All of us are familiar with political corruption – and with the idea of a small group of people sharing power amongst themselves for their own gain, but it is hard to fathom the extent to which this was normal in the past. In Waterford, groups were so pre-disposed with keeping the power between two almost identical groups that they recorded an official agreement to vote strategically and keep each other in power. In some cases they even manipulated the borders of the constituency and used residents to achieve their own ends. There is a word for this practice – gerrymandering.
Politics in Ireland has historically gotten a little bit dodgy from time to time – particularly local politics. Today, local politics isn’t always considered important, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, local corporations had the power to select a potential candidate to represent the city in parliament during election times (technically there was still an election, but invariably, the corporation-chosen candidate won the seat), and more importantly divide the salaried offices of local power (Sheriff, Water Bailiff and market constable) among ‘deserving’ people, as well as appointing freemen. Family control was exceedingly common as this was before the full repeal of the penal laws, and the city was controlled by a small clique of Church of Ireland families who carefully protected and used their power over several years. This was a period of political corruption and ‘rotten boroughs’ which got so bad that a country-wide ‘revolution’ began in 1828 to dismantle the old seats of power and pave the way for more representative and effective political system in Ireland. The Municipal corporations (Ireland) Act of 1840 finished this system once and for all by abolishing 59 of these old corporations and severely cutting back on the power the remaining ten, including Waterford, had.
During the eighteenth century in Waterford the scramble for power was between the various local families of the Masons, Congreves, Alcocks and Carews. It was not necessarily a stipulation that these ascendancy families had to be resident in the borough to control the corporation, and sometimes they employed agents to maintain their control for them. In Ireland, as had always been the case, land and power went hand in hand as most of these families – known as borough patrons – were land magnates. Land ownership was the key to maintaining control as tenants that had been granted their freedom could be easily coerced into supporting the view of their landlords, and in the case of large estates they could effectively outvote any potential opposition. The link between local and national politics is clear in the influence that municipal government had in returning MPs to parliament and as a result of this, borough elections were political events which held much the same importance as parliamentary ones. As the eighteenth century ended and the nineteenth century began, the political scene in Ireland changed dramatically with the Act of Union 1801 and the power in Waterford changed hands so it was now controlled by a new family on the scene: the Newports, and their enduring rivals; the Alcocks.
The Newports and the Alcocks took the gerrymandering to new heights and one of the clearest examples of the corrupt nature of the Waterford Corporation in this period is the compact that was drawn up in 1818 between the two families.The pact was made to settle the tension between the two over the parliamentary seat in Waterford, and to control virtually every aspect of the corporation itself. The two families were similar but had key political differences; for one, the Newports were much more liberal whereas the Alcocks were opponents of the idea of Catholic emancipation – making them far less popular among the people of the city. The compact agreement avoided the two parties fighting between themselves and risking the loss of the seat, as had happened to the Alcocks in 1802 by stating:
Mr. Alcock and his Friends pledge themselves to support Sir John Newport for the representation of the City of Waterford during the lifetime of the said Sir John Newport […] At the expiration of either event Mr. Alcock to be supported by every exertion of the Newport Family and their Friends in the future Representation of said City […].
The compact between the two families and their supporters is indisputable evidence of the fact that by the nineteenth century, the municipal corporations were closer to exclusive clubs for the elite of society than political bodies. It also had clear implications on the character of the Newport family, who had traditionally been very popular in the city. They were revealed to be willing to support advances in political Catholic freedom, but only so long as that freedom did not encroach upon their own position. They were also revealed to be very much of the traditional belief that it was their right and entitlement to use public funds and positions to further their own wealth and political ambition.
Aside from deciding the representative of the city in parliament, the compact outlined the plan for the municipal corporation going forward. The third clause for example, states that the two parties intended to alternate the office of mayor year by year, beginning with the Newports, until the agreement ended, and that each side would choose a representative sheriff every year. The two families clearly showed their attitudes in relation to their rights and privileges throughout the document, by dividing the highest paying offices among themselves and specifically excluding their political rivals, the Boltons.
It was not simply Catholics who were excluded from holding corporation seats on the whim of its leaders, but included anyone they disliked. To this end, the fourth clause states: ‘All the offices held by the Bolton party during the pleasure of the corporation, or of which they can be legally deprived, to be withdrawn from them’. The compact ended in 1830, but the power did not leave Newport and Alcock hands until after the results of the Municipal Reform Act. On 29 June 1830, the corporation effectively rendered it null and void by passing a resolution ‘That the council utterly disavow any right or claim as a body to interfere with, or influence the citizens in the election of a member to represent the city of Waterford in parliament’.
During the investigation conducted by a national commission charged with uncovering municipal corruption, the mayor himself bore witness that the members of the corporation were aware of the compact and its conditions, but acted as ‘mere puppets’ of the more powerful men.
The compact is significant as it is written proof of just how easily the local government system could be gerrymandered in favour, not just of one religious affiliation, but two specific groups without any regard for the true purpose of the local government or the betterment of the city and its citizens.
Unfortunately the full text of the agreement is too long to reprint here, but if this is your sort of history and you would like to read it in full then you can find it in the Corporation Minutes in the City library, as an appendix in Decies 63, or you can just drop us an email/ message and we would be happy to send it on!