Sanders and Christie: two gentlemen of Birr in 1900: a disputed county surveyor’s will worth £30,000. By Michael Byrne

When Richard B. Sanders, the county surveyor (today a county engineer) for King’s County,  died in Cumberland Square, Birr in 1900 he left an estate of the value of £30,000. This would have been enough to build 300 council ‘cottages’ in those days when smaller houses such as those of in Cappaneale, Birr and Davitt Street, Tullamore could be built for £100 each. Sanders was an Antrim man and was born in 1845. He had involved another Birr resident, also from Antrim, the solicitor Archibald Christie, in the making of his will. Albeit in the worst possible way by asking him to be a witness but without having given him any instructions. Both were neighbours in Cumberland Square (as it then was, now Emmet Square). Both of them would have been under the watchful eye of John Wright, the editor of the King’s County Chronicle and resident of Cumberland House. Nearby was the Ormond Club of which we can assume both Christie and Sanders were members and perhaps also of the Birr Masons, then going strong.

Sander’s was educated at Queen’s Belfast and qualified in 1866. After doing private work in the north of Ireland he was appointed as surveyor of King’s County in 1874 (county engineer nowadays). In 1883 he contributed a paper to the Institute of Civil Engineers of Ireland on the damage being done to the public roads by steam engines and their carriages. He followed this with a paper in 1893 on the grand jury system and local government and in 1898 on the management and maintenance of public roads. In 1899 the new county councils were established which cannot have much pleased him given that to men like John Powell, editor of the Midland Tribune it marked the end of the Ascendancy’s control over local government. Sanders died suddenly on 13 February 1900. The late Brendan O’Donoghue in his book on the county surveyors of Ireland noted the obituary for Sanders in Wright’s King’s County Chronicle where it was reported that:

the late surveyor ‘was never very robust but very abstemious and careful in regards to his eatables at all times and systematic in open air exercise’ (he was, in fact, one of the surveyors who travelled by bicycle on his inspection visits around the county). It added that “there never breathed a more conscientious official”, a man who rigidly enforced the road contractors’ obligations, guided by his own sense of what was right and proper and who was ‘careless as to whom he might give umbrage’. Sanders was unmarried and lived in lodgings at Cumberland Square, Birr, where he also carried on a private practice involving engineering work of various kinds.

Cumberland Square, Birr with the Sylvester lodging house centre, c. 1902.

Sander’s left an estate valued at the considerable sum of £30,000 in 1900 and the disputed will case was heard in the Dublin High Court in July 1900 before Mr Justice Kenny. It was reported that: The deceased, lived in Birr, was a bachelor, and his next-of-kin were two aunts, Mrs Atkinson and Mrs Russell.  Mrs Atkinson disputed the will.  The deceased was a man of education and methodical habits, and after his death search was made for the will in the usual receptacles where it was supposed he kept his documents, but it could not be found.  On further examination, however, a will was discovered in an open handbag on a lounge in the sitting room.  The document which appeared to be altogether in the handwriting of the deceased was of considerable length and bore upon its face a number of interlineations and alterations, not of any considerable consequence.  Each of its pages was signed by the deceased on the margin, and on the seventh and last page appeared the name of deceased and the names of two witnesses, Mr A. Christie, solicitor, Parsonstown, and Mr A. Annesley Woods, who described himself as a medical student, who had since become a physician, and was now practising in England.  The attestation clause was imperfect.  It consisted of these words- “This document consisting of seven pages, each signed,” and then in another line, “In presence of one another.”  The will having been placed in the hands of Messrs Crawford and Lockhart, solicitors, they communicated with the two witnesses, neither of whom appeared at first to have the least recollection of the circumstance.  Subsequently, however, Dr Woods when shown the will said he remembered having signed a document for the deceased, he believed in the writing room of the club at Parsonstown (Birr officially from 1900) to which the deceased was in the habit of resorting every morning to see the newspapers, but he had no recollection of Mr Christie or any or any other person being present.  His recollection, he said, was being hazy about the matter.  Mr Christie, on being applied to, appeared to have an equally imperfect recollection.  Both witnesses deposed the signatures were theirs, but neither of them recollect the circumstances, and Mr Christie was under the impression that he had never signed the will for the deceased in the writing room of the Club or anywhere except in the deceased’s own parlour in Parsonstown.  On this state of facts the will came into court before Mr Justice Kenny without a jury, and Mr Christie, Dr  Woods, Mr Henry Browne, assistant County Surveyor (who testified the will was entirely in the handwriting of the deceased), and Mr Crawford were examined.  It was contended by the defendant that there was no proof whatever to satisfy the Court the will was executed in the presence of the two witnesses, or that they signed it at the same time in the presence of the deceased, and that, therefore, probate should not be granted.  Judge Kenny held that, having regard to the fact that the deceased manifestly intended the document to be his will, that he was a gentleman of education and intelligence, and that he had attached to the will, in his own handwriting a clause which stated “in presence of one another,” the Court would presume that the document was properly executed, and, therefore, his lordship decreed probate.  But with regard to the interlineations and alterations, as there was no evidence, one way or the other, as to whether they were made before or after execution, his lordship held that the probate should be granted as the will originally stood without the alterations or interlineations.  He gave both parties their costs out of the assets.

