Coordinates: Lissan House is a historic house and tourist attraction in Northern Ireland. Lissan lies nestled at the foot of the Sperrin Mountains amid ancient woodland near the historic market town of Cookstown.
The Staples family
The estate was home to the Staples family from about 1620 until the death of the last incumbent, Hazel Radclyffe-Dolling (née Staples) in April 2006, the longest known occupation by a single family of a domestic dwelling in Ireland.
Thomas Staples had originally come from Yate Court, near Bristol in Southwestern England, in about 1610 as part of the plantation of Ulster. He settled in the town of Moneymore (then being constructed as part of the terms of the Plantation Grant to the Worshipful Company of Drapers who had been granted large swathes of the new County in 1611) in County Londonderry and his stone house is marked in a map of 1635 as in the centre of the town beside the Market Cross.
In around 1620 he married Charity Jones, heiress of Sir Baptist Jones, head of the Worshipful Company of Vintners. In 1628, he was created the first Baronetof Lissan and Faughanvale by King Charles I. Around the same date, he purchased several leases including the lands of the town of Cookstown and 180 acres (0.73 km2) at Tatnagilta (now the Lissan estate). It is thought that a dwelling existed on the estate at this time along with an Iron Forge which was used to smelt the iron deposits found across the estate. Mainly as a result of the existence of the forge, the dwelling house survived the Rebellion of 1641 when the estate was seized by the O'Quin who had marched with a troop of rebels from Castlecaulfield. Charity, Lady Staples, now a widow, and the couple's four children were imprisoned briefly in the Castle at Moneymore before being moved more permanently to the Castle at CastleCaulfield where they spent almost two years in captivity until Moneymore was relieved and the rebels suppressed. Throughout the Rebellion, the rebels used the estate and its workers to manufacture pikes, staves and other weapons as a result of which all the buildings on the estate survived despite the rebels' destruction of the town of Cookstown and the nearby plantation estate at Ballydrum (later Springhill). Testimonies taken from The Dowager Lady Staples and her son, the new Baronet, Sir Baptist Staples describe the brutality of their treatment during these few years. Lady Staples recounts witnessing Anglo-Irish families being murdered outside her prison window or those being tortured in chain-gangs begging to be killed to be done with their misery.
The present house substantially owes its existence to Sir Thomas' third son, the fourth Baronet, Sir Robert Staples. Having married another heiress in the person of Mary Vessey, he improved the estate, building mills and enlarging the iron forge as well as substantially constructing the present house (incorporating large parts of the pre-existent dwelling) in about 1680. He also created the 5-acre (20,000 m2) walled garden which survives to this day. The main feature of his house was the gargantuan oak staircase which still (following a reconstruction due to collapse in 1895) dominates the house today. Thomas Ashe writing his report to the Archbishop of Armagh from whom the land was originally leased said in 1703 "Robert Staples has built a very good stone house; the rooms are noble, lofty and large. There is a very handsome staircase which leads to chambers above with a large parlour and dining room. The house is well-shingled and stands near a small tenement with four pretty rooms. He has built a handsome stable, large barns and a turf house all well shingled." Sir Robert died in 1714.
By the time of the seventh and eighth Baronets in the mid eighteenth century, the main branch of the family had moved to Castle Durrow near Kilkenny and the house was let to a minor branch of the family under The Rt. Hon. John Staples K.C., P.C., M.P., first cousin to the 8th Baronet. He was a talented lawyer and was the last Speaker in the Irish House of Commons before its dissolution in 1801. He went on two grand tours of Italy and Greece, furnishing Lissan with a fine collection of books, paintings and marbles. His second wife was Henrietta Molesworth, younger daughter of Viscount Molesworth, one of the Duke of Marlborough's generals during the War of the Spanish Succession. He had saved the Duke from death by shouting to his equerry as the Duke mounted his horse just in time for the equerry to hoist the Duke up thus avoiding a cannonball which decapitated the equerry. Henrietta lost a leg in a fire in her mother's house during her youth. King George III had provided her dowry and also instructed the Court physician to fashion for her a wooden prosthetic leg.
John Staples brother, the Rev. Thomas Staples, purchased the coal rights of the town of Coalisland in Co. Tyrone in 1740 and instructed the engineer of the Newry Canal, Davis Dukart, to construct mines there. He also persuaded Dukart to design the White Bridge on the Lissan Estate along with an important water garden with fountains and cascades. Both survive on the estate today but are in dire need of restoration.
