The Remarkable Dr Beaufort

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‘Little Dr Beaufort of Navan,’ Richard, Marquess Wellesley once commented, ‘would make a good terrier.’ Small, energetic and forever chasing after a new idea or scheme, the Reverend Daniel Augustus Beaufort was indeed terrier-like in his doggedness. According to his biographer Canon C.C. Ellison, ‘Possessed of an insatiable curiosity, his keen eye and ready pen recorded the passing scene. He could not resist calling at a mansion or a castle, especially if building work was in progress. Usually he found a welcome, a dinner and a bed. Parks, gardens and farms were of special interest and he was ever on the lookout for new methods and machinery to try out on his own land. An art collection, museum or curiosity of any sort drew him like a magnet. He liked to copy old records and try his hand at scientific experiments. He had so many interests that he seldom concentrated on any of them long enough to make a lasting impact. If there was a pedigree to be puzzled out, an escutcheon to be designed, a good executor to be found, a plan to be drawn, a congratulatory address to be written, or confidential business to be transacted, the solution was often, Ask Dr. Beaufort.’ He was born in London in October 1739 the son of French Huguenot refugees Daniel Cornelis de Beaufort and Esther Gougeon. His father was initially pastor of the Huguenot church in Spitalfieds and then of that in Parliament Street, Bishopsgate, in 1729. Two years later, however, he converted to the Church of England and served as rector of East Barnet from 1739 to 1743. When William Stanhope, first Earl of Harrington was sent to Ireland as Viceroy in 1747 he brought Beaufort senior with him as his private chaplain. The whole family followed and remained in this country. Many men in who gained such a position usually worked it to their advantage and secured an affluent bishopric for themselves. However, Daniel Cornelis, like his son after him, seems to have lacked the ability to improve his circumstances and the highest office he secured from Lord Harrington was the rectorship of Navan, County Meath. He was provost and archdeacon of Tuam from 1753 to 1758 and thereafter until his death thirty years later was rector of a parish in County Laois.

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Daniel Augustus Beaufort was educated at the Preston School, Navan and then went to Trinity College, Dublin of which he was elected a scholar in 1757. He attained a B.A. in 1759, an M.A. in 1764, and received an Honorary Doctorate from the university in 1789. Long before then he had been ordained by the Bishop of Salisbury, and, in succession to his father, was rector of Navan, co. Meath, from 1765 to 1818. In 1790 he was presented by John Foster to the vicarage of Collon, co. Louth: until his final years he was ostensibly responsible for both parishes although given his travels and other engagements curates did most of the work. He also held several other benefices yet despite this plurality of incomes he was always chronically short of funds and forever falling into debt from which he had to be rescued by relatives and friends. From 1779 to 1784, for example, he and his family lived first in Wales and then Cheltenham, ostensibly for the sake of his son’s education. In fact the main motivation was to reduce expenditure and to avoid creditors in Ireland. He paid three brief visits to the country during this period, one of them being for the purpose of voting in a Meath election but, in typical fashion, he arrived too late for the ballot. Likewise Cheltenham disappointed, his sons being almost immediately expelled from the Grammar School because of their impenetrable Irish accents.
In 1767 Beaufort had married Mary, daughter and co-heiress of William Waller of Allenstown, County Meath. The couple had five children who survived to adulthood, the best known being Francis Beaufort who became a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy and in 1805 invented the Beaufort Scale, an empirical measure that relates wind speeds to observed conditions at sea or on land and is still used today. The eldest of their three daughters, Frances Anne in 1798 married Richard Lovell Edgeworth as his fourth wife: he was only five years younger than her father. Just to confuse matters further, her brother the aforementioned Francis Beaufort married as his second wife Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Honora Edgeworth. In this way he became both a brother- and son-in-law of the same man. Richard Lovell’s most famous offspring (he had more than twenty children from his quartet of wives) was Maria Edgeworth. Her 1817 novel Ormond contains a character called Dr Cambray, an Anglican cleric of Huguenot extraction modelled on Daniel Beaufort. At one point in the book Dr Cambray is described as being ‘a very agreeable, respectable, amiable person’ and at another as someone whose ‘persuasive benevolent politeness could not have failed to operate even on first acquaintance, in pleasing and conciliating even those who were of opposite opinions.’
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Among Dr Beaufort’s more notable achievements in the religious realm were the prominent role he played in the establishment and encouragement of Sunday Schools, and the preparation of elementary educational books. Today however he is better recalled for his secular work. He was a founder member of the Royal Irish Academy and associated with the Dublin Society (later the Royal Dublin Society) in its early days. His great life project was the preparation of a new map of Ireland, Civil and Ecclesiastical published on the scale of six miles to the inch and accompanied by a quarto ‘Memoir of a Map of Ireland illustrating the Topography of that Kingdom and containing a short Account of its present State civil and ecclesiastical with a complete Index to the Map.’ It took years for this enterprise to reach completion, not helped by established cartographers taking umbrage after he, a mere amateur, had proclaimed that his map would be ‘more correct’ than their earlier efforts. In 1787, having finally secured approval from the relevant authorities, including the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Beaufort embarked on two years of exhaustive journeying throughout Ireland, writing a daily account of all he had seen, everyone he met and all the places he stayed. Despite the harsh conditions of the time, he was indefatigable in his pursuit of new experiences, Maria Edgeworth telling her step-mother (and Beaufort’s daughter) in 1806 that he ‘next to my own, is I think the best and most agreeable traveller in the world’ Further research and preparation absorbed another few years and only in 1792 did Beaufort’s map finally appear; typically, after all his trouble the river Boyne was somehow omitted from the index. But the Map proved to be a success, selling 2000 copies within 18 months of publication and a 2nd edition appearing in 1797. Nevertheless, the project ended up costing him £1,000.

