Barefoot but Battling


Eighteen years ago, Lissan, County Tyrone featured in a BBC television series called Restoration, in which historic properties were pitted against each other, with one of them receiving a large grant towards ensuring its survival: think of it as a kind of genteel gladiatorial fight. Alas, Lissan was not the winner, but the publicity generated by the house’s appearance helped bring the building – and its somewhat perilous condition – to attention. Until the death of its last occupant, Hazel Radclyffe Dolling, in 2006, the property had been owned by the same family for almost 400 years. Her forebear, Thomas Staples, had moved from outside Bristol to this country in the early part of the 17th century and in 1622 married an heiress called Charity Jones, and six years later he was created a baronet, this hereditary title being inherited by successive generations until the death of the 17th baronet in 2013 when it became extinct. Along the way, there were some eccentric holders, the best-known being Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples who in the late 19th and early 20th century gained a reputation as a fine painter, first exhibiting in the Royal Academy in 1875. As a young man, he was part of the Marlborough House set that gathered around the future Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, but was also associated with London’s influential Grosvenor Gallery, established by a cousin, Sir Coutts Lindsay. Among Sir Robert’s more idiosyncratic traits was his disinclination to wear shoes, believing that these blocked out natural electricity from the earth that was essential for good health. As a result, he became known as the barefoot baronet.





Presumably with the help of his heiress wife’s money, Thomas Staples was able to build the core of what is today’s house at Lissan, although there was already an even older building on the site and much of what we see now dates from later in the century, thanks to the fourth baronet. During the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, Lisan was taken by the O’Quinns, with Lady Staples and her children being held captive first at Moneymore Castle and then at Castlecaulfield where they were kept for two years before being released. The second and third baronets died without children, so eventually it was Sir Thomas’s youngest son Robert who inherited Lissan and became fourth baronet: as though to make up for his elder siblings’ lack of offspring, he and his wife, Mary Vesey, another heiress, had ten children. As mentioned, he was responsible for further embellishing the property so that in 1703 Thomas Ashe could describe it as an ‘extraordinary good stone house; the rooms are very noble, lofty and large.’ At some point in the 18th century the architect Davis Ducart may have been involved in reworking the building (a bridge in the grounds is attributed to him) but subsequent generations of the family left a more decisive mark on the place, not least Sir Nathaniel Staples, tenth baronet who in the 1880s added a rather distended porte-cochère to the entrance front (its outermost section contained a small waiting room for coachmen) and also the bulbous clock tower onto the western side of the house. Seemingly the clock, dating from 1820 and previously gracing the market house in Magherafelt, had been destined for a church until it was instead bought by Sir Nathaniel and installed at Lissan. In 1865 Sir Nathaniel had inherited the house and land from his uncle the ninth baronet, but not the rest of the family property (including the largest house in Dublin’s Merrion Square, now home to the Irish Architectural Archive), thereby leaving the family in somewhat straitened circumstances. Problems grew worse following the tenth baronet’s death in 1899, his heir, Sir John Staples being pronounced insane and spending his life in a number of asylums. Responsibility for the estate passed to the second son, James Head Staples who, to make ends meet, took in boarders while his wife taught cookery and lace-making to women in the area. Responsibility in turn passed to the next brother, the aforementioned barefoot baronet who likewise struggled to keep the place going. 





The entrance hall in Lissan, County Tyrone is dominated by a vast oak staircase ascending the full height of the building. Dating from the 1880s, this is one of the alterations made to the house by Sir Nathaniel Staples, who, having ejected his wife, was living there with a mistress, Mary Potter, daughter of his land agent. Forced to act after rooms directly above the original entrance hall had collapsed, Sir Nathaniel recycled some of the previous staircase’s timber, notably for the balustrades, wood for the rest coming from the estate’s grounds. Once described as having the character ‘of a vast adventure playground’, the result is distinctly odd. Presumably designed by Sir Nathaniel (would any architect wish to claim credit for it?) the staircase takes no account of the space in which it sits, cutting across windows, jutting out in a variety of directions, and sometimes leading to dead ends. It certainly leaves an indelible impression on visitors. 





At some date after 1820 Sir Thomas Staples, ninth baronet, added a single storey ballroom to the east side of Lissan, County Tyrone, its full-length windows offering views to the gardens below; a conservatory, since gone, was erected to the immediate front of the room. A successful lawyer married to an heiress, Sir Thomas could afford to spend money on this extension, which was provided with a sprung floor and an early form of central heating. The walls were covered with Chinese paper which may originally have been purchased for Kilkenny Castle by Sir Thomas’s sister Grace who was married to the Marquess of Ormonde. Only portions of the paper survive, and as can be seen, these have been ‘improved’ with additions by later owners. Having fallen into a dangerous state of disrepair, the house was rescued by a charitable organisation, the Friends of Lissan House Trust, which has already undertaken trojan work ensuring the restoration and survival of this important property. Although much remains to be done, since 2012 the house has been open to the public and acts as a venue for a wide variety of events.