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Rev. Willie Wingfield, Curate of Avoca (Wicklow) & Rector of Abbeyleix (Laois)

Born on 21 May 1799, Willie was the 4th Viscount Powerscourt’s only son by his second marriage to Isa Brownlow. (For details of his father’s family, and his other siblings, see here.) Shortly aftecid:688E159A-CE22-4866-A932-9142FE456816r the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Willie crossed the sea to England to take a BA degree at Brasenose College, Oxford. Ordained in 1823, he starting his career as Curate of Ovoca (Avoca) in County Wicklow. This may mean the old Castlemacadam church, now in ruin, and its possible he was curate to his future brother-in-law, the Rev. Thomas Webber, who was rector of Castlemacadam. In 1827, he officiated at the marriage in Cheriton, Kent, of his sister Emily Wingfield to the Rev. Fredrick Twistleton, Rector of Adlestrop, Gloucestershire. The Earl of Darnley gave the bride away. [1] Six years later, he officiated at the wedding in St Peter’s of his other sister Catherine when she married the Rev. Arthur Newcombe, Rector of Abbeyleix.[2]

Meanwhile, in 1830, Willie Wingfield himself was married. His bride Elizabeth Kelly was a daughter of the Rev. Thomas Kelly (see Tighe of Rossanagh) (1769-1855) of Kellyville and Ballintubber, Co. Laois, the evangelical hymn-writer and founder of the Kellyites, by his wife Elizabeth (née Tighe). In ‘Bowen’s Court’ (Longman’s, 1942, p. 282), Elizabeth Bowen refers to a water-colour of Elizabeth Kelly ‘painted against a pink curtain’ which showed her with ‘the bloom of a rose … Her waist is said to have been no larger than the circumference of two oranges, and the blood of kings of Ireland flowed in her veins.’[i] Bena’s father was known as the Charles Wesley of Ireland because of the number of hymns he wrote, including ‘The Head that once was crowned with Thorns’, ‘We sing the praise of Him who died’ or ‘Through the day thy love has spared us’.

In 1832, Willie officiated in the wedding at St. Peter’s Church, Dublin, of his sister-in-law Frances Kelly and the Rev. Thomas Webber, rector of Castle M’Adam (sometimes called Ovoca) in County Wicklow. In a notice on the wedding, his father-in-law, the Rev. Thomas Kelly was described as ‘of Rathmines Castle.’ [3] It has been said that Willie was the Rev Thomas Webber’s curate, but this is presently being investigated.  The Webber’s son William Downes Webber. Esq., J.P., of Kelly Ville, Athy, and Leekfield, Sligo, was the second husband of Anna, Countess of Kingston.

Willie survived a near fatal bout with fever and developed an outstanding reputation in equal parts for his firebrand pulpit sermonizing and his terrific sense of humour. Perhaps through his close friendship with Edward Lear and the Carysforts, he developed a great passion for Limericks. In 1833, for instance, he delivered the annual Charity Sermons at St Audeon’s Schools on 17 November and at St James’s Church on 1 December. [4]

A notice of Willie’s appointment to the Vicarage of Abbeyleix – Limerick Chronicle, 16 January 1836.


In January 1836, Willie was appointed Rector of Abbeyleix, Co. Laois, by Lord De Vesci who was, I believe, Willie’s uncle. The vicarage had been vacant since the death ‘in the prime of his life’ of the previous incumbent, the Rev. Arthur Newcombe, his brother-in-law, on 5 December 1835.[5] Willie arrived in Abbeyleix shortly after the completion of the Semple Church, and later oversaw the reconstruction of the town’s Protestant church, dedicated to St. Michael & All Angels, under the direction of the architect Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Willie would remain in Abbeyleix for forty-four years until his death in 1880. He established good relations with his Catholic neighbours from the outset, as per the Dublin Morning Register of 6 April 1836:

‘Mr. O’Kelly said he felt great respect for the Hon. and Rev. Mr. Wingfield, and always was most respectful to him; for that gentleman was incapable of offering insult to hie fellow-parishioners of the Catholic persuasion. He always treated also with marked respect the Rev. Mr. Waters, as did every Catholic in the parish; and the only way in which the Catholics formerly interfered in vestry was, to vote 301. or 401. annually to Mr. Waters in opposition to the Protestants.’

On 16 October 1839, Willie presided at a public dinner in Abbeyleix where ‘hundreds were entertained’ to mark the return to Abbeyleix of the Hon. Thomas Vesey and his ‘fair bride’, Lady Emma (née Herbert), youngest daughter of the 11th Earl of Pembroke, whom he had lately married. ‘The Town of Abbeyleix was a scene of the utmost festivity and joy,’ said the Limerick Chronicle. ‘All the tenantry went out to meet the happy pair [while] bonfires and illuminations took place.’  Lady Emma went on to found the Abbeyleix Baby Linen Society, a cooperative enabling women access to affordable baby clothing.

In 1840 he was appointed co-guardian, alongside the 3rd Earl of Roden, to the three sons of his cousin, the Rev. Ed Wingfield. Much trusted by the family, he was also appointed joint guardian to Mervyn, the 8-year-old 7th Viscount Powerscourt, following the 6th Viscount’s premature death at the age of 29. In 1844, he received £15,000 from the will of his aunt Martha (of whose will he was executor).

