Monday, 18 October 2021

Garron Tower


GARRON TOWER is a romantic, austere, cliff-top Victorian castle of black basalt, built as a summer retreat by Frances, 3rd Marchioness of Londonderry, daughter and heiress of Sir Henry Vane-Tempest, 2nd Baronet.

Lady Londonderry's mother was Anne, 2nd Countess of Antrim suo jure.

Her daughter, the Lady Frances Anne Emily (Fanny) Vane, married the 7th Duke of Marlborough and their son, Lord Randolph, was later to become the father of Winston Churchill.

The estate lies midway between Cushendall and Carnlough on the County Antrim coast.

The problems of the Antrim estates were compounded by the failure of the 6th Earl of Antrim to produce a male heir.

Although he was granted a new patent for the earldom, which allowed his daughters to inherit and transmit the title to their children, the inheritance of the estate itself proved much more problematical.

The 6th Earl bequeathed his estates in his will to his three daughters and the resulting litigation lasted more than twenty years.

The Antrim estate itself was eventually divided: Lady Antrim's daughter, Lady Frances, who married the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, received one sixth; and the remainder passed to Lady Charlotte, afterwards 3rd Countess of Antrim suo jure (Lady Mark Kerr) and her descendants.

Frances, Lady Londonderry, eventually bequeathed her portion of the estate to her younger son, who had no love for Garron Tower and neglected it.

After his death in 1884, the estate passed to her grandson, Lord Herbert Vane-Tempest KCVO VD JP (1862-1921), who was tragically killed in a train accident in Wales.

After his death the estate, including the property which is now the Londonderry Arms Hotel in Carnlough, passed to his second cousin, Sir Winston Churchill, who owned it until after the 2nd World War.

Being the Prime Minister, Sir Winston had no time for Garron Tower so it was donated to the British Tourist Industry which transformed it into a hotel.

Garron Tower was subsequently devastated by fire and was later turned into a school which it remains today.

The main portion of the estate remained in the hands of the Earls of Antrim.

Following the death of her mother in 1834, Frances Lady Londonderry inherited a portion of the Antrim Estate, almost 10,000 acres lying mostly between Glenarm and Glenariff.

Following much debate she decided to build a summer residence and in 1848 the foundation stone was laid for Garron Tower.

The principal guest at the opening of the Tower was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Clarendon.

Coinciding with the end of the Famine in 1849, the four Coastguard cottages at 91 Garron Road were built as part of that estate.

Lady Londonderry showed a considerable interest in the day to day administration of her estate, demanding detailed reports from her agents.

She was a relentlessly improving landowner, encouraging agricultural improvement and endowing schools, clothing societies, etc.

The link with Lady Antrim's ancestral seat, Glenarm Castle, a few miles to the south is such that it was suspected Lady Londonderry's intention had been to upstage Glenarm Castle with the erection of Garron Tower.

GARRON TOWER, near Carnlough, County Antrim, was built in stages from 1848-56, initially to the designs of Charles Campbell, architect, of Newtownards, who had selected the site in 1847.

The house was ready for occupation by 1850.

A new hall, with a projecting rectangular bay facing eastwards, was added to the north of the polygonal tower in 1852, attributed to Lewis Valliamy of London.

A front porch was added in 1854.

The oak doors, which still survive inside, were carved by Austrian craftsmen.

Garron Tower with Gun Terrace and Tennis Court (Image: Robert John Welch)

After Lady Londonderry's death in 1865, it remained in the private hands of the family until rented by Henry McNeill of Larne in 1889 and opened as a hotel.

Garron Tower was leased from 1898.

Many of the original contents were sold by public auction in 1911.

The house was badly damaged by accidental fire in 1914; then it was bought by McNeill's firm in 1915.

It was burnt maliciously in 1922; and closed as a hotel in 1939.

From 1941-46, it was occupied by evacuated residents from the Belfast Charitable Society home at Clifton House, Belfast.

