“Inservi Deo et Laetare” (Serve God and Rejoice)
For close on three hundred years, the Howard family held court at Shelton Abbey outside Arklow. From the outset they were an unusual clan with a tremendous penchant for the arts. Hugh Howard emerged as one of the great collectors of the early 18th century while his brother acquired the great library of Lord Chancellor West. The Howards were equally adept at collecting wealthy wives. Marriages with the Boleyns, Forwards, Arnolds, Darnleys, Charlemonts, Powerscourts and Abercorns ensured their position in high society. Created Viscounts in 1776 and subsequently elevated to the Earldom, four sons of the family sat as Representative Peers between 1800 and 1905. The 7th Earl was a Senator in the Irish Free State and the last Countess sat in the Irish Seanad in 1948. The family’ artistic bent was emphasized by friendship with the hymn-writer Fanny Alexander and the pre-Raphaelite poet, Dante Rossetti. Protestant by birth but often Catholic by persuasion, the family was caught up in one of the most extraordinary legal battles of Victorian times. In the last century, Billy Wicklow was one of Evelyn Waugh’s great friends and a renowned figure in Dublin society. His cousin Lady Katherine Howard established a charitable foundation and was the last of the Howards.
Dr. Ralph Howard & the Hassells of Shelton Abbey
Unlike was born into an Ireland torn apart by civil war as the Puritanical forces of Oliver Cromwell sought to overthrow the armies of Royalist and Catholic Irish. His father, John Howard, was born in the reign of King James I and married in 1636 Dorothea Hassells, daughter and heiress of Robert Hassells.[i] But John Howard died in 1643 aged just 27. Unwilling to be left alone, Ralph’s mother then married her cousin, another Robert Hassells, who had acquired a lease on the Shelton and North Arklow estates from the Duke of Ormonde. Young Ralph presumably grew up in this household, moving to Dublin to study medicine at the University shortly after the Restoration of Charles II. By 1665 he had secured the Hassells estates in Wicklow by means of a renewed lease. Central to this estate was Shelton Abbey which would become the home to the Doctor’s descendents for the next 300 years. He acquired his doctorate in 1667 and, the following summer, married Katherine Sotheby of the Yorkshire family.[ii] In 1674 he was appointed President of the College of Physicians in Ireland, residing in a house on Great Ship Street. This was no mean achievement in an age of major scientific revolution that featured Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and their ilk. His mother died in the winter of 1684 and was buried beneath a marble headstone in Kilbride churchyard. As an opponent of James II he was attainted by the Irish Parliament in 1689 and fled with his family to England. In his absence, Shelton was given to a Mr. Hacket. Legend has it that James II actually stayed with Mr. Hacket at Shelton while on the run between his defeat at the Boyne and his eventual flight from Waterford. A path running through the demesne is called “King James Road” to this day. Another story tells of a piece of Shelton’s front door splattered during one of the beleaguered king’s many nosebleeds and retained as a relic until a servant girl mistook it for kindling and threw it on a fire.
Hugh Howard, Art Connoisseur
Dr. Howard acquired the freehold of the Shelton estates from the 2nd Duke of Ormonde in 1697. He died in 1710 leaving three sons and three daughters.[iii] His eldest son, 35-year-old Hugh Howard, succeeded to Shelton. As a young man, Hugh had joined the suite of Thomas, 8th Earl of Pembroke, during his mission as Ambassador to the Treaty of Ryswyck. He subsequently traveled form Holland to Rome where he studied under the Italian classicist Carlo Maratti. He returned from Italy, via France, in 1700 and after visiting his family in Dublin, established himself as a portrait painter in London. He became a friend of the poet Matthew Prior whose mistress, Anne Durham, he painted in the guise of Flora. Other known sitters include Arcangelo Correlli, John Bagford and Justinian Isham (later 5th Baronet). He developed a reputation as a connoisseur of art, advising a number of prominent collectors such as the Earl of Pembroke and the 2nd Duke of Devonshire. As such, his role in shaping some of Britain’s most notable and historic collections might reasonably be considered enormous. In 1714, he was appointed Keeper of the State Papers at Whitehall. Shortly after this appointment he married Thomasine, daughter and heiress of General Thomas Langston. In 1723, the couple were painted by the Swedish portraitist, Michael Dahl. In 1726 Hugh was appointed Paymaster of the Royal Works. In 1737, John Faber Jr engraved his portrait. On March 17th of the following year he passed away, without issue, in Pall Mall. He was buried in Richmond churchyard beside his wife. His extensive and valuable collection passed through his brother, Robert Howard, Bishop of Elphin, to the Earls of Wicklow. Part of the collection was later acquired by the British Museum with the majority dispersed at a series of sales at Sotheby’s from 1873 onwards.
In 1726, Dr. Howard’s youngest son William inherited the extensive library of the late Lord Chancellor of Ireland, Richard West. William was elected MP for Dublin in 1727 but died the following year. His library went on to form the nucleus of the once great private library at Shelton. Amongst the collection was an original copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales, subsequently auctioned in the 1820s.
Robert, Bishop of Elphin
In’s second son, Robert, Bishop of Killala, was translated to the See of Elphin. He had joined the Church of Ireland as a young man and risen steadily through the hierarchy over the ensuing decades. A contemporary of Jonathan Swift, he was a Senior Fellow of Trinity College Dublin. His most remarkable action in his eleven years as Bishop of Elphin was to propose a bill in 1731 to make “marriages by papist priests void”. His energies seem to have been otherwise devoted to the improvement of his estates. He was married in 1724 to the heiress, Patience Boleyn. Her father was Godfrey Boleyn of Fennor, Slane, Co. Meath and her mother Mary was a sister of the Tory barrister Henry Singleton, later Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. This was the first of many strategic marriages by the Howard family, designed to propel them from the status of mere gentry to the upper ranks of the Ascendancy. By the 1780s they had secured control of enough parliamentary seats to oblige the King to ennoble the family head. The Bishop and Patience had a number of children including Ralph, their heir, and two daughters, Mary and Katherine.[iv] In 1738, the Bishop succeeded to Shelton on the death of his brother Hugh, the art collector.
The Forward Marriage & New House at Shelton Abbey
The Bishop died less than three years later and was succeeded by his eldest son, Ralph, a Privy Councillor. In 1755, Ralph married Alice Forward, daughter and co-heiress of William Forward, MP, of Castle Forward in County Donegal. As the only daughter and co-heiress of her father, the marriage effectively added the Forward’s 6000 acre estate on Inishowen and the parliamentary seat of Newtowncunningham to the Howard’s already extensive property of 20,000 acres in Wicklow. In 1766, Ralph’s niece, Mary Stoyte, married the 3rd Earl of Darnley. In 1770, Ralph adroitly used his new wealth to convert the ancestral home at Shelton Abbey into a substantial two-storied red-brick country house of 11 bays. During this time he also developed the hamlet of Redcross into a model rural, self-contained village, complete with bakery, post office and other services.
Ralph Howard, 1st Viscount Wicklow
On 21st July 1776, just fifteen days after America colonists made their Declaration of Independence, Ralph was elevated to the Peerage of Ireland as Baron Clonmore of Clonmore Castle in the County of Carlow. Nearly a decade later, on 23 June 1785, he was advanced to the Viscounty of Wicklow. He died on 26th June 1789, less than three weeks before French citizens stormed the Bastille in Paris. He left four sons and several daughters including Robert (2nd Earl of Wicklow), William (3rd Earl) and Hugh, MP for St. Johnstown, Co. Longford. His widow, a formidable lady by all accounts, was created Countess of Wicklow in her own right on 5th December 1793. Six years later, the Countess’s daughter, Lady Mary Hore, wife of the Rev. Thomas Hore, took ill while en route to Scarborough and died aged 22.
Sir Ralph Howard & his Sisters
The younger son, Colonel Hugh Howard, was born in 1761 and married in 1792 to his cousin, Catherine Bligh, daughter of the Dean of Elphin and niece of the 1st Earl of Darnley. Hugh died in 1840 leaving two sons and three daughters. His eldest son, Sir Ralph Howard, was Colonel of the Wicklow Militia and MP for the county from 1829 to 1840. In 1837 he married Lady Fraser, widow of the Waterloo veteran, Lt. Col. Sir James John Fraser. In the 1841 census he was living at 17 Belgrave Square, London, with his wife, seven female servants and four male servants. Sir Ralph was created a Baronet by the young Queen Victoria in July 1838. In later life he was financial guardian to the young Charles Stewart Parnell but he died in 1873 when the baronetcy became extinct. Colonel Howard’s daughters secured three of County Wicklow’s greatest landlords for husbands. Frances married the liberal anti-Union MP William Parnell Hayes in 1810 but died at Avondale four years later. In the spring of 1818 Isabella married the 3rd Earl of Carysfort and moved to Glenart Castle where she held court for eighteen years. The younger sister Theodosia was married in August 1822 to the 5th Viscount Powerscourt but he died the following year; she became a prominent evangelist and died in 1836.
The Bachelor Earl
Upon the death of the Countess of Wicklow in March 1807, her eldest son Robert succeeded as the 2nd Earl of Wicklow. The “Bachelor Earl” was a Representative Peer of Ireland from the Act of Union until his death just after the tenth anniversary of Trafalgar in October 1815. He enjoyed a drink and perished from gout. A contemporary described him as “quite imbibed with such a strong sense of religion enabled him to bear up against a most serious indisposition (ie: the gout) which deprived him of the pleasures of society”.
The 3rd Earl & Castle Howard
The titles and estates passed to the 2nd Earl’s brother William. As a young man, William had succeeded to his mother’s family estates in Donegal. He had thus been obliged to assume the surname and arms of Forward. His wife of twenty years, Eleanor Caulfield, died in 1807. She was a granddaughter of the Earl of Charlemont, orphaned when her parents, baby sister and a servant were caught in a hurricane while sailing across the Irish Sea. They had been on board the Trevor Totty voyaging for England so that Eleanor’s father, Major Francis Caulfield, might take up his duties in Westminster as MP for the Borough of Charlemont. The 3rd Earl and his Countess had three sons and four daughters. Their eldest son William succeeded to the Earldom in 1818. The middle son Francis was Vicar of Swords and father to the 5th and 6th Earls.
In 1811, the youngest son, Colonel Robert Howard, purchased Cronebane Lodge in the Vale of Avoca. Perched on a hill overlooking the famous “Meetings of the Waters”, this had belonged to the director of the Avoca copper mines. The Colonel, who died in 1828, commissioned the architect Richard Morrison to gothicize and extend the house into the present day Castle Howard. This was at a time when Thomas Moore could genuinely claim that there was “not in this wide world a vale so sweet as that in whose bosom the bright waters meet”. Castle Howard eventually passed out of the family and, in 1991, was sold with 200 acres of woodland to Ivor Fitzpatrick, a prominent Dublin solicitor and property developer whose clients include Charles Haughey, John McColgan, John Rocha and Dermot Desmond. Ivor and his wife, Susan Stapleton, now run the Castle Howard estate as an equestrian center. [v]
The 3rd Earl’s eldest daughter Lady Isabella married William Meade Smyth, MP for Drogheda; their three daughters died unmarried. The second daughter, Lady Eleanor, lived to be 94 and was married first to Thomas Fetherstonhaugh of Bracklyn Castle, Kinnegad, Co. Westmeath, and then to Lt Col WF Johnstone, Grenadier Guards. The third daughter Lady Mary married the Rev. JW Arnold. His brother, Dr. Thomas Arnold, was the headmaster of Rugby school who made such an impact on Tom Brown and Sir Harry Flashman. The Earl’s youngest daughter, Lady Alicia, married the Scottish landowner, William Bisset, and settled at his family estate of Lessendrum in Aberdeenshire. The 3rd Earl died in September 1818 and was succeeded at Shelton by his 30-year-old eldest son, William Forward.