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In addition to his many other interests and activities, Dr Beaufort was also an amateur architect of some ability, producing designs for houses and religious buildings alike. As with so much else in this busy man’s life, not all his proposals were realised, but some did reach completion, not least the last and finest: the church in Collon, County Louth. As has already been mentioned, in 1790 Dr Beaufort was presented with the living at Collon, thanks to his friendship with John Foster last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, who lived there (for more on Foster and Collon, see Mr Speaker, April 28th 2014). There already was a church in the village, erected as recently as 1763, but it was inadequate to the needs of the Fosters who required a new family vault. Thus by 1810 plans were underway for the building’s replacement with a new church designed by Dr Beaufort, now in his mid-seventies but as indefatigable as ever. It seems likely the Fosters provided some funds, and the Board of First Fruits (an Anglican organisation intended to improve the condition of the country’s churches and glebe houses) offered both a grant of £800 and a loan of £1700. The foundation of the new building was laid in July 1811 but two years later Beaufort discovered to his surprise – but most likely no one else’s – that £760 of his own money had been swallowed up in the work. Thanks to an intervention by John Foster, the Board of First Fruits granted a further loan of £2000. It is not too surprising costs had spiralled given that Beaufort chose as the model for his design one of the finest religious buildings in England: the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. This superlative example of 15th century Perpendicular architecture was reproduced on a smaller scale in a Louth village, albeit with some modifications. Aside from the east gable which is dominated by a large window, the exterior of Collon church is relatively plain. The interior, however, is more engaging, the east window and those along the south wall filled with abstract coloured glass designed by Beaufort’s equally talented daughter Louisa. The real joy of the building is its plastered fan-vaulted ceiling which dominates the space without overwhelming it. Both this and a heating system beneath the tiered box seating on either side of a central aisle are believed to have been designed by William Edgeworth, the engineer son of Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Collon church opened for services two hundred years ago, in 1815 and aside from some minor changes – the entrance was moved from the east to west end at some date in the later 19th century – remains exactly as it was when first designed. Yet even this endeavour was not without its hiccups, as usual of a financial nature. It is said that when Dr Beaufort was fitting out the interior he asked a carpenter to speak from the pulpit to test the acoustics. The man mounted the steps and shouted, ‘When will you pay me?’

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3 comments on “The Remarkable Dr Beaufort

  1. Michael Thompson says:

    Thank you, as always, for this account of an endangered church, this one of singular importance. The interior, a personal favourite, is redolent of pre-Tractarian High Churchmanship in Ireland; not one whiff of Rome.

    The Victorian Organ, while useful, is an intrusion. There was originally a mechanical organ in the West Gallery which played some psalm and hymn tunes.

    When you tell us of an Honorary Doctorate from Dublin do you, perhaps, mean that he preached the required sermons before The University in order to proceed to the Doctorate of Divinity? Those being, at that time (or so I believe) the requirements thereof.

    What will be the future of this lovely Church? In the Churchyard are the Russian Crosses of Nicholas and Xenia Couriss – victims of the Red Terror. It is said that Philby, Burgess and Maclean, resorted to the Couriss household in Collon to learn Russian. Following the death of Xenia, Nicholas was ordained priest of The Russian Orthodox Church in Exile.

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