Lord  Edward Digby, Minterne, Dorset (former owner of the Digby Estate, Geashill)  (1924-2018). An appreciation for his kindness and support to Offaly History and Archives, by Mary Delaney with Amanda Pedlow and Lisa Shortall

The death has occurred in Dorset England of Lord Edward Henry Kenelm Digby, 12th Baron Digby on the 1st of April 2018, aged 93. Lord Digby was born 24 July 1924. He was the son of Edward Kenelm Digby, 11th Baron Digby of Geashill and Hon. Constance Pamela Alice Bruce.

He was educated at Eton College, Windsor, Trinity College Dublin, and Oxford University. He also studied at Royal Military College, Sandhurst, Berkshire. He fought in the Second World War and in the Malayan Emergency between 1948 and 1950. He was Aide-de-Camp to the Commander-in-Chief, Far East Land Forces between 1950 and 1951 and Aide-de-Camp to the Commander-in-Chief, British Army of the Rhine between 1951 and 1952. He held the office of Deputy Lieutenant of Dorset between 1957 and 1965. He held the office of Justice of the Peace for Dorset in 1959. He was invested as a Knight, Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (K.St.J.) in 1985. He was invested as a Knight Commander, Royal Victorian Order (K.C.V.O.) in 1998.

He succeeded to the title of 12th Baron Digby of Geashill, King’s County on 29 January 1964 and to the title of 6th Baron Digby of Sherborne.

 

Lady Offaly: ‘I can always get a new husband but I will never get a new castle’.

The Digby family have been connected with Geashill, Co. Offaly, since the sixteenth century. They derived their title to the estate from Lettice Fitzgerald, who was the grand- daughter of the eleventh earl of Kildare. When her grandfather died, being female she could not inherit the earldom. Lettice married Sir Robert Digby of Coleshill in Warwickshire in 1598. Sir Robert had been knighted in 1596 by the earl of Essex in Dublin. He was a member of Parliament and represented Athy from 1613, until his death in 1618, during which time the couple resided at Geashill Castle.

She laid claim to the lands in the barony of Geashill, as heir general. However, dispute arose and although her claim was brought before judges, it was so long in dispute that James I decided to adjudicate in person. In order to settle the difference he created her baroness of Offaly in 1619 and her heirs were granted the manor of Geashill. There were many attempts by local clans such as the O’ Dempseys to besiege her castle. However, it seems that Lettice was a very spirited lady and wasn’t dismayed by such threats. The recently deceased Lord Digby told of one such attempt at getting her to surrender her castle. Her husband Robert was captured and Lord Clanmalier said he would give her back her husband if she gave up the castle. She wrote back and said, ‘I can always get a new husband but I will never get a new castle’. After further attempts to besiege her home at Geashill, Lady Digby returned to Coleshire, where she resided until her death in 1658.

Following her death, her eldest son, Robert Digby inherited the lands at Geashill. The estate continued in the hands of the Digbys right up to the 20th century.

 

Digby estate the largest in King’s County

Their estate was the largest in King’s County. It consisted of the entire barony of Geashill and part of the monastery lands of Killeigh. The barony lay to the west and south of the barony of Philipstown, and to the east of the baronies of Ballycowan and Ballyboy, while to the south, it shared a boundary with Queen’s County. The Digby estate in fact comprised six per cent of the total land area of King’s County.

Under the ownership of the Digby family the estate went through many changes, the most notable was following the death of Edward, eighth Baron and second Earl Digby on the 12 May 1856. It seems he was a very laissez faire landlord, residing in his splendid residence at Sherbourne, and rarely visited Geashill. He granted the tenants long and very generous leases. The eighth Baron died unmarried and so his title died with him. His estate at Geashill passed to his cousin Edward St Vincent Digby. The period which followed saw both the architecture of Geashill village and the topography of the barony transformed from one of poverty to good productive land. Perhaps this was no surprise as the recently deceased Lord Edward pointed out that Edward St. Vincent Digby was the grandson of Thomas Coke of Norfolk, who was noted for his contribution to the agricultural revolution in Britain in the eighteenth century. Like his grandfather, he was interested in renovating the appearance and improving the quality of the estate at Geashill. Such improvements gained both national and indeed international recognition for the Digby family.