The Tower was converted for use as a school for the Catholic diocese of Down and Connor in 1951 to the design of Padraic Gregory, a Belfast architect, whose firm also designed various school buildings, added to the rear from time to time.

The battlemented retaining wall to the terrace walk in the garden, terminating in a circular magazine, was built in 1848 to the design of Campbell.

The cannon on the terrace were reputedly used at the Battle of Waterloo, and originally stood here on their original wheeled carriers.

The gate lodge was built in 1854; the stable block added in 1860 to the design of Lanyon and Lynn; and the new chapel built in 1956 to the design of Mr Gregory.

The main gateway originally comprised two openwork iron piers with a pair of gates, all cast at the Londonderry foundry in Seaham, County Durham.

Garron has a dominant tower at one end of a lengthy building, polygonal with a square turret.

At the opposite end of the front a short wing projects forwards, ending in a rectangular tower and turret.

With the exception of somewhat prosaic machicolations and crenellations, the walls are quite featureless.

The mansion was enlarged in 1852 with the addition of a hall.

The main front used to be flanked by a terrace with a battery of cannon. Is this still the case today?

Motor Cars at Garron Tower Hotel (Image: Robert John Welch)

The position of Garron Tower is spectacular, on a plateau above the County Antrim coast.

There is some natural shelter on the west side from steeply rising ground and this has been clothed with trees.

Formerly the ornamental and productive gardens were to the west, somewhat protected from sea breezes by the castle, which stood facing south amid severe lawns decorated with urns.

Trees cover the area below the plateau, which drops sharply to the sea.

The grounds are adapted for school use and cultivated areas have disappeared.

There are notable specimens of Eucalyptus Globulus, planted in 1857.

Garron Tower is now a school,  St Killian's College.

First published in April, 2010.   Londonderry arms courtesy of European Heraldry.


Sandy said...

A fascinating account, as always, Tim. I find it extraordinary that there is no mention of the school's history on their website. Or perhaps not, having lived in Norn Iron all my life!

Anonymous said...

I didn't know Churchill inherited & donated the lot. One wonders if he ever stayed there - perhaps that night the Unionists in Belfast tried to lynch him!


Anonymous said...

The respected Journalist Alf Mc Creary has written that Winston Churchill visited The Londonderry Arms Hotel, Carnlough, in 1926.

Raymond Hunt said...

Lord Belmont. You report that Sir Winston Churchill owned the Londonderry Arms Hotel , Carnlough, until after the second world war.I have a copy of the sale conveyancing document which shows that Sir Winston sold the hotel to a Mary Anne Rafferty in 1923. I have been unable to find any details of this lady. Would you by any chance have any information about her?
Apart from Alf Mc Creery's report, have you any information that might confirm that Sir Winston visited the hotel? I understand Sir Winston made a speech to the Belfast Chamber of Commerce in 1926 so he might have taken a trip up the coast to have a look on that occasion! Kind Regards. Raymond Hunt.

Joe Simpson said...

Peter Clarke's 2012 book "Mr. Churchill's Profession" mentions Garron Tower (he adds an 's' to make it plural) several times in connection with WSC inheriting it in 1921, using the rental income to help him to purchase Chartwell, and selling the ground rents for a lumpsum equivalent to over half a million in sterling a few years before WW2 when cashflow demands were pressing due to back taxes etc. His archives at Churchill College, Cambridge catalogued online contain a number of documents relating to Garron Tower and the silverware etc. he inherited there as well.

Mial Pagan said...

I was a boarder at Garron Tower (or St. Mac Nissi's College as it was then) and had several happy years there in the 1970s. I'm not sure we schoolboys fully appreciated the architecture or the beauty of the setting.
Garron Tower is mentioned in Roy Jenkins's biography of Winston Churchill (as another poster mentioned it was known as 'Garron Towers').
There is also a story that the Marchioness of Londonderry fired the cannons in salute to Queen Victoria and broke a large number of windows in GT. This may be an apocryphal schoolboy fantasy as I can find no corroboration of it!

