Episode 9 and 10 – Abbeyleix and Abbey St Bathans

I hope you’re all enjoying your Easter holiday. I’m releasing this episode a day early as a special treat. I hope you enjoy it.

Episode 9 – Abbeyleix

Last week, the history of Abbey Green ended at the dissolution of the monasteries. But where Abbey Green falls quiet the history of our next town, Abbeyleix, begins.

Abbeyleix (pronounced ‘abbey leaks’) is half way between Dublin and Limerick, in the south of County Laois (‘Leesh’), in Ireland. Like Abbey Green, it was founded as a Cistercian monastery.

The monastery’s founding came shortly after the Normans took over Ireland. Laois was in the Kingdom of Leinster, and it had seen Mac Murchada lose then regain his land, before it passed into Richard de Clare’s hands in 1171.

There were seven leading septs (that is, clans) in Laois, and the chief of those was the O’Mores. This meant they had a lot of power in the area. One of the members of this sept was Conor O’More, and it was he who founded Abbey Lex Dei on the banks of the river Nora. Lex Dei became Leix. Being a Cistercian monastery, we should note that its parent-house was Baltinglass, in Wicklow.

Unlike Dieulacres, Abbey Leix was well-behaved and we know nothing much about it until the dissolution. Here, in 1552 – much later than the English dissolution due to the Irish resistance – the abbey was surrendered to the crown.

In 1563, Abbeyleix was given to Thomas, Earl of Ormond. Thomas had become the first protestant in his family, and was educated alongside the future king Edward VI. When the Catholic Mary I became queen he avoided trouble, and even assisted her by putting down a rebellion, which gained him the nickname “Black Tom”.

But with her successor Elizabeth I he became a close friend. Perhaps even closer than that. She is said to have called him her ‘black husband’, and she might even have had his child! Well, it might not have been completely unlike Thomas, who had three wives, and sixteen children – four legitimate and twelve illegitimate. But whether Elizabeth would have done the same is a different matter. She was a very religious woman, and as an unmarried Queen she was under a constant spotlight. Her enemies could easily have used this rumoured affair to get rid of her. Although there had been plenty of gossip, it was never been enough to depose the ‘Virgin Queen’.

The Veseys arrive

1675 saw a change of ownership again at Abbeyleix, into the hands of a man called Denny Muschamp. Muschamp was an agent for Church of Ireland (i.e. protestant) Archbishop Michael Boyle, who would become the Lord Chancellor of Ireland. At this time Catholicism was suppressed by the English following Cromwell’s reconquest. Denny was married to Archbishop Michael’s daughter Elizabeth, and they had a daughter called Mary – their only child.

It is through Mary’s marriage to Rev Thomas Vesey in 1679 that the story of Abbeyleix as it is today really begins. Thomas was a man of some esteem, and would be created a Baronet (one step above a commoner). Meanwhile his church career would eventually make him a Bishop. Denny Muschamp would give Abbeyleix to his son-in-law, and this would become the Vesey home.

Thomas and Mary had one son, John Denny Vesey. Thus began a naming tradition that continues to this day, alternating between John and Thomas for all the descendants of this line, and I will do my best to distinguish them.

It was John Denny Vesey’s son Thomas who would begin the plan to change Abbeyleix from a small village in a marsh to a thriving market town. The Veseys drew up plans, marking on a map where all the roads and houses would go. And then they built it.

In the year 1773 work began on Abbeyleix House. It had been designed by James Wyatt, an architect whose work on the “Pantheon” in London’s Oxford Street had brought him instant fame the previous year. Businesses were soon being set up in the newly-constructed buildings, including one family-run general store that lasted for 230 years and is now a pub by the same name – Morriseys.

Thomas Vesey was raised to the position of 1st Viscount de Vesci of Abbeyleix in 1776. It seems his work in constructing this town – one of the first planned towns in Ireland – was recognised around Ireland and also in Great Britain.

The town grew and the Viscountship passed down to Thomas’s son John. John made many efforts to improve the town, and the residents had a lot of appreciation for him.

Abbeyleix seems to have been fairly open to the various kinds of protestantism that started to appear around the United Kingdom, separate from the established churches in Scotland, England and Ireland. One of these ‘non-confirmist’ traditions was Methodism, founded by John and Charles Wesley. Methodists split apart from the Church of England in the late 1780s, but kept much of the service format and governing structure.

John Wesley himself never split from the Church of England, though he preached all over the United Kingdom and formed small groups of like-minded believers. One of those places was Abbeyleix, which was so taken by him that they founded a Methodist church in 1826, named after John Wesley’s home town.

I should note here that Ireland was a separate kingdom from Great Britain until 1 January 1801, when the 1800 Acts of Union created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Later construction under the Second Viscount de Vesci included the Market House – the centre for administration of the town – which is now the town library. A street was named Pembroke Terrace when Emma (the daughter of the 11th Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery) married John’s son – Lt Col Thomas Vesey. I told you – they are all Johns and Thomases.