The eighth Baronet, Sir Robert died without legitimate issue as a result of which the Castle Durrow property was bequeathed to his eldest (illegitimate) son whilst Lissan passed to the Rt Hon. John Staples' eldest son Thomas who also thus inherited the Baronetcy, becoming the ninth Baronet Lissan. Sir Thomas Staples Q.C. was a notable lawyer and was appointed Queen's Advocate in Ireland in 1845. He married Catherine Hawkins, another heiress and the pair were one of the wealthiest families in Ireland. He purchased the largest town house on Merrion Square in Dublin (now the Irish Architectural Archive) and made several notable additions to Lissan House, most notably the large ballroom built to take advantage of views of the water gardens. No expense was spared on the construction of this room which was fitted with an early central heating system, was double glazed and which had sprung floorboards to aid dancing. The room was decorated in a striking oriental scheme of scarlet and black and was decorated with vastly expensive handpainted Chinese wallpaper originally purchased by Sir Thomas' sister Grace, Marchioness of Ormonde for Kilkenny Castle. Small portions of this wallpaper survive today, touched up by the last owner.
Sir Thomas' younger brother, the Rev. John Molesworth Staples was Rector of Moville in Co. Donegal and at Lissan and persuaded the Court architect to George IV John Nash to come to Cookstown to design Lissan Rectory and Derryloran Parish Church.
Sir Thomas died childless in 1865 as a result of which the title and estate were inherited by Rev. John Molesworth Staples' eldest son Nathaniel, the tenth Baronet. However, Sir Thomas left the contents of the house as well as the entirety family's fortune to his wife Catherine. She disliked Sir Nathaniel to such an extent that on her death both the fortune and furniture were bequeathed to her goddaughter Mary Banks. Thus the estate began a process of very swift financial decline.
Sir Nathaniel was a civil servant in Dum Dum in India and during his absence on the subcontinent several members of the wider Staples family began to remove the remaining contents of the house. The Rt Hon John's third youngest daughter Charlotte had married William Lenox-Conyngham of Springhill in 1824. During the 1860s and 70s, she and her eldest son Sir William Lenox-Conyngham systematically removed the entire contents of the Lissan Library along with the best paintings in the house, including a portrait of the Rt Hon John by Batoni. All of these can still be found in Springhill today.
When Sir Nathaniel eventually settled at Lissan during the 1880s, despite his straightened financial circumstances, he continued to live life to the full. He added a gargantuan porte cochere to the front of the house and purchased the clock tower from the Market House in Magherafelt which he added to the West end of the house. This clock was made by Joshua Adams in 1820 and the great bell can be heard in Churchtown to this day. It is mentioned in the song Slieve Gallion's Braes. At the age of 55 Sir Nathaniel evicted Elizabeth, Lady Staples from the house and lived out his remaining years in the scandalous company of a young clairvoyant, Mary Potter, who was originally from Cookstown.
By the time of his death in 1899, the family were all but financially ruined. To compound their difficulties, the eleventh Baronet, Sir John Staples was declared insane and spent the entire duration of his baronetcy in an asylum in England until his death in 1933.
As a result of this, the estate was first occupied by the second eldest son of the family, James Head Staples who had originally settled in Bremar in Scotland. He and his wife built a creamery, took in boarders and Mrs Staples taught cookery and lace-making so that local girls would have some training to enable them to find work in Cookstown. He also fitted a second-hand water turbine on the Lissan Water in 1902 which supplied the house with its sole source of electricity until 2007 and which is still in full working order today. The estate remained, however, in terminal decline.
When James Head Staples died in 1911, the house was left temporarily unoccupied until his eccentric younger brother, Robert Ponsonby Staples was persuaded to leave London and settle at Lissan in late 1912. Robert Ponsonby Staples was an exceptionally talented artist. He had gone to the Catholic University of Leuven to study architecture at the age of twelve before moving to Dresden to study fine art. When he returned to London during the 1880s he quickly became one of the most famous portrait artists of his day. He exhibited his first picture at the Royal Academy at the age of 21 and was a founder member along with Sir Coutts Lindsay of the Grosvenor Gallery, which launched the careers of Whistler and Burne-Jones. His most famous paintings can be found in galleries across the world today. His most noted work, An Imaginary Cricket Match hangs at Lords Cricket Ground whilst other large scale works can be found at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (The Last Shot at Queen's Club); the House of Lords (The Passing of the Home Rule Bill) and the Archepiscopal Palace at Westminster (Cardinal Manning's Last Reception). Robert Ponsonby was also an infamous socialite and member of the Café Royal set. He was a friend and favourite of King Edward VII. His most famous attribute was his refusal to wear shoes. He believed that the earth exuded natural electricity which was beneficial to the health and thus shunned the wearing of shoes and listing his principal occupation as "barefoot walking" in the 1926 Who's Who.