William Forward-Howard, 4th Earl of Wicklow
William Forward was born in 1788 and educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge. On inheriting the Earldom, he was granted permission to revert to the name of Howard, hyphenating this with Forward to become Forward-Howard. In February 1816, two years before his succession, the 4th Earl married Lady Cecil Frances Hamilton, daughter of the 1st Marquess of Abercorn. Over the next fifteen years, she bore him seven daughters– Eleanor, Frances, Harriet, Isabella, Anne, Mary and Katherine - but no sons. Through their governess, Miss. Charlotte Polidori, the Howard girls became friendly with the family of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the pre-Raphaelite poet and artist. In 1847 he etched a pencil drawing of “Lady Isabella” to accompany a poem dedicated to her by his sister, Christina Rossetti. In 1819, the new Earl commissioned Richard and William Morrison to remodel Shelton Abbey from the original long two-storey building of 1770 into a mock Elizabethan baronial manor. John Morrison later claimed that the designers were “much fettered” by the Earl’s desire to retain much of the original fabric. At any rate, the result was a splendid combination of crenellated parapets, wide-angled gables, Tudor arches and pinnacled buttresses. The Earl’s study was relocated to an octagonal tower with a conical roof on the east side of the house.
The Hymnwriter, Cecil Frances Alexander
The 4th Earl’s principal land agent was a retired army officer from Norfolk, Major John Humphreys. He seems to have moved to Wicklow soon after the Earl’s succession in 1818, settling at Ballykeane House, Redcross, 5km south east of Rathdrum.[vi] That same year, his wife gave birth to a daughter, Cecil Frances, or Fanny, who grew up to become the hymn-writer “Mrs. Alexander”. Her actual place of birth seems to be a divisive issue. Some sources say Dublin, others point at Milltown House in Co. Tyrone. However, the fact her Christian names Cecil and Frances were the very same as those of the young Lady Wicklow leads this author to side with those who hold that Mrs. Alexander was born and raised at Ballykeane. At any rate, she developed a close friendship with the 4th Earls’ daughter, Lady Harriet. The two young women were much influenced by the voluminous works of Dr. Walter Hook, the energetic Dean of Chichester. In 1846, they published a small book called “Verses for Holy Seasons”. In that most remarkable year of 1847, the Great Famine raging across the land, they collaborated for “The Lord of the Forest and his Vassals”. Lady Harriet became afflicted with tuberculosis at this time and died. In 1848, Fanny published “Hymns for Little People”, a book full of baptismal fire which had run to 69 editions by the time of her death in 1895. The book was edited by John Keble of the Oxford Movement. Of the four hundred plus hymns she wrote, her best known are “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, “Once in Royal David’s City” and “There is a Green Hill Far Away”. Nine of these hymns are to be found in the present Church of Ireland Hymnal. Mark Twain applauded her poem, “Burial of Moses”; Lord Tennyson declared it one of the few poems by a living author that he wished he had written. In October 1850, she married an upcoming clergyman from Derry by name of William Alexander. In 1867 he was made Bishop of Derry and Raphoe. Fanny became an active player in local charity, developing a district nurses’ service and co-founding the Derry Home for Fallen Women. She died in October 1895. The following year her husband was made Primate of All Ireland. Their only son was killed in October 1918 when a German submarine torpedoed the Leinster.
The Seven Sisters & The Nunnery
In 1840, the 4th Earl commissioned Richard Morrison to build a new wing wherein his seven daughters could live. The building was known as the Nunnery and, as Randal MacDonnell recently put it, “such was the power of suggestion that three of the Howard ladies turned Roman Catholic and did indeed become nuns”. This strong sense of Catholicism also carried through to the sisters who married. For instance, the second sister Lady Frances was married in 1845 to Colin Lindsay, younger son of the 24th Earl of Crawford & Balcarres. Mr. Lindsay, was a prominent High Church supporter in his younger years, serving as President of the English Church Union from 1860 – 1868. However, he subsequently converted to Catholicism in return for which he received a rare and special privilege from the Pope to celebrate mass in any house that he might happen to live. Mr. Lindsay died, leaving issue, in 1892 and Lady Frances in 1897. The youngest sister, Lady Katherine married a prominent Roman Catholic magistrate, the Hon. Arthur Petre, son of the 11th Baron Petre of Coptfold Hall, Essex.[vii] The eldest sister, Lady Eleanor, married Colonel Charles Law, a grandson of the former Chief Justice, Baron Ellenborough, but died young and without issue in 1852. Colonel Law’s impetuous uncle, Edward Law (who he succeeded as 3rd Baron Ellenborough in 1871) was appointed Governor–General of India immediately after the first disastrous Afghan War. Another sister, Lady Anne married twice. Her first husband, Richard Bulkeley Phillipps Grant, inherited the Picton Estates in Wales and was created Baron Milford of Picton Castle in 1847. After his death in 1857, she married Thomas Joseph Eyre of Uppercourt in Kilkenny.[viii]
A Prime Minister in the Family
The 4th Earl was no enemy of Catholicism. In 1829, at the request of his friend and brother-in-law, Lord Aberdeen, he seconded the Address in the House of Lords in favour of Catholic Emancipation. He emerged as a leading speaker on all matters religious over the next thirty years, arguing against the tithe system and for State endowment of the Roman Catholic College in Maynooth. He also supported the removal of civil disabilities on Jews and the repeal of the Corn Laws. He lived most of the year in Ireland and was generally regarded as a fair and liberal landlord. In 1844 he also built a summer retreat at Torquay in Devon called Dunstone Hall. This fine Victorian house was later purchased by Edward VII, apparently as yet another secret hideaway where he could frolic with Lillie Langtry. The 4th Earl was a Representative Peer for Ireland, a Knight of St. Patrick and a Lord Lieutenant for Co. Wicklow. From 1852 to 1855, his brother-in-law, Lord Aberdeen (who married another of the Duke of Abercorn’s daughters) was Prime Minister of Britain but the pressure of the Crimean War brought about the peace-loving statesman’s resignation and death. The Countess died in the summer of 1860. The 4th Earl died at his London residence, 2 Cavendish Square, in March 1869. He was 81 years old. His titles and estate devolved upon his nephew Charles Howard, second son of his brother, the Rev. Francis Howard, Vicar of Swords.
The Vicar of Swords
The Rev. Francis Howard was born in 1797. At the age of 27 he took his first wife, Frances, a daughter of the George de la Poer Beresford, Bishop of Kilmore. She gave him a son, William George Howard, who died young in 1864 but was to become a source of much conversation when his widow sought to claim the Earldom for their infant son. Frances Howard died in 1833 and three years later her husband, now Vicar of Swords, married secondly Sarah Hamilton. Her father, Charles Hamilton, the Duke of Leinster’s principle agent and confidant, lived at Hamwood in Co. Meath. Sarah gave the Vicar two sons, the 5th and 6th Earls, and four daughters.
The Extraordinary Case of the Pretender Earl
On March 24th 1869, a letter appeared in The Times that prompted one of the greatest society cases of the Victorian age. Two days earlier, the 4th Earl of Wicklow had died. He had duly been succeeded as 5th Earl by his nephew, Charles Howard, son of the Rev. Francis Howard, by his second wife, Sarah. The letter to The Times was written by Ellen Howard, the widow of William George Howard, the late son of the Rev. Francis Howard by his first wife, Frances. In the letter, she claimed that she was the mother of William G Howard’s infant son, also William, born in May 1864. Thus, she reasoned, this child, her son, was in fact the new Earl of Wicklow.
William George Howard married Miss. Ellen Richardson in February 1863. At the time he was heir apparent to his uncle, the 4th Earl. In July 1863, four months after their marriage, William and Ellen went to lodge with Mr. Bloor, a customs officer, at 27 Burton Street, Eaton Square, London. Here they remained for three weeks, during which time they contracted a close friendship with the Bloor family. At the age of 39, William comes across as a peculiar, rather degenerate fellow, forever “haunted by duns” and bailiffs looking for money. There was definitely some odd behaviour going on, with William hiring a second residence at No. 32 on the same street, but retaining a room upstairs at No. 27 where “by Mr. Bloor's kindness, [he] was accustomed to meet his wife occasionally in a room, which was placed at his service”. By May 1864, Mr. Bloor was obliged to go to Ireland and consult with William. This may have had something to do with a mystery man by name of Baudenave who was renting the lower half of the Bloor’s house. At any rate, William and Bloor decided to confine Ellen at No. 27 and “make every arrangement for her comfort”. Upon his return to London, Bloor encountered Ellen who announced that she was going to leave the city for a time. She promptly set off in a cab for the railway station. One thinks of Helena Bonham-Carter, rainy windows, smoggy streets, whistling steam-engines and such like. In a very short time Ellen returned to the Bloors, declaring that she felt extremely ill. She was immediately put to bed. That evening, aided by Mrs. Bloor and no other witnesses, Ellen gave birth to a son.
Or so Ellen’s story ran when she launched her appeal on behalf of the young boy she claimed as her son. Her husband had died suddenly in October 1864, without ever acknowledging the child’s existence. Indeed, when Ellen came forward in the wake of the 4th Earl’s death, the Howards of Shelton Abbey swore it was the first they had ever heard of the child.
Solicitors were consulted and the case came before the House of Lords. Sir Roundell Palmer, representing the 5th Earl of Wicklow, contested that the infant claimant was not the child of William George Howard. He further suggested that this was in fact an elaborate attempt by Ellen and Mr. Baudenave to secure the Howard family fortunes. There was indeed much whispering of how Mr. Baudenave was “living on terms of suspicious familiarity” with Ellen. These whispers became talk when it emerged that Mr. Baudenave, a key witness, could not be found. Mr. Bloor was by then dead but his widow was “rigorously cross-examined” about her involvement in this child’s birth. To the astonishment of many, Mrs. Bloor defiantly stuck to the story as relayed by Ellen. New witnesses were called forward. A dressmaker who measured Ellen for a dress shortly before the alleged birth swore no traces of her supposed condition were visible. Other neighbours and servants likewise testified that Ellen had showed not the slightest signs of pregnancy.
The case acquired what was daintily described as “a new complexion” when, in March 1870, Sir Roundell told the court how, in August 1864, Ellen and another lady had visited a workhouse in Liverpool, and there procured a newly-born child from its mother, a pauper woman by name of Mary Best. In support of this, he introduced Mrs. Best, the head-nurse and two assistant-nurses. Mrs. Best and two of the nurses quickly identified Ellen as the lady who took the baby away. However, a third nurse expressed some doubt. When the Lords called upon Ellen to ask her to defend herself, they found she had vanished, having slipped out from the court mid-proceeding. The case was adjourned for a week. Ellen reappeared at the appointed time but such was her attitude in refusing cross-examination that she was remanded in custody for contempt of court. The evidence of the Liverpool witnesses was upheld. And that should have been that.
But then the case took another twist. A telegram arrived from Boulogne stating that the real purchasers of Mary Best's child had been found. As the courtroom hummed with excitement, so the Solicitor-General (representing Ellen and her infant-claimant) announced that these “purchasers” would appear at the next hearing and thus negate the evidence of the Liverpool witnesses. However, when that day came, the Boulogne witnesses were nowhere to be seen. The Solicitor-General apologized and said he had been on the wrong scent. However, he continued to protest his client’s innocence, placing Mary Best in the witness-box. The story now became even more complex when, under intense cross-examination, Mrs. Best cracked. She told the court how she had left the workhouse with a second baby, given to her in the workhouse. She was unable to say who the baby’s real mother was or who had given it to her. She denied receiving any payment for the child but said she had fed and clothed him at her own expense before bringing him home to her father’s house in Yorkshire where the small baby had taken ill and died. Mrs. Best’s relatives and friends were then produced, and confirmed these facts. However, when the three Liverpool nurses were recalled, they denied all knowledge of this second child, stating that no child could have been given to Mrs. Best without their knowledge.
