Pawnbroking has been practised for over 2,000 years. In China and Greece, it was practised long before Emperor Augustus set up the first pawn in Rome. Under Roman law, no man could pawn his furniture or farming tools. The interest rate was fixed at 3% per annum with up to three years allowed for goods to be redeemed.
Photo by William Murphy – Flickr – Streets Of Dublin – Brereton’s Pawn Shop, Capel Street. (CC BY-SA 2.0).
In 15th Century Italy, the popes established a system known as the ‘monte-de-piéte’ to help the poor with interest-free loans. In 1464, Pope Pius II changed the system to allow interest so the cost for overheads could be recovered. Moneylenders and goldsmiths from Genoa, Florence and Venice spread the system across Europe and introduced the familiar three balls outside their shops to advertise their premises. In Ireland, the first recorded mention of the pawn concerns Sir James Dillon’s waistcoat which was pawned for £10 in 1664.
Two men are standing behind the counter of a pawnbroker’s shop in London, examining some articles of clothing which have been brought in to pawn. Etching by George Cruikshank, 1836. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.
Ten legally recognised pawnbrokers were operating in Dublin in 1786 and by 1830, the number had risen to almost 50. These numbers do not include the large numbers of illegal pawnbrokers which flourished in the back streets. There were 57 pawnbrokers by 1838, 48 in 1850 and 76 in 1870. Pawnshops were rarely put up for sale. They passed from generation to generation and were located in high-class areas with the pawnbroker and their family living on the premises.
Evening Telegraph 16 June 1904.
In 1872, the House of Commons passed the Pawnbrokers Act which was based on an earlier Irish law. Pledges for 10 shillings or less which were not redeemed in time became the pawnbroker’s property. Above 10 shillings, pledges could be redeemed up to the time of the sale to dispose of them, the sale being by means of a public auction. A new rate of interest was introduced at one halfpenny per month on two shillings or part of, on loans under £2. Above £2, the rate was one halfpenny per two shillings and sixpence or part of.
Shawled women waiting for the pawn shop to open in Dublin late 1800s or early 1900s. Pinterest.
In 1894, 17% of Dublin pawnbrokers were women. Margaret McNally guaranteed privacy and discretion at the First-Class Pawn Office located at 85 Marlborough Street where customers came for cash advances on a box of good cigars, a diamond necklace and share certificates. The luxury end of pawnbroking turned Margaret a tidy profit.
Winetavern Street in 1926 with P. Corvan Jewellers and Pawnbrokers shop on the left with a statue above holding the traditional balls symbol of the trade. Pinterest.
By the early 1900s, the pawn had become a way of life for Dublin’s poor as they struggled to survive. In an emergency, there was always the pawnbroker’s shop, where any portable item could be converted to cash with virtually no questions or paperwork. Almost anything could be pawned, including peoples’ Sunday best. Suits and dresses worn to mass on Sundays would be pawned on Mondays and redeemed on Fridays. Over time, many pawnshops stopped accepting clothing and almost all pawnbrokers’ business now comes from jewellery and other valuables.
The pawnbroker was an essential part of Dublin’s economy providing a vital service and preventing many people from falling into the hands of unscrupulous money lenders. Changes in social conditions, however, brought about their slow decline. Pawnbroker licences are issued by the National Consumer Agency. Currently, there are only three licensed brokers in the Republic of Ireland, all of them in Dublin: Kearns Pawnbrokers and Jewellers on Queen Street, Carthy Jewellers and Pawnbrokers on Marlborough Street and John Brereton Pawnbrokers on Capel Street.
© Lorna Peel
Dublin, Ireland, September 1886. Will is reacquainted with his former fiancée when his father’s close friend Dr Ken Wilson dies suddenly. On finding they have received the only invitation to the Wilson residence after the funeral, the Fitzgeralds witness the tensions between Cecilia, her mother and her in-laws and discover her hidden motive for wanting them present.
When Isobel is reunited with an old friend from Ballybeg, his shame at what he has done to survive hampers her attempts to bring him and Alfie together again. With an empty life and low expectations, can Peter regain his self-respect or are he and Alfie destined to be alone?
Read an excerpt from Chapter Two…
Teresa was seated at the dining table and Isobel held up a hand as the maid went to get to her feet.
“Don’t get up,” she said, pulling out a chair and sitting beside her. “How long have you been lady’s maid to Mrs Ashlinn junior and Mrs Wilson?” she asked.
“I’ve been with Mrs Ashlinn six years. I was engaged when she and her late husband moved to number 46 shortly after their marriage. When Mr Ashlinn died, I went with Mrs Ashlinn to number 14 and a year later, I also became Mrs Wilson’s lady’s maid when her lady’s maid… left.”
Walked out, most likely, Isobel concluded.
