04 November 2012
On the ‘Fitzwilliam Trail’ in Cambridge colleges and in Dublin’s squares
A few weeks ago, I met an old school friend, Frank Domoney, at Pembroke College in Cambridge, and we had lunch at the Anchor at Silver Street Bridge, enjoying the riverside view and the manoeuvres of the punts on the River Cam.
On the opposite side of the river stands Darwin College, once the home of Charles Darwin’s son, the astronomer and mathematician Sir George Darwin (1845-1912), who lived in the old mill by the Mill Pond.
Geoffrey Chaucer mentions the Mill Pond at the beginning of ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ in The Canterbury Tales, and this was once the only crossing over the River Cam for vehicles on this side of Cambridge.
Tracing the Fitzwilliam connections
However, the main reason for my visit to Cambridge that sunny day though was to trace some places associated with the Fitzwilliam name. The Revd Dr Humphrey Fitzwilliam, a Fellow of Pembroke College, was Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University when he died in 1503. But the Fitzwilliam name, now a commonplace throughout Cambridge, dates from the generosity of an Irish peer, landlord and antiquarian, Richard FitzWilliam (1745-1816), 7th Viscount FitzWilliam, who owned large estates in Dublin.
The Fitzwilliam Museum was founded in Cambridge when he left his library, art collection and £100,000 to Cambridge University at his death in 1816. And the museum in turn has given its name to a restaurant, a street, a house, a pharmacy and a college.
Richard FitzWilliam was born in 1745, and was educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, receiving his MA in 1764. In 1776, Richard succeeded his father as 7th Viscount FitzWilliam, and along with the family title inherited his large estates in Dublin.
The Irish peerage titles of Viscount FitzWilliam, of Merrion in the County of Dublin, and Baron FitzWilliam, of Thorncastle in the County of Dublin, were created by Charles I in 1629 for his ancestor, Sir Thomas FitzWilliam (1581-1650). The FitzWilliam family is recorded in Dublin from as early as 1210, and by the time Thomas FitzWilliam was born, his family was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the Pale. The family seat was at Merrion House, Co Dublin, and they also owned Merrion Castle and Baggotrath Castle, both of which have long since disappeared.
Baggotrath Castle stood on the present Baggot Street in Dublin, but was a casualty in the wars of the mid-17th century. The ruins were demolished in the mid-19th century, and the site is now occupied by 44-46 Upper Baggot Street, facing Waterloo Road.
Merrion Castle, which fell into disrepair around 1710, probably stood opposite Merrion Gates, on the site of Saint Mary’s Home and School for the Blind. The castle was replaced by Merrion House, where Richard FitzWilliam’s father died in 1776, but was demolished 200 years later in 1976.
Designing Georgian squares
The FitzWilliam titles became extinct in 1833 with the death of the ninth viscount, Thomas FitzWilliam. But Richard FitzWilliam is still remembered in Cambridge for his generosity and in Dublin for his foresight in developing two of the city’s Georgian squares.
FitzWilliam lived mainly in Richmond, London, but he frequently visited his home at Merrion House near Dublin. Merrion Square was laid out by his father in 1762, and in 1791 Richard secured an Act of Parliament to enclose the centre of Merrion Square.
Fitzwilliam Square was designed by Patrick and John Roe in 1789 and was laid out in 1791-1792 as leases and plots were made available by the FitzWilliam estate. An Act to enclose the centre of Fitzwilliam Square was passed in 1813.
When Lord Fitzwilliam issued the leases for his square, he ensured that houses were built in a uniform manner, imposing strict conditions and controls, although the squares had a variety of builders and owners. The leases set the height and number of storeys, the type of windows and the front façade materials, and ensured that the exteriors presented a uniform typical Georgian elevation.
Another FitzWilliam family
Richard FitzWilliam’s family is often confused with the FitzWilliam family that came to Ireland with William FitzWilliam, who was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1571. His descendants came to own 91,800 acres in Ireland, with large estates in Co Wicklow, Co Wexford and Co Kildare, including Shillelagh, a town planned as part of the FitzWilliam estate in the 17th century, and Coolattin House, built as their country seat around 1800.
This second FitzWilliam family rebuilt the Co Wicklow villages of Carnew and Tinahely in the 19th century. Carnew Castle was re-roofed and modernised for the Revd Richard Ponsonby, later Bishop of Derry and brother-in-law of Earl FitzWilliam, when he became the Rector of Carnew in 1813.
A later rector, the Revd Henry Moore, built the high castle wall. But Moore strongly opposed FitzWilliam plans for an interdenominational school in Carnew. Moore took his case to court and won a ruling that allowed him to build a Protestant school on the only site available – the corner of the churchyard. A petulant FitzWilliam was swift to react – he evicted the Rector of Carnew from Carnew Castle.
Despite sharing the same name and similar titles, the two families were not related, and the FitzWilliams of Co Wicklow were descended from a family with origins in Northamptonshire. Yet, when a coat-of-arms was designed for the future Fitzwilliam College in the 1880s, the two families were confused once again.
A Cambridge bequest
When Richard FitzWilliam, Viscount Fitzwilliam, died in 1816, he left his large Irish estates to his first cousin’s son, the 11th Earl of Pembroke. But his large art collection and library went to the University of Cambridge, along with £100,000 to house them. His generosity led to the foundation of the Fitzwilliam Museum, built on lands acquired from Peterhouse and a good starting point for our ‘Fitzwilliam trail’ in Cambridge that afternoon.
Across the street is Fitzbillies, the famous cake shop and bakery in Trumpington Street that is best known for its Chelsea buns. The shop and restaurant ceased trading unexpectedly last year, but were saved this summer by a husband-and-wife team, Tim Hayward and Alison Wright.
Also opposite the museum, Fitzwilliam House stands between the Peterhouse Master’s Lodge and Fitzwilliam Street. The house was built in 1727, and only became a lodging house for undergraduates in 1869. It later became Fitzwilliam Hall in 1874 and then Fitzwilliam House in 1922, taking its name from the museum. In 1960, Fitzwilliam House moved to new premises in Huntingdon Road, and became Fitzwilliam College in 1966.
Nearby, the Fitzwilliam Pharmacy stands on the corner of Trumpington Street and Fitzwilliam Street. The sign over the door says “G. Peck & Son Dispensing Chemists Est. 1851,” but the listed Grade II* building is older, dating from the early 18th century, perhaps even before the young Richard FitzWilliam was an undergraduate at Cambridge.
Fitzwilliam Street runs from the Fitzwilliam Museum to Darwin College. The street marks the northern boundary of the mediaeval Priory of the Gilbertines or White Canons, established around 1307. Charles Darwin, a former student at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and the author of On the Origin of Species (1859), lived at No 22 Fitzwilliam Street in 1836-1837 after his return from the Beagle. Most of the houses on the street are now used for student accommodation.
We walked on through the streets of Cambridge, stopping briefly at Magdalene Bridge or “Mag’s Bridge,” to admire the punts again and to think of the new responsibilities facing Archbishop Rowan Williams at Magdalene College, before pressing on to Fitzwilliam College, our last stop on the Fitzwilliam Trail.
Fitzwilliam House moved in 1960 to this site on Huntingdon Road on land that once belonged to the Darwin family. It is a stark modern building that has been compared to an opulent Middle Eastern palace and described as “a snail’s-shell pattern” and “a riot of sculptural invention.”
I caught a bus back into the centre to visit to the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies at Wesley House, and to visit Sidney Sussex College around the corner in Sidney Street. There was a little time to spend a book token that was a gift after preaching in the chapel in Sidney Sussex earlier this year, before catching the train to Stansted Airport for the last flight to Dublin.
Legacies in Dublin
Merrion Square remains the most extensive piece of Georgian architecture in Dublin. In 1930, the Pembroke Estate leased the square to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, which had plans to build a cathedral in the square. However, the plans never bore fruit; the square was transferred to the city and opened to the public in 1974.
The square’s most-visited monument is a statue of Oscar Wilde, who lived at No 1 from 1855 to 1876. Other resident of Merrion Square include Daniel O’Connell (No 58), Sheridan Le Fanu (No 70), WB Yeats (No 82) and AE (George William Russell, No 84).
Lord FitzWilliam retained the plots of No 4 and No 5 Fitzwilliam Square until his death in 1816. Past residents of the square include Henry Roe, the distiller who underwrote the restoration of Christ Church Cathedral (No 2), William Dargan, founder of the Irish Railways and the National Gallery (also No 2), the artist Jack B Yeats (No 18), Robert Lloyd Praeger, founder of An Taisce (No 19), Mainie Jellett, abstract artist (No 36), the Pym family, including Joshua Pym who twice won the men’s singles at Wimbledon, in 1893 and 1894 (No 50), and Lawrence Edward Knox, the founder of The Irish Times (No 53).
Fitzwilliam Square was the original home of the Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club and the central garden became an international focus during the late 19th century, when the Lawn Tennis Championships of Ireland were first held on the open grass. The garden in the centre of the square has not changed since it was first laid out in 1813, and the pathways, the planted trees and the shrubberies remain intact as they were almost two centuries ago. The large grassed open area is still used for tennis in the summer, and the pathways, the planted trees and the shrubberies remain intact as they were almost two centuries ago.
A 150-year lease expired in 1963, ending a link with the square’s commissioners and the early days of the square. Eventually, the garden was leased to the Fitzwilliam Square Association for another 150 years. But the square remains closed to the public, the gates are padlocked and signs outside warn the curious that this is private property.
Merrion Square celebrated its 250th birthday this year. It seems an appropriate way celebrate the 200th anniversary of Fitzwilliam Square by opening it to the public.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and the photographs were published in the November 2012 edition of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory)