The Valuation Office: pre-Griffith’s records

Irish research doesn’t have many under-explored collections, so you’d expect joy unconfined to surround the records of the Valuation Office. However, most researchers’ eyes glaze over when you mention them.  And for good reason. The Office is one of the oldest continuously functioning arms of public administration in Ireland, set up in 1826 and still operating today. That’s almost two centuries, long enough to produce entire Himalayas of paper, which include some of the gnarliest records imaginable.

The Irish LIfe Centre in Abbey St, Dublin, current home of the VO

The Office’s basic role was (and is) simple enough: to create property valuations on which local property taxes could be based. Its main achievement was Griffith’s Primary Valuation of 1847-1864. But the creation of Griffith’s was far from simple.

The initial Townland Valuation Act (1826) allowed for a complete assessment of the annual value of every parcel of land and building in Ireland, with the aim of producing a total for each townland that could be used as the basis of a yearly tax. But in 1826 nobody even knew what townlands were where, so the project became dependant on, and intertwined with, the Boundary Commission and the Ordnance Survey.

Griffith in 1854 with his beloved geological map of Ireland (Stephen Catterson Smith, National Gallery of Ireland)

The earliest OS maps were produced for Londonderry in 1831 and it was then and there that surveying began.  Richard Griffith, the Valuation Commissioner, quickly saw that the plan to value everything was far too ambitious for the resources available. While continuing to value all land, a  threshold of £3 annual value was adopted for buildings to be assessed, excluding the large majority of householders but still covering a significant number of dwellings and commercial premises, especially in towns. The valuation continued on this basis for the next seven years, covering eight of the northern counties. By 1838, however, it was clear that even with a £3 threshold the surveying would never be completed. In that year the threshold was raised to £5, covering only the most substantial buildings.

Londonderry 1831, where it all began

The year 1838 was also that of the introduction of the Irish Poor Law, a rudimentary system of relief for the most destitute, and its funding was  based on a separate property survey. It quickly became obvious that it made no sense to have two separate systems of local taxation, based on differing valuations of the same property. In 1844, with townland valuations complete for 27 of the 32 counties, Griffith was authorised to change the basis of assessment by dropping the £5 threshold and covering all property in the remaining counties, all of them in Munster.

The Tenement Valuation Act (1852) retrospectively allowed Griffith to extend the system throughout Ireland – a procedure he had in fact already begun. Over two decades of valuation he had assembled a veritable army of skilled employees, each with a precise role in his vast valuing mechanism. It allowed him to publish county-by-county surveys of the entire island between 1847 and 1864, generally with the southern counties earlier and the northern counties later.

In the course of this long-drawn-out saga, huge quantities of manuscript records were produced. Firstly, the pre-1838 valuation of the northern counties, based on the £3 building threshold, created local valuers’ “house books” and “field books”, the former including the names of occupiers, the latter in theory at least concerned purely with soil productivity. They remain particularly useful for urban or semi-urban areas in northern counties before 1838.

After the change in the basis of assessment in 1844, the main categories of valuers’ notebooks continued to be known as ‘house books’ and ‘field books’, but the distinction became more than a little blurred, with information on occupiers appearing in both. To add to the merriment, other classes of notebook were also created:

  • Tenure books, showing landlord and lease information;
  • Rent books, showing rents paid, as an aid to valuation;
  • Quarto books, covering towns,
  • Perambulation books, recording valuers’ visits, and
  • Mill books.

There are far fewer of these than of the ‘house’ and ‘field’ books.

The survival of pre-publication Valuation Office records is patchy, with some parishes having four or more books while others have none at all. The only way to find out what’s there is to examine the records themselves. There are two major collections, one in PRONI, the other in NAI. The PRONI records cover only the six countues of Northern Ireland and are only available onsite in Belfast. It’s not clear from the information they provide that any of the post-1844 books are publicly available. In 2003, the LDS microfilmed the entire collection then held by NAI and this is the collection now online at

Another set of records, held by the Valuation Office itself until 2003 and subsequently moved to NAI, is still being catalogued and conserved and so is not as yet publicly available. The word is that it includes thousands upon thousands of valuers’ hand-made maps, with the tantalizing prospect of detailed field and townland maps that will hold a magnifying glass to rural Ireland of the 1830s and 1840s.

NAI has done a wonderful job of making the earlier microfilmed records intelligible and accessible. Written by former director Frances Magee, the introductory text for each of the manuscript types is a master-class in the valuation process and the codes used by the valuers. She has a book on the Valuation Office collection in the works, due out some time in the next twelve months. Roll on the day.

One caveat about the database transcripts. Something funny seems to be happening on the NAI site. Compare the search results for a Martin Heavy on FindMyPast with the results on the NAI site. There should be no difference – they’re the same underlying datasets. For the moment, the FindMyPast search is the one I trust. It’s free and also permits browsing by parish, something not available on the NAI site.

Licknavar, outside Skibbereen, March 31 1853: four households

These records might seem marginal and messy compared with the published Valuation, but keep in mind that Griffith’s, far from being the record of a settled population, is a snapshot of the aftermath of a catastrophe, the Great Famine. In the many areas enormous changes took place  between the original survey and final publication.  In the area around Skibbereen, for example. the pre-publication records are be the only surviving evidence of entire villages that were wiped out.

Licknavar, outside Skibbereen, July 24 1850: fourteen households


12 thoughts on “The Valuation Office: pre-Griffith’s records”

  1. A brilliant explanation of the history and details of how the Valuation office and the different types of records produced.
    Thank you,

  2. I spent several days with the records in the Valuation Office a few years ago. I worked on Mayo, Cork & Donegal properties. There are indeed large useful maps with properties numbered on them that correspond to the properties. In both Mayo & Cork, I was able to find my ancestors’ specific residence in at least one update. In both cases, it filled in gaps and confirmed or led me to other important information about them, such as date of death or emigration. The staff in the Valuation Office were most helpful.

  3. Hi
    Just for the record The Boundary Survey Office not the Boundary Commission was established under the 1825 Act and the first Chief Boundary Surveyor was Richard Griffith. The Ordnance Survey Office was established also in 1825. This was a separate organization to the Boundary Survey Office. The initial task of the Ordnance Survey was to Survey the Townland Boundaries which would have been identified by the Boundary Surveyors. An examination of the first OS maps, of the Northern part of Derry Donegal and Antrim, shows the Townland boundaries and associated detail with a few houses in the Townland. Most of the individual fields were not surveyed. They were added in later revisions.
    During the 1970s and 80s, I was frequent visitor to the basement of the Valuation Office when it was in Ely Place. During the 70s the LDS were microfilming the Valuation books. I often wondered what happened to these films. As far as I am aware they never appeared on the LDS research site.

  4. These are such a great resource for families who were there for Griffith’s Valuation, but gone by the 1901 Census. The comments about the differences in the FindMyPast collection and the NAI collection is worth noting. The Valuation Office Revision Books can often tell a different story from the Griffith’s Valuation books online at Ask About Ireland.

    1. I’m glad you try to work through the information Sandy. I have printed out the info and then sat with the images on my computer as I worked through both at the same time. I find I learn better that way. Just a thought.

  5. Are the pre-publication records part of the Griffith Valuation Books or are they other records to be searched separately?
    Thanks for any clarification or am I being dense?

  6. My Irish ancestors left County Cavan about 1805. Are there any of these types of records for this earlier time period?

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