Monday 9 May 2022

Downhill House


DOWNHILL HOUSE, near Castlerock, County Londonderry, comprised two storeys over a high basement, the principal front of three bays between two wide, three-sided bows; with two much-longer wings running back towards the sea, prolonged by office ranges.

The long elevations of the wings were relieved by pairs of curved bows, ending with domes.

From 1784 the front and the wings were given façades of granite ashlar, with giant fluted Corinthian pilasters on a rusticated basement.

Downhill was built by the flamboyant and eccentric Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Lord Bishop of Derry.

Building work starting ca 1772 and continued on the rear courtyards until the early 1790s.

The house is thought to have been built mainly to the Earl-Bishop’s own specifications, although several architects were consulted during the course of its construction.

The supervising architect on site was Michael Shanahan of Cork.

Decorative carving was said to have been undertaken by James McBlain.

The mansion was occasionally referred to by the Earl-Bishop as 'the Castle', though never as the ‘Palace’.

The property is known locally as Downhill Castle, although it appears on documents, both before and after the fire of 1851, as 'Downhill House'.

The site that Hervey chose for his new mansion was thought by some to be extremely exposed, but the asthmatic prelate had a horror of damp houses and avoided Ickworth, his birthplace, for this reason.

He spoke of Downhill’s ‘exhilarating and invigorating air, or rather ether’ and it remained his principle residence on his return from travel on the continent.

Downhill was built by Hervey following his appointment to the see of Derry in 1768.

Through shrewd management of the see lands, his lordship was able to maximize his income.

This, coupled with a legacy of £10,000 from his elder brother and the earldom of Bristol, to which his lordship succeeded in 1779, made him an exceptionally wealthy man who delighted in travel in order to expand his extensive art collection.

The Earl-Bishop engaged in at least three major building projects: Downhill, Ballyscullion and Ickworth, of which Downhill was the earliest and most closely associated with Hervey as the only one of his residences that was fully completed during his lifetime.

Documents suggest that building began in 1772 and certainly, by the time of Arthur’s Young’s tour of Ireland in 1776, the mansion was well under way.

Young reported a ‘large and convenient edifice, the shell not finished; it stands on a bold shore, but in a country where a tree is a rarity’.

Much of the Earl-Bishop’s correspondence and other documentation survive, enabling the progress of building to be roughly reconstructed.

The first part of the house to be built, ca 1775, was the south front, with rear wings added by about 1783.

Downhill was designed by James Wyatt of London and built under the supervision of Michael Shanahan, architect and agent to the Earl-Bishop.

Wyatt’s name appears in correspondence and some details, such as pilasters, reflect Wyatt’s work elsewhere.

It is possible the opening of Wyatt’s pantheon in London may have brought him to the Earl-Bishop’s attention.

The Earl-Bishop was a major client of Michael Shanahan’s marble and stonecutting business in Cork, which furnished chimney-pieces for Downhill as well as stone ounces for the Lion Gate, a coat-of-arms for Mussenden Temple, and flagstones and a staircase for Ballyscullion.

Hervey and his family lived in his official residence, the episcopal palace, in Bishop Street, Londonderry, until they were able to move into Downhill in 1779.

However, work continued for some years and, between 1783 and 1785, the Milanese architect Placido Columbani was supervising plumbing and the installation of water closets and may also have advised on mouldings and panelling.

The first patented flush toilet dates from 1775 and was still a considerable innovation at the time of the installation at Downhill.

In 1783, Richard Louch, architect and builder, of Armagh, was at work in the Gallery fitting a ceiling painting in place.

The gallery was constructed at the western end of the two rear wings and extended through two storeys.

The intention was to provide a home for the Earl-Bishop’s growing collection of paintings and statuary; however, the large number of windows afforded little wall space.

An early-19th century list of pictures records works by Raphael, Titian and Rembrandt.

The library, to the north of the gallery, also contained paintings such as works by Poussin, Titian and Guido Reni.

