The City of London and the Plantation of Ulster by Professor James Stevens Curl

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The City of London and the Plantation of Ulster

by Professor James Stevens Curl

BBCi History Online

©2001 British Broadcasting Corporation

The City of London and the Plantation of Ulster

by James Stevens Curl

Following the Nine Years’ War (1593-1603) and the military and financial aid given to the Ulster Earls by Spain, the new King of what was to become known as Great Britain and Ireland, James I and VI (1603-25), determined that Ireland should no longer pose a threat to the realms by again becoming a possible launching-pad for a Counter-Reformation invasion. Serious attempts were made to establish and enforce English law throughout Ireland, but old rivalries and jealousies once more rose to the surface, and in Ulster an inherent instability once more became overt. Attempts to sort things out caused more difficulties, and in 1607 the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell (Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell) and Cuconnacht Maguire (Lord of Fermanagh), with their followers, left Ulster for the Continent, an episode popularly known as ‘the Flight of the Earls’. The embarrassing party (of which the great European powers formed no high opinion) was eventually shunted off to Rome, where the survivors lived out their remaining days on papal and Spanish pensions. The Flight was regarded as treason, and the estates of the fugitives and their associates were pronounced escheat, or forfeited to the Crown.
This vacuum prompted the Government to determine to settle recalcitrant Ulster (hitherto the most Gaelic part of Ireland) with a population loyal to the Crown, and to this end ‘undertakers’ were invited to take over tracts of land and ‘plant’ (ie settle) with British in order to secure the stability, loyalty, and religious conformity of the territory. Much of Ulster west of the Bann was ‘planted’ by private interests, and, contrary to popular belief, many native Irish landlords also encouraged immigration from England and Scotland in order to strengthen the economy and help to keep rivals in order. There was one area, however, to which no private entrepreneur could be tempted, not only because of the presence of large numbers of resentful natives who expected the Earls to return at any time, but because there were uncertainties over title, as some Irish landholders were languishing in gaol. That area was ‘O’Cahan’s Country’ which had been ‘shired’ and re-named the County of Coleraine in the reign of Elizabeth I, but in practice the ‘shiring’ meant very little until after 1607. In order to secure the territory, it was decided to ‘invite’ (in practice ‘coerce’) the powerful City of London to finance the ‘plantation’ of County Coleraine, but even that proved to be a problem, and the City of London was eventually commanded to carry out the Plantation itself to the great alarm of the worthy burghers of London, who certainly did not wish to commit effort, money, and lives to distant, barbarous, papist Ulster, where there was no infrastructure worth speaking about, and where things looked decidedly unstable and dangerous.
Initial Involvement of the City of London
The minute-books of the London Livery Companies are full of comments such as ‘it would be very foolish to entermeddle in this busynesse, for it will be exceading chargeable’. It is clear that the Londoners had no stomach for the Plantation of Ulster perceiving it as troublesome and a bottomless pit as far as money was concerned. It was only when several respectable citizens had been gaoled, fined, and further threatened that the City knew it had no chance of avoiding the will of the Crown, and the City of London was obliged to commit its resources and ingenuity to carrying out colonisation of part of the territory. Four worthy and senior citizens of London were invited to inspect the lands: the survey was organised by Sir Arthur Chichester (1563-1625), who founded Belfast (Arthur and Chichester Streets, for example, are named after him, and Donegall Square is named after the title his family acquired), and who, at the time, was Lord Deputy (effectively Viceroy of Ireland). Chichester made sure that the Deputation from London did not see English surveyors carrying out their work under armed guard (several surveyors had been killed by the Irish ‘who did not wish their lands to be discovered’), and also that only attractive parts of the country would be visited. The Londoners were entertained and stayed in new English houses, with as much comfort as could be mustered. They also saw the great rivers of Foyle and Bann, teeming with fish, and the rich agricultural produce that could be garnered from lands in the fertile valleys. However, they were not shown much of the wilder mountainous parts of the Sperrins, where the Irish kerne lived, and where the terrain was unfriendly. Nevertheless, the Londoners were no fools, and they decided they would only undertake the work if the territory were to be expanded for purposes of security and to make materials available: they asked for lands east of the Bann in County Antrim on which they would build a new town and establish its hinterland or Liberties (Coleraine and surrounding area); they asked for land on the west bank of the Foyle on which to build their new city and establish its Liberties (Derry and surrounding area); and they demanded the great forest in the Barony of Loughinsholin in County Tyrone in order to provide timber for building activities. Terrified that the City of London would dig in its heels and somehow refuse to proceed, the Government agreed to demands, and a new County was created specially for the City to colonise: that County was called the County of Londonderry, and included the old County of Coleraine to which bits of Counties Antrim, Donegal, and Tyrone were joined. It should be noted that at no time, before or since, was there ever an Irish county called ‘Derry’, and it is historical nonsense to refer to ‘County Derry’. The Diocese was always ‘Derry’, however, but the new, planned, walled city erected by the City of London was re-named ‘Londonderry’.
