Turtle Bunbury

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THE TWITCHEN STORY IS PART OF THE 'YOUR HISTORY IN A BOOK' SERIES - click here for more on this concept


The curiously gyrational surname of Twitchen is sometimes said to have derived from the residents of the small Devonshire village of Twitchin, located on the southern edge of Exmoor. The village in turn takes its name from the old English word ‘twicene’, meaning crossroads. However, contemporary historian Joe Twitchin had produced a convincing record of Twitchenabilia which shows the surname has been spelled in upwards of twenty different ways since 1563 when Queen Elizabeth first signed into law an Act of Parliament obliging each parish to keep a register of baptisms, weddings and burials.


In 1551, the small English village of Padbury in north Buckinghamshire became the birthplace of Mr. Symond Twicker. Symond is considered the hot favourite for the role of ‘farthest back ancestor’ to the Twitchen family. Over the ensuing generations, the parish registers of Bucks recorded a litany of people with a similarly sounding surname, as in Tuchin, Twitcham, Tuichin, Tucchin, Twichin, Turchen, Twitching, Tachen and Touchen. Ultimately the race was won by Twitchen, with Twitchin a distant second, and Twitchen remains the most popular spelling variant today.


And so we fast forward through to the 19th century where we find John Twitchen, born circa 1809, in Little Marlow in South Bucks where, as it happens, Scary Spice from the Spice Girls was married nearly 200 years later. In later life, John Twitchen, a farm labourer, moved north to West Wycombe, the estate of the Dashwood family. The big house of West Wycombe Park had been built in the previous century by the charismatic and rather terrifying Sir Francis Dashwood, founder of the Dilettanti Society. Sir Francis was also a co-founder of the Hellfire Club, which held its debut meetings within the nearby caves at West Wycombe. At about this time, John married Louisa Aldridge and had nine children, seven sons and two daughters.[i]


John and Louisa’s fourth son James Twitchen was born in West Wycombe on 9th July 1843. As a young man, he became a ‘driver’ in the Royal Horse Artillery. This would have been shortly after both the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny; James was almost certainly too young to fight in either campaign. He was with the regiment in Aldershot barracks at the time of the 1861 census. The regiment wore light cavalry uniforms of blue with gold lace and red facings. Their overalls were grey with a red stripe and, on their heads, they wore the distinctive "Tarleton" helmets.


James was stationed in Athlone when he married Eliza Behan, apparently in 1865, a year which saw the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the end of the American Civil War. Their only child John Twitchen was born in Kildare on 16th July that same year, suggesting that the marriage was perhaps one of hasty convenience.[ii]


If James was still based in Ireland in 1867, he was probably with the Horse Artillery at Portabello Cavalry Barracks. As such, he would have been among those who rode out to help disperse the Fenian revolt on 7th March 1867. The Horse Artillery were particularly active around Tallaght and the Green Hills of South Dublin during the uprising, rounding up over 200 possible rebels, bringing them to Kilmainham and then guarding the gaol with their Armstrong 9-pounder field guns.


However, that same year – less than two years after his marriage – James Twitchen was dead. The 25-year-old contracted a form of typhus fever, as did his 18-year-old sister Ann Twitchen, and both died in West Wycombe in the third quarter of 1867.[iii] It is said that James was awaiting transfer to the “colony” of Canada at the time.[iv] He may have contracted his fatal illness from an officer at the Portabello Barracks who awoke on the morning of 16 April 1867, feeling unwell. ‘[The officer] got feverish towards night, had little sleep, suffered from headache, and was occasionally incoherent.’ At 9 o’clock the following morning, his body was afflicted with ominous purple spots, ‘which spread rapidly in both size and number, until the whole body became covered with them. Collapse set in with the usual suddenness and at 11am he was dead’.[v] This illness was undoubtedly contagious and caused panic throughout the British Isles. It may be that James was one of its victims although the fact he died at home in Buckingham suggests his death was not quite as sudden as that of the unfortunate officer.[vi] At any rate, James was absent from the records when his regiment set sail for Africa to dethrone the bizarre Abyssinian dictator, Emperor Theodore. I can find no mention of their being posted to Canada.


