Tintern in the 19th Century

image of the garden with lush trees in the background

After Caesar`s death, the estate was embroiled in several lawsuits contesting succession and the validating of various wills in the Chancery Courts. Charles Dickens published a sardonic account “More of wills and will making” of the events in his magazine “All the Year Round”. The family name was spelt Coclough to poke fun at its unusual pronunciation. Dickens used the family name Dedlock for his main characters in his novel.

“In the county of Wexford are the ruins of a fine old abbey, converted into a country-house…..
At last it came to the year 1842, when the testator began to fail, and there seemed a chance that all his wife’s schemes, if schemes they were, were to be crowned with success. He was busy with his chemicals and experiments when he felt sick. On the 4th of August the will making began, perhaps the most unique series of these documents yet known.”

Dickens Jarndice vs Jarndice, from his book Bleak House is said to have been inspired by the Colclough will case. In the preface to Bleak House, Dickens cites two Chancery cases as especial inspirations.

“At the present moment (August, 1853) there is a suit before the court which was commenced nearly twenty years ago, in which from thirty to forty counsel have been known to appear at one time, in which costs have been incurred to the amount of seventy thousand pounds….”

On his death bed Caesar left his estate to his wife Jane Stratford Kirwin. This, Caesar’s fifth will, made in 1842, was disputed by members of the Colclough family who preferred the first will made in 1824 which left the estate to Caesar relative, Mary Grey Wentworth Colclough (Caesar’s 1st cousin once removed). Mary Grey Wentworth declared herself ’Heiress at Law’ and she commenced legal action. The Colclough versus Colclough will case was the case celebre of the decade and later became known as Rossborough versus Boyce. When in the intervening period Jane married Caesar’s friend, Thomas Boyce of Bannow House in 1846, and Mary married Thomas Rossborough from Co. Fermanagh in 1848.

Caesar’s fifth will was set aside by a special jury at Wexford in July 1852, giving Tintern Abbey to Mary. An appeal was heard by the House of Lords in 1857 where a retrial was ordered to take place in Wexford. The case was finally settled in July 1857 when Jane received £20,000 and Mary received Tintern Abbey with a rental income of £8,000 a year.

The discovery of a bundle of dusty old letters behind a press in Tintern Abbey written by Caesar to his Wexford relatives describing a warm and friendly relationship between both parties contrary to Jane’s evidence brought the case to a conclusion but also bankruptcy to the Colclough’s.

A failure to pay debts would lead to Tintern Abbey being put up for sale in 1892, only to be saved by the Colclough’s Catholic tenantry who raised £1,000 preventing banks from foreclosing. The tenants may have remembered how, unlike other landlords, the Colclough’s had never evicted anyone during the Famine.

The land wars of the 1880’s brought Tintern centre stage with Captain Biddulph Colclough granting a 20 per cent reduction on rents to his tenants after a campaign of agitation by the land league.

Michael Shoemaker, author of Wanderings in Ireland in 1908 paints a very evocative picture and regales us with his animated tale of the Abbey, its inhabitants and its surroundings which he encountered, a flavour of which we share with you here:

“Our Motor has stopped before a Great Iron Gate of Tintern Abbey beyond which stretch the glades of a Magnificent Park…I doubt not that many of my readers have visited the Great Estates of Europe, but unless they have seen Tintern Abbey in Wexford — the quaintest of all abodes in this quaint Ireland — they have still an Experience before them.”

He creates a vivid description of the outward countenance of the Abbey as ‘embowered in clambering ivy’ with ‘bits of ruin everywhere, — moss-grown stairs…ruined arches and ivied towers…and vine-draped pillars standing far apart show the once great extent of the abbey…’On gaining entry to the Abbey he goes on to describe ivy peering into the window and tapping on the glass and he evocatively describes a taint of the buried years in the air. He describes an abandoned, walled up library its books ‘mouldering in great heaps on the floor’ a description reminiscent of the state of the abandoned Walled Garden! He gives a memorable account of the Colclough Chapel ‘on the hill yonder…roofless and in decay…choked with brambles and wild roses…embowered in creeping, drooping vines, and almost obliterated by the moss of centuries’ and an extraordinary account of the family crypt which they literally stumbled upon ‘the door being open, we wandered in and paused amazed at the spectacle of dead humanity…the entire space was crowded with coffins in all stages of appalling decay and ruin and dating all the way along from the reign of Elizabeth…ruins of coffin on coffin, pell-mell all tumbling into one wild chaos. Pausing in silent dismay for an instant only, we went forth into the sunshine, leaving the dead to their rest .

In the midst of all these reflections Shoemaker is roused when his hostess, Louisa Colclough enters, whom he describes as ‘ a typical Irish lady, all- hospitality and warm welcome’ and he goes on to say that ‘Her hearty laugh drives off the shadows and she is much pleased that we are interested in her old home: old, — yes verily — just think of it, her people have lived right here for three hundred years, and but for the secretion of those documents by some stupid ancestor the domain would be a rich one even yet. But that does not keep laughter out of Tintern.’

Shoemaker concluded that “It must have been a glorious place and is so even now in its ruins, and is one of the most interesting spots in the island”.

Miss Marie B. Colclough inherited the estate in 1912 from her mother Louise who was Mary’s daughter. Marie B. never married and lived in Tintern Abbey with her two aunts Bella (d. 1929) and May (d. 1936). After 400 years of continuous occupancy the last of the Tintern Colclough line, Miss Marie B Colclough, gifted Tintern Abbey to the Irish State in 1959 and it was at this juncture that the Walled Garden was left largely abandoned to nature.