Liam G Kelly. said...

As a past pupil at Garron Tower, (1957- 1963),I am happy to confirm that the cannons are still in place, as is the Dog's Grave, containing a dog which was owned by Lady Londonderry and which has a fully inscribed memorial stone in place.

Unknown said...

As a past pupil and local, I have heard that story too, though sadly cannot find anything to corroborate either! Historian and GT history teacher, Paul Magill, wrote a wonderful book charting the history of this beautiful castle - hard to get hold of a copy now but well worth a read, and includes the inscriptions on the Dog's Grave headstone and the nearby Famine Stone, also erected by Lady Frances Anne Vane Tempest.

NICOLA Meeke said...

It was great to read this history as I’ve just purchased one of the coastguard cottages at Garron Point (part of the Garron Towers estate)...they were built 1849/50 as part of the famine relief ...if anyone has any other information on them I’d love to hear it....

HPK said...

The Canons still line the walls, although now rest on cement supports. The canons carry the royal ciphers of George IV and William IV. Alas the suggested connection that the canons were taken from the Battle of Waterloo is without foundation, as they are Ships Canons from the Royal Navy!

Unknown said...

I spent one year at Garron Tower, away back in 1963. I have no memories whatsoever of ill treatment or abuse by any priest, teacher or pupil. My memories are of various individual incidents. I will relate three.

The first story concerns a game we played through a wooded area behind the junior dormitories. While we were more used at home to playing cowboys and 'indians', the troubles in America with civil rights, etc., must have filtered across the pond, with the result that someone started a similar game, which was called Ku-Klux and N*****s". No one was put out in the least by the full terminology of the game, nor did we all want to be the guys with the pillow cases over our heads, or the other side. We didn't look at who were the 'goodies' and who were the 'baddies', we just chased each other round the trees and shrubs. One night I might have been on the side of the 'goodies' next night, the 'baddies'. But I can't remember if we even knew ourselves who were the 'goodies' and who were the 'baddies'. We were innocent.

The second story concerns the usual Sunday adventure of climbing the very steep mountain area, outside the main gate and to the west of the school, which when conquered, took an adventurer to a open barren area. About a mile further on there was a lake. There was an area of cliffs also, which we attempted to scale, but I have no recollection of whether we did manage to or not. One day, I fell and took a lump of skin off my knee, about the size of a two pence piece. It was hanging by a small bit of skin at the bottom and I managed to tie it up and get back to the school, where there was an old nun, who doubled as the school nurse and perhaps doubled for many other duties, etc, but she brought me into her 'operating theatre' (a bed and little else), upon which I climbed. She took one look at the cut, wiped it with a cloth soaked in iodine and before I even knew what was happening, she snipped off the hanging piece of skin with a pair of scissors, bandaged my knee and off I went. The first my parents knew was in one of my letters home ! The term 'duty of care' springs to mind!

My third story relates to one dark November night, it was about 7.30 and I was standing at the bottom of the main stairs up to the priests' residences. The staircase was beside the study hall and I was waiting for one of the school prefects, or 'monitors' as they were officially called..why I don't open the study door. Suddenly I heard a door slam upstairs and Fr. Agnew came running down the stairs, out of breath, almost. I was the only person there and he looked at me and said, "He's been shot...President Kennedy's been shot."
"Is he dead?" I asked and he replied, "I don't know, it's just been on a newsflash." With that he turned and ran up the stairs again. Within minutes, a crowd of lads gathered to return to the study hall and I was telling them the latest news. They were asking me all sorts of questions, which I had no answers to, but for a few minutes on that infamous night of 22nd November, 1963, I was Garron Tower's answer to Walter Cronkite.

Frank McGurk,

Timothy Belmont said...

Frank, many thanks for a very interesting anecdote. Tim.