It is not yet known where the widowed Eliza Twitchen and her small son John subsequently lived. If John was born in Kildare Town, as is believed, then there is no reason to assume they lived anywhere else.


John is said to have worked with the Irish Post Office. As he was born in 1865, one assumes he would not have started work for the post office until at least 1879, when he was 14-years-old. By 1879, Rowland Hill's penny postage stamp concept from the 1840s was proving an enormous success. In John’s youth, railways had begun to carry mail to all stations throughout Ireland.[vii] The Post Office was now the principal, albeit benign, government body. As well as the mail, telegraphs and the Post Office Savings Bank (established 1861), a postman like John would also have had to grapple with early 20th century concepts such as the telephone and, from 1909, the payment of old age pensions. John’s role during the Great War of 1914-1918 cannot have been a pleasant one. Indeed, a postman pedaling toward your front door was one of the most feared sights in Ireland during those years for so often he carried the black-rimmed envelopes carrying the blunt news of the death of sons, husbands, fathers and brothers on the faraway fronts of war-torn Europe.


By 1911, the Twitchen family were living at No 4 Claregate Street, just off the sloping triangular square at the heart of Kildare Town. Local historians are still puzzled by the origins of the name ‘Claregate’ but it presumably refers to a gate in the original town wall. In his account of ‘Kildare in 1798’ Peadar MacSuibhne professed that 85 women on Claregate Street became widows after one particular (unnamed) battle. The Twitchen’s four-room house had sturdy walls, a modern roof and three windows at the front.

There were upwards of 39 houses on Clare-gate Street at this time, including two grocers, five pubs, two confectioners, three draperies, a news agency, a provisions shop and a General Stores. One of these pubs was JJ Mahon’s which continues to be a popular establishment today. This was a mixed religion community. Although the Twitchens were described as Roman Catholic in 1911, many of the nearby houses were occupied by people with distinctly Protestant names like Walter Hartflick, Mark Purchase, Hebert Jo Woolly, Peter Nash, James Kitson, Henry Monam, Thomas Condon, George Davies and Sarah Basset. Of the Irish names, there were just John Henessy, Patrick Grogan, Patrick Nolan, Mary Sweeny, Margaret Dowling and Lucy Daly. (The latter was possibly a kinswoman of Ellen Twitchen’s husband James).[viii]

The name of John Twitchen’s wife is presently unknown but they enjoyed twenty years together. Four of their five children survived childhood. Their eldest daughter Mary was born in 1894, followed by Ellen (1895), James (1897) and John (1899).

The Twitchen household was an English-speaking one in which every member could read and write. By 1911, it comprised of John (a widower), his daughters Mary (a dressmaker, aged 17) and Ellen (a schoolgirl, aged 15) and two sons James (14) and John (12).[ix] They lived with an elderly carpenter, 74-year-old James Burke, described as a relative, who may have been John Twitchen’s father-in-law. James Twitchen was already operating as a messenger for the Post Office.

On St Patrick's Day 1907, the Gaelic League hosted a rare Irish night in a 'thronged' Carmelite Hall in Kildare. After a series of dances, jigs, singing and hornpipes, 'a selection of Irish airs was beautifully rendered on the violin by Miss Bridie Hennessy. Messrs. Twitchen and Dowling immediately afterwards got through a two-hand jig in capital style. Nancy Hennessy, who is quite a child, sang “Oh, I Love You, Dolly, I do,” very pleasingly, and a double jig by the boys of the Christian Brothers was much enjoyed.' Surely this was John Twitchen the postman! (Leinster Leader, 23 March 1907)

On St Patrick’s Day March 1911, J. Twitchen lined out for the Kildare Pioneer Band when they took on the Christian Brothers in a Gaelic Football match. The match resulted in a draw of 4 goals 2 points a team. The replay took place on Easter Monday, result unknown. (Kildare Observer, 25 March 1911).


