Ascending the Social Ladder

When the first edition of Burke’s Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland (then known as ‘Burke’s Commoners’) appeared in 1833 it did not include an entry for the Alexanders of Milford, County Carlow. This must have been a matter of some disappointment to the family, as was their absence in subsequent editions until finally in 1871 when they were featured, albeit briefly. The history of the Alexanders is a tale of social ascendancy initially dependent on wealth, and the retention of the former even when the latter had gone. The founder of the dynasty, John Alexander, had modest origins but what he lacked in pedigree was amply compensated by entrepreneurial flair, and resulted in his acquisition of an estate sufficiently substantial for later generations to judge themselves members of the landed gentry. Late in life his heir, also called John Alexander (as remained the case with successive generations) wrote ‘There is not any subject so difficult to me as genealogy. I am very much behind in my knowledge of it as far as relates to my family. I have been endeavouring to grasp some particulars for your perusal, my object being to elicit the truth and to place my family in their right position.’ Likewise he had earlier insisted, ‘’I am not a “retired” merchant, never having served my time to any business, and during the years I was proprietor of the mills on this property, I took almost no part in the working of them’. All of which indicates a desire to distance himself from the mercantile activities which had formed the basis of the family fortune, and to ally himself with a class unsullied by sordid commercial transactions.





The first Alexanders arrived in Ireland as settlers from Scotland in the early 17th century, settling in the Limavady area. In the late 1750s John Alexander, a younger son, moved to Belfast where he became a successful merchant and land agent for the Earl of Donegall before also going into the milling business. His eldest son, likewise called John, moved to County Carlow in 1784 with the intention of becoming involved in the last profession and there joined forces with a wealthy Roman Catholic corn merchant and miller called James Conolly. Already Carlow had become one of the country’s principal area’s for corn production: between 1769 and 1784 the amount of corn sent there to Dublin grew from just 78 stone to 382,953 stone, an astonishing increase. This growth was driven by entrepreneurial businessmen like Conolly and young John Alexander. The former already owned a mill on the river Barrow a few miles from Carlow town, in a townland called Ballygowan, and this was the business John Alexander joined and expanded, notably after 1790 when at the age of 26 he took over direct responsibility for its management. The result was further rapid growth, not least thanks to the construction of additional and larger milling buildings on the site, by then given the name it has carried ever since, Milford. Within three years the mill had become County Carlow’s largest supplier of flour to the capital. In addition, Alexander embarked on a second enterprise on the same site: the production of malt. To the east of the flour mill, he constructed Ireland’s largest and most powerful malthouse, thereby establishing his predominance in a second field. During this period of expansion, Alexander lived in a modest single-storey, three-roomed thatched dwelling adjacent to the mills. However, in 1799 it was time for him to build a residence befitting his status as a wealthy man.





Now for sale for the first time since built, Milford House appears to have been designed by its first occupant, mill owner John Alexander who married not long after construction was complete and then gradually acquired an estate of more than 2,000 acres. Facing west, the core of the building is of five bays and two storeys over basement, with a single-storey extension to the north added around 1813. As testament to Alexander’s want of social pretensions, the facade is unadorned other than a granite portico with four Ionic columns. Inside there is a similar want of ostentation, a generous entrance hall leading to the library at the front and drawing and dining rooms to the rear, and accordingly facing east. A staircase opening to the north of the hall leads to a first-floor lobby from which can be accessed six bedrooms. Since its construction, the house has undergone relatively little modification, the most immediately obvious being the insertion of plate glass in the ground-floor windows: this dates from the mid-1890s when John Alexander III married. It was during the same period that Milford benefitted from electrification: the former oat mill was then reconfigured as a hydro-electricity generating station, which led to nearby Carlow town being the first urban centre in Ireland or Britain to enjoy electric street lighting. Meanwhile the entrance hall had been re-decorated in 1883 with the William Morris ‘Pomegranate’ wallpaper still in place. The only other major intervention was the replacement of the main reception rooms’ chimneypieces. The originals were of plain Kilkenny marble but in the mid-1940s they were removed by Olive Alexander (wife of John Alexander IV) who bought that in the library when the contents of nearby and now-ruinous Clogrennane were being auctioned. Those today in the drawing and dining rooms appear to have been acquired around the same period in Dublin. However, Milford essentially retains its original character and is thus a record of how a mercantile family thrived and used the construction of a country house to assist its transformation into landed gentry.

With thanks to Shay Kinsella whose 2015 doctoral thesis on Milford and the Alexanders was of invaluable assistance.
Milford is currently for sale through Knight Frank (http://www.knightfrank.ie/properties/residential/for-sale/milford-county-carlow/cho180066)

5 comments on “Ascending the Social Ladder

  1. korhomme says:

    The knobs on the banister look strange. Are they a later addition?

  2. Hibernophile says:

    How delightful the Morris wall paper has survived – one sincerely hopes it is preserved. This house is unquestionably full of character. Looking at the images, so typical of many Irish Country houses, I could almost smell the turf, beeswax and musty smell of antique furniture & old books – sublime.

  3. After enjoying the architecture and furnishings, your note that early Alexanders in Ireland were settlers from Scotland, miffed. But just a tad. We thought our Sam Alexander was Scottish, like everyone else of ours from over there. Ha! But a National Records Scotland Census 1871 showed him born 1833 Donegal, on which account, I proudly proclaimed to family that we are Irish. At least a Kelly connection may keep it so. Lovely site. Thanks.

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