On 31st March 1870, the Lord Chancellor gave the verdict in favour of Charles Howard, upholding his claim to vote as Earl of Wicklow. While the marriage of William and Ellen Howard was not in doubt, he said there was no evidence to support her claim to have begotten him an infant son and heir. The fact that this child’s existence had been concealed from the world, and had been neither registered nor baptized, increased the difficulties. He expressed some bewilderment that Mrs. Bloor had been able to give such a firm account of the child’s birth but concluded that this was “so utterly inconsistent with all the admitted facts, and with the rest of the evidence” that he was “compelled to arrive at the painful conclusion that it was a mere fabrication, intended to defeat the ends of justice.” The whole saga of Mary Best and the two Liverpool babies was deemed an irrelevant confusion. The Earl of Winchelsea was of the opinion that Ellen’s story was utterly incredible, “being only worthy to form the plot of a sensational novel”. He greatly regretted that Mr. Baudenave would escape unscathed. Thus, Ellen’s child was deemed to have no claim to the earldom; and Charles Howard was confirmed as 5th Earl of Wicklow. One wonders how much fun there could be were the DNA experts to start investigating this case.[ix]
The 5th Earl of Wicklow (1839 - 1881) - A Representative Peer
Charles Francis Arnold Howard was 30-years-old when he succeeded as 5th Earl. Educated at Magdalene College, Oxford, he entered the Army as a cornet in the 11th Hussars in 1860 and later secured a commission as lieutenant in the 9th Hussars. He was ADC to Lord Wodehouse during his time as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1864 - 1866).[x] He retired from the army in June 1870 and was elected a Representative Peer of Ireland two years later. He later served as State Steward to both his cousin, the Duke of Abercorn, and the Duke of Marlborough, during their respective Lord Lieutenancies. Much of his short life was spent defending himself against the extraordinary legal challenge by Ellen Howard, wife of his late half-brother, William. Plagued by ill-health, he died aged 42 at his mother’s residence on Lowndes Street in London in June 1881. He had returned from a long sojourn in Madeira only two weeks earlier.
The 6th Earl & the Wingfield Connection
When he succeeded his brother to become 6th Earl, the Hon. Cecil Ralph Howard inherited a personal estate valued at £29,000 (approx €2.6 million in 2005) and a land mass comprising of 22,000 acres in County Wicklow and a further 6440 acres in County Donegal. He was born at the Vicarage of Swords in 1842 and educated at Rugby and Trinity College, Oxford. After graduating in 1867, he served as a Major in the Wicklow Artillery Militia. In 1876 he served his first commission as a captain in the 60th Rifles and then as a Major in the Seventh Brigade of the Northern Irish Division of the Royal Artillery. He married his first wife, Francesca Maria, in 1876. She was a daughter of Thomas Chamberlayne of Cranbury Park, Hampshire. Francesca bore a son and heir, the 7th Earl, on Christmas Eve 1876 but the birth was too strenuous for her and she passed away six days later. In 1880 the 6th Earl was married again, at Christ Church in Bray. The new Lady Wicklow, as she became the following year, was Fanny Wingfield, born at Windsor in 1847, eldest daughter of Richard Robert Wingfield of Fairy Hill, Co. Wicklow. (See Viscounts Powerscourt). Fanny was friendly with Father Healy, Bray’s parish priest, and regularly invited him to luncheon at Shelton. She gave her husband several daughters and two further sons – Cecil who died young, and Hugh Melville, DL, of Co. Wicklow. The 6th Earl died at Shelton aged 49 on 24th July 1891. According to The Times, “his decease was quite unexpected and no medical man was in attendance at the time”. Three years later, Fanny married Marcus Beresford but he too died young in the winter of 1896.
The Howard Ladies
Until her death in 1914, Fanny Beresford lived with her three unmarried daughters, the Ladies Alice, Joulie and Caroline Howard at Wingfield, a moderate-sized country house near Shelton Abbey. Here they frequently hosted tea and lawn tennis parties for the aristocracy and gentry. Every year they sailed for London to attend the “Season”, throwing parties at their Lowndes Street townhouse for a largely Irish posse of friends such as the Powerscourts, Carysforts, Courtowns and Rosses. The Howard Ladies may have failed to attract husbands, or perhaps they were simply not thus inclined, but they were as remarkable a hat-trick as anything the Ascendancy ever produced. Lady Alice, in particular, has bequeathed a mass of correspondence from which Mark Bence-Jones drew many fine anecdotes for his captivating 1987 book, “Twilight of the Ascendancy”. From the 1870s through to her death in 1923, Lady Alice reveals a hectic, incessant social life of garden parties at Kilruddery, Shelton and Powerscourt, house parties at Straffan, Birr, Moore Abbey and such like, the Investiture of a Knight of St. Patrick, a concert given by the London Symphony Orchestra hosted by her neighbour Stanley Cochrane at Woodbrook, Unionist rallies and Punchestown races, the St. Patrick’s Ball, the Dublin Horse Show, a never-ending “round of gaiety” as they lived it up with the Iveaghs, Listowels, Ashbournes and Carysforts. They generally stayed at Maple’s Hotel during the Dublin Season - unless blessed with the “good fortune” to stay at the Castle itself. She recalls a cricket match at the Viceregal Lodge some weeks after the famous Phoenix Park murders of May 1882 where “the whole ground [was] guarded by police and detectives in every direction”. She found church-going “very dreary” and far preferred life on a bicycle.
By 1898 the Howard sisters were often to be seen buzzling down the roads of Wicklow in their nephew Ralph’s new motorcar. By 1908 they had a Motor of their own. Upon the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, they sisters threw themselves into the cause, attending first aid lectures at Lord Meath’s Town Hall in Bray and stitching shirts for the troops. In February 1921, one of Lady Alice’s principle joys came to a halt when, owing to the imposition of Martial Law in war-torn Ireland, she was refused a permit for her “Motor”. The carburetor and magneto were removed and handed over to the police and she was obliged to make her next journeys by train. On 15th June 1921, Lady Alice launched the new Arklow lifeboat with a bottle of champagne. It was blessed by the Catholic priest and dedicated by the Church of Ireland minister. The Protestants sang “For Those in Peril on the Sea”, and the Catholics, “Hail Queen of Heaven the Ocean Star”. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed the following December – her neighbour Robert Barton was one of the signatories – Lady Alice dramatically lamented that “England has cast us off and given us to the murderers”. Her dislike of Eamon de Valera was so intense, especially after the destruction of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in June 1922, that she refused to accord him the aristocratic “de” when writing his name. She died from a chill a few days after the execution of her neighbour, Erskine Childers. Bence-Jones relates that when the 7th Earl arrived for the funeral he found his one remaining aunt, Lady Caroline, standing on the doorsteps and looking rather chirpy. Despite being “alone in the world at the age of eighty five”, she greeted her nephew “with triumph rather than sorrow”, saying “It’s my Motor now!” [xi][xii]
The 7th Earl & the Abercorn Connection
Ralph Francis Forward-Howard was 14-years-old when he succeeded his father as 7th Earl in 1891. When war broke out with the Boers in South Africa eight years later, he was one of the thousands who signed up, voyaging to the continent as a Captain in the Household Cavalry. Upon his return to Ireland in 1901, he married 22-year-old Lady Gladys Hamilton. She was a younger daughter of the 2nd Duke of Abercorn, a former Tory MP for Donegal, Grandmaster of the Freemasons of Ireland and Chairman of the British South Africa Company. In October 1902 a son, William, was born; he was to be their only child. From 1905 through Irish independence until his death over 40 years later, he was a Representative Peer at Westminster. He was a strong opponent of Home Rule and frequently chaired meetings of Southern Unionists in Wicklow town in the lead up to the Great War. Much sorrow befell the Earl’s Hamilton in-laws during these years. His father-in-law, the Duke of Abercorn, caught pneumonia and died in January 1913. The following year, word arrived that Lady Wicklow’s brother, Lord James Hamilton, had been killed on the Western Front while serving with the Irish Guards.
During the Easter Rising of 1916, the Seventh Earl, a reserve officer, appears to have been stationed in Wicklow when dispatched to Enniscorthy to assist Colonel G.A. French and his force of 1,000 men in suppressing the Volunteers who were laying siege to the town.
On 12th March 1917, Lady Wicklow died after a short illness aged just 37. On 10th October 1918, there was further tragedy when the mail boat, SS Leinster, was torpedoed by a German submarine while making its way out from Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire). Among those on board was Lady Gladys’s unmarried sister, Lady Phyllis Hamilton. She had been visiting Shelton with her mother, the Dowager Duchess of Abercorn, and her cook. Lady Alice Howard went into Bray to try and find some news of Phyllis’s fate but they could find “no trace” of her. The ship had gone down with more than four hundred lives lost. The Abercorns later heard from a survivor that Lady Phyllis had removed her life-jacket as the ship was sinking and given it to the cook saying “I’m a strong swimmer”. Another of those who perished on the Leinster was William Alexander, son of the Primate and of Lady Harriet Howard’s hymn-writing friend, Fanny Alexander. In 1919, the Earl’s half-brother, Hugh Howard, contracted pneumonia in America and died.
A Senator in the Irish Free State
Lord Wicklow himself, promoted Lieutenant Colonel of the Southern Irish Horse Regiment, survived the war. A former Deputy Lieutenant for Co. Wicklow under the British, he bridged the gap by being among those appointed a Senator to the Parliament of Southern Ireland by W.T. Cosgrave in 1921. His selection was presumably tied in with the appointment of his brother-in-law, the 3rd Duke of Abercorn, to become first Governor of the newly created Northern Ireland in 1922. Lord Wicklow remained a Senator until 1927. In March 1942, the elderly Earl took a new wife in the form of Lady Beatrix Wilkinson, elder daughter of the 14th Earl of Pembroke. She was the widow of Sir Neville Wilkinson, the Ulster King of Arms. The 7th Earl died aged 76 after a long illness on 11th October 1946. His Countess survived him for eleven years and died in a Dublin nursing home in December 1957.
Billy Wicklow, Ulick O’Connor & the Oxford Set
Godparents at the christening of the future 8th Earl of Wicklow in 1902 should be forgiven for baulking at the notion of engraving his initials onto any silver egg-cups or hip-flasks. The child’s full name was William Cecil James Philip John Paul Howard. Billy Wicklow, as he later became, was a well-known figure in literary and ecclesiastical circles. He was educated at Eton and then at Merton College, Oxford, where he became part of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead” set, befriending such “bright young things” as Harold Acton, John Betjeman, Brian Howard, Christopher Hollis, Martin D’Arcy, Osbert Lancaster and Douglas Woodruff. They knew him as “Cracky” Clonmore, a cheerful happy-go-lucky fellow who would not seem out of place in either Wodehouse or Waugh. After graduating in 1925, he worked as a curate in the Church of England for the impoverished London district of Somers Town. In December 1929, like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene – and indeed so many of his forbears - Billy converted to Catholicism. In 1937 he published his first book, “Pope Pius XI and World Peace”. An intellectual at heart, he became editor of the Dublin Review that same year. As Lord Clonmore, he co-founded the publishing firm of Clonmore & Reynolds Ltd in Dublin. He was also a director of the Catholic publishers, Burns Oates & Washbourne, and of the Patriotic Insurance Company in Dublin. In 1940, he resigned as editor and joined the Royal Fusiliers, performing a valuable role in policing the London docks during the Blitz. He subsequently served as a Captain in Italy and North Africa. He was an unlikely soldier - Waugh described him as “not young, not athletic, an Irishman, the editor of a learned quarterly – a man ostentatiously unmilitary in dress and habit of life”.
When Billy inherited Shelton in 1946, the old family pile came complete with an indoor staff of 21. He gamely decided to run the house as a hotel but the venture proved a dramatic failure. As the inevitable end came closer, the Earl busied himself writing the introduction for a reprint of “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens. If nothing else, at least he was bringing in some dividends from his publishing. In his diaries, the playwright Ulick O’Connor suggests that Billy’s happiest years were “just after the war when he had a pied-a-terre on Leeson Street and kept himself in ample funds by selling the occasional Canaletto or Guardi”. With Dublin’s culinary reputation at an all-time high in the immediate post-war era, he hosted regular banquets for his former Oxford pals at his Kildare Street Club bolt-hole. O’Connor recalled attending such feasts where he would be introduced “as a sort of Gogarty figure biding my time as a barrister in the Law Library before ascending into art”.[xiii]
O’Connor first met Billy when the latter came to chair a debate at the University College Dublin Literary and Historical Debating Society in 1950. Hoping to “upbraid” the peer for abandoning the Protestant church and “perverting” to Rome, O’Connor attired himself for the debate “in the dress of a Protestant dean, complete with wide-brimmed hat”. To his surprise, Billy “joined in the charade, clapped his hands and became a friend”. The pair of them became a familiar duo in the working class pubs of Dublin. “Hello Earl” was a frequent greeting in such places where he was regarded as “one of our own”. Once O’Connor recited a ballad in Lawlor’s of Camden Street which contained the ill-advised line “To Hell with the Pope”. O’Connor was obliged “to make a hasty departure down the stairs with an infuriated mob in pursuit. I felt bad about leaving Billy in the lurch but there wasn’t much I could do. I needn’t have worried. A quick glance behind at the mob, moving as one mass down the stairs, showed Billy’s splendid head right in the middle, carried in a sea of people, but well in command, as his ancestor Admiral Howe had been at the triumphant naval battle of the Glorious First of June”. Billy was generally a serene man but once, “when threatened by a bully”, he gave a “wolf-like snarl which frightened the hell out of the lout”. O’Connor promptly nicknamed him “Flogger” ever after. For his part, the Earl called O’Connor “Barnaby Rudge” after the Dickens character. The pair would often reunite in England and go to visit the Spanish scholar, “Colonel” George Kolkhorst, at his oak-panelled Jacobean mansion, Yarnton Manor, Oxford. Kolkhorst described them as “Dublin’s Quixote and Sancho Panza”. Waugh was somewhat less complimentary when he ran into his former Oxford mucker at a wedding and described him as 'a) improperly dressed, b) drunk and c) uninvited'.
Sale of Shelton Abbey
In December 1950, Sotheby’s auctioned a large portion of the library including the early 18th century collection. The estate was declared bankrupt in 1951 and house put up for sale. The Earl duly moved permanently into a flat at 5 Leeson Street. Shelton Abbey’s new owner was the Department of Lands. For the next twenty years, they ran the spectacular Morrison mansion as a training college for forestry students. Much of the property succumbed to what Randall MacDonnell calls “bureaucratic vandalism” during this period; the coach houses were cleared, the gardens abandoned and the original house gradually dismantled. In 1973, Shelton passed to the Department of Justice who established an open prison here. There has been a substantial restoration of the gardens and basic work on the remaining buildings got underway in 2000. In 2003 the government spent approximately €3 million on renovations, including the insulation of the roof and walls, the installation of a new central heating system, the restoration and replacement of windows and the eradication of dry rot. Excepting a few fireplaces, none of the original contents survive. It is expected to continue as a prison for the near future.[xiv]
Eleanor, Countess of Wicklow
By 1970, O’Connor was complaining that Billy had been “kidnapped by a middle-aged woman architect who has limited his access to the hard stuff and kept his pals away”. The woman in question was Eleanor Butler, a determined Roman Catholic with a formidable track record in Irish political circles. When Fine Gael’s John Costello was asked to form Ireland’s first inter-party government in 1948, he had appointed Eleanor, a member of the Labour Party, to the Seanad. In 1950 she caused quite a stir when, referring to the new building of Busarus, she said “if ever there was a monument built to those who have no consideration for the beauty of this city, it is this building”. Her father, R.M. Butler, was former head of the Architecture Department in UCD. To many she was intimidating, but her godson, Terry de Valera, youngest son of Eamon, recalled her as kind and affectionate.
In September 1959, Billy concluded a thirteen-year courtship with Eleanor. They were married “quietly” in Glasthule. As a wedding present, Evelyn Waugh gave them a signed copy of his brand new book “A Life of the Rt. Rev. Ronald Knox”. That particular volume recently sold for €1700. Only nine months before the wedding, Hollis & Carter published Billy’s humble war memoirs, “Fireside Recollections”, with an introduction by Evelyn. In O’Connor’s mind, the wedding effectively brought to an end to “an enjoyable two decades circling the city in a seamless stroll”. Someone in the Kildare Street Club quipped that “Wicklow was always looking for a butler and he got one”. But when his new wife berated him for leaving his clothes strewn all over his bedroom floor, Billy once ventured to suggest that the staff would surely take care of it. Lady Wicklow about-turned and said “Them’s me”.
For the remaining sixteen years of his life, Eleanor certainly kept her hitherto wayward husband on a leash. O’Connor managed the occasional lunch in the Dun Laoghaire Yacht Club and Royal Marine Hotel but felt Billy was always keeping a fearful eye out for the Countess’s spies. O’Connor confessed himself torn between the notion of letting Billy “snore away the rest of his life in a safe sitting room” and luring him away from the Countess and back to the wooden floor public houses of Dublin.
Billy Howard, the 8th Earl of Wicklow, died aged 75 at a private nursing home in Dublin in February 1978. He was buried in the same Kilbride Churchyard where Dorothea Howard was laid to rest nearly 300 years earlier. In April 1978, the Bishop of Leeds conducted a Requiem Mass to his memory in the Lady Chapel at Westminster Cathedral. The widowed Countess continued to be a committed campaigner for moral rearmament. In response to the growing troubles in Ulster in 1976, the Southern Movement for Peace appointed her to gather pledges for peace from 32 women’s organizations in the Republic. As a member of the Council of Europe, she was a keen supporter of European unity. During the 1980s, she was the main driving force behind the establishment of the Abbeyfield Society for the elderly in Dublin.[xv] In later life was so completely deaf that she was required to use an ear trumpet.
The Last Earl & the Long Island Connection
Upon Billy’s death, the earldom and family estates duly devolved upon his cousin, Cecil Aymar Howard. Born in 1909, Cecil was a grandson of the 6th Earl and son of Hugh Melville Howard. His mother, May, was the only child of a prominent New York attorney Benjamin Aymar Sands and his wife Amy. The Sands were a long established New England family whose home at Southampton, Long Island, gave its name to the northern tip of the island, Sands Point. By the early 1900s, Sands Point was divided among fifty of the nation's wealthiest families, including those of Averill Harriman, William Randolph Hearst, Conde Nast, John Hay Whitney, Alicia Patterson and Harry Guggenheim. In “The Great Gatsby” (1927), F. Scott Fitzgerald described it as a place of “white palaces glittering on the water”. However, Cecil and his younger sister, Katherine, suffered a double tragedy early on in life. Their mother developed extreme psychological problems and had to be institutionalized and then their father contracted pneumonia and died in 1919. The siblings thus went to stay with their uncle, the 7th Earl of Wicklow, at Shelton Abbey. Here they occupied a wing of the house, complete with their own housekeeper, but seem to have led a largely secluded existence. They frequently holidayed on Long Island with their grandmother, Amy Sands. By 1959 Cecil had a full-time address at 155 East 52nd Street in Manhattan. The 9th Earl died in 1983 and the Earldom became extinct.