Like Abbey Dore, Abbeyleix was required to build a workhouse after the Poor Law was changed. It opened in 1842 with space for 500, but was almost overflowing within a few years and a new one had to be constructed in a nearby town probably due to the potato famine.

Both Catholic and Protestant schools were set up as education became available to everyone, and with Catholicism now permitted the Brigidine Nuns set up a convent in the town. The North School, built in 1884, is now the town’s heritage centre.

When John Vesey died in 1855, having been around as Viscount for 41 years, the people constructed a fountain in his memory.

Victorian progress continued under 3rd Viscount Thomas and his son John. A railway was constructed from Dublin which passed through the town, and connected it to a much wider market. The town must have been a hubbub of industry and activity.

There is a sad connection from Abbeyleix to the sinking of the Titanic. Yvo Richard Vesey, the 5th Viscount de Vesci (he escaped the John/Thomas cycle as he was a nephew of the previous Viscount), set up a carpet factory in the town to provide employment for the town’s women. At its height, it employed forty women, but it began to decline by 1910, so it partnered with the Kildare Carpet Factory. They were commissioned to make carpets for the Titanic, and one of the clerks from the Abbeyleix factory was on board when it sank in April 1912. This event sounded the factory’s death knell.

Today, Abbeyleix is an Irish Heritage Town, and proud of it. It has some fantastic architecture, and is well worth a look around.

Though Ireland became independent from the United Kingdom in 1922, the line of the Viscounts de Vesci continues. The current Viscount is Thomas Vesey, who grew up in Abbeyleix but has lived in London since Abbeyleix House was sold in the 1990s. There is a great interview with him on YouTube, and you can hear how much the family still cares for their connection with Ireland and the Irish town.

Episode 10 – Abbey St. Bathans

Deep in the Scottish Borders some distance north-west of Berwick-Upon-Tweed on the banks of the Whiteadder Water lies Abbey St. Bathans, the first settlement alphabetically in Scotland.

Long before saints and abbeys, long before Scotland, British tribes lived and hunted across the island. Somewhere between 2000 and 2500 years ago, a short way south of Abbey St. Bathans, one of those tribes built a hillfort. The British landscape today is full of these ancient forts, used as defensive structures but also as homes. Their hilltop location allowed the Britons who lived there to see a long distance, and they artificially steepened the sides to make it harder to attack.

In the centre of the fort was a large round house, the chief building, and in one corner was a stone tower which is now called Edin’s Hall Broch. It’s not clear whether the two were related or if the tower came after the settlement ended. A broch is a type of structure unique to Scotland, and may have been defensive or agricultural in use. Like other brochs Edin’s Hall had a 5m thick wall with a stone staircase leading up the middle. More unusually it is very large, with a diameter of 22m, and it is also rare to find such a structure in the lowlands.

Perhaps the Britons had moved on by the next phase in Abbey St. Bathan’s history, or perhaps they remained as Christianity came to Scotland. St. Bathan – or Baithéne mac Brénaind to give him his proper name – was one of St. Columba’s companions as he travelled from Ireland to Iona in Scotland to begin preaching there. Not only that but the two were also cousins. Bathan, Columba and their companions brought Christianity to the Picts of Scotland and the Anglo-Saxons of what would become the kingdom of Northumbria. After Columba died Bathan succeeded him as abbot of Iona before he died around the year 600.

It’s possible Bathan had some particular hand in converting the locals to Christianity, but for whatever reason there was a chapel set up in his name here. And it was because of that chapel that around the year 1200 Ada, Countess of Dunbar founded a priory there. This priory, which would later be mistaken for an abbey, was home to a small group of Cistercian nuns.

Ada, Countess of Dunbar was an illegitimate daughter of King William I, Lion of Scotland, and wife to Patrick, the fifth Earl of Dunbar, and she has an interesting story.

In the year 1216 King Henry III of England decided to invade Scotland, and they captured Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Berwick is somewhere that has traded hands between England and Scotland many times over the centuries due to its strategic location. Moving north, they attempted to capture Dunbar Castle where Ada was residing. The Earl was away at war at that time, and his wife had to defend the castle alone.

The English had the castle under siege, so that nothing could get in or out. Ada, probably weak and ill after the deprivations of siege living, decided to escape the castle, which sat on a cliff overlooking the North Sea. She made it to her boat without problem, but then in the darkness she failed to get to Fife as intended. Instead she ended up running aground on some rocks along the East Lothian coast.

She staggered inland, where she found a well and drank from it. The well miraculously restored her, and she went on to found a shrine there which today is called Whitekirk.

The siege of Dunbar was unsuccessful, and the English ended up moving on to Edinburgh.

Ada and her husband had at least four children, and they would carry on the succession of the Earls of Dunbar.