 

William Steuart Trench

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The new school in Geashill built in 1862

Vincent St Edward Digby not surprisingly employed the services of William Steuart Trench who was also noted for improving the other estates he managed in both Kenmare and in Monaghan. While the years of Trench’s management of the estate at Geashill was characterised by conflict, conspiracies, threats, evictions and the rise of Ribbonism, it was also very much characterised by advancement and improvement. The period was to prove to be significant in the history of the barony and one that left a lasting imprint on the landscape. The village was practically rebuilt, the old thatched cottages were replaced with stone ones with slated roofs. A new school was built in 1862 and several drainage schemes were implemented to enhance the quality of the land.

In fact much of the present form of what is now Geashill and its surrounding areas, owes its origin to the work carried out under the management of Trench. It seemed that improvements continued to be carried out to the buildings on the Digby estate throughout the 1860s and into the 1870s. In the year 1871 alone, the total spent by Lord Digby on new buildings was £462 and this included the construction of some wooden cottages. However, repairs amounted to £1066.11.11, which included the remodelling of old houses.

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Sketch of Thomas Boucher’s House in 1857
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Sketch of the house after it was improved 1861

The success of such schemes of house building and repairs not only enhanced the appearance of the barony and improved the living conditions of the tenants but it also earned Lord Digby recognition both at home and abroad. His schemes proved so successful that the Digby estate won the gold medal offered by the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland for the best labourers’ cottages in the province of Leinster. The estate also boasted of holding the Duke of Leinster challenge cup for the best labourers’ cottages in Ireland for three successive years. He was also successful at an international level when in 1867 he was awarded, a bronze medal for cottages at the Paris Exhibition.

It seems that the Digby family took a great interest in improvements. For example when the new school was built they made very generous donations and gave gifts to the school, as is evident from the many letters written from the staff to Lady Digby. One such letter was written by a Michael Mulpeter dated August 1870, thanking her for her generous gift of a book. David Gorry wrote to Lord Digby thanking him for the improvements to his home. In the correspondence he acknowledged the receipt of money received from Lord Digby to carry out such improvements and expressed a desire for the landlord to visit and see the improvements for himself.

 

Reginald Digby from 1871 to 1921 and the sale of the estate to the tenants

In a gradual process between December 1871 and January 1872, Reginald Digby, Lord Digby’s nephew, replaced the Trenches as land agent in Geashill. The Land Commission was set up in 1881 and by 1903 the lands of Lord Digby were sold among the tenants. Geashill Manor, which was home to successive landlords and agents, was gutted by Republican forces during the civil war in August, 1922. However, Lord Edward Digby continued to own some land in the area up to the 1980s.

While absentee for the most part, successive members of the Digby family took a great interest in their Irish property and visited the estate regularly. This was very much the case with the most recent Lord Edward Digby who up to recent years visited Geashill. He was extremely proud of his Irish ancestors and passionate about the archival material on the Geashill estate which is held in private collection at his home in Minterne Magma, Dorset. The collections include beautifully illustrated, handwritten reports, sent on an annual basis from the agent to the then Lord Digby. There are also many sketches of both the landscape and dwellings both before and after they had been improved as well as many letters written by the people of Geashill to his ancestors acknowledging improvements carried out.

 

Digitising of estate accounts, 1851-71

The people of Offaly are indebted to him for facilitating the digitisation of the records on the estate in Geashill between 1857 and 1871. These records are now available on the Offaly Archives website and are an invaluable primary source, not only for those studying local history but also for historians studying the mid-Victorian period in Ireland.