The elder John Twitchen died aged 54 in 1919, shortly before many of Ireland’s postboxes were painted green. It is not known whether he was a victim of the Spanish Flu which swept through Ireland that winter, killing 20,000 people. John’s relatively young age certainly suggests an unexpected illness. It is also notable that County Kildare recorded the highest death rates in Ireland during the Flu.


Ellen Twitchen married James Daly. Born in 1887, he was twelve years her senior. It seems probably that he was the 23-year-old agricultural labourer referred to in the 1911 census as living in a three-room house at No 10 Kileenlea, near Celbridge, Co Kildare. If this is so, he was the second son of Laurence (b. 1857) and Mary Daly (b.1869), a Roman Catholic couple who also worked as farm labourers. James’s siblings were his elder brother Bryan (born 1885), younger brothers Laurence (b. 1895) and William (b. 1897), and sisters Elizabeth (b. 1894) and Catherine (b. 1899). Young Laurence Daly is described as a Messenger so it is feasible he knew Ellen’s brother James who was also a Messenger. Ellen Daly (nee Twitchen) died in Ireland from cancer in 1941.


James and Ellen Daly had two daughters, Elizabeth and Mona. Elizabeth (Betty) Daly was born in Kildare Town in 1925. The first six autumns of her life would have been lively ones in Kildare for the county reached the All Ireland Football Final five times in six years, winning the title in 1927 and 1928. In [year] she married John ‘Jack’ Kearney, a soldier in the Irish Army from Oldcastle, a town then famous for cock-fighting in Co Meath. While in the army, he was an Army Champin Cyclist. [ix.a] He later ran a bicycle shop in Kildare Town and owned holiday homes in Curracloe Co Wexford. Betty's sister Mona married Jack Caffrey, moved to Newbridge and had two sons, Frank and Tommy.


Jack and Betty Kearney’s daughter Elizabeth was born in 1950 and lived at Lourdesville [sic] in Co Kildare. She worked as a Shop Assistant. [where]. On 5th October 1966, the younger Elizabeth married Thomas Lynch, a man four years her senior, from the rich tillage lands of Grangebeg, Co Kildare.


Kildare has long been designated Ireland’s “Thoroughbred County”. Kildare Town is regarded as the capital of Ireland's bloodstock industry and Kildangan Stud outside Monasterevin is considered the finest stud in the county. Thomas Lynch’s father Peter was a 9 month old baby when the National Census was taken in 1911, with a twin sister Bridget, known to the family as Bridie. The family lived at Shanacloon, a few miles south west of Kildare Town, before moving west again to Grangebeg. Peter worked as a groom at the Kildangan Stud for over 50 years, retiring circa 1980 at the age of 72.

Originally an O’Reilly property, Kildangan came into the More O’Ferrall family in 1849 when Charles Edward More O’Ferrall married the heiress, Susan O’Reilly. Their son Dominick More O'Ferrall did much to landscape the demesne, as well as rebuilding the castle as a Victorian Jacobean mansion in 1882. The new house, which cost £18,570, came with its own state-of-the-art heating system, something of a novelty for Irish houses at this time. Electric lights were added in 1910.

It is likely that Dominick and his wife Annie were still in charge of the 400-acre Kildangan estate when Peter Lynch began work there. However, following Dominick’s death in 1942, the estate passed to his 39-year-old son Roderic and his American wife. Born in 1903 and educated at Eton and Worcester College, Oxford, this young Roman Catholic landowner had already established himself on the international scene as a successful breeder and trainer of bloodstock. In the 1930s, Roderic became the first Irishman since the Edwardian Age to seriously contest the big races at Royal Ascot. He recruited a coterie of society gamblers, who came for the crack as well as to punt, the men clad in top hats and tails, the women a picture of pencil-thin 1930s glamour. His step-nephew, the Earl of Iveagh, was one of his most influential backers. By 1932 he had some fifty horses at Kildangan, including Count John McCormack’s Beaudelaire which he trained to win the 1931 Irish St Leger. Thirty years later Roderic won the same race with the Kildangan-bred Parnell. In 1937 Roderic’s Spot Barred was narrowly pipped in the Irish Two Thousand Guineas. The following year, Spot Barred won the Bessborough Stakes by a head. This must have been an extremely proud moment for a young groom called Peter Lynch.

