In 1841, Lord Morpeth, then Chief Secretary for Ireland, was leaving office having lost his seat in the UK parliament. During his time as Chief Secretary for Ireland Morpeth carried through reforming legislation on Irish tithes and municipal government and enjoyed good relations with Daniel O'Connell and his followers. To mark his departure from these shores, the Duke of Leinster gathered a petition of "outpourings of affection and support" from across the country - in effect a gigantic farewell card filled with 160,000 signatures. The signatures, gathered on 652 sheets of paper over a six week period, were stuck together, creating a continuous roll measuring 420 metres, three times the length of Croke Park.
Morpeth returned to his family home, Castle Howard in Yorkshire, taking the testimonial, "the richest heirloom" he could bequeath to his family with him. But after his death it lay unrecognised in a basement for more than a century. Now this extraordinary document has resurfaced and returned to Ireland for the purposes of research and conservation.
The Roll poses many questions: politically it gives an insight into Anglo-Irish relations at the time, however there is much mystery around the signatories of the Roll. While there are many famous names on the Roll - the Duke of Leinster, Daniel O'Connell, Thomas Davis, Charles Gavan Duffy, and Charles Bianconi to name a few, the identity of the majority of signatories is unknown.
The Morpeth project team, a collaboration between Castle Howard, Maynooth University and Ancestry.com are embarking on an endeavor to trace the stories of the Roll's signatories - Who signed it? Did they remain in Ireland through the Famine that followed? Did they emigrate to the US or the UK? What did they achieve in their lifetime? Ancestry.com, the world's largest online family history resource, are adding to it's already extensive collection of more than 11 billion records by digitising the content of the Morpeth Roll and making it available for the first time ever online.
Famous signatories of the Morpeth Roll
- Augustus Frederick Fitzgerald, 3rd Duke of Leinster: Resided at Carton House, Maynooth Co. Kildare. He was Ireland's premier peer and served as Commissioner for National Education in Ireland 1836-41. Grand Master of the Freemasons of Ireland from 1824-74.
- Daniel O'Connell: Born in Co. Kerry in 1775 and often known as the Liberator. A lawyer and a politician, he successfully campaigned for Catholic emancipation, which was granted in 1829, and later for the repeal of the political union between Ireland and Britain. Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1841. He died in Italy in 1847 while on a pilgrimage to Rome.
- Thomas Davis: Born in Mallow, Co Cork in 1814. A member of the Young Irelanders a nationalist group, whose members comprised both Catholics and Protestants from middle class backgrounds. He was the son of a British army surgeon, who died before he was born, and an Irish Protestant mother. In 1842 he co-founded the Nation newspaper and became its editor. In his editorials and poetry, he publicised his theories of self-government in countless articles on Irish history and culture. Davis later became leader of the Young Ireland movement but died from scarlet fever in 1845 just three years before the failed Young Ireland rebellion of 1848.
- Charles Gavan Duffy: Born in Co. Monaghan of a middle-class Catholic family, he became a journalist and was appointed editor of the Belfast Vindicator in 1839. Along with Thomas Davis, he was involved with the Nation newspaper and in 1844 he was arrested for sedition. He supported the Irish rebellion of 1848 and as a consequence he was imprisoned. Upon his release he emigrated and later became a very prominent politician in Australia.
- Charles Bianconi: Charles Bianconi was an Italian immigrant who came to Ireland in 1802. He revolutionised public transport in Ireland by establishing regular horse-drawn carriage services on various routes from about 1815 onwards. He established a network of routes, which eventually covered most of the country from north to south. Thanks to his system of transport rural Ireland became much more accessible which in turn stimulated trade and even helped reduce the price of many commodities.
Morpeth Roll – the link to the Royal Family
A key part of the Morpeth project is uncovering the stories of the signatories – who they were, where they come from and what happened after they signed the Roll. Genealogists researching the Roll have discovered a connection to the British Royal Family from one of the signatories, Henry White.
In 1841 Henry White was one of three brothers, Luke, Henry and John, who signed the Morpeth Roll. In 1919, Luke Henry White, great-grandson of the Henry White, the original signatory, married Lavinia Spencer, brother of Albert Spencer who was Princess Diana’s grandfather, and mother of Prince William. And so, we find a direct connection from the Morpeth Roll through to the future King of England.