In 1846, the Hon. Rev. William Wingfield was one of ten Vice-Presidents of the Horticultural Improvement Society of Ireland along with Lord George Hill of Rathmelton (who married Jane Austen’s kinswoman), Lord Plunket of Old Connaught, Justice Crampton, Sir George Hodson, Sit John Ribton, Sir George Colthurst, Sir James Dombrain, Thomas Fortescue of Ravensdale Park and John Hume of Down’s Lodge. The Archbishop of Dublin was president.[6] They held an exhibition of fruit and flowers at the Rotunda in May 1846. At the society’s summer show at the Salthill Hotel in August 1846, Willie won first prize for Scarlet Flake in the Seedling Plants section, while his gardener, John Buckly, won second prize.[7]

By 1849, Willie was borrowing £500 from his godson at 5% interest, according to documents that have survived. This was the time of the Great Famine and it seems quite in keeping that he would have been using his own money to help the poor. He frequently toured England, preaching on behalf of the Protestant Orphans Society and Irish Society. His wife suffered poor health and they also spent periods in France, where their son Richard Thomas Wingfield was born. Elizabeth died in 1856. “Old Uncle Willie” died in March 1880 aged 80, surrounded by his family.

At his funeral, Dr Robert Daly, the evangelical Bishop of Cashel (and former Rector of Powerscourt) remembered him as “one of the brightest ornaments of the Church of Ireland for more than half a century”. Elsewhere, the Bishop said: ‘He was one of the best and kindest of men, and it was an immense advantage to have the benefit of his wise and loving experience in such a poet when beginning my ministry.’

The Wingfield Memorial on the Ballacolla Road outside Abbeyleix. The crisp packet is irksome but I needed to move quickly or I might have been run over – if it is still there when I return, I will pick it up : )

Willie is recalled today by the Wingfield Memorial on the Ballacolla Road outside Abbeyleix which is inscribed: “In Memory of the Honourable and Reverend William Wingfield, Vicar of Abbeyleix 1836 – 1880”. The church in Abbeyleix has an 1886 window (featuring an effeminate St George) dedicated to Willie, his wife and their son Richard, while there is also a colourful marble pulpit of 1881 with an inscription to him.

Their eldest son, Captain Richard T Wingfield was caught up in the Indian Mutiny and never fully recovered from his exertions and died in 1870 aged 34. He was known for his letters home from the Indian Mutiny. On the plus side, he was actually on route to India when he met his future bride, Isabella, daughter of the Rev. Edward Guille of Jersey. Richard and Isabella’s son, Lt. Col. the Rev. William E. Wingfield, was awarded a DSO in 1917 for his gallantry at the Somme. His youngest son Captain Mervyn Wingfield, DSO, DSC (1911–2005), born in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, was the first British submarine commander to sink a Japanese submarine and published his memoirs as ‘Wingfield at War’. Captain Mervyn Wingfield was father of the civil engineer Richard Wingfield of Berkshire (a specialist in in river engineering, dams, irrigation, flood protection etc.) who helped me compile the above information on our mutual ancestor, the Rev. Willie Wingfield.

Willie and Elizabeth’s eldest daughter Elizabeth, known as Bena, was married in 1858 to Henry FitzGeorge Colley, the eldest son and heir of the Hon. George Francis Colley and a grandson of the 4th Viscount Harberton. His great-grandmother was a first cousin of the Duke of Wellington, a kinship greatly prided by the family during his formative years. Henry and Bena were the grandparents of my grandmother Noreen Butler (nee Colley). Bena was a pretty staunch no-nonsense type. Elizabeth Bowen wrote:

‘She saw no reason to deviate in the bringing-up of her family, from the strictness in which both she & her husband had been brought up – cards, dancing & theatre-going had been alike forbidden … For her own part, she admitted to having suffered, as a young girl, on her visits to Powerscourt where those pleasures reigned … At Mount Temple ball and theatre-going were not permitted.’

There was great sadness on 4 February 1839 with the death of Willie and Elizabeth’s baby son, William Brownlow Wingfield at Kellyville, Elizabeth’s family home. [8] The boy, their second son, had been born at the Vicarage in Abbeyleix one year earlier. [9] Edward Bligh Wingfield, their third son, was born in 1840 and died in Salthill, Berkshire, on 18 August 1847, aged seven.[10] Elizabeth would be in poor health for a period of time; perhaps this was connected to the after effects of giving birth to so many children.

Willie and Elizabeth’s daughter Isabella Frances Wingfield is thought to have been the ‘girl born to the Hon. Mrs Wingfield’ at the Vicarage in Abbeyleix on 23 May 1843. [11] She later married Major Robert Tankerville Webber.  There was also Emily Caroline Wingfield, who appears to have been born in Kellysville, Queen’s County, on 12 May 1846, [12] and Frances Catherine Wingfield who was ‘born to the Hon Mrs Wingfield’ on 16 February 1848.[13]



[1] Saunders’s News-Letter, 12 June 1827

[2] Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail, 17 July 1833.

[3] Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail, 8 September 1832

[4] Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail, 9 November 1833, p. 2; Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent, 23 November 1833, p. 1

[5] Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 16 December 1835

[6] Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail, 2 May 1846

[7] Saunders’s News-Letter, 7 August 1846

[8] Kilkenny Journal, 13 February 1839, p. 4

[9] Dublin Evening Mail, 26 February 1838, p. 4

[10] Dublin Evening Mail, 23 August 1847

[11] Dublin Evening Mail, 26 May 1843

[12] Dublin Evening Mail, 18 May 1846

[13] Dublin Evening Mail,18 February 1848