On a personal note I am greatly saddened to learn of the passing of the late Lord Digby, who had welcomed me into his own home on a number of occasions and eagerly gave me access to his family records on the Digby Estate in Geashill. He ignited and kindled my interest in his family’s involvement with the land and people of Offaly over many decades and was instrumental in my research on the history of the estate and in particular the period 1857-1872. He spoke with great warmth and affection about his many visits to Geashill and constantly inquired as to the condition of the trees he planted in Clonad Wood, the last plot of land owned by his family in Co. Offaly until recent years.

In his later life Lord Digby was devoted to running his estate at Minterne which he inherited in 1964 and was involved in converting part of his 69-room Minterne House, while enjoying the splendid gardens of his estate. In his Obituary recently in the Telegraph it was said that :

At harvest time he could be found driving the combine, although he admitted preferring farm machinery when it broke down because that was when it became “interesting”.( The Daily  Telegraph 22 April 2018 )

I would like to extend my sincere sympathy to his wife, Lady Dione Digby, his sons the Hon. Henry and Hon. Rupert Digby and his daughter the Hon. Zara  Digby.

May he rest in peace.

Mary Delaney

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The cover from one of the annual reports held in private collection at Minterne, and now available www.offalyarchives.ie.

Amanda Pedlow:

In 2013 I made contact with Lord Digby and travelled to Minterne, Dorset to meet him and his archivist Mrs Ann Smith to discuss the records he held that related to the estate in Offaly. He was very aware of the importance of the archive and making it available on line. He was 88 years old at the time but discussed the merits of file size and jpegs and tiffs far more comfortably than I did. He showed me the wonderful collection and the house while I was there and he could not have been more helpful. However, it was after I left that he did the most work helping us with the project – ferrying batches of the bound annual reports in and out of the Dorset History Centre where they digitised them page after page. The sharing of these documents was generous and has been much appreciated by those who have been able to use them since and they offer up the potential for many more years of research projects.  The originals are still held in Minterne but they are available to anyone with an internet connection worldwide now thanks to the partnership with Offaly History and the development of www.offalyarchives.ie.

 

Lisa Shortall:

Not so long ago, historians and other researchers were quite used to having to track down and ferret out original manuscripts, sometimes travelling great distances to do so. Online archival catalogues in conjunction with high quality digitisation has revolutionised access to primary sources, and consequently has permanently changed the research landscape. When Offaly History Archives was first established in 2016 to catalogue the holdings of the Society, it quickly became apparent that some of Offaly’s  manuscript collections were dispersed and either held by various repositories or in private hands. For example, Offaly History holds the Geashill Estate Papers which were transferred by former agents Goodbody Kennedy solicitors with the consent of Lord Digby in the 1980s. They are currently being catalogued and will be available to researchers when this process is complete. Meanwhile, researchers such as Mary Delaney travelled over to Dorset to see a related set of records, the Irish records of the Digby estate, with the co-operation and generosity of Lord Digby.  Many years later in 2013, Amanda Pedlow  arranged for these records to be digitised as described above but had no method of releasing the images to researchers.

With new technologies coming on stream such as Atom cataloguing software, it was possible to publish catalogues and digital objects online from various respositories on a single platform. We could see that to virtually link the Geashill Estate Papers and the digitised rental volumes from Dorset on one website would create a rich local history resource, especially since the originals material will remain in Dorset. We launched the online catalogue in August 2016 with the first tranche of 1000 digital objects, all of which are catalogued, arranged and searchable by keyword, or more specific access points like townlands or named persons (authority records). By November of 2016 over 3000 images had been uploaded to the site and are regularly accessed by researchers, students, family historians and more.

Without Lord Digby’s generous co-operation, our first foray into online archives cataloguing might have been a far more modest offering. To have had permission to host such a quantity of digitised manuscript material of local interest was a great start and it has grown from strength to strength since then.

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.

 

 

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