Today his paintings are hugely valuable but, whilst existing at the centre of the social scene in fin de siecle London, his work did not make him a wealthy man. After settling at Lissan, his finances evaporated and he was known to often ask the postman for a loan or to pawn his own paintings in order to raise funds. A great sale was held during his tenure which lasted two full days and which saw the remaining pictures and fine furnishings sold off, many to the Lenox-Conyngham family at Springhill where they remain. He inherited the baronetcy at the age of eighty in 1933 and died ten years later.
By 1943, the estate, stripped of its furnishings and largely sold off, was virtually bankrupt. Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples' eldest son, Sir Robert George Alexander Staples discovered that he could no longer afford to live at Lissan. He thus hired Harry Dolling as estate manager and settled in England where he could find work. Harry Dolling had the house divided into apartments and from 1943 until the late 1960s the house was home to over a hundred people living in self-contained flats and tenements carved out of the once elegant public rooms and bedrooms. Any remaining contents of value were sent to be stored temporarily at Springhill where they were mixed with the Lenox-Conyngham's own property, were presented mistakenly to the National Trust along with Springhill in 1957 and which were never returned. Sir Robert George Alexander feared that he would be the last Staples owner of Lissan. He had only two daughters as issue. The younger, Elizabeth, had settled with her own family in England whilst the elder, Hazel, (following a spell in the WRNS) had settled into a life on the seas with the Cunard Line as purser on the Queen Mary and Caronia. Neither had any interest in the now crumbling, rundown, and bankrupt estate.
However, on his death in 1970, the elder daughter Hazel visited Lissan with her mother and met the agent Harry Dolling. Within the year the pair were married and both settled at Lissan, returning the house to a single dwelling for the occupation of themselves and Vera, Lady Staples. Whilst Hazel inherited the house and estate from her father, the Baronetcy passed to Sir Jack Staples and from him to his cousin and, in swift succession, to his two brothers, the present being the seventeenth Baronet, Sir Richard Staples. Both inherited the title at ages well into their eighties and neither have any male heirs. As a result, a search was instigated by Debrett's in the 1990s seeking the next Staples Baronet and a 10 year Genetic Research Programme started in 2002 which it was hoped would locate the next Baronet. Three candidates, Garth Staples and Gerald Staples of Nova Scotia, Canada and David Staples of MA,USA have been identified as within a sufficient genetic distance according to family tree, all of whom are descended from Matthew Staples. It is believed that Matthew Staples was in the company of Governor Cornwallis as a military blacksmith at Halifax in 1749 although the link with the Lissan family tree remains elusive and no one candidate has yet proved their claim.
Following inheriting the house, Hazel lived with her husband and mother until the former's death in 1986 and the latter's death in 1990. From 1990 she lived at Lissan alone. By 1997, it had become clear to Hazel that no member of the family would be able financially or viably to inherit the estate. After a life devoted to the preservation of what was now an absolutely unique property of great antiquity and historic value, Hazel decided to establish a Charitable Trust which could begin to seek a plan for a viable future for the estate. The Farm Yard and walled gardens were immediately put in the care of the Trust and a scheme was sought for the future of the estate.
In 2003, Hazel managed to have the property featured in the TV Series Restoration which promised to the winner of a phone in competition a fund in excess of £1,000,000 for the restoration of the building. Lissan featured prominently and caught the imagination of the British public. As a result, Lissan beat off 28 other properties to make it to the grand final and lost out to the Victoria Baths in Manchester by only 140 votes. Sadly however whilst bringing the estate to huge public attention, the programme resulted in no funding for the project whatsoever.
The Charitable Trust was thus re-formed in 2004 as the Friends of Lissan Trust with a new impetus - to find a future for the estate after Hazel's death and to seek funding for the project. Hazel Radclyffe-Dolling died in April 2006 and under the Terms of her will, the entire estate was bequeathed to the Charitable Trust on condition that a viable scheme of Restoration be secured within three years of her death.
Today, Lissan represents an absolutely unique and fascinating part of Ulster's history which has caught the public imagination. In August 2007, the Friends of Lissan Trust opened the house to the public for the first time and almost 5,000 visitors made their way to the estate in the eight days of opening, making Lissan potentially one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ulster.
In 2010, Phase I of the Restoration of the Estate commenced and major structural restoration work was carried out on the main House including making the building structurally safe; re-roofing; removal of the 1940s cement render and its replacement with limewashed lime mortar and re-fenestration with Georgian glazing. In addition, the interior of the house was re-presented, forest trails laid, an adventure playground constructed and an interpretative exhibition installed in the house.
Funding for Phase II (the restoration of the interior decorative schemes, re-building the Conservatory and the complete restoration of the farmyard and outbuildings) is currently being sought.
The house will open to the public for the first time as a tourist attraction and events location in Spring 2012.
|This article relies on references to primary sources. (November 2007)|