The London Livery Companies
The ancient Livery Companies of the City of London had their origins before 1066, and were very similar to the many fraternities, guilds, or mysteries that flourished throughout Europe for many centuries. The Companies get their name from the mode of dress, the wearing of a Livery, often of peculiar magnificence, which was a badge of membership of a particular Company. These organisations were concerned with trade and its proper regulation, with the giving of alms and support of charities, and took part in religious observances, yet were secular in character. When craftsmen, dealers and merchants obtained charters for managing their callings; they formed fraternities (the membership of which contributed money to a common stock), and could make laws by licence of the Crown. Trades or crafts were overseen by inspection of works or products, and standards were ensured by the carefully controlled training of apprentices; money was raised by letting the corporate estates and by ‘fining’ or raising levies on members; and charity was dispensed from the legacies of deceased members or from cash raised by rental or investment income.
During the Middle Ages the ‘Chief Mysteries’ or ‘Great Companies’ emerged as the wealthiest and most influential, paying the highest annual sums (called fermes) to the Crown, and sent the most members to the Court of Common Council for the governance of the City of London. Thus the Companies and the City were always intimately connected and dependent on each other. From these Companies the Lord Mayors were chosen, and those Companies alone could enrol the Sovereign among their members. At the time of the Londonderry Plantation, there were twelve Great Companies, which bore the brunt of all levies on the City by the Government. These are, in order of precedence, the Mercers’, Grocers’, Drapers’, Fishmongers’, Goldsmiths’, Skinners’, Merchant Tavlors’, Haberdashers’, Salters’, Ironmongers’, Vintners’, and Clothworkers’ Companies, and they comprised the chief commercial staple and manufacturing interests of the kingdom, besides including the most eminent citizens among their members.
As the Companies had their origins in the pre-Reformation world, their titles reflected this fact. For example, the Company of the Mystery of Grocers of the City of London was under the patronage of Saint Antony the Great (c. 251-356), often called St Antony of Coma, or St Antony of Egypt; the Guild or Fraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Mystery of Drapers of the City of London acknowledged its Patroness in its title; and the Mystery of Fishmongers of the City of London, unsurprisingly, was under the protection of St Peter (d. c. 64), the Fisher of Men. All the other Companies had similar patrons. Some Irish critics (given to publishing lurid anti-London pamphlets wholly devoid of any worth or truth) have scented in the word ‘mystery’ dark goings-on, evidence of secret societies, and quasi-Freemasonic junketings. Such notions are absurd, for the word ‘mystery’ derives from the medieval Latin misterius, an altered form of ministerium, meaning occupation, service, craft, trade, profession, calling, or skill, although there may also be some confusion with Maistre, an old form of Master or Mastery, indicating well-developed professional skills. One of the most important aspects of medieval life was the welfare of the soul after death, so chantries or endowments were established to maintain one or more priests to say daily Masses for the souls of those providing the money. Such endowments were expensive for individuals, so the setting up of chantries was often only possible if numbers of people formed an association for the purpose. It should be remembered, therefore, that one of the most important original roles of the London Companies was to ensure continual prayers for their dead brethren and sisters: this, and their charitable activities, were of enormous significance, and completely at odds with a widespread perception (among those incapable of looking up facts) that London Livery Companies were varieties of department-stores selling haberdashery or groceries. One of their most important functions was the care of souls after death.
No fewer than 55 Livery Companies of the City of London were obliged to become involved in the expensive business of colonising County Londonderry: money was raised by ‘fining’ the Liverymen and by dipping into resources. In some cases sufficient cash was collected to enable a Company to proceed, but in others the raising of capital was so difficult that several Companies had to be grouped together as ‘Associates’. Twelve estates were created consisting largely of patches of ground separated from each other by lands granted to the Established Anglican Church, to ‘Native Irish Gentlemen’, and to Sir Thomas Phillips, a soldier-of-fortune, who had originally established Coleraine, but who was to create Limavady as his ‘capital’. Displaced Irish were allowed to settle on church lands and on the native Freeholds, but were supposed to remove themselves from the Company lands in due course. In theory, there were supposed to be enough Londoners to surround and outnumber the natives, but there were never sufficient immigrants to enable the Irish residents to be replaced and removed, so the security of the venture was always rather shaky. Among the most fragmented estates (the Proportions were allocated by lot) were those of the Drapers and Skinners, but these were in the landlocked southern mountainous areas, and therefore the very places that needed to be the most secure. The Companies were grouped under one of the ‘Great’ Companies to manage each ‘Proportion’:

  • the Mercers had the Masons, Innholders, Cooks, and Broderers as their Associates;

  • the Grocers had no Associates as they managed to raise the full levy themselves;

  • the Drapers had the Tallow-Chandlers as their Associates, but bought them out soon after they established their estates;

  • the Fishmongers had the Leathersellers, Plaisterers, Musicians, Basket Makers, and Glaziers as their Associates;

  • the Goldsmiths were associated with the Armourers, Cordwainers, and Painter-Stainers;

  • the Skinners with the Whitebakers, Girdlers, and Stationers;

  • the Merchant Taylors had no Associates;

  • the Haberdashers were grouped with the Wax-Chandlers, Founders, and Turners;

  • the Salters were associated with the Dyers, Cutlers, Saddlers, Joiners, and Woolmen;

  • the Ironmongers had the Brewers, Pewterers, Barber-Surgeons, Carpenters, Coopers, and Scriveners as their Associates;

  • the Vintners’ Proportion was also funded by the Grocers (who had over-subscribed to their own Proportion), Curriers, Plumbers, Poulters, Tylers and Bricklayers, Blacksmiths, Weavers, Woodmongers, and Fruiterers;

  • and the Clothworkers were grouped with the Merchant Taylors (who also had over-subscribed to their own Proportion), Butchers, Bowyers, Fletchers, Brownbakers, and Upholders.

Each estate was to have a fortified manor house or ‘castle’, planned villages of houses of the ‘English’ type, and churches were to be built or re-edified for the use of the Established Church. Furthermore, sufficient settlers were to inhabit the lands, and were to adhere to English law, speech, and customs (including, of course, religion).

Each Company or group of Companies, therefore, had to undertake considerable endeavours in order to carry out the obligations imposed by the Crown.

  • The Mercers’ Proportion (with its ‘capital’ at Movanagher first, and then Kilrea), consisted of some 33.5 square miles;

  • the Grocers’ Proportion (‘capital’ at Muff, later re-named Eglinton) had 24.9 square miles;

  • the Drapers (‘capital’ Moneymore, with a later settlement at Draperstown) obtained 60.6 square miles;

  • the Fishmongers (‘capital’ at ‘New Walworth’ [Ballykelly]) were granted 37.7 square miles;

  • the Goldsmiths (‘capital’ at New Buildings) obtained 17.25 square miles;

  • the Skinners (‘capital’ at the Priory church near Dungiven, and Dungiven itself, although there was a second fort at Brackfield or Cros(s)alt) were granted 76.5 square miles;

  • the Merchant Taylors (‘capital’ at Macosquin) had 29.25 square miles;

  • the Haberdashers (‘capital’ at Ballycastle or Ballycaslan, near Aghanloo, and a second settlement at Artikelly) were given 36.1 square miles;

  • the Salters (‘capital’ at Magherafelt with a second castle and settlement at Salterstown by Lough Neagh) obtained 36.4 square miles;

  • the Ironmongers (‘capital’ at Agivey) had an estate of 30.4 square miles;

  • the Vintners (‘capital at ‘Vintnerstown’ [now reverted to Bellaghy]) owned 50.9 square miles;

  • and the Clothworkers (‘capital’ at Killowen opposite Coleraine, with a second settlement at Articlave, and a 19th century development of the new holiday resort of Castlerock when the railways came) gained 21.0 square miles.