“And are you also Master Clive’s nursery maid?” she continued and Teresa shook her head.
“No, I’ve never been Master Clive’s nursery maid, Mrs Fitzgerald. Mrs Ashlinn does everything for Master Clive and I help her whenever I can.”
“So a nursery maid has never been engaged for Master Clive at number 14?” Isobel clarified and the young woman shook her head again.
“No, never. Mrs Wilson refused to engage one because she hoped the hard work would make Mrs Ashlinn realise that Master Clive would be better off in an institution.”
Isobel fought to control her temper. “Teresa, Mrs Wilson has sent Mrs Ashlinn and Master Clive’s belongings to my parents-in-law’s home – effectively disowning them. She also sent your belongings…”
“Dismissing me,” the young woman said quietly and Isobel nodded. “I’ve never been dismissed before.”
“You can either go to number 67 and remain with Mrs Ashlinn and Master Clive or I can write you a character reference and you may stay here until you find a new position. Think it over while I help my husband put our children to bed.”
“Thank you, Mrs Fitzgerald, but I don’t need to think it over. I would like to remain with Mrs Ashlinn and Master Clive.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am. Being what he is, Master Clive is a handful but Mrs Ashlinn and I have been with him all his life and he trusts the two of us.”
“Very well. I must warn you that Mrs Ashlinn and Master Clive’s future is rather uncertain at present but an acquaintance who is a barrister and my step-father who is a solicitor will be working on their behalf to attempt a resolution.”
“I hope they can because Mrs Ashlinn and Master Clive deserve to be out of their clutches and—” Teresa broke off, flushed and stared down at her hands hoping she hadn’t said too much.
“‘Their’ being Mrs Wilson and Mr Alistair Ashlinn?” Isobel prompted gently.
“Yes. Did you like the dress, hat and veil Mrs Ashlinn junior wore today?”
Isobel frowned. The crepe dress, small hat and tulle veil were all stylish yet demure. “Yes, I did. Why do you ask?”
“Because they’re all hired,” Teresa replied and Isobel’s jaw dropped. “The morning Dr Wilson died, Mrs Wilson sent me out to hire mourning attire for Mrs Ashlinn after she heard Dr John Fitzgerald had called. I chose a tulle veil because I wanted the mourners to be able to see her face – to see what being in Mrs Wilson and Mr Alistair Ashlinn’s clutches has done to her.”
“Where does Mrs Ashlinn junior usually obtain clothes for herself and Master Clive?” Isobel asked quietly.
“Mrs Ashlinn hasn’t visited her dressmaker since her husband died because she hasn’t been allowed the funds to do so. Instead, I go to the clothes markets and pawn shops with what little she is given and then passes on to me. When she ‘stole’ and gave me an ornament to pawn, Mrs Wilson noticed it was gone – the old hag doesn’t miss anything – and she struck me, Mrs Ashlinn and Master Clive – then made me retrieve it from the pawn shop. Mrs Ashlinn didn’t dare attempt it again. Now, I must go to number 67 and unpack her belongings.”
“Wait,” Isobel commanded as Teresa got up and the young woman sank back onto the chair. “I shall give you some clothes for Mrs Ashlinn and Master Clive but compile a list of items they both need which can be purchased readymade – boys’ clothes – underclothing – nightshirts – nightdresses – boots – put them on the list and pass it to Mrs Fitzgerald senior or to me.”
“Yes, Mrs Fitzgerald. Mrs Ashlinn left the hired hat and veil behind at number 14 but what about the dress?”
“Who has the hire docket?”
“Then, keep the dress,” Isobel replied and Teresa grinned. “What I can’t understand is how Dr Wilson didn’t notice what was happening in his own home,” she added and the young woman’s grin faded.
“Mrs Wilson ruled the roost in the house, Mrs Fitzgerald. Mrs Wilson comes from a rich family and is good with money. Both Mrs Ashlinn and Master Clive are always dressed respectably – I see to that – I search for the best clothes. Yes, Dr Wilson knew Mrs Wilson and Mrs Ashlinn rowed but the rows were all about Master Clive. Everyone in the household knew from Dr Wilson that Master Clive would never get better but that for the present, Master Clive should be looked after at home. Poor Mrs Ashlinn dreaded the day her father would die.”
Because she knew Alistair Ashlinn would try to place the boy in an institution, Isobel finished silently.
“Thank you, Teresa. Please wait here while I put my children to bed and fetch some clothes. Gerald, our footman will then escort you to number 67.”
Explore my blog for more excerpts, character profiles, and background information
Tap/Click a banner below to catch up on the rest of the series!
I’ve created a map of the Dublin area with locations which feature in The Fitzgeralds of Dublin Series. As a few locations don’t exist anymore, some are approximate but I’ve been as accurate as I can. Tap/Click in the top right hand corner to open the map.