Castle Dobbs

Architectural Schizophrenia

Castle Ward is Northern Ireland’s most famous case of two architectural styles clamouring for attention in the one building: neoclassical versus gothick. Castle Dobbs has a less extreme but still surprising dual personality: Georgian versus Italianate. More of that later.

“For its date, 1750 to 54, it is quite without an equal in Ulster, while its perfect Palladian plan with flanking wings… is hard to match in a house of this scale anywhere in Ireland.” Prof Alistair Rowan

Set in a secluded walled and wooded demesne, Castle Dobbs is an amazing survival, untouched by the orange glow of spreading suburbia and still owned by the family from whom its name is derived. The present High Sheriff of County Antrim is Nigel Dobbs. His ancestor Richard Dobbs became High Sheriff of County Antrim in 1664. Its ethereal postal address is 74 Tongue Loanen.

The estate was established in the 16th century when a young John Dobbs accompanied Sir Henry Dockwra to Carrickfergus in 1596. Dobbs subsequently became Dockwra’s deputy as Treasurer of Ulster. John Dobbs was the grandson of Sir Richard Dobbs, Lord Mayor of London in 1551 and a founder of Christ’s Hospital London. A title would never appear in the Dobbs lineage again.

Seven years later John Dobbs married Margaret Dalway, the only child of John Dalway, a landowner granted estates in Kilroot and Ballynure in 1601 by James I. Dobbs presented the newlyweds with a freehold lease of a portion of his lands in Kilroot. The couple proceeded to build the first Castle Dobbs. It was recorded in 1610:

“One John Dobb buylte a fayre castle within two myle of Knockfargus called Dobbes Castle about w’ch he entends to buylde a bawne of stone… This Castle is buylte upon parte of Ensigne Dallawayes lande.”

Dalway had come to Ireland in the 1570s as an officer in the Earl of Essex’s army. In 1606 he built a bawn (a stone enclosure for cows) on his newly acquired land. The bawn consisted of four 10m high towers with a 13m long curtain wall between each one. He built his house in the middle of the bawn.

Over the entrance to the bawn is a gallows for unwelcome visitors. The towers had three floors fitted for firing cannons. Three of the towers remain. Originally the bawn would have held 200 cows. Dalway was Mayor of Carrickfergus in 1592 and 1600. The last of the Dalways, Marriott Dalway, left with his family for Australia in 1884.

Back to the Dobbs family. John and Margaret had two sons with the great names of Foulk and Hercules. Dalway naturally nominated his grandson as heir since he was the elder son. But a family row was to erupt over the Dalway estate.

On the death of his first wife, Dalway married Jane Norton who couldn’t stand the sight of her step daughter-in-law. Norton persuaded her new husband to make a will in favour of his nephew instead. All hell broke loose in 1618 when Dalway died. John and Margaret began a protracted legal battle to claim the estate for Foulk’s sake.

At the first hearing the court ruled in favour of the Dobbs family but the elected heir challenged this ruling. Not one to give up easily, John Dobbs set off with his son to London to petition the king. He succeeded in obtaining His Majesty’s Grant to the lands of the late John Dalway.

However their triumphal return was not to be. Both Dobbs senior and junior drowned when their ship was wrecked off the Cheshire coastline in 1622. Hercules continued the legal confrontation with all his strength. The law suit was finally settled with a compromise when referees appointed by the Lord Chancellor ruled that Hercules be awarded lands at Castle Dobbs and Ballynure as well as rights to tenement in Carrickfergus. The remainder of the estate was awarded to Dalway’s nephew. The ruling must have made for awkward neighbourly relations – Dalway’s Bawn is a stone’s throw from the entrance to the Castle Dobbs lands.

Hercules married Magdalene West of Ballydugan in 1633. They had one son, Richard, born in 1634. Hercules died the same year, aged 21. At just three months old, Richard Dobbs inherited Castle Dobbs along with land at Ballynure.

Richard was reared by his mother’s family in County Down around Downpatrick and Saul. Aged 21 he married Dorothy Williams, daughter of Bryan Williams of Clints Hall in Yorkshire. After his marriage, Dobbs returned to Castle Dobbs. In 1683 he wrote,

“My house, which is a plantation and improvement of my own time (tho’ descended from my great Grandfather)… is called Castle-Dobs from a small castle here, built by my Grandfather.” Richard set to work improving the castle and gardens. The ruins of this castle lie beside the current house. Dalway’s Bawn is still intact although the house it once surrounded has disappeared into the mists of time.