A door-case originally led from the library out through the west front, but this appears to have been removed in rebuilding which took place in the 1870s.

The reception rooms were arranged at the south front of the house, while the eastern wing contained the
Curates’ Corridor, children's rooms, smaller rooms and family and servants’ bedrooms.

The house, which had originally been built of local basalt, was faced with freestone from Ballycastle and Dungiven in 1785 by James McBlain, an architect and mason who had also worked for the Earl of Hillsborough.

The two curved walls towards the rear of the building are thought to have been constructed about 1785, though were castellated and buttressed after the Earl-Bishop’s death in 1803.

A courtyard gateway was begun in 1778, but this had to be taken down and a new arch was started in 1783.


Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Lord Bishop of Derry (1730-1803) was born at Ickworth in Suffolk, married his love match Elizabeth Davers in 1752 (from whom he later separated) and took holy orders, after abandoning a career in law, being ordained priest in 1755.

Hervey obtained a royal chaplaincy in 1763 but this was poorly paid and his financial difficulties became pressing.

In 1766, Hervey’s eldest brother, the 2nd Earl of Bristol, briefly became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and was in a position to obtain for his brother the bishopric of Cloyne; and shortly afterwards, on the death of the previous incumbent, the bishopric of Derry, the most lucrative in the country.

In 1803, after the Earl-Bishop’s death, the Downhill estate passed to his cousin Henry Hervey Bruce, brother of Frideswide Mussenden, to whom Mussenden Temple is dedicated.

The Earl-Bishop had settled an income of £400 on Henry as a young man.

The two men became close friends, the Earl-Bishop appointing Henry steward to the estates at Downhill, effectively leaving him in charge during his long absences on the continent.

Henry Hervey Bruce was also Rector of Tamlaghfinlagan parish at this time, but the Earl-Bishop, having separated from his wife and fallen out with his son, informed Bruce in 1791 that he would inherit Downhill.

After the Earl-Bishop’s death in 1803, Bruce preferred to live at Downhill rather than the other residence at Ballyscullion which was partly dismantled in 1813.

Bruce was created a baronet in 1804, and the Downhill estate and the title subsequently passed down through the Bruce family.

While living at Downhill, Bruce continued in his incumbency at Tamlaghfinlagan and would drive to the church every Sunday in considerable style in a coach with four postillions.

Sir James Robertson Bruce, 2nd Baronet, continuing with the scheme of tree-planting that had been initiated by the Earl-Bishop by planting 50,000 trees.

Sir James also built a school for tenants and subscribed money to the medical dispensary in Coleraine.

In 1836 the house, estates and title passed to Sir Henry Hervey Bruce, 3rd Baronet, a former officer in the Life Guards, a staunch Conservative, and the longest resident in Downhill’s history, occupying the house for over 70 years.

He stood for parliament on several occasions and was MP for Coleraine from 1862-74 and 1880-85.

Sir Henry also served as magistrate, as Lord-Lieutenant of County Londonderry, and as chairman of Londonderry’s first County Council.

During the 3rd Baronet’s time Downhill House was severely damaged by a fire which broke out on the 16th May, 1851.

The fire originated on an upper storey of the ‘round room’ at the end of the western wing, the same wing that housed the library and picture gallery.

It devastated the building, partly because of the impossibility of obtaining water to extinguish the flames and attempts to protect the contents from looting.

The precious library was completely destroyed, together with some of the statuary, though most of the paintings survived.

Although the servants’ apartments were untouched, nothing remained of the mansion house itself but the blackened walls.

Sir Henry attempted to obtain a grand jury presentment for the sum of £12,000 to redress his losses on the basis that the fire was started maliciously, but no evidence was found that it was deliberate, despite threats that had been sent to him in the months and years preceding the blaze.

Thereafter a portion of the building was temporarily fitted up for a residence but was not at all fit ‘for the residence of a gentleman in his position’.

In 1871, Sir Henry purchased the Clothworkers’ property in the area and became the largest landlord in the county, with Castlerock now part of his estates.

He took a keen interest in the quality of building in Castlerock and built Downhill National School and the Twelve Apostles terrace as estate worker’s housing.

In the early 1870s, Sir Henry undertook restoration work at the house which was supervised by John Lanyon.

The renovations were said to be complete by 1876.

The principal change introduced by Lanyon was the fitting of a new doorway on the western façade of the building, which then became the main entrance and led into vaulted chambers underneath the former gallery, transformed into glass-roofed winter gardens.

A glass panel was inserted between the boudoir and the winter garden that could be shuttered at will.

The former library in the west wing became the billiards-room; and the former morning-room in the centre of the south front became the library.

All the south front rooms were enlarged by the removal of a corridor to the rear.

Bedroom accommodation for visitors was found on the upper floor of the south front and boasted ‘all the latest improvements in bath-rooms &c’.

A luggage lift rose from the basement to the service stairs and bachelors’ apartments were served by a private staircase.

Care was taken to restore the old chimney-pieces and marble and oak columns as far as possible and to restore the external stonework and internal plasterwork, but the two domes which had surmounted the end of each wing were removed.

The contractor was James Henry of Belfast.

The house was fitted for gas lighting, the gas being stored in a gasometer in the west yard.

Sir Henry resided in the house together with a resident staff of nine, a butler, footman, coachman, cook, laundry-maid, kitchen-maid, scullery-maid and two house-maids.

Fifty-three outbuildings were listed, including seven stables and five cow-houses.

Sir Hervey Bruce, 4th Baronet, inherited the property and the title in 1907, though by 1911 the house was maintained by two members of staff.

The 4th Baronet died in Tangiers in 1919 while visiting his diplomat son, and the title passed to Sir Hervey Ronald Bruce, 5th Baronet, who, with his family, due to the political uncertainties of the time, left Downhill about 1922.

The title and lands then passed to Sir Hervey John Bruce, 6th Baronet, a five year-old minor when his father died.

The Bruces do not seem to have returned to Downhill after the 1920s.

Although the baronetcy is extant, the family no longer appear to have a local connection.

In 1934, accommodation at the house comprised 15 bedrooms, three bathrooms, twelve servants’ bedrooms, dining-room, drawing-room, library , boudoir, billiards- room, gallery, study, smoking-room, crypt hall entrance, servants’ hall, pantries, kitchens and laundry.

The house had electric light from its own plant and central heating.

Water was supplied from water tanks on the roof and there was stabling for about 16 horses.

Later in the 1930s the house was empty and had been stripped of furniture.

Between 1941-45, Downhill was requisitioned and occupied by the Royal Air Force.

After the war, in 1946, the house and a portion of the Bruce estate was sold to Frederick W Smyth, who applied to the Central Planning Authority and the Local Authority for permission to demolish the building, thus avoiding a large rates bill.

Consent was refused because ‘the castle is of general local interest’ and the valuation office was asked to reduce the valuation as the house was deemed un-lettable.

Before the reduction could be implemented, a tenant was found, Mrs F M Belgrave, who was the last to live in the house in 1948.

Her tenancy was short-lived, however, and by October, 1949, the entire property had been gutted and the windows and roof removed, at which point the building was dropped from valuation lists.

The building was listed in 1977.

The National Trust, which has been engaged in continual efforts to preserve the remaining fabric, acquired the property in 1980.

Thereafter loose stones on the site were removed, freestanding walls (in bad condition) were taken down, and a war-time structure in the centre of the courtyard was demolished.

A stonemason was employed and work was undertaken to secure the structure and make it safe.

Repairs to the stonework continued throughout the 1990s.

The interior of the house was originally adorned with the pictures, statuary and other works of art which the Earl-Bishop collected on his travels in Italy and elsewhere.

The main staircase was of stone, with a balustrade of gilded ironwork curving round the inside of a bow, under a frescoed dome.

The largest rooms were the library and the two-storey picture gallery, which had another frescoed ceiling.

At one end of the gallery there were pairs of Corinthian columns, supporting an entablature above which were the splendid Arms of the Bishopric and Earldom in plasterwork.

A short distance from the mansion, sitting precariously at the edge of the cliff, his lordship built a domed rotunda, surrounded by Corinthian columns.

He named it the Mussenden Temple, to commemorate his friendship with his kinswoman, Mrs Frideswide Mussenden.

When the Earl-Bishop died, he bequeathed Downhill and Ballyscullion to Mrs Mussenden's brother, the REV HENRY HERVEY BRUCE, immediately afterwards created a baronet.

It seems remarkable that the Earl-Bishop left all his property away from his immediate family; but, at the same time, in keeping with the character of this eccentric prelate, he had fallen out with his wife and eldest son, and also he may have felt that it was a way of honouring Bruce's sister, Mrs Mussenden.

Bruce inherited the Earl Bishop's property in 1803, following his death.

He seems to have preferred life at Downhill rather than Ballyscullion, which was to be partly dismantled in 1813.

The 1st Baronet had three sons and six daughters, of whom one son, James Robertson Bruce, succeeded to the title and the property on his father's death.

In 1879, Sir Henry Bruce held 20,801 acres in the county, valued at £11,397 per annum ( over £1m in 2010).

The estate was presumably a mixture of Clothworkers' and ex-see lands (which, from the 1850s, Sir Henry would have been able to buy outright from the Church Temporalities Commission).

Heavy interest charges made Sir Henry much less affluent than he appeared on paper, but he must have been the largest resident landowner in the county (because most of its large estates were owned by absentee proprietors, particularly the London Companies), and was Lord-Lieutenant of County Londonderry from 1877 until his death in 1907.

We know very little of the fortunes of the great house, other than its escaping serious damage in the "big wind" of January 1839; then the disastrous fire of May 1851, which destroyed a large part of the interior.

The Earl-Bishop's fine library was completely destroyed and much of the statuary irretrievably damaged, though it was reported that most of the paintings had been rescued.

The restoration of the house was only undertaken between 1870-74, and was supervised by John Lanyon (who was the designer of several Castlerock buildings, including the railway station.

Lanyon maintained many of the surviving features, though the small domes to the northern wings went ... . he added a new entrance with portico to the larger of the two bows of the west front.

The cellar underneath the gallery thus became a hall, covered up with all the paraphernalia of a late Victorian hunting lodge. Lanyon removed the old, small-pane glazing bars in exchange for large plate-glass sash windows.

The house finally became too much for the Bruce family, who had lived there since the Earl-Bishop's time until 1922, and it was sold in 1946.

During the 2nd World War it was billeted by service men and women of the RAF. By that time some of the contents had been dispersed by auction.

By 1950, the final stage was reached, with the removal of the roof and the sale of the surrounding lands, after which the total dissolution of the building became an inevitable process, one which, even when acquired by the National Trust in 1980, failed to check.

Further reading about the history of the Earl-Bishop and the Bruce baronets is available in the Bruce-Hervey Papers at the Public Record Office of NI.


DOWNHILL demesne is a very important landscaped site, designed to compliment the mansion of the 1770s by Michael Shanaghan, and to which he made a contribution.

The designs of both house and grounds were heavily influenced by their owner, the Earl-Bishop.

The setting is magnificent and, although the house exists only as a shell, the whole layout can be appreciated.

This is despite the fact that the planned planting on the headland was impractical and did not survive for very long.

The fine garden buildings survive, including what must be one of the most outstanding late 18th century garden buildings, in what must also be the most spectacular position on the edge of the cliff above the sea, with wonderful views along the stand below, the Mussenden Temple of 1783-85.

The Mausoleum of 1799-1801 stands erect in the landscape.

Two impressive gates survive: the Lion Gate of ca 1780, with lodge (were a pair) and walls; and the Bishop’s Gate, with wing and lodge of 1784.

The gardens at the Bishop’s Gate are notable.

They were created in the late 19th century and much enhanced and enlarged by Jan Eccles from 1962.

They are maintained as ornamental gardens by the National Trust.

The planting extends along the Black Glen.

The walled garden of 1786 is not planted up.

There is an Ice House and Dovecote within this garden of 1786, both restored.

These gardens were laid out in 1778 and extended in 1783.

Many other important landscape features remain, such as two artificial lakes or fish ponds; a belvedere; boat house and bridges; as well as several demesne offices.

Planting on the south side of the road is now the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Forest Service.

There is a fine stand of Sitka spruce, possibly planted ca 1850 and other forest planting, lakes and walks.

This is an outstanding site, containing remnants of a once handsomely endowed landscape park, with the added interest of being a creation of the Earl-Bishop.

First published in October, 2010.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it quite remarkable that Downhill could go from inhabited to empty shell in just a few decades. Surely such a house, with its situation, would have been a jewel in the North Coast.

It's owned by the NT now, yes? I don't like the perpetual nature of the N. Trust, and this is a fine example of why... A private buyer could still restore Downhill (such as in 'Grand Designs'), but the Trust never will.


Toby said...

The Ruins are under going part 'restoration' under taken by National Trust - Its all going on at the moment for more information see the Downhill Facebook page run by the site staff -
It also includes a graphical reconstruction of the house done in cooporation with a local college. Its the sign of things to come in the interpretation of this awesome site.

Mr. Graham Wylie said...

Your lordship, I came across your blog by accident. However I want to say thank you for this article and information. As a young boy each summer holiday at Castlerock of the 1970s I walked the estate from top to bottom and never once was I bored. I was in awe of its arcitecthual and landscape beauty. I was continually on a voyage of discovery. The mansion was visible on the horizion on the Coleraine Castlerock road many miles away and always filled me with a sense of being in a fantasy landscape. I ened up studying landscape horticulture and I am sure the Earl Bishop was to blame for that. Its such a shame this national treasure was lost in such a short space of time. I pray the NT do their best to preserve this for my children and granchildren to enjoy. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Surely in these times of unemployment - especially in the construction sector - the National Trust could invest some of their considerable reserves in reconstructing Downhill? It would be a wonderful opportunity to showcase the craft skills of local tradesmen, and provide work to local people and apprentices. Clearly this sort of project would be possible - see the new Portavo. The finished product would be something we could all be proud of - it would bring tourists to the area, and show that NI's skills are as current as they were in the 18th Century. Someone with imagination, leadership and vision should push this forward. VC

Anonymous said...

Jan Eccles was a fascinating and remarkable person.

Anonymous said...

I always found Downhill and the surrounding park especially the 'Black Glen' with its lake very depressing. My mother did too, and strangely ( or not ) my small daughter when aged 3 or 4 said 'I don't like it here'. We must not romanticise places and the past - there often would have been a lot of unhappiness in these Irish estates and grand houses.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I must say, I felt the same thing when I was there as a child! I always loved exploring Castle Ward and Rowallane, but our trip to Downhill was miserable. I thought it was the weather, or the dereliction of the building though... VC

Gillian said...

As a child I spent most of my summer holidays in Downhill with my family and I was never depressed or bored.. I loved exploring the Mussenden Temple, the Black Glen and the ruins of Downhill Demense, in fact my Sister and I have holidays in Downhill and Castlerock with our families now that we are grown up and our own children love it too. I have nothing but fond memories of Downhill.

Allison De Giovanni (Wray) said...

As a young child I spent many happy days wandering the grounds and the temple and running through the apple orchards while
visiting my Dads uncle`s who lived in the little house that was inside the grounds , next to the entrance at the main Gate. Apparently My Grandfather worked for who ever was living in the Mansion /castle in the early 1930, Late 1940 (groundsman) and for some reason ,unbeknown to me , My great Uncle`s still lived there up till the 70`s. i too have many fond memories and dearly wish to take my family back there someday.