Monthly Archives: January 2013

Guest post: Famine and the Country House and Estate, Dr Ciarán Reilly.

In December last year, I included a guest post by Professor Terence Dooley about the establishment of a Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates (CSHIHE) at the National University of Ireland (NUI), Maynooth. Here is a wonderful follow up to that which highlights a particular project currently underway concerning the Great Irish Famine by Dr Ciarán Reilly.

The subject of the Famine is something of which I know very little within the context of the country house. Aspects of Irish history are discussed in English schools as part of GCSE level history, but that’s probably as far as most people take it, and any specialisms only surface at a later stage with further or higher education.  The following certainly pulls the wider histories of the country house into view. As the piece suggests, a great many public outcomes have so far come about because of the project, and it is hoped that the research will have far reaching effects even when the project has been completed, both academically and socially.

Strokestown Park House

Strokestown Park House

Dr Ciarán Reilly is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses & Estates at the Dept of History, NUI Maynooth.

At the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses & Estates at NUI Maynooth of the most exciting projects on the Great Irish Famine is being undertaken. Paying particular attention to how the Famine impacted on the Country House & Estate, Dr Ciarán Reilly is presenting groundbreaking findings on how the Famine impacted and unfolded. This research is the result of  the collaboration between the Irish National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park House and the CSHIHE. In 2008 the archive was transferred on loan to the Office of Public Works (OPW)/NUI Maynooth Archive and Research Centre at Castletown House, county Kildare.

The Strokestown Park House Archive is one of the most important and extensive nineteenth-century estate collections in Ireland comprising over 50,000 documents, including rentals, accounts, correspondence, maps and plans, property deeds, rent books, labour returns, pamphlets, press cuttings and even photographs. Of particular importance are the papers relating to the Great Famine of Ireland, 1845-51. Given the paucity of Famine records in a great many other estate collections, the Strokestown Archive has thus an added significance because of the microcosmic insight it offers into the Famine at local level. To date an in-depth analysis has been carried out on what can now be described as Ireland’s most important collection of documents relating to the Great Famine. While the archive details the running of the Mahon (and later Pakenham Mahon) estate from the 1600s until 1979, the majority of the papers relate to the tenantry on the estate. In the case of the Great Famine of the 1840s, the archive reveals the very people for whom Famine was a living nightmare. Here, through daily petitions for food and relief, we see the ‘forgotten voices’ of the Great Famine. It is through the study of such local estates that a greater understanding of how the Famine unfolded and impacted upon local communities can be fully understood. Through themes such as blight, eviction, emigration, murder and the struggle for land, a picture of Ireland in the 1840s and early 1850s is clearly identifiable. Significantly, the archive challenges long held assumptions about the Great Famine.

To date a number of public outcomes have resulted from the project including the annual International Famine Conference at Strokestown Park House. In July 2013 the third annual conference will take place organised by the Department of History, NUI Maynooth (a call for papers will shortly be advertised). In addition, the Strokestown Winter/Spring Lecture Series is also in its third year. The project has also seen an ambitious search for the location of more than 5,000 Famine emigrants from Strokestown who settled in Britain, Australia, America and Canada.

Major Denis Mahon

Major Denis Mahon

In the summer months of 1847 more than 1,400 people were assisted by the owner of the estate, Major Denis Mahon, in emigration to Canada.  It has been estimated that more than 600 never made it ashore in Canada, having succumbed to fever at sea or died in the quarantine station at Grosse Ile. More than sixty children were orphaned at Grosse Ile and through the generosity of the Catholic Church and local people, they were adopted. It is hoped that the descendents of these children and others will return to Strokestown Park in July 2013 as part of the Gathering. 


Staff profile,

Project overview,

Strokestown Park & Irish National Famine Museum

Putting the Great Famine into perspective

Atlas of the Great Irish Famine book with links

Exploration of the Famine by Professor Cormac O’Grada for the Economic History Society 1992

A heavily referenced overview on Wikipedia


The Strokestown Park House Archive: What it tells us about the Great Famine in county Roscommon’ in Journal of the Roscommon Historical and Archaeological Society (forthcoming, 2011)

The Strokestown Park House Archive: Offering new perspectives on the Great Irish Famine’ in The Bonfire: Newsletter of the Ballykilcline Society, vol 13, no 2 (Fall, 2011)

James Donnelly, The Great Irish Potato Famine (Sutton Publishing, 2002)

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Filed under Collections, Non-British country houses

Review: Great Houses with Julian Fellowes

Before settling down to watch Great Houses with Julian Fellowes, I read the reviews. There’s a mixture of responses to last night’s programme it would seem (especially on Twitter), and after watching it for myself, I can see why.

Fellowes is probably the best frontman for an ITV programme about the people who lived and worked in (large) country houses. Great Houses is a two-part series which shares its stories of Burghley House and Goodwood House between episode one and two respectively. It is a pity that more were not included, but being allowed glimpses of Burghley and Goodwood should please some people. Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford DL to give him his full name and title is an actor, writer, novelist, film director and screenwriter, as well as a Conservative Life Peer. His most popular works to date are Gosford Park, The Young Victoria, of course, ITV’s Downton Abbey.

Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire.

Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire.

1. Burghley House, Lincolnshire.

Great houses, according to Fellowes are not ‘for posh people to live in – their history belongs to all of us’. This is partly true, as the landed estate and its corresponding pile accommodated a vast number of jobs before the Industrial Revolution. And yet, the programme seemed to highlight the lofty presence of the owners and their sometimes unforgiving influence over the rest of society. The owners of Burghley being explored by Fellowes were William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-98) and his role in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Henry Cecil, 1st Marquess of Exeter (1754-1804) and his relationship with his second wife Sarah Hoggins. Behind the green baize door, Fellowes looked at, amongst others, the ‘savage’ treatment of the Burghley undercook Thomas Brincknell* and his wife, and dairymaid Harriet Clark who concealed her newborn baby in an outbuilding.

Most people according to the world of Fellowes were at the mercy of the Lord or the Marquess. He was quick to add early on however that these were the people governing the country whilst their servants were the ones ‘making the whole thing work’. His mission was therefore not to establish stories we could all relate to, but to pursue a means to an end in enhancing his own fictional characters; in his own words,  ‘I’m trying to find the real Lord Grantham, the real Lady Mary… the real Bates, the real Anna’.

Apart from the lack of investigation into Burghley’s architectural fabric or its collections, this, I think is where many viewers were split in their opinions because Fellowes appears to have two personas. There is the bumbling British peer who is mildly opinionated, highly educated, and polite. Then there is the contemplative, imaginative and sincere version. Put them together, and it is a recipe for a speculative narrative. Time and again, Fellowes was seen conversing with academics, archivists or librarians in a jolly manner. It was bad enough that no-one seemed bothered about handling the odd document without white gloves, but his jovial indifference was beginning to grate. The unconvinced looks thrown up by those he met with seemed to prove this effect. Fellowes had clearly set out to find snippets of country house history which would support his own ideals, where this wasn’t the case, then why not bend the facts or provide a bit of guess work and go with that?

Admittedly, I am being harsh, because Fellowes is not a historian. Nowhere was this clearer than the moment Fellowes found himself feeling deeply uncomfortable in the local library whilst trying to carry out simple searches. But the programme was no worse for this because Fellowes remained both enthusiastic and charismatic. I like to see history made more accessible, and ITV seems to be leading the way with its popular period dramas. Where the country house fits in with this is something I discussed in an earlier postGreat Houses simply adds a little background to the storytelling, and at least we were able to make the short virtual trips to the house, the archives and the libraries with Fellowes as our guide.

Overall, it’s difficult to place Great Houses with Julian Fellowes. A great deal of what was explored can be found easily on the internet and Burghley’s episodes surrounding Thomas Brincknell in the 16th century or the 1st Marquess in the 18th century have been written about by scholars. It may be a case of simply pointing the way in the quickest way possible and to as many people as possible. There may have been moments where I cringed or was left wanting more, but I will certainly watch the second part about Goodwood. Hopefully, by then, I will have formed a more comprehensive view of the ‘great’ country house and its social history according to Julian Fellowes.

* The murder/manslaughter of Thomas Brincknell actually took place in the yard of Cecil’s London house, and not at Burghley House which was still unfinished at the date of the incident in 1567.


Stephen Alford, Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I, (2011)

Andrew Harris, The Vernons of Hanbury Hall, (2012).

Elisabeth Inglis-Jones, The Lord of Burghley, (1964).

Alan H. Nelson, Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, (2003).

Daphne Pearson, Edward De Vere (1550-1604): The Crisis And Consequences Of Wardship, (2005).

Hank Whittemore, Shakepeare’s Sonnets Never Before Imprinted, (2005).

See also, ‘The Cottage Countess’ by Tennyson (first published 1842), which tells the story of Sarah Hoggins.


An honest, down-to-earth review by Veronica Lee at The Arts Desk

Radio Times Review (with interesting comments)

A disappointingly childish review from The Guardian

A short review of the first programme from Burghley in The Telegraph

General review from The Telegraph


Filed under Men and the Country House, Servants

The News for the New Year: an Exhibition for Nostell Priory.

Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet and his wife Sabine Louise Winn in the library at Nostell Priory, 1770.

Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet and his wife Sabine Louise Winn in the library at Nostell Priory, 1770 (copyright National Trust Collection).

Over three years ago the archive of the Winn family of Nostell Priory, Yorkshire were put into the ownership of the West Yorkshire Archives Service* under the jurisdiction of Wakefield Metropolitan Council as part of an Acceptance in Lieu grant.

I was still floating about in a post doctoral haze and was in need of something new to get my claws into.

I had written about Nostell Priory, especially Sabine Winn, the wife of the 5th Baronet (both pictured above) and her role as household manager including her relationship with the Nostell servants. So, wherever I went, whoever I spoke with, whatever I wanted to research, Nostell Priory was always there – looming.

Not surprisingly, the thought of being able to make a complete fuss about the importance of keeping the Winn family papers in Yorkshire was going to be very high on my agenda.

Together with the expertise of a senior academic from the University of Leeds, in May 2010 research began for an exhibition (and book) to be held at the house commencing in 2015. The working title for this is ‘From House to Home’, and will focus on two generations of the family – Sir Rowland Winn, 4th Baronet and his son the 5th Baronet and his wife.

Our ambitions are grand, to be sure, and we are hoping to show how rich these papers are. Nostell Priory is associated with famous names in architecture and design including Thomas Chippendale, the Adam Brothers, James Paine, as well as fine art by Kauffman, Zucchi and Brueghel. Yet, the Winn family papers also reveal several interesting layers in social and cultural history. The exhibition will therefore highlight many themes associated with country house living in the eighteenth century and attempt to show the relationships the Winns had with their architects, suppliers, extended family, and staff, as well as demonstrate the eccentricities of particular family members and how they came to be perceived by society.

Ultimately, the exhibition will encourage visitors to think about how an elite family like the Winns made their mark in the cultural landscape of the period at regional and national levels through their consumer tastes, shopping habits, sociability, and of course, their house.


My intention is to provide updates here as the project progresses, and any comments and questions are welcome, so long as they’re constructive!

*The papers are of great importance to the nation, their location at the West Yorkshire Archives Service (WYAS) however is something the region is understandably proud of given the associations with well-known names. The papers were recently voted as one of the Archives’ treasures by the public and archive staff, and in May 2012 the WYAS received a £37,000 grant to complete and improve the Winn family papers.


Filed under Architecture and Design, Building the Country House, Collections, The Nostell Project