The comparatively large areas allocated to the Drapers and Skinners are partly explained by the proportion of very poor mountainous land on their estates, but there was another difficulty, for the Irish method of measuring land had nothing to do with area but everything to do with what the land could support. An Irish land unit, therefore, would be quite small in the fertile lowlands, but enormous in the bare and inhospitable Sperrins. The English surveyors, not wishing to risk their necks, gained information concerning the number of balliboes (essentially economic units of land) in an area, and assumed that there were 60 English acres per balliboe. In fact the real number of acres per balliboe in County Londonderry averaged out at around 400 English acres, which caused the Companies considerable surprise once their agents arrived in Ireland to find their tasks were much greater than anything they had been led to believe on paper.

That was only the start of it, however, for the Londoners had to build a fortified city (to become Londonderry) and a fortified town (Coleraine) out of funds raised from the Livery Companies. In order to oversee the Plantation and the building of those settlements, a body was created within the City of London called The Society of the Governor and Assistants, London, of the New Plantation in Ulster, within the Realm of Ireland, later called The Honourable The Irish Society, which had powers to hold Courts, to treat of and determine all matters and causes concerning the Plantation of County Londonderry, to direct operations in Ireland, to administer all funds raised for the Plantation venture, and to exercise control on behalf of the City of London over the entire undertaking. It was similar to the governing bodies of other 17th century joint-stock companies established for purposes of trade and colonisation (eg the East India Company, the Virginia Company, and the Newfoundland Company), and had enormous powers over the City and Liberties of Londonderry, the Town and Liberties of Coleraine, the Customs, the Fisheries of the Rivers Foyle and Bann and their tributaries, the waters of Lough Foyle and the rivers that flowed into it, Admiralty rights, advowsons (patronages of the Livings of Anglican clergy) and a certain amount of control over the Company Proportions.
When it is remembered that the logistics of getting men and materials over to Ulster at the beginning of the l7th century posed huge difficulties, the speed with which the City of London established its settlements, and built the two major urban developments (including the Cathedral-church of St Columb in Londonderry and the impressive fortifications) is amazing, and the story is well documented. There was friction with the native population at times, of course, several atrocities, and a constant drain on the resources of the Londoners, who were also obliged to import tradesmen to carry out the building-works, and to maintain ships to carry men, instructions, arms, and materials to Ulster. It is clear that some of the plans for buildings were drawn up in London, and there were men on the spot (such as William Parrott and Thomas Raven) who were skilled surveyors and knowledgeable about building. It is completely untrue that dwellings were prefabricated in London and shipped to Ulster: not only was there a great shortage of timber in England at the time, but Ulster was very well-endowed with timber, so bringing kits-of-parts over would have been like bringing coals to Newcastle. This is just one example of the many myths concerning the Plantation, and has no basis in fact, although the legend is enshrined in stained-glass windows in Londonderry’s Guildhall, among other places, but that does not mean it is history. The fact is that, where it was possible, many of the houses (notably in Coleraine and on the Drapers’ and Salters’ Proportions) were timber-framed (the Raven maps confirm this), and resembled contemporary dwellings in, for example, Herefordshire, so it is not surprising that artisans were brought over from English Counties where there was expertise in building such structures.
The Rift with the Crown
Various surveys were carried out which raised questions about the viability of the Londoners’ Plantation. One of the most devastating was that carried out by Sir Thomas Phillips with picture-maps of the settlements by Thomas Raven in 1622-9. It is clear from this work that many of the fortified manor-houses were unfinished and unroofed, that the settlements were incomplete, that the settlers were few and badly armed, and that the notion the Londoners would be so numerous as to outnumber the Irish was pure pie-in-the-sky. The accession of King Charles 1 (1625-49) also proved to be problematic, for the new monarch had hardly ascended the throne before he began to call upon the City of London for enforced ‘loans’ to pursue wars with France and Spain. In 1634, for example, the City was obliged to provide seven new warships, and warships were expensive. Worse was to come, for the City was then accused of having violated its Articles of Agreement in relation to the Plantation, and was obliged to spend huge amounts of money defending itself. It was no use, for the City was found guilty in the Court of the Star Chamber, its Irish estates were confiscated by the Crown, and it was fined an enormous sum. This left the unfortunate settlers with void titles, yet the Crown began charging exorbitant rents (often double what they had been paying the Londoners), so the Irish House of Commons prepared a remonstrance claiming that the inhabitants of County Londonderry were being cruelly used, and that the Plantation itself was in grave danger as a result because many tenants had thrown in the towel in disgust and returned to England.
