How many of you know of the hidden gem on your doorstep? We speak of Newtownabbey’s oldest building “The White House”. The White House Preservation Trust has recently embarked on the restoration of this old property. As part of the restoration process, an archaeological excavation has taken place, not just of the building but of part of the surrounding land. As a result of this excavation we hope to develop a more detailed history of the White House. The following history has been researched using the material currently available to us.
The White House stands on the foreshore of Belfast Lough and is generally recognised as one of Ireland's oldest and most important buildings. It is first shown on a map of 1569-70 entitled "Cragfergus Baie" the original name for Belfast Lough. This chart shows only four identifiable buildings along the western side as Carrickfergus Castle, Castle Lugg (only the ruins of which still remain), The White House and Belfast Castle, which stood at Castle Junction in High Street until it was completely destroyed by fire in 1702.
The ancient Ballyrintollard is now called Whitehouse and was so named from a little castle which was erected to serve as part of a chain of communications between Carrickfergus and the Ford at Belfast (1). Later Clarke refers to it as Ballyrenengetollard, which means,”The town of the pinnacle of the high front,” and consisted of 366 acres (2). The castle mentioned had a limestone rendering which made it a navigation marker for ships coming up the Lough. It is first shown on a map of 1569, at which time "Cragfergus Baie", the original name for Belfast Lough, was used (3). The Trust has been unable to trace this map but an article entitled “Belfast Lough in the Days of Elizabeth” by Colin Johnston Robb in the Belfast Telegraph on 24th March 1949 states: ‘Among the contents of the library of Mulroy House, Carrigart, Co. Donegal, the seat of Lord Leitrim, sold over twenty years ago, was this folio of maps’. It is subscribed “Christopher Saxton after Michael Fitzwilliams, 1569”, It is believed to be the original copy of a map now in the Public Records Office in London known as MPF77, although the map in London is anonymous and undated. Robb, who from the article one would believe saw the original map, gives an account of the map’s topography and states “The small castles of Greencastle and Whitehouse are indicated along the shore line and the Castle of Carrickfergus”.
At the time of writing his article, Robb had hoped that the map would be presented by the private collector to the Public Records Office, but sadly this seems not to have happened and it is possibly hidden in an attic somewhere awaiting rediscovery. Christopher Sexton is described in the records as being “servant to Thomas Seckford” who was master of the requests to Queen Elizabeth. By a license dated July 22nd 1577, Sexton was appointed official surveyor to make maps of England and Wales, so that by that date he must have been considered the first cartographer in the land.. “Michael Fitzwilliams was Surveyor General of Lands, Plantations and Mines on the Irish Establishment from 1552 to 1573” (