Roderic later turned to full time breeding and Kildangan. As well as being two-time President of the Irish Bloodstock Breeders Association, he bred 11 Classic winners over five decades to emerge as one of the finest studs in Ireland. As Patrick Bowe, the garden historian put it, ‘the limy soil has provided strong horses as well as splendid shrubs for Mr More O’Ferrall’. During the 1950s and 1960s, his racing colours of flame, black seams and cap silks caused many an Irishman to roar with passion as the horses shot first past the winning post.

Roderic’s wife Anne was the only daughter of William Christian Bullitt of Washington DC, an eminent Philadelphia diplomat and former US Ambassador to France. Known as ‘Mrs. Biddle’, this wealthy beauty also was a famous figure on the Irish horseracing circuit. Based at Kildangan, Mrs Biddle’s horses were trained by Paddy Prendergast at Rossmore Lodge on The Curragh. However, in December 1955, Paddy was obliged to take her to the High Court when she disputed his claim to be joint owner of three mares – Fine Flower, War Loot and Persian View – and two foals. Mt Justice Dixon held that the mare Fine Flower and two foals were owned jointly, but that Mrs Biddle was entitled to repurchase Mr Prendergast’s interests in War Loot and Persian View by repaying to him the money he had expended on the two horses. Mrs Biddle’s horses were subsequently trained by Michael Dawson, with whom she achieved her most important success as an owner when Sindon won the Irish Derby in 1958.

After the break up of the More O’Ferrall marriage, Mrs Biddle moved her horses to her 700-acre farm at Palmerstown, outside Naas, with Tommy Shaw as her private trainer. She then made history by becoming the first woman trainer to be licensed by the Turf Club. By this time she was “Mrs DB Brewster”. She also had jumpers trained at Grangecon by Paddy Sleator. The best of these was Knight Errant one of only two horses to have won both the Galway Plate and the Galway Hurdle.

In the legal battle that followed her separation from Roderic, Mrs. Biddle caused a sensation by accusing her husband of being "a fairy". Apparently the term was virtually unknown in Ireland at the time - when a journalist for the Irish Press quoted it in a report the news editor called him to his office to explain it. Shortly before his death, Roderic was married again to Mrs Patricia Laycock, the Australian born ex-wife of the 9th Earl of Jersey.[x] Roderic’s extensive connections included Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, who personally redecorated the dining room at Kildangan. Four years before his death in 1990, Roderic sold the farm to Sheikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai. Kildangan continues to be a world famous stud farm to this day.


Jo Lynch, Thomas’s daughter, recalls that while Peter lived at Grangebeg in her childhood, he also had a farm at Rathmuck, Co Kildare, where his son lives today. Thomas’s mother Elizabeth was born in about 1917 and was one of the Floods of Monasterevin. As a young man, Thomas was one of several hundred workers employed at the Irish Ropes Factory in Newbridge. In October 1956, the factory caught fire and a valuable supply of hemp was lost. During the 1960s, the company expanded to include synthetic and wool carpets, bearing such well-known brand names as Tintawn, Cushlawn and Curragh carpets. However, this was not a great success and the diversification into tufted carpets created many new headaches for the company which, by 1969, had a workforce of 1035. By 1975, the workforce had been considerably scaled down and this may have inspired Thomas to join the Irish Army in 1977, just as his father-in-law had done. Thomas remained in the army until 2000. His daughter Elizabeth Josephine Lynch (known as Jo) is the gallant lady who commissioned this piece.

With special thanks to Joe Twitchin, Jo Lynch, Barry Walsh (Secretary of the Monasterevin Historical Society) and Mario Corrigan (Local Studies Department, Kildare Library and Arts Services).


