In the Borough of Bess

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Believed to date from September 1908 this photograph, which has appeared on several sites of late, shows the indoor servants at Bessborough, County Kilkenny. The house lay at the centre of an estate owned by the Ponsonby family. The first of their number to settle in Ireland was yet another of those English soldier adventurers who came to this country in such abundance during the late 16th and 17th centuries. Originally from Cumberland, Colonel Sir John Ponsonby was a member of Oliver Cromwell’s army who found himself rewarded for military service here with a parcel of land. He subsequently acquired several more, the largest being an estate by the river Suir in the south of the county hitherto owned by the Anglo-Norman D’Altons after whom it was called Kildalton. Here he settled and having built himself a residence, he re-named the place Bessie-Borough, later Bessborough after his second wife Elizabeth Folliott.
Subsequent generations increased their landholdings in both Kilkenny and the neighbouring counties of Carlow and Kildare and by the mid-18th century were in possession of almost 30,000 acres. Furthermore, following the example of Sir John who had served as a local MP in the Irish Parliament and especially in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars (in which the Ponsonbys had been decisively opposed to the Roman Catholic James II) they became more engaged in politics. William Ponsonby, third son of Sir John, was created Baron Bessborough in 1721 and Viscount Duncannon two years later; in turn his son Brabazon Ponsonby became first Earl of Bessborough in 1739.

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The main block of Bessborough as we see it today dates from c.1744 and was commissioned by the first Earl to mark his new status. Although it is known that Sir Edward Lovett Pearce wrote a memorial about the building’s setting some time before his death in 1733, the design is attributed to Francis Bindon, a gentleman architect from County Clare, also notable as a portraitist (he painted no less than four likenesses of his friend Dean Swift). Bindon was related by marriage to Pearce and collaborated with Richard Castle on several projects, so his credentials are admirable. Nevertheless, one must be honest and admit that Bessborough was never one of his best works, the handling of the central structure being somewhat heavy. Writing in The Beauties of Ireland (1825) John Norris Brewer pertinently observed ‘The mansion of Bessborough is a spacious structure of square proportions, composed of hewn stone, but the efforts of the architect were directed to amplitude, and convenience of internal arrangement, rather than to beauty of exterior aspect. The house extends in front 100 feet, and in depth about 80. Viewed as an architectural object, its prevailing characteristic is that of massy respectability.’
Likewise in an essay on Bindon published in the Irish Georgian Society Bulletin for spring 1967, the Knight of Glin, evidently struggling to find something good to say about Bessborough (he described the garden front as being ‘an uninspiring six-bay breakfront composition with a pair of Venetian windows clumsily adrift on the first floor’) commented ‘The redeeming architectural feature of the house is to be found in the fine handling of the shallow quadrants leading to the flanking pavilions…The facing sides of the pavilions have niches and surmounting lunettes.’ The photographs above show the front of the house before and after it was altered at the end of the 19th century when the double-staircase leading to the raised entrance was removed and the ground was lowered to permit access via a porte-cochere; this work was undertaken by architect Sir Thomas Manly Deane.

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Others found Bessborough more appealing, certainly members of the Ponsonby family even though during the second half of the 18th century they were hardly ever there. The first time the third Earl of Bessborough, who had been raised in England, saw his inheritance was in the aftermath of his father’s death in March 1793. Four months later he wrote to his wife ‘I came here yesterday and am indeed very much pleased with the place…The mountains are beautiful over fine wood, and the verdure is the finest that can be seen…The house is large and very comfortable, but as you may suppose very old-fashioned. There are about 10 or 11 good bedchambers. You would make it very cheerful with cutting down the windows & I believe I should agree.’
His proposals were never carried out, not least because another fifteen years were to pass before Henrietta, Lady Bessborough – the beautiful sister of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – came to see her husband’s Irish home, although she was equally delighted with it then, writing ‘I like this place extremely; with a very little expense it might be made magnificent, and it is beautiful…’ Likewise when staying in the house in September 1828 with the next generation of Ponsonbys, that indefatigable diarist and letter-writer Thomas Creevey advised his step-daughter Elizabeth Ord, ‘This is a charming place. I ought to say, as to its position and surrounding scenery – magnificent.’ Above are two photographs of the garden front of the rear. Note the two-storey extension to the left of the main block, which may date from the same time as the alterations to the front. However, as the second picture shows, at the very start of the last century, this development was improved by the addition of a balustrade stone terrace with double steps leading down to the garden.

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We have relatively little information about the interiors of Bessborough, although they were, as both the largely absentee third countess and Thomas Creevey duly noted, certainly magnificent. The entrance hall – which became a sitting room after Deane’s alterations – featured a screen of four Ionic columns of solid Kilkenny marble each ten and a half feet tall. Sadleir and Dickinson’s 1915 Georgian Mansions in Ireland includes a couple of photographs of the saloon or drawing room, both shown above. One features a detail of the splendid rococo plasterwork with which the ceiling was decorated. The other shows the chimney piece, a design supposedly taken from William Kent although Sadleir and Dickinson propose the female herms in profile are portraits of the second earl’s two daughters, the Ladies Catherine and Charlotte Ponsonby who married the fifth Duke of St Albans and the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam respectively.
Even though the house was not much occupied during this period, it was well-maintained. When staying at Curraghmore, County Waterford in 1785 Lady Portarlington wrote, ‘Another day we went to Bessborough, which is a charming place, with very fine old timber and a very good house with some charming pictures, and it felt as warm and comfortable as if the family had left it the day before, and it has not been inhabited these forty years.’
There remains a great deal more to tell about Bessborough, its destruction, reconstruction and subsequent history, so rather in the manner of Country Life, today’s piece finishes with the words: To be concluded next week.
Meanwhile, below is a photograph of Bessborough with surrounding signatures of members of a house party there, taken from a visiting book kept by one of the Mulholland family (of Ballywalter, County Down) at the start of the last century.

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3 comments on “In the Borough of Bess

  1. Caroline Hearne says:

    My Grandfather Thomas Hearne was the chief herdsman for the last Lord Bessbourough.
    he was also one of the members of the lords Cricket team, I have a beautiful photo of him and all the cricket team.
    It was my grandfather who rang the bell to summon help the night Bessbourough house went on fire.
    Lord Bessbourough had a cottage built for my grandfather on the estate, and it was passed down to my father William Hearne who married and had 6 children
    I am the third eldest, we were all born and reared on Bessbourough estate and I’m glad to say we still have that beautiful little cottage.
    And I have many stories that have been passed down from my grandfather

  2. Diana Roberts says:

    Please is there any chance of having a copy of the photo you mention.
    I am the archivist in charge of the Haile Hill House papers which was the original house of the Ponsonby Bessbough family. I would be thrilled to see it or anything on the Bessborough estate. I believe there was a Bowl given as a trophy for the annual show there. Is it still connected for at the local show that I know still exists.
    Hope you don’t mind me asking you this, Yours Diana Roberts

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