On settling at Castle Dobbs he soon became involved in civil affairs. In 1671 Dobbs was elected Mayor of Carrickfergus, an honour bestowed on him on four later occasions. Carrickfergus was one of the four most important towns of late 17th century Ireland. Perks of the job included the requirement that tenants would “furnish the Mayor with a number of fat hens at Christmas or a specified sum in lieu”. Dobbs described improvements to his town:

“The way out of the north street was first paved; the walls that bring the water through the churchyard were built, and the town pump was set up by benevolence. The Sword and Standard in the church was refurbished, and money was ordered for recasting the bell.”

Also in 1683, Dobbs began his record A Brief Description of County Antrim. It has become an invaluable source for local historians. The original manuscript is in the Northern Ireland Public Records Office and a copy is held in the library of Trinity College Dublin. As well as descriptions of the built and natural environment, he recounts tales of folklore and social activities such as hunting with the Earls of Antrim at Glenarm Castle.

Richard and Dorothy Dobbs had two sons and three daughters. The eldest son John was educated at Eton College because his father had aspirations for him to join the church. However the young John went to a Quaker meeting in Carrickfergus and joined that sect. He returned to England to study medicine and eventually settled in County Cork where he worked as a doctor. His father was not impressed and it was another case of altering a will. John was bequeathed a measly 10 per annum while his younger brother Richard inherited the family estate.

Richard junior enlisted in the Duke of Schomberg’s army to fight in the Williamite Wars. So these were the progenitors of the illustrious Dobbs family. A distinguished line of politicians, statesmen, churchmen, barristers and soldiers was to follow.

The present Castle Dobbs was built by Arthur Dobbs, Surveyor of the Irish Works and later Governor of North Carolina. The travel writer Richard Pococke recorded in 1752, “Mr Dobbs is now building on a very fine spot on rising ground.” The surrounding oak trees predate the house. Arthur’s descendent, Captain Dobbs, writing in the 20th century notes,

“The old castle probably fell into disrepair – or as family legend has it: was sacked by pirates, and the present house has been added to, since it was built. The writer can remember that when alterations were made to the upper part of the present castle the inner walls proved to be made with turf.”

As successor to the acclaimed architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, Arthur Dobbs acquired a distinguished library for his role as Surveyor of the Irish Works. He is known to have owned James Gibbs’ A Book of Architecture, dated 1728. Plate 64 was for a ‘Draught done for a Gentleman in Essex’. Probably never built, this plate illustrates a sturdy Palladian country house like a smaller version of Ditchley. The plate is missing from Dobbs’ copy.

Sir Charles Brett believed Castle Dobbs to be loosely based on Gibbs’ design and it seems a reasonable presumption. There are some major deviations, though. Castle Dobbs has a raised, not sunken, basement, lending it an elevated and more impressive front than the original design. In place of Gibb’s columned colonnades are courtyard quadrants with paired oeil-de-boeufs. I would go even further than Charlie Brett and suggest that Arthur Dobbs himself directed the final design with lots of help from Pearce. A meeting of three great minds?

Arthur Dobbs was a multifaceted gentleman – an agriculturalist and organiser of expeditions to discover the North West Passage from Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific. While a member of the Irish Parliament, he purchased 400,000 acres of land in North Carolina from the McCulloch family in 1745. Dobbs was later granted another 60,000 acres in New Hanover County. His 5,000 acres at Castle Dobbs was positively small fry in comparison.

In 1795 Dobbs died while he was preparing to return from his new home at Cape Fear, North Carolina (also called Castle Dobbs). Another facet of his life had been organising Scotch-Irish immigration to America. The first tenants Dobbs brought over from Ireland sailed in 1751.

He set sail with “my tenants and their neighbours and friends” from Ballycarry, Kilroot and Carrickfergus. In 1766 Dobbs organised the emigration of another batch of Scotch-Irish. The contingent bound for North and South Carolina included Andrew and Elizabeth Jackson. They had moved from their family farm beside Dalway’s Bawn to Boneybefore near Carrickfergus in preparation for their departure. Their son Andrew Jackson would become 7th President of the United States.

Anyway back to Castle Dobbs. The house as built comprises a seven bay two storey double-pile main block over a substantial basement with five bay two storey projecting wings without basements. The two storeys of the wings are the same height as the basement and piano nobile together. Two quadrants link the three distinct parts of the building to create an impressive entrance front which embraces the visitor like the wings of a vast eagle ready to engulf its prey. The windowless elevations of projections the same height as the main block project to the rear of both wings.

The piano nobile is accessed by a 19th century double staircase of reddish stone with carved balustrades and piers. The whole arrangement is supported by two Greek Ionic columns flanked by plain pilasters which form a portico to the basement entrance below. A sense of arrival is guaranteed by this triumph in stone.

The basement entrance contains a double leaf timber panelled entrance door surmounted by a cornice on consoled brackets. Upstairs, the piano nobile has a pair of timber glazed entrance doors and a window on either side set in a slight three bay projection. The seven first floor windows all have a plain surround and key block.

Walls are ruled-and-lined render with – deep breath – chamfered vermiculated rusticated stepped quoins and plain raised quoins to the top floor and south elevation. A modillioned eaves cornice to the wings continues as a string course to the central block. Windows are timber sliding sashes, with exposed boxes to the entrance front, and masonry cills.

Now the wings. The west wing is detailed like the main block with vermiculated rusticated quoins and plain banded rustication to the basement. Its elevation overlooking the forecourt has five 12 pane windows at first floor with moulded lugged architraves. A central timber panelled door with plain raised stepped quoins with two plainly detailed nine pane windows to each side on the ground floor. The west elevation comprises seven bays slightly irregularly placed. A recessed section at the corner of this wing and the south elevation has stairs leading to the piano nobile with a door surmounted by a jaunty leaded corner canopy. Access to the basement is through a timber panelled door below the stairs. The gable end of the west wing is blank.

The east wing is faced with ruled and lined render similar to the west wing. A five bay elevation overlooks the forecourt. This five bay elevation is like an inverted view of the west wing with larger 16 pane sliding sash windows on the raised basement and smaller eight pane sliding sash windows above. The rear elevation is also similar to that of the west wing.

The south facing garden elevation has a more two dimensional quality with no projections. Instead, 13 bays stretch below a centrally placed plain pediment over the middle three bays. Plain solid parapets surmount the elevations and bracketed cornices finish the wings. Four ruled-and-lined rendered chimneys with square terracotta pots rising from the natural slate roof complete the picture.

And so for a century Castle Dobbs remained pretty much an executed variation of Gibbs’ plate. Castle Dobbs was exquisitely restored in the late 20th century and now glistens. It is the antithesis of the crumbling Irish country houses beloved by coffee table book publishers. Incidentally Castle Dobbs is one of the few country houses of the British Isles never to have been published in Country Life. But in the early 19th century, it wasn’t quite so pristine. In 1839 James Boyle said,

“The house is a spacious old fashioned mansion, the entrance front presenting in its central building and two projecting wings a somewhat Elizabethan appearance. It is three storeys high and presents a plain roughcast and whitened front – plantations, grounds and house are in a very neglected state.”

The building appears with an additional extension to the west elevation on the first edition OS map of 1832. Valuations show the extension to have been farm buildings which were pulled down between 1857 and 1859.

It is likely that contemporaneous with this demolition was the restoration and remodelling of Castle Dobbs. On the south elevation, Italianate architectural dressing creeps like ivy across the two lower storeys. Meanwhile the top floor and its plain pediment look down in severity at the interloping detail. The fully vermiculated rusticated basement treatment dates from this time. Surely this hints at the author being Sir Charles Lanyon, king of rustication (think Crumlin Road Gaol which he rusticated to within an inch of its existence). Similar rusticated details were applied to the west wing but not to the east wing of the entrance front.

The windows of the piano nobile on the south front were embellished with entablatures on console brackets. The thick glazing bars of the multi paned Georgian windows were replaced with idiosyncratic fenestration comprising two vertical panes in the upper sash and a single pane in the lower sash. That’s as far as the remodelling went, for whatever reason now lost in the sands of time.

A neoclassical rendered three bay gatelodge on the quiet Tongue Loanen marks the entrance to this piece of paradise. Built in 1875, unlike the house, its architect is known – S P Close. It has been restored. The same architect’s gatelodge on the busy Carrickfergus to Kilroot road is also three bay but is faced with uncoursed squared quarry-faced basalt with limestone dressings and quoins. Tudor label mouldings to the windows, a door set between classical columns in antis and a polychromatic chimney on the hipped roof give it an eclectic appearance. It lies vacant and its avenue overgrown. Two earlier 19th century gatelodges have disappeared.

The house is approached by a gravel lane past a lake with a cascade and over a bridge. The demesne contains fine mature trees grouped in shelter belts, parkland, woodland and avenues. Informal glen side walks have been augmented with recent planting. The walled garden to the west of the house was redesigned in 1989 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Arthur Dobbs’ birth. Dobbs was a plantsman and noted for providing the first written reference to the Venus fly-trap (Dionaea muscipula) while Governor of North Carolina. The potting sheds are back in use along with a remaining glasshouse.

A series of two storey outbuildings forms a courtyard to the east of the house. Walls are random rubble with brick dressings and eaves course; roofs are pitched and slated; windows are timber casements and doors are timber sheeted. Together, the house grounds and associated buildings form an estate of great beauty and integrity.