The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
On Monday 21 February 2022 Offaly History will host a public lecture on the photographic work of Middleton Westenra Biddulph (1849–1926) of Rathrobin, Tullamore. The lecture will also be streamed via Zoom and will start at 8 p.m. at/from Offaly History Centre. Biddulph’s photographs of Offaly and midlands interest together with Big Houses in Ireland have been published in Michael Byrne, Rathrobin and the two Irelands (Tullamore, 2021). For the link to Zoom email [email protected]. There is no charge.
The new large format book has over 300 photographs with context and captions and is available for €25 in hardback. The publication was supported by the Decade of Centenaries and took fourteen months to prepare.
Middleton Westenra Biddulph was born on 17 August 1849 at Rathrobin, Mountbolus, King’s County. He was one of six children and the eldest surviving son of Francis Marsh Biddulph (1802–1868) and Lucy Bickerstaff (d. 1896). She was born in Preston, Lancashire and they married in 1845 when F.M.B. was 45 and Lucy 24. The Bickerstaff connection was to be an important one for the surviving sons of F.M.B. and led to a substantial inheritance in the 1890s for Middleton W. Biddulph (M.W.B.) and his brother Assheton who lived at Moneyguyneen, Kinnitty. F.M.B. was of a large family of eleven children. All were girls save their one surviving brother. F.M.B. lived with at least three of his sisters at Rathrobin, few of whom married and at least three emigrated to Australia or the United States.
In person and online. For link email [email protected]
The Biddulph home at Rathrobin in 1913
The Biddulph ancestors were from Staffordshire, and later Wexford, and had arrived in King’s County from as early as 1694 or 1660. Middleton Biddulph was not a descendant from planters of the Cromwellian or Williamite ‘Settlements’. He was, in fact, a tenant himself to the heirs of Sir William Petty – the Lansdowne family. Lt Col. Biddulph held about 1,000 acres of which perhaps 600 to 700 acres he farmed with the balance leased to his long-standing Protestant tenants. His landholding was principally in the townlands of Rathrobin and those adjoining of Clonseer, Cormeen, Kilmore and Mullaghcrohy, all near Mountbolus, in the civil parish of Killoughy and the barony of Ballyboy. The Rathrobin demesne lands were sub-leased to the Gamble family from the 1720s and later to the Molloys. The Molloys were the native landowners prior to the Cromwellian Settlement. The later Molloys were obliged to vacate from the mid-1820s when the Biddulphs returned to Rathrobin from a holding at Fortal, after a gap in residency of over 100 years. Legal disputes had left Colonel Biddulph’s grandfather Francis Harrison Biddulph in financial difficulty. On his death in 1827 the Rathrobin property passed to his son Francis Marsh Biddulph who held it for forty-one years up to his death in 1868. The property passed to his eldest surviving son, Middleton Biddulph but with, it appears, a life interest for Mrs Lucy Biddulph.
There are no surviving rent rolls of the estate which net of head rents did not produce much more than €700 per year in the late 1820s. This was a small estate when contrasted with that of the neighbouring Digby estate at Geashill of 30,000 acres and Rosse and Charleville with 20,000 acres each.
In September 1840, when still the bachelor owner of Rathrobin, F.M. Biddulph was fired at on his estate, the likely motive being that he had ejected tenants. For the attempted murder of Biddulph two men were charged in no less than three trials in September 1841 to March 1842 and ultimately acquitted. There did appear to be some sympathy with the two accused and the suggestion, apparently from F.M. Biddulph, that the prisoners should flee the country was not well received by the government and Biddulph’s commission of the peace was revoked. Biddulph had another twenty-eight years as a landowner and enjoyed hunting and keeping a pack of hounds. He died in 1868 and was buried at Ballyboy.
Middleton Biddulph at Rathrobin in 1902
Middleton Biddulph went to Foxcroft House boarding school in Portarlington, aged 11, from August 1860 to February 1862, thereafter to the Royal School in Banagher, and joined the army when he was eighteen, enlisting with the Northumberland Fusiliers (Fifth Regiment). Initially an ensign or cornet (by purchase), he rose in the ranks quickly and was a lieutenant by 1871, captain in 1881 and major from 1885. Before retirement in 1896 he held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He spoke French, German and Hindustani and stations included: Hythe March (1872), St Helier’s, Chatham (1879) Portsmouth (1881), Agra (1880), Mullingar (1882), Newcastle (1886), Colchester (1887) and Aldershot (1891). It was while he was at Mullingar with the Ist Batt. Northumberland Fusiliers that he was appointed adjutant of the Ist Northumberland and ordered to proceed to Alnwick. It appears that he met his future wife, Vera Flower, following on from an introduction by her brother Stanley Smyth Flower (1871–1946), who was also an officer in the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. They married in 1891 when she was twenty-eight and he forty-one. Vera Josephine Flower was a daughter of Sir William Flower, Director of the British Museum of Natural History, South Kensington, London. They did not have children.
The Biddulph lineage by M.W.B., now in Offaly Archives. Courtesy Offaly Archives.
