A History of Colebrooke

[Article in “Country Life” magazine]

A sprawling barracks* of a country house, in the heart of terrorist-torn Northern Ireland, encumbered with death duties and overdraft, is an unenviable inheritance. Particularly when, abandoned to patching, the fabric has begun to rot; the extensive stables and outbuildings are in ruins; the Victorian wallpaper is peeling from the walls of rooms empty from a house sale seven years earlier. Income from the beautiful – but agriculturally poor – 1,100 acre estate cannot conceivably support the maintenance, let alone restoration, of the house.
[* Someone else’s description – not ours!]This was the situation that confronted Lord Brookeborough and his wife in 1980. The Brookes are a fairly typical Anglo-Irish ‘plantation’ family. They arrived in the 1590’s and were granted a large portion of confiscated lands at Brookeborough as reward for services during the 1641 Rebellion (the name Colebrooke derives from the 17th century marriage of Maj Thomas Brooke to Catharine Cole). Thereafter they displayed a record of competent – often enlightened – land-holding, combined with remarkable honours for military and public service (the family includes both Field Marsh Viscount Alanbrooke and a Prime Minister of Northern Ireland).

The present house was built in 1820 by Henry Brooke (1770 – 1834), created baronet (2nd creation) in 1822, as the culmination of some three decades of frugal living aimed at restoring the fortunes of the estate after the excesses of his uncle. In common with Irish building tradition, the new house, a severe neo-Classical block, subsumed an earlier building of unknown appearance. In his ‘Specification of works’ of 1820, William Farrell – a Dublin architect who practised mainly in Ulster – wrote ‘All the old house except the present Drawing Room and Dining Parlour (the present south range) to be taken down.’ In its place, Farrell attached two ranges of red sandstone (quarried at Alterbrock on the estate and by 1835 covered with Roman cement) containing a palatial entrance hall, stone staircase, reception rooms and bedrooms. This switched the main front from south to east, leaving an untidy arrangement of windows on the south-east corner where the new two-storey building met, under the same roof, the three storeys of what remained of the old. The only ornament to this austere addition was an ashlar cornice and a free-standing giant Greek-Ionic pedimented portico, on a base of two steps, in front of the central three bays. The cost was £10,381.

Despite the sandstone in place of Portland stone, the shallow, eaved roof and lack of balustrade, the resemblance of the main front to neighbouring Castlecoole, Wyatt’s neo-Classical masterpiece is striking. This is no accident. A drawing in the Brookeborough papers held by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, reveals that Farrell discarded a more modest, and in many ways more appropriate design – the central three bays broken forward with an attached Ionic porch – for a direct quote of the Castlecoole portico. In a note to Henry Brooke of May 23, 1821, he approves an increase in the dimensions of the house, apparently with the sole purpose of eclipsing those of its illustrious neighbour, commenting that these changes would make the new ensemble ‘far superior to any in Castle Cool House’.

Other notes reveal ideas of increasing grandeur through the summer. First, the dining parlour was extended from the original measurements; then in September, the rooms to the left of the hall were altered ‘by taking down the partition wall and the floor over it to form a Room for a library of 36ft by 18ft …’ (In earlier plans and elevations the library is a modest, two-bay room between the drawing room and the dining parlour in the north range; this now became a breakfast room – currently the billiard room.) In 1823 additional offices were also agreed.

For the next 50 years, alterations and additions continued in a steady stream – the dower house, Ashbrooke (a plaque in the stableyard is dated 1830); lodges (a plan is dated 1833); a triumphal arch gate. These became most significant with the succession of Sir Victor (1843-91), 3rd Bt, in 1864. ‘Few houses in Britain showed more distinctly their owner’s proclivities,’ wrote Oscar Stephen in Sir Victor Brooke, Sportsman and Naturalist (1894). ‘From floor to ceiling, heads of every variety were to be seen; … bison, wild boar, moufflon, Neilgherry ibex, Pyrenean bouquetin … every known variety of red deer … markor, brahsing, ovis ammon, burrel … a grand series of roe’s heads … over the chimney piece in the hall the huge horns of an Irish elk and two enormous German red deer … two of the tigers he had killed in India … the famous black panther, and, most valued of all, the monster tusk of the great elephant, whose mighty bones … lay in mighty massiveness round the foot of the billiard table.’ It was a taste in interior decoration which prompted Lord Craigavon, first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, to christen the dining room ‘Golgotha’.

Given that he occupied Colebrooke permanently for only seven years – thereafter paying visits only in the summer and autumn, after the delicate health of his wife prompted a move to Pau in the south of France – Sir Victor’s legacy was considerable. He introduced sika deer into the park and built the splendid ‘Conservatory with the curved projection’, mentioned in an account of October 1864 from the celebrated William Turner of Dublin. Presumably it was Sir Victor, also, who commissioned the unexecuted colour-washed designs (signed C.W.W.), for panelling the library and dining room, which have Classical and hunting themes and the Classical stained-glass window over the stone stairs.

By the 1876 return of Landowners in Ireland, the estate was almost 28,000 acres, the third largest in the county – only slightly smaller than Crom or Florence Court. However, there was a sharp change in fortunes when all but 1,300 acres were sold under the Ashbourne and subsequent Land Acts, leaving, as with so many Irish houses, a ‘demesne’ scarcely able to support a large country house. This development, combined with the agricultural depression of the 1880s which left most of the gentry even worse off than they had been in the years following the Famine, suggests that when the 4th Bt, Sir Douglas Brooke, had the ‘house and demesne’ valued in 1893 (for £22.035 6s 3d) it was with a view to selling the whole property.

By 1910 Sir Basil Brooke (1888 – 1973), 5th Bt, (Prime Minister of Northern Ireland 1943 – 63), who from childhood had nursed a powerful affection for the house – as a pupil at Winchester he wrote of it as ‘always tugging at my heart’ – was writing of his desire ‘to get it on its legs’. By the time of his return after the war, high taxation had eaten into the depleted income of the neglected property. Farm profits were low and the long-term trend of food prices was down. However, by reclamation and innovation over the decades the estate became a model of efficient farming. Changes to the house included repainting, removing the cement render, demolishing the conservatory and creating a sunken formal garden on the south front.

In the early 1930’s a Minister of Agriculture official described the house as ‘comfortable but with many rooms unused’. By December 1939, Sir Basil’s letters reveal the felling of trees as ‘the only way to save Colebrooke’ and clear the overdraft. All might have been well, however, had some tax planning been made before Lord Brookeborough (as he was from 1952) died in 1973. As it was there was no alternative but to sell up, leaving the house in the condition in which the present Lord Brookeborough found it in 1980.

The question was whether a house in such a state could ever again be made to support itself, let alone remain a home. The London-based architect Paul Hyett was called in to help arrange a feasibility study and devise ways of raising capital. For a time, conversion to a golf club looked the only possibility, although it was realised that the character of the house and its setting would be unlikely to survive such a change.

Fortunately, by 1985 Lord Brookeborough’s business idea had begun to take off. The Colebrooke estate offers one of the best driven snipe-shooting anywhere, excellent stalking of sika, fallow and red deer over 10,000 acres and pheasant shooting and fishing, all of which had the potential to be developed along the one guiding principal; that all these activities must bring paying guests into the house. As the idea developed, hope returned, especially when the Northern Ireland Tourist Board agreed to provide up to 50% of the necessary capital.

Problems, however, were not long in surfacing. Government grants, geared to the provision of commercial accommodation, tended to insist on features hardly compatible with the preservation of the fragile character of a historic house; from en suite facilities to numbers on bedroom doors. Planning permission for such a change of use also triggered an avalanche of fire provisions. Although at times the differences between the parties seemed irreconcilable a spirit of compromise won through. Bedrooms were permitted with designated rather than en suite bathrooms with the ample recompense to visitors today of splendid airy proportions and traditional full-length, cast-iron baths with ball plugs. Fire signs were accepted. Numbers on doors were not.

Having addressed the major structural problems, and prepared four new bedrooms and bathrooms in the south wing, in addition to the principal bedrooms in the main front, Lord Brookeborough, guided by the conviction that just three ingredients are critical to happy apres-hunting: food, comfortable beds and never ending supplies of hot water, put this equation to work. For the rest, the main difficulty was refurbishing – on a shoestring – the vast, bare reception rooms. A friend who had bought one of the original gilt drawing room looking-glasses donated it. Marble busts of Sir Victor Brooke and his wife, by a local artist, Joseph Watkins, were retrieved from a Dublin antique shop.

There are no private or public parts of the house. Visitors stay not in a hotel, but in a private house as guests – albeit paying ones – of the owners. By enterprise, imagination and hard work the Brookeboroughs have not only saved a landscape and a historic house, but have also created a home.