In June of 1857, William Steuart Trench and his son, Thomas Weldon Trench, set off in a horse and cart from Tullamore, King’s County and spent three weeks surveying the near 31,000 acre estate of Edward St Vincent Digby, 9th Baron Digby. Lord Digby, resident in Dorset, had appointed W.S. Trench as land agent on his Geashill estate with a view to improving its financial viability. Trench had a great reputation as an ‘improving’ land agent and also worked for the Shirley and Bath estates in Monaghan and the Lansdowne estate in Kerry. To ease his workload, and much the same as employing his other son, John Townsend Trench as agent in Kenmare, W.S. appointed Thomas as resident agent in Geashill, living as all Lord Digby’s agents before and after had lived, in Geashill Castle.
Between 1857 and 1872, the Trenchs transformed Digby’s landholding from a large, boggy and uncultivated midlands estate into a well-ordered and agriculturally productive estate with tidy and well-kept villages, the design of the latter winning numerous awards from the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland. This was a huge achievement and certainly an improvement on housing conditions for the tenantry but the methods employed by the Trenchs to achieve their aims were controversial to say the least and the folk-memory of the Trenchs as tyrants persists to the present day. Large clearances of squatters from their ‘mud-hovels’ took place, leases were cancelled and rearranged, small holdings were merged into larger, more productive holdings, less productive tenants were encouraged to emigrate where possible and agitators were forcefully ejected.
Trench placed most of the blame for trouble on the estate on Ribbonmen, a secret society of agrarian agitators, who he claimed were responsible for numerous outrages in and around Geashill and also for the attempted assassination of his son, Thomas, which compelled him to travel around the estate accompanied by armed guards. The Cross Keys public house on the outskirts of Geashill village was the meeting place for the Ribbonmen. In 1860, Trench installed a spy in the form of a barmaid, originally Mary Shea from the Kenmare estate who owed him a favour, and soon he had the names of the chief conspirators: Loughlin Kelly (Ballina), Henry Bryan (Cross Keys public house), John Clibborn (Clonmore), John Helian (Killurin), Darby Flanagan (Pigeonhouse), John Whelaghan (Newtown), Patrick Larkin (Colehill) and William Grumley (Dalgan). Within months he had broken up the merry band of trouble makers and forced some to emigrate and others to leave the estate voluntarily. By the mid 1860s, the estate was financially viable, rents were up and according to Trench, the tenantry were peaceful and satisfied with their improved living conditions. In 1870, Thomas resigned as resident agent and William Steuart appointed Reginald Digby, nephew of Lord Digby, as the new resident agent. When William Steuart died in 1872, Reginald Digby became the sole agent on the Geashill estate.
Drawing of secret hand signals of Ribbonmen from the annual report of 1860.
W.S. Trench was also an author and his reminiscences of his time on the Geashill estate are recounted in a chapter in the third edition of his book Realities of Irish Life. This is a heavily sanitised and self-serving version of events on the estate. A much fuller account by Trench, but by no means less self-congratulatory, appears in the annual reports which he compiled and sent to Lord Digby in Dorset. These annual reports and rentals, which extend past Trench’s agency and into the 1960s, are still extant and until now, researchers accessed them in Minterne through the kind hospitality of the current Lord Digby. For example, Mary Delany’s recent volume William Steuart Trench and his management of the Digby estate, King’s County, 1857-71 draws heavily on these reports and demonstrates their usefulness as a primary source for local history. In 2013, Offaly County Council’s Heritage Office arranged for the digitisation of these annual reports and OHAS, in conjunction with the Heritage Office, now hosts the images on our new online catalogue www.offalyhistoryarchives.com. The first set of reports comprising over 1000 digital images, reveal the story of the Trenchs’ transformation of Geashill and the surrounding estate between the years 1857 and 1872. Offaly Heritage Office and Offaly History Archives would like to acknowledge the support of the Heritage Council in funding the scanning of the original material in Dorset and also towards the continuing archive work in Offaly History.
The Trench reports follow a particular pattern. They commence with a general narrative of events of the previous 12 months with details given on any political disturbances or outrages. They provide great detail on the drainage schemes imposed on marshy wetlands between Tullamore and Geashill and also the design and rebuilding of Geashill, Killeigh and Ballinagar villages over a number of years. Pioneering agricultural methods are discussed as well as reports on forestry and new woodland plantations. The bulk of the report is given to financial analysis on income and expenditure for the previous 12 months as well as a detailed rental account. The rental lists are invaluable for family history as they contain the names and addresses of all listed tenants on the estate.
To access the reports simply go to the online catalogue and click on the ‘Collections’ link in the top left-hand corner. This will give you a list of available collections. Click on ‘Digby Irish Estates’ to access the images from the reports which have been organised according to year, and then by page number. You may view the reports in several ways. If you want to read them sequentially, you will see the list of 16 reports in a column on the left hand side. Each page can be accessed individually and, usefully, Trench hand-numbered all pages and provided a contents list, so it is relatively easy to locate where rentals begin in each volume. Alternatively, you can search for a townland or a name in the search box to see if it brings up a result. For family history research, it will be necessary to read through each page of the rentals to locate family names. These are grouped by townland so it is straightforward to locate a person if the townland is known.
Also available online in conjunction with these reports, are two volumes of watercolours compiled by Trench, depicting tenants’ cottages in various parts of the estate before they were improved and also after the rebuild. The first volume dates from 1860/1861 shows dramatic improvements in tenants’ housing, from dark and tumbledown ‘hovels’ to bright and clean labourers’ cottages. The second volume illustrates the installation of new windows and doors in 1865 in various cottages in Geashill and the building of the distinctive horse-shoe shaped forges, some of which can still be seen today. The drawings themselves may be by his second son, John Townsend Trench, an accomplished artist. He illustrated many of the early annual reports sent to Lord Digby.
Delaney, M., William Steuart Trench and his management of the Digby estate, King’s County, 1857-71, Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2012
Lyne, G.J., The Lansdowne Estate in Kerry under W. S. Trench 1849-72, Geography Publications: Dublin, 2001
Harrison, J., ‘From King’s County to “Quinnsland” in Nolan, W. and O’Neill, T. P. (eds), Offaly History and Society: interdisciplinary essays on the history of an Irish county, Geography Publications: Dublin, 1998
Pilkington, M., ‘The campaign for rent reductions on the Digby estate, King’s County, 1879-1882, in Offaly Heritage Vol 5, 2008
Trench, W.S., Realities of Irish Life, London, 1869