Biddulph was proud of his family history and when he retired from the army in the mid-1890s he returned to Rathrobin and rebuilt the old house with the benefit of the Bickerstaff inheritance over the period 1898 to 1900. He employed (Sir) Thomas Drew as architect and William Beckett of Dublin as the builder. Tierney comments that Rathrobin, the Tudor revival mansion, was built on an ‘emphatically irregular plan to ape an ancient pile’. Cast from concrete it may have been the first large house of this type in Ireland. Prior to the rebuild Rathrobin was modest with a valuation of £21, but some of the neighbouring houses were less: Derrymore was only £11. 5s., Killooley £15 10s., Pallas Park £11 15s. (suggesting that these were in poor repair). All were well surpassed by Birr Castle at £140, Castle Bernard at £110, Annaghmore at £53 15s. and Mount Pleasant at £29 10s.
At the time of their father’s death in 1868, Middleton was nineteen, Assheton (1850–1916) was just eighteen, Franc (1853–1895) 15. Their sister Annie (1847–1926) had married in 1867 Captain John Willcocks. The youngest child, Gertrude (b.1856) was twelve. She married in 1879 George Carpenter Anderson, and 2ndly, in 1890, Dr Nevill Pottow Cadell. Her daughters by her first marriage were Evelyn and Beatrice Anderson and were regular visitors to Rathrobin.
Both Assheton and Franc would follow their brother Middleton into the army but neither pursued it as a career. Assheton maintained a lifelong and intense interest in hunting from 1884 until his death in 1916. He was born in 1850, m. 17 June 1880, Florence Caroline, daughter of Revd Cunningham Boothby, vicar of Holywell, Oxford. Their children were:
Robert b. 4 August 1891, married 1916 and died same year without issueKathleen Jane, b. 12 May 1881; m. 1906 Shaen Magan and succeeded to much of Lt Col. Biddulph’s estate. She married against her parents wishes and was no longer welcome at the family home at Moneyguyneen, Kinnitty.Ierne, b. 6 January 1884Norah, b. 15 November 1885Ethne, b. 17 March 1889
Assheton Biddulph was absorbed in hunting and was from 1884 the MFH (Master of Foxhounds) of the King’s County and Ormond Hunt, in succession to the earl of Huntington, who had a seat in Ireland at Sharavogue.
The meet at Rathrobin for the stirrup cup, 27 Dec. 1904. Assheton Biddulph was MFH and his son Bertie (died in the war in 1916) is to the left. Dr Prior Kennedy (front row extreme high) had just bought Elmfield, Tullamore)
If Assheton and Middleton represented all that we know of the Victorian proprieties then their brother, Franc Digby Biddulph, might appear to some to be the black sheep of the family. Franc was the youngest of the three surviving brothers and was born on 22 April 1853. Like Assheton he was for a time in the 3rd Middlesex Militia and reached the rank of captain. Franc Biddulph was described as an astute neighbour and a good friend of Henry, Lord Waterford (the wild marquis). He married in 1885, when aged 32, Louisa Colclough, daughter of John Thomas Rossborough-Colclough of Tintern Abbey, Wexford, and heiress of Tintern Abbey. A note by Middleton Biddulph would suggest that a sum of €1,500 was to be settled by Franc and paid by his brothers but was never paid. M.W.B. secured a release on the grounds that he could not afford to pay this sum. On marriage Franc Biddulph assumed the additional name of Colclough. He died on 13 July 1895 leaving issue. An unseemly court case followed with a challenge by some of the servants seeking to secure a late testamentary gift. Louisa Colclough died in 1912 leaving one child surviving of the marriage, Lucy Biddulph-Colclough, born on 2 June 1890 who died only in 1983. It was she who gave Tintern Abbey to the state.
Once the new Rathrobin House was completed Lt Col. Middleton Biddulph got on with his duties as a landlord and was a regular attender at the petty sessions, the board of guardians, the country infirmary, served as high sheriff in 1901, and was appointed deputy lieutenant of the county in 1910. He was also on the board of the King’s County Joint Committee for Technical Instruction and the King’s County Farming Society. While Biddulph was always a unionist he did not let that interfere with his work on the public boards and avoided politics. He canvassed for a seat on the first county council of 1899 but had no chance of election. Yet he invested fully in Rathrobin as his permanent home and had planned to return after the War of Independence. He and his wife only fled to England in June 1921 as the military campaign of the IRA in his locality intensified.
One of the Biddulph albums with the Carroll family of Clonseer to the right. Courtesy Offaly Archives.
Middleton Biddulph joined the principal historical and archaeological society in Ireland, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, in 1897. Biddulph participated in R.S.A.I. tours in 1901 and 1904. In the summer of 1902 he toured some of the large country houses in the north of England and Scotland. From there it was on to Stratford-on-Avon where the Flower family home and brewery was located. A further visit was made to Stratford-on- Avon in the spring of 1907. In 1911 Biddulph made a trip of about one month to the Boer War battlefields in South Africa.
Middleton Biddulph was not active during the First World War save in the context of his farming activities. He did attend the big meeting in Tullamore to promote recruitment held in April 1915 but did not speak. His wife Vera in the early days of the war wrote from Rathrobin to The Sphere of what would now be termed ‘fake news’ from Germany about how well interned English people were being treated. English residents in German were being pressurised by the German authorities, she said. She recalled schooldays in Germany and visits to many German friends in Prussia and how they envied the freedom the English enjoyed. Middleton Biddulph disagreed with his brother publicly in the early months of the war as to the propriety of continuing to hunt.
The Corcoran family, Rathrobin and Mountbolus, 1904
Mechanisation was also taking place on the Rathrobin farm during the First World War especially after the arrival of the Fordson tractor at an affordable price in 1917. Biddulph advised the Tullamore Rural District Council in February 1917 that within the previous few years he had increased his tillage from about four per cent to over twenty per cent and hoped in 1917 to have it at thirty per cent. It was the position of the farm labourer and the landless men that would give rise to the greatest agitation over the revolutionary period from 1913 and here Biddulph showed himself to be sympathetic to the needs of his own labourers.
With the ending of the war in November 1918 visits resumed at Rathrobin but not on the grand pre-war scale. Photographs survive of picnics in Slieve Bloom and at Dunamase. Yet it must have been an uneasy time with labour unrest and the approaching depression in prices after the war. As in pre-war days Biddulph planned to support the revived Tullamore Agricultural Show in August 1919. By that stage the War of Independence had started and would grow in earnest by Easter of 1920.
Almost all of the twelve or so house burnings in Offaly, with one exception, occurred during the Civil War and not before the Truce in July 1921. This would partly explain why Biddulph felt safe in staying at home at least for the summer and not moving to England prior to June 1921. The killing of two policemen in Kinnitty and the killings at Coolacrease surely hastened his exodus and confirmed his resolve to stay away. Biddulph moved to an apartment in Chelsea. From there he corresponded with his Tullamore-based solicitor Lewis Goodbody on 2 April 1923 advising of his bronchitis and the ‘horrid winter’. Biddulph remarked that the remainder of the lease on the apartment in Chelsea would see him out. It did, as he died there in 1926. Vera Biddulph died in England in 1938 (aged 75). The old colonel was spared sight (if not knowledge) of the destruction of all that he had laboured for himself in the previous twenty-five years, and, in addition, the houses of his well-to-do neighbours laid waste.
Rathrobin was destroyed by Republican IRA forces on 18 April 1923, it was said in reprisal for Free State executions. The house was known to the Republican IRA because after the burning of the military barrack in Tullamore in July 1922 Rathrobin was occupied by up to fifty men who stayed for the night. In reporting the incident, the Midland Tribune said that the Biddulph family had been closely and popularly associated with the district for many years. ‘Colonel Biddulph has always been foremost in helping local interests. His kindness and generosity are well known. The people were very sorry to hear that his home had been destroyed.’ Tragedy did not stop there.
Violet Magan to the left in 1920
Violet Magan (aged 48), a sister of Shaen Magan (husband of the Colonel’s niece Kathleen) was acting as Colonel Biddulph’s land agent and had continued to run the estate business of Rathrobin after the departure of M.W.B. and the burning of the house. She was born in 1876 and was well known in the midlands as a volunteer worker with the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society ((I.A.O.S.) and went everywhere on her bicycle. On 8 December 1924 near Mountbolus, while returning to Tullamore railway station, Violet Magan was set on by three men and taken from her bike and tied up. What must have been one of the most barbarous acts in the annals of Killoughy parish during the period was committed on Miss Magan. In her statement of 12 November 1926, she states that the men took her into a wood and tied her up with two sacks and placed her on her back with her head hanging over a bog hole. They then poured a green paint-like substance down her neck leaving her there alone to suffer and telling her they would have the land in spite of her.
Rathrobin in 1984
Rathrobin was acquired by the Land Commission and the lands distributed to local families. True to form Biddulph did make provision for some of his long-standing tenants and staff. He seems to have planned to return to Ireland after 1923 but the attack on his agent and his own declining health put a stop to that. His planned tomb in Ireland in Blacklion churchyard remains empty. Middleton Biddulph died in 1926 without returning to his beloved Rathrobin that he was obliged to leave in such haste in June 1921.
Children of Mountbolus in 1901
 Burke, Landed gentry of Ireland (London, 1912), 43.
 Leinster Express, 12 Mar. 1842; The Statesman, 6 Aug. 1841.
 At Banagher M. W. Biddulph was secretary to their cricket Eleven – Freeman’s Jn, 30 Mar. 1865.
 Freeman’s Jn, 17 Oct 1867, to be ensign by purchase vice Hackett.
 Ibid., 5 Sept. 1882.
 Andrew Tierney, Central Leinster, the counties of Kildare, Laois and Offaly (London, 2019), 181–82.
 Offaly Archives: Rathrobin inventory, schedule of deeds (not paginated).
 King’s County Chronicle, 28 Feb. 1901, 25 Aug. 1910.
 Leinster Reporter, 24 Apr. 1915.
 The Sphere, 12 Sept. 1914.
 Leinster Reporter, 19 July 1919.
 Midland Tribune, 28 Apr. 1923.