* In January 2014, Dee McGrath, now living in Australia, contacted me in the belief that her grandmother Mary Twitchen was a daughter of John from co Kildare. Mary did not marry one of the Morrissey's but instead married Dan Egan, a widower who was apparently already father of ten grown children. Mary and Dan had four daughters - Elizabeth (who died aged 18 of TB), Eileen (who died circa 2009), a third daughter (who died in December 2013) and Josephine (Dee’s mother who tragically died of cancer aged 29).


[i] John and Louisa Twitcen’s children were William (1834), Richard (1837), Ephraim (1839), James (1843-1865), Sarah Elizabeth (1846), Ann (1849-1865), George (1853), Daniel (1855), Charlotte Eliza (1857) and Harry (1860). Ephraim Twitchen, a farm labourer from West Wycombe, fathered seven children including another James Twitchen, scholar, of Park New Lodge, West Wycombe. See FAMILY-TREE-MAKER.

[ii] John Twitchen states that he was born in Kildare in the 1911 NATIONAL CENSUS.

[iii] James and Anne share the same ref.3a285. Ann 3rd qtr 1867 18 BKM Wycombe 3a285
James 3rd qtr 1867 24 BKM Wycombe 3a285. The Times notes the death of Surters Smyth of typhoid of High Wycombe on 20 March

[iv] The Twitchens presumably originated in the small village of Twitchen in the picturesque dells of Devon. Located some 6 miles north of South Molton, the village was encompassed by lofty hills, some of which have flourishing plantations, extending to the borders of Somersetshire. [From White's Devonshire Directory’ (1850)]

Lance Corporal A Twitchen of the 2nd Berkshire Regiment died of enteric fever in de Aar, South Africa. His death was recorded by The Irish Times on Saturday, December 14, 1901.

Captain George Twitchen was the Public Relations Officer for the Salvation Army in Ireland in the late 1970s, and a frequent letter writer to The Irish Times.

[v] News - A NEW EPIDEMIC. The Times, Tuesday, Jun 11, 1867; pg. 8; Issue 25834; col D

[vi] After the suppression of the Fenians, James may have been among those who returned to the RHA depots in England, at Woolwich and Aldershott, where they were engaged in endless reviews, parades, field days and sham fights.[vi] Either that or he was one of those who had lately returned from India, in which case death by cholera seems even more likely.

[vii] The delivery of post to rural areas was greatly extended, not least by the efforts of the novelist Anthony Trollope, inventor of the ubiquitous bright red pillar-box, who spent much of the 1860s working for the Post Office in Ireland.

[viii] Thom’s Directory would presumably advise what these people did for a living. Interestingly, Mark Purchase’s house (No 3) appears to have been owned by a Travelling Circus. Kildare’s Protestants attended service at the massive Church of Ireland Cathedral of St Brigid on the Market Square. Although it dates to the 13th century, the cathedral was given a substantial Victorian makeover in 1875, when John was a 10-year-old boy. One imagines the young fellow was particularly keen on clambering up the steps of the round tower which, at 107 feet, is the second highest in Ireland. From the top of the tower, he would have enjoyed a sweeping panoramic view of rolling farmland to the south, the Bog of Allen to the north and the Curragh to the east.

[ix] Mary Twitchen may have married a Mr Morrissey, whose family live in Kildare Town today.

[ix.a] Cycling remains strong in the family genes. Jo Lynch's aunt Alice Lynch married Paddy Flanagan who represented Ireland and won the Ras Tailtean three times in the 1970's.

[x] The 9th Earl’s second wife Virginia Cherrill went on to become the wife of Hollywood star Cary Grant. Roderic’s brother Francis, who died in 1976, married Mary Mather Jackson and was a chairman of the Anglo-Irish Bloodstock Agency in London. The youngest brother Rory was founder (1936) and chairman of the advertising firm of More O Ferrall. The company became part of the Clear Channel media company in 2002. In September 1947 he married Lady Elizabeth Hare, sister of the 4th Earl of Listowel, and the wealthy widow of the Guinness heir, Viscount Elveden.