In 1641 the English House of Commons found that the City had been treated wrongly, that its titles with regard to the Londonderry lands were lawful, and that there was no proof of any wrongdoing. Thus The Irish Society and the Companies were restored to their lands, but the damage had been done. The City swung its considerable clout behind Parliament, and its treatment over the Plantation played no small part in the eventual removal of the King and his subsequent execution. Meanwhile, the Irish saw their chance, and rose in rebellion. With great ferocity, virtually every settlement in County Londonderry (except Coleraine and Londonderry) was destroyed. The Civil Wars in Great Britain (1642-52) left much military intervention in Ulster to Scots forces (who were as strange to the Londoners as the Irish), but Ireland was not pacified again until 1653 by Cromwellian troops. Parliament again confirmed the City’s rights in County Londonderry in 1657, but by that time large numbers of Scots immigrants were starting to have a profound effect on the religious make up of the Province, challenging the established church with their Presbyterianism. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, The Irish Society obtained a re-grant of its Charter, for the Cromwellian settlements had to be confirmed under the new regime, and the City and its Companies were fully restored to ownership with some additional privileges. In particular, it was stated that thenceforth ‘for ever… six and twenty honest and discreet citizens of the City of London’ should comprise The Irish Society, which still exists today to administer its holdings in Ulster and to distribute profits for the benefit of the City and County with which it has been associated for almost 400 years.
Of course, vast amounts had to be expended making good the damage, especially in places such as Moneymore on the Drapers’ estates, where the destruction had been enormous. As feared, the fortifications (apart from those of Coleraine and Londonderry) had been wholly inadequate to resist the insurgents, as a glance at the Skinners’ bawn at Brackfield should make clear, for it could hardly stand for long against an early medieval professional army, let alone one in possession of gunpowder. Virtually all the ‘English’ houses, timber-framed or stone-built, had been razed to the ground. Some settlements (eg Movanagher) were abandoned and new ones established (eg at Kilrea), whilst others (eg Salterstown, where there is evidence of reoccupation after the 1641 catastrophe) were re-edified, but eventually failed for economic reasons.
The greater part of Londonderry was destroyed in a fire of 1668. This, coming so soon after the Plague of 1665 and Fire of 1666 in London itself stretched resources, but nevertheless The Irish Society rebuilt Londonderry, supplied the timber for a new bridge across the Bann at Coleraine, and paid a dividend to the Companies in 1676. The death of the King in 1685 and the accession of his brother as King James II and VII (1685-88) led to further problems, for although he was removed as King of Great Britain in 1688, he was still King of Ireland, and it was in Ireland that the Jacobites re-grouped with French help. History and experience had placed the City of London firmly against any arbitrary use of royal power, and so the Londoners threw their not inconsiderable weight behind the claims of King William and Queen Mary, with the result that Londonderry was closed to the representatives of King James in 1688, and the resulting siege demonstrated not only the fortitude of the inhabitants, but the incompetence of the attacking forces, for any reasonably equipped continental army could easily have reduced Londonderry without much trouble. The city, laid out on the slope of a hill dropping steeply down to the shores of the river, was wide open to bombardment from the opposite bank, and the old-fashioned fortifications should have been no problem for an adversary.
