaced roads prone to collecting water during rains and often difficult for coaches and carts to traverse. Many streets, even in the city centre, were often unpaved and their compacted earth surfaces were entirely unable to serve an urban population which had tripled in number over the course of a century.

The key to the Paving Board’s success lay in its organisation. The Board divided Dublin into several large divisions, each of which was under the remit of individual committees who reported to a central body of commissioners, many of whom were members of the city council. Each divisional committee was responsible for collecting paving tax to fund the organisation and to inspect the streets in its jurisdiction. Based on these reports, the central board would allocate resources to issues which, in theory, it felt were most pressing.

Unfortunately, during subsequent period investigations into the Board’s work, even in its earliest days it was found that commissioners were often more concerned about improving the streets on which they lived rather than those most in need. And, though praised by many at the time, financial and organisational corruption dogged the Paving Board over the course of its existence.

Paving the way


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A sketch of a section of pavement found in the Paving Board minute book for 1778 (DCA/PB/Mins/4, p. 134) (courtesy of Dublin City Library and Archives)

With virtually no underground services present in the period, laying pavement and improving road foundations was relatively straightforward. Projects were advertised and contractors employed on a case-by-case basis. However, over time, several contractors managed to obtain a dominance over available work. Once laid with kerbing and paving slabs (many of which were prone to being prised up and stolen by Dublin’s less-law-abiding populace at night), the contractor’s work would then be appraised, quantified and signed off on by the Board’s resident surveyor whose role merged the tasks of engineer, architect and land surveyor.

From a project-management perspective, the surveyor’s role was of fundamental importance. Construction planning and assignment of financial resources were primarily based from the surveyor’s measurements so, in many ways, the quality of the Board’s work was reflected in this role.

An example of the organisation’s need for accurate spatial information can probably be best seen in 1782 when, after the first Paving Board had collapsed in financial scandal, its second embodiment requested surveyor Thomas Owen to give a street-by-street breakdown of the city, reporting the surface area of each along with its state of repair. From Owen’s report, conducted over the course of nearly a year, the second Board determined that its available resources were simply unable to cope with the task at hand.

This revelation led to an unprecedented crisis over who controlled public services in the city, pitting Dublin Corporation against the Irish Parliament in a heated dispute and culminating in a public riot in College Green that was only dispersed by the timely arrival of troops and a squad a cavalry. The board represented more than just a public utility provider. Whoever controlled it, controlled the streets of the capital.

Though taking their role as public servants seriously, the paving commissioners were certainly not passive in their approach and at times may have been overly enthusiastic in enforcing their resolve. Their detailed handwritten minute books, daily records of the Board’s interaction with the city’s populace, are strewn with references to violent resistance, assaults and localised riots as they attempted to stamp Georgian conformity on Dublin.

In response to opposition, the Board could independently fine or imprison individuals for non-payment of taxes and obstructing or assaulting its officers, while its records are filled with petitions from those behind bars begging release. One period commentator was shocked at the powers the board were awarded, stating “… many people think our city members were asleep when they suffered that clause to pass in the Paving Act, which subjects a poor man to two months imprisonment, if he either refuses, or is unable to pay his [paving tax]”.

The Board’s authority went further than imprisonment. In the most extreme cases, it was empowered to entirely remove services from whole neighbourhoods when resistance was offered. This was the unfortunate case for Capel Street in 1785 when, after a serious assault occurred on a lamplighter, the Board punished the entire street by plunging it into darkness for several nights in a row as none of the residents had come to his assistance.

Such severity, though unusual, was not limited to just the Paving Board as the city’s magistrates could penalise bad driving by having the perpetrator publically whipped through the streets. Punishments by the Paving Board were by far the exception, however, and most Dubliners simply accepted the Board’s work and its occasional intrusion into their lives.

Urban organisation


Georgian DublinDespite paving being their prime concern, the Board dealt with a wide variety of issues related to urban organisation. It was responsible for ensuring that the city’s street lamps were lit at night, it organised traffic management schemes, instigated official street signage and house numbering, maintained public pumps vital to the supply of water to many residents, managed the often-turbulent markets and ran city-wide waste collection through their contracted teams of ‘scavengers’.

These scavengers were often the source of much strife for the Board, as the highly territorial crews would frequently overreact to any attempt to criticise their work or alter their operations resorting to threats and occasionally violence. To monitor both its employees and the citizens of the city, the Board employed a number of local inspectors, including Peter Tone, father of the revolutionary Theobald Wolfe Tone. These inspectors would patrol Dublin both day and night in search of public nuisances by citizens or indiscretions of the board’s employees, particularly of lamplighters, whose paramount importance to public safety was summed up in a period rhyme:

What mischief else, what terror would you meet,
In each unguarded alley, lane, or street,
What murders, robb’ries, rapes would else be made,
Were but your Lampmen to forsake their trade.

Over the course of its existence (1774-1840s), the Board was subject to regular financial appraisals and reviews often following criticisms of its work by political authorities. These uncovered gross overspending, rampant borrowing or inefficient strategies on a disturbingly regular basis leading to the formation and collapse of an unprecedented five separate Paving Boards over this period. Among the citizens of the city, the Board’s work was divisive. Many openly praised the improvements it had made to Dublin, while others were appalled at complaints of corruption or the poor maintenances of parts of the city, with one anti-Paving Board publication lamenting: “Our miserable streets, the curse of their inhabitants, the laugh, the scorn of foreigners!” (Anon, Observations on the Paving Acts, Dublin, 1782).

While it may be easy to criticise the work of the Paving Board in light of the financial and political scandal that shadowed the organisation,its fundamental legacy was the manner in which public services were managed in Dublin. The Board took an outdated, overwhelmed and unbalanced system and replaced it with a centralised, planned and accountable authority. It was at the forefront of period organisations that stopped assessing Dublin as a series of medieval parishes, but rather as the large urban entity which it had become.

Without this change in strategic appraisal, the city’s rapid development would have been significantly impeded and by the time Dublin Corporation eventually took back the role of street management in the 1840s, it inherited a significantly better-run system than the one it had handed over in the 1770s.

The story of the Dublin Paving Board allows us to explore important aspects of Dublin’s engineering and urban history but also the more mundane, everyday aspects of the lives of Georgian Dubliners. Modern resident of the city have far more in common with their ancestors than at first may appear and, as evident in the Paving Board’s detailed records, many of the same daily dramas that affect the city today, both large and small, have been played out on the same streets numerous times before.

Exercise of AuthorityExercise of authority: Surveyor Thomas Owen and the paving, cleansing and lighting of Georgian Dublin is published by Dublin City Council as part of the History of Dublin Engineering series. It is available online from Four Courts Press or can be ordered through your local bookshop. 156pp; colour illustrations. Hardback: ISBN 978-1-907002-23-6 (retail: €29.95) or paperback: ISBN 978-1-907002-30-4 (retail: €19.95).

Author: Finnian O’Cionnaith

is a practising land surveyor and has worked in a variety of surveying roles on three continents. He is the author of Mapping, measurement and metropolis: how land surveyors shaped eighteenth-century Dublin (2012). He received a PhD in history from NUI Maynooth in 2011.

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The 18th century is frequently revered as the period when Dublin as we know it truly came into being. While our focus is habitually directed towards the iconic Georgian buildings that have survived from this period, these in reality make up only a portion of the city’s fabric and...