Lady Katharine Howard - Last of the Line
It is fitting to end this tale with the 9th Earls’ only sister, Katharine Frances Theodosia Howard as she was the last surviving descendent of the family. She was born in 1910 and, like her brother, raised in Wicklow after the loss of her parents during her childhood. She was educated in England but returned to Shelton during the holidays. She later studied physiotherapy but, with an inheritance from her American grandmother in 1934, found that working per se was not necessary. After the 7th Earl’s death in 1947, she acquired a house in Gorey, Co. Wexford, which she shared with her friend, Peggy Dwyer, daughter of the town’s principal GP. She started a troop of Girl Guides, regularly escorting them on camping trips to Shelton. She subsequently purchased the lovely 19th century Ounavarra House and a 145-acre farm romantically situated above the Ounavarra River outside Courtown, Co. Wexford. The house was built by the Richards family in the early 19th century and had previously belonged to the Wordsworths. Together with her steward, Leonard Kelly, Katharine then farmed the property, focusing on fruit and vegetables for her stall at the weekly country market in Gorey. She had a terrific spirit of generosity and was eager to share her fortune with others. She was an active supporter of the Council for the Blind, the National Fisheries Authority and the local An Taisce and SPCA. She was also treasurer of the Ardamine Church of Ireland and hosted its annual fête. In 1979, she invested a small amount of capital into the Katharine Howard Foundation aimed at helping the elderly, disadvantaged children and other community initiatives throughout Ireland but particularly in North Wexford and South Wicklow. By the time of her death in 1990, the charitable Foundation’s capital amounted to £100,000.[xvi] She bequeathed the residue of her estate to the Foundation and, by 2005, the annual income was running at €270,000.[xvii]
In 1972 she sold Ounavarra to the property developer, Kenneth O’Reilly-Hyland, who restored the house and landscaped the riverside setting. She then took up residence at the old Rectory in Kiltennel and became an active supporter of the nearby Camphill Village Community. Ill-health subsequently compelled her to move to Middleton House Nursing Home. She passed away on 26th September 1990. Her funeral took place in Ardamine Church and was attended by two of her American cousins. She was buried in the family vault of the Earls of Wicklow at Kilbride Church in Arklow. As she was the last of the Howard family, the ancient vault was sealed for all eternity.
END NOTES - HOWARD, EARL OF WICKLOW
[i] Although the Howards of Wicklow were briefly in possession of the coat of arms of the Duke of Norfolk, this branch was not related to the famous line of the Earls Marshal of England.
[ii] According to Burke’s, Katherine’s father was “Roger Sotheby, MP for Wicklow”, but no such man seems to have existed.
[iii] Dr. Howard’s daughters Frances, Katherine and Dorothy married Sir Robert Kennedy of Mount Kennedy, Co. Wicklow, Sir Thomas Molyneaux of Castle Dillon and Rt Rev Anthony Dopping, Bishop of Ossory.
[iv] Mary married twice – a John Stoyte of Westmeath and then to Lord Lanseborough’s brother, the Hon. Robert Butler of Hermitage, In 1761, Katherine married Captain John Creighton, later 1st Earl of Erne.
[v] Castle Howard should not be confused with the house of the same name in England where the series “Brideshead Revisited” was filmed.
[vi] Ballykeane House is now a major thoroughbred stud owned and operated by Ola Baalack.
[vii] Their granddaughter, Mildred Mary Petre, married Hon. Victor Austin Bruce and was a celebrated racing motorist who made the first solo flight to Japan in 1930.
[viii] The Picton estates passed to Baron Milford’s half-brother, the Rev. James Henry Alexander Philips.
[ix] Celebrated Claimants from Perkin Warbeck to Arthur Orton, Anonymous, 2nd Edition, London, Chatto & Windus, Piccadilly, 1874).
[x] In 1866, Lord Wodehouse, a Liberal politician and noted diarist, was created Earl of Kimberley. As secretary of state for the colonies, the Kimberley diamond field was named for him.
[xi] Amongst their cousins was Colonel John Stanley Howard of Ballina Park, Co. Wicklow. In 1887, his eldest daughter Helen Louisa Howard married the Rt Hon Captain Walter MacMorrough Kavanagh, PC, of Borris House. Walter, eldest son and heir of the Incredible Mr. Kavanagh, was educated at Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford, and later served with the Royal Irish Rifles. In 1908, Walter stunned society when he successfully stood as Nationalist MP for Carlow, a seat he retained until he fell out with the Government over a tax measure two years later. Walter died in 1922 and Helen in 1926. Their son, Major Arthur MacMorrough-Kavanagh, MC, was the grandfather of the present incumbent of Borris House, Andrew Kavanagh.
Helen Howard’s sister, Charlotte Josephine was married twice. Her first husband was Samuel Garnett of Arch Hall, Meath. In 1892 she married the 16th Marquis of Winchester, Premier Marquis of England. She was awarded the G.B.E. in 1918 and died in 1924. The 16th Marquess died in 1962 at the age of 99, and is thought to have been the longest lived peer in British history. His father, the 14th Marquess, was an equerry to George IV and succeeded the Duke of Wellington as Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire. The 16th Marquess was educated at the Royal Navy Academy, Gosport, but did not follow the sea as a profession. He travelled widely, shooting big game in the Rocky Mountains, and touring India, China, Ceylon and Japan. He went out to South Africa in the 1890's and became a close friend of Cecil Rhodes. After he returned to England, he spent much time at the family home at Amport and took active interest in county administration, serving as chairman of Hampshire County Council from 1904 - 1909 and as Lord Lieutenant for some years. In the First World War he was with B.E.F., holding the rank of major in The Rifle Brigade.
[xii] Bence-Jones, Twilight of the Ascendancy (Constable, 1987).
[xiii] The Ulick O’Connor Diaries 1970 – 1981, A Cavalier Irishman (John Murray, London, 2001).
[xiv] Terence Dooley, A future for Irish historic houses? A study of fifty houses (report commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and the Irish Georgian Society, 2003).
[xv] The national society, the Abbeyfield Foundation Ireland Ltd., was re-established in 1998.
[xvi] For much of this information, I am indebted to Ellen Lynch’s article on the Katherine Howard Foundation published in The Gorey Echo on September 13th 2000.
[xvii] The Katharine Howard Foundation is operated through a voluntary Board of Trustees and small support staff. See www.katharinehowardfoundation.ie for more.