The Grand Alliance (1688-97) had been formed at the instigation of an exasperated papacy against the ambitions of King Louis XIV of France (reigned 1643-1715), whose policies and greed had nearly led to the conquest of Central Europe by Ottoman Turks in 1683: Vienna itself was only saved by the intervention of a Polish army under King John III Sobieski (reigned 1674-96). So the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch, many German states, Savoy, Spain, and the British were united against the French as the result of papal opposition to France, an opposition partly triggered by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) that had caused many French Protestants to seek asylum in other countries. Pope Innocent XL (1676-89) had been outraged by the persecution of French Protestants, and regarded the Revocation as folly which would rebound on the Roman Catholic Church (as it did), and saw the cynical threat posed by Islam to the Holy Roman Empire as part of French designs to dismember that Empire so that France could expand, yet Christendom itself would be endangered in Europe as a whole. These alliances call into question the view of those commentators who interpret the war in Ireland (including the Boyne and the Siege) as victories of the Ulster Protestants over Roman Catholics: the very Alliance was the creation of the papacy, who backed William against Louis and his weak ally, the deposed King James. Once again, County Londonderry had suffered from destruction caused by war and there was a great deal of reconstruction necessary after 1691. Needless to say, conditions such as those of 17th century Ulster were not conducive to the creation of great architecture or picturesquely agreeable villages. The 18th century, however, was a time of long, slow, careful rehabilitation, but there were more problems ahead.
The 18th and early 19th Centuries
For the best part of a century Ireland enjoyed peace and increasing prosperity. The introduction of the linen industry in the aftermath of the wars greatly helped the economy of County Londonderry, but it was a fragile economy, and there were dangers in being too dependent on one industry. By 1802 the staple of the country was the manufacture of linen, but there were growing problems as tenants were charged exorbitant rents and many gave up and emigrated to the New World.
The Irish Society and the Companies viewed matters with some alarm, but could not do much about them because disaster had again struck in the form of the South Sea Bubble of 1720, which ruined many Liverymen. The Irish Society even had difficulty letting its fishings, and the Londonderry Plantation entered the doldrums. Matters became so bad that most of the Companies rid themselves of direct involvement in their estates by letting them to individuals for a term of ‘lives’: this was a type of letting dependent upon nominated persons (usually three) on whose deaths the land would revert to the owners. Unfortunately, one of the lives chosen by some of the Companies was the prince who was to become King George III (reigned 1760-1820), one of the longest-lived monarchs in British history, so direct control over some of the estates was not regained until 1820. Paralysed by the South Sea Bubble catastrophe, the City of London had no resources to spend on its estates in Ulster, so the letting idea seemed the only way out at the time. Unfortunately, the tenants (who paid a ‘fine’ and an annual rent) went in for massive asset-stripping, with the result that The Irish Society noted virtually the whole of the county had become denuded of woodlands, emigration by Protestants was reaching epidemic proportions (thereby undoing one of the many aims of the Plantation, namely to settle the disaffected parts of Ulster with persons loyal to the Crown), and small farms were being impoverished by the rapacity of the Companies’ tenants. Meanwhile, as a contemporary observer noted, ‘no Papists stirred’ from their holdings. The emigrants (mostly Ulster-Scots) became implacable enemies of British rule, and were one of the most significant factors in the success of the American Revolution.
By 1803 County Londonderry was the ‘worst wooded county in the King’s dominions’. However, the Act of Union had come into force and a new determination to improve County Londonderry was discernable. First of all The Irish Society decided to carry out proposals of the wise and humane Reverend George Vaughan Sampson (1762-1827), Rector of Aghanloo (1794-1807) and Errigal (1807-27), to encourage a huge programme of planting of trees and thorn hedges, to reclaim land, and to encourage the Companies to take their estates back into their direct ownership. Sampson said that the poor lived in dens of indescribable wretchedness, without hope or incentive to improve matters; that absentee landlords were a curse, uninterested in their lands or their tenants other than to squeeze as much cash out of them as possible; that the County, once so well-wooded, had been stripped of its trees, and that something should be done as a matter of urgency to remedy this. He noted that enormous areas of slob- and bog-land could be reclaimed for use and in any case the bogs ought to be better managed or they would be ruined as a resource. Sampson further added that holdings were far too small to support the families living on them, as, if any part of the system (making linen, growing potatoes for food, etc.) broke down, rents could not be paid, and eviction and starvation would follow. Therefore he proposed that cash collected from tenants should be ploughed back into the estates to improve them, build houses and other structures, and transform the economy, rather than be squandered on dissipations in London or Bath; and he concluded that a huge transformation and much effort were needed to bring prosperity, civilisation, peace, and other benefits to a land ruined by a century of exploitation and neglect. It is greatly to the credit of The Irish Society and the Companies that the recommendations of men like Sampson were