Had the judge not given effect to the will all the charities named would have missed out on the legacies. Sanders had given his aunt Mrs Russell £300 a year out of his estate and when she died the Trust fund was to be wound up and the capital to go to Dr Barnardo’s Homes. He did not forget his Birr landlord to whom he gave £20 and a servant in the lodging house £3.  Perhaps he stayed in Mrs Sylvester’s in Cumberland Square, the same house as that of his solicitor witness Archie Christie.

The Sylvester home demolished c. 1902. Morrison’s shop to the right.

Cumberland Sq, Birr with the new post office of 1903 and the Ormond Club to the left. This picture was post 1915 as the Cumberland statue had been removed.

Who was Archie Christie?

Christie came to Birr in the early 1890s and worked in the Birr firm of Messrs Adam Mitchell until 1903 and thereafter practised on his own account until his death in 1921. Archie Christie was aged 35 in 1901 and not married from Co. Antrim. He was living in a lodging house owned by Mary Sylvester in Cumberland Square, Birr – probably on the site of the new post office of 1903. In 1911 he was 46 and still single living in rooms in the house of Mrs Esther Duggan in Oxmantown Mall. He married on 18 April 1911 Miss Frances Helen Millicent Synge, eldest daughter of Sir Francis Synge, Bart., and Lady Synge, Syngefield, Birr and they had at least one son. Another of the Synge girls had married James D. Mitchell, Christie’s old employer in the Birr firm of that name.

The three Synge girls lost their mother two months later with the unexpected death of Lady Synge. She was buried at Clonoghill and not in the Synge mausoleum in the old churchyard in Birr. She had died in her 58th year and so too did Archie Christie in early 1921. It was a bad time to die in Birr if you wanted a decent obituary. John Wright died in 1915 and his son, another Archie, was not so keen on journalism although he held the Chronicle until 1948 when it was sold to J.I. Fanning of the Midland Tribune. The War of Independence was in progress and things were not in Birr as they had been up to 1914 when the Great War started and caused so much death and misery, especially in the bigger houses around Birr and south Offaly. Both Archie Christie and his wife were keen golfers and Mrs Christie continued to enjoy the fairway for many years to come. Christie had been captain in 1919.

Had Archie Christie of Birr lived for another five years he would have seen the furore caused by the disappearance of one Agatha Christie in 1926 for ten days and the questioning of a certain Colonel Archie Christie on suspicion of foul play. In murder mystery fashion the famous crime novelist was told by her husband Archie that he wanted a divorce. Her response was to check into  a hotel under the name of the woman her husband was soon to marry. All a long way from the Archie Christie, solicitor, Birr. And yet Agatha Christie would have had some material from Cumberland Square with its lodging houses, club, hotel and a will found in bag with various amendments.

This article was first published in the Birr Year Review 2022. We have a few copies for sale and almost a full set since 2001 in Offaly History Centre Library.