As for the priory at St. Bathans, it continued until the mid-1500s and the protestant reformation in Scotland, while also worrying about raids from England.

King Henry VIII was a warrior king, and one of his prime targets was Scotland. His sister Margaret was mother to the Scottish monarch James V, but that wasn’t any hindrance. The priories in the Scottish Borders, including Eccles and St. Bathans, were naturally concerned. Prioress Elizabeth Lamb of St. Bathans reached out to England to try and save the convent from destruction.

James V got wind of this, and in response he granted the priory to Gavin Hume, accusing Elizabeth of ‘treasonably favouring’ England and even supplying of the English with weapons to invade Scotland! But soon after that James V took away the treason charges and pardoned Elizabeth and the priory chaplain Sir Thomas Hudson.

But the Scottish reformation was by now under way, though its implementation would not come about the same way as in England. Unlike Henry VIII, James V had not seen any need to get rid of the Catholic churches, since they provided both income for himself, and a career for his illegitimate children.

When he died in 1542 his legitimate daughter and only heir Mary was just an infant, and this left the Borders open to English invasion and the forceful introduction of protestantism. Eventually enough powerful lords were converted to protestantism to be able to pressure the church and the country into changing. Catholic churches converted to Protestant, and as with England the monasteries and priories were closed and dismantled.

St. Bathan’s church had been partly destroyed by the English in the 1540s. Once the reformation kicked in, the chapel was rebuilt as a parish church, and the remaining buildings’ materials were used to construct village buildings. In 1609, one Matthew Leddall was minister at the parish church of Abbey St. Bathans and Strafuntin.

John Turnbull Thomson

In New Zealand there is a small town on the South Island called Saint Bathans which was named after Abbey St. Bathans. The name came about from the town’s surveyor John Turnbull Thomson, whose grandmother came from the Scottish village.

John was born in August 1821 in Glororum, Northumberland, but when he was still young his father died in a hunting accident. He moved with his mother to Abbey St. Bathans, studying at the Duns Academy before going north to Aberdeen where he picked up the mathematical skills he would need in his future career.

By the nineteenth century the British Empire had expanded across the world, conquering and colonising as it went. It could be found on every continent, and even today many nations around the world have the Union Flag incorporated into their own national flag.

One of the lands that Britain colonised was Malaya (now Malaysia). Some of John’s fellow students at the Duns Academy had family estates there, and in 1838 aged just seventeen he left Scotland on his first position as a surveyor. He stayed in Malaya for three years, surveying and mapping the land. This involved travelling through rough jungle and meeting people who had never seen a European before. But he adapted well, soon picking up the local culture and language.

The Singapore government were very impressed with John Thomson, and aged just twenty he was appointed Governor Surveyor for the British Straits Settlements – British colonial towns on the Malaya coast. Singapore today is a large island city state just south of Malaysia, but in those days it was a British trading post. He produced maps of the town and even the whole island – an achievement he completed alone on horseback. In 1849, he did a marine survey of Johor and Pahang through pirate-infested waters!

He also used his mathematical skills to design bridges and buildings such as Kallang Bridge, the Seamen’s Hospital (now Singapore General Hospital), and Chinese Hospital (now Tan Tong Seck Hospital), as well as the Horsburgh Lighthouse which still stands today, guarding the Strait of Singapore.

It was quite a task to construct the lighthouse – hauling stone 40km by sea, watching out for pirates all the way. His crew rioted at one point because their contractor was dishonest, and one of the escort ships went on strike which put their stone in danger. On top of this, John fell ill several times, but despite everything the lighthouse was completed, and in 1851 it was lit for the first time.

But he had been away from home for a long time and was struggling with the climate. In 1853 he returned to England on sick leave. Once he had recovered he studied in Edinburgh and Newcastle before heading out again to New Zealand, another British colonial nation.

He arrived in Auckland in February 1856 and immediately was offered the role of Chief Surveyor of Otago – one of the regions of the New Zealand South Island. He leapt at the challenge, and took up office in Dunedin (the region’s principal city, named after Edinburgh). His first task was to locate a site for the town of Invercargill, and then he set out to explore and map the province. It was John who gave many of the locations of the South Island their names, including the Lindis Pass, and the Twizel and Cardrona rivers.

In 1876, having done an incredible amount of engineering and surveying, he was appointed the first surveyor general of New Zealand. He stayed in office in Wellington until 1879, when he retired.

John also painted watercolours which provide some of the earliest images of Singapore that we have, and wrote several books. Two were of his adventures in Singapore and New Zealand, and one was a translation of his Malay teacher’s autobiography into English. The teacher must have done a good job.

John Thomson died at the town he had sited – Invercargill – in 1884.

Well, I’ve made it ten towns in, but we’ve a long way to go. I’ve got an extra episode for you later this week, so I hope you’ll join me on Monday as we visit Abbeystead in Lancashire.



Abbey St. Bathans


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