heeded and an era of great reform commenced, though not until the French Wars were over in 1815. Among many other things, Sampson advocated the reversion of all estates to their proprietors; the ending of absenteeism and the establishment of a residential class of gentlemen; a stop to the excessive subdivision of farms and to the process of rack-renting; the reduction of all rents to reasonable levels; the resumption of Proportions under the direct control of the Companies; the planting of boglands and the establishment of nurseries for trees; programmes of draining and enclosing land by means of fences and hedges to improve and protect it; a scheme of reclamation of slob-lands by the banks of Lough Foyle; planting of all thin soils with rape to provide food for sheep and to produce oil; the amalgamation of small farms to form establishments of 20 to 200 acres apiece; the creation of small townships on each Proportion to facilitate trade; reclamation of all waste lands; a programme of building of model farm-houses; encouragement to the industrious to stay put rather than to emigrate, and the encouragement of surplus population to emigrate; the building of mills; improvement of all roads, bridges, and infrastructure; and the establishment of model schools in decent buildings, with properly trained schoolteachers, books, and other equipment provided and paid for by the Companies.
Transformation of County Londonderry
With almost evangelical zeal The Irish Society and the Companies began to implement Sampson’s recommendations. Once they regained direct control of their estates, some of the Companies (especially the Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, and Salters) built model farms, schools, churches (for all denominations), exemplary dwellings, mills, and other structures, and began a major programme of improvement on the land (including draining, planting with trees and thorns, and reclaiming slob-lands). Evidence of building activities can be found throughout the County, but may be seen especially at Kilrea, Eglinton, Moneymore, Draperstown, Ballykelly and Magherafelt, and the presence of thorn hedges and many mature trees attests to the success of the programme. It should also be remembered that the huge areas of slob-land reclaimed from Lough Foyle not only aided the economy, but provided the base for airfields into which enormous amounts of material and many thousands of troops arrived from across the Atlantic during the war of 1939-45.
There is no doubt whatsoever that The Irish Society and the Companies did a tremendous amount to transform County Londonderry with neat towns and villages, good management of the countryside, and the development of trade. In particular, the coming of the railways was encouraged and assisted, and improvements were carried out to harbours and wharves. Roads were built and repaired, bridges were constructed (including the very important bridges over the Foyle connecting Waterside with the City, and over the Bann, connecting Killowen with Coleraine), and massive encouragement was given to the farming community in all manner of ways. Furthermore, The Irish Society supported education with the building of schools, encouraged higher education in Londonderry and concerned itself with the appearance of its estates in a way uncommon in Ulster. It is a testament to the success of policies in County Londonderry that the Great Hunger of the 1840s caused by potato blight did not cause insoluble problems, though there were vast influxes of destitute poor fleeing from their miserable smallholdings in County Donegal who had to be supported, housed and given food, all of which strained the resources of the county and its inhabitants.
However, there were ominous signs pointing to an uncertain future for the Londoners. First of all, the Anglican Church in Ireland was disestablished in 1869 (effective from 1871), and there was almost continuous agitation for repeal of the Union and for radical changes to land ownership. In addition, the City of London and The Irish Society were sniped at throughout the second half of the century, culminating in the Parliamentary Inquiries of 1889-91, all of which required time and effort in order to defend interests. In 1884 it was even proposed to abolish The Irish Society: the amounts of work generated, expenses incurred, and time spent on the interminable reports, inquiries, and resisting attacks are incredible and exasperated the Courts of The Irish Society. It seems obvious that the intention was to wear The Society down, for there was really nothing more that could be added to the mass of material already available in published and readily accessible form. It was during this period too that many scurrilous articles, pamphlets and other documents denouncing the City of London, The Irish Society, and the Companies appeared.
As a result of rent strikes, land enactments and the political climate of Irish Nationalism, Livery Companies which only a few decades earlier had regained control over their estates and set about improving them, gave up and sold their holdings. Even then, there were those who claimed, despite published evidence, that the Companies had no right to sell at all and tried to lay claim to the lands and buildings.

  • The Grocers’ Company sold its estates in 1877 and at once all allowances and grants towards buildings ceased: with the benevolent landlords that the Londoners undoubtedly had been no longer there, generous handouts for educational, charitable, and other purposes ceased to exist despite the demands of those who wanted the largesse to continue.

  • The Clothworkers sold out lock, stock and barrel in 1871, and thereafter refused to have anything to do with their Proportion that had caused them endless expense, drawn vicious abuse upon them and with which they had never wanted to be involved in the first place.

  • The Drapers had a great deal of trouble during the worst of the land agitation of the 1880s, and income virtually dried up: such a state of affairs did not encourage the Company to hand out money to its belligerent tenants for charitable purposes.

  • The Fishmongers, who had been benevolent landowners, also found themselves in a quandary when tenants refused to pay rents, settle arrears, or even buy out the Company; a note among the papers of the Company observes ruefully that the tenants were ‘an awful lot of ungrateful blackguards’.

Parliamentary interference and commissions (which inevitably raised red herrings about whether or not the Companies actually owned their lands or merely held them in trust, though the position was quite clear, and had been clear for a very long time), badly drafted Acts, corrupt and tardy bureaucrats, an ‘unsettled’, easily led, and greedy tenantry, and politicians and press inimical to the Londoners did not help. In nearly every case where the Companies were still owners of estates by the end of the 1880s, hatred was whipped up by agitators, rents were permanently in arrears, and a general lack of confidence made its presence felt in squalor, failure, and decay. The tactics of the tenantry (which had been treated with open-handed generosity in most cases) and its political manipulators alienated the Londoners, so contributions to dispensaries, charities, individuals, and churches, not surprisingly, ceased. Some Companies did not manage to extricate themselves until just before the 1914-18 war, and when connections with Proportions were severed finally, the papers of the Companies reveal degrees of bemused regret, exasperated relief, and more than a touch of righteous indignation. For the Companies, the Plantation of Ulster had meant three centuries of trouble, expense, bother, and impossible demands, pleasing nobody. What had actually happened was that the Londoners, in the guise of The Irish Society, the Companies, and the settlers, had been coerced into carrying out State-Policy-on-the-Cheap because the State would not do the work itself, had been robbed, left in the lurch without adequate defences, and had finally been betrayed. It is not a pretty story and does governments and the Crown no credit at all. Furthermore, the ordinary settlers and their descendants learned something the hard way; when help was required from London it was always too little and too late, and the Planters and those who succeeded them were always on their own.


The Irish Society’s estates were gradually sold off in part, but it retained many of its rights, not least the fishings (which again had to be defended against many attacks over the next century). Management of the fishings has been responsible for the conservation of a wonderful resource, and without it there is no doubt that the fishings would have been destroyed by profligate exploitation. In addition, The Society has taken over the management of the small amounts of residual income that come into, for example, the Mercers’ estates, and today distributes all its income for charitable purposes within the County, acting on advice from its Local Advisory Committee. The Honourable The Irish Society, reluctantly born of necessity and obliged to serve a sectional interest, has evolved into a body which aims to promote the welfare of the whole populace of the lands of the Londonderry Plantation, and especially of the two settlements of Londonderry and Coleraine.

In the turbulent and bloody history of Ireland the Londoners come out of the story with honour. Today, surviving built fabric, such as can be found in Moneymore, Draperstown, Magherafelt, Eglinton, Castlerock, and Ballykelly, testifies to the efforts of the Companies to improve their estates. In Londonderry the walls, the Anglican Cathedral, the Guildhall (with its interesting stained glass), the town plan, and much else are memorials to the work of The Irish Society, as is Coleraine and the church of St Patrick there. It is regrettable that virtually nothing survives of the early l7th century domestic architecture of Coleraine, although some parts were in existence as late as the 1930s. Nevertheless, what still exists deserves our respect and has as much relevance to the history of Ireland as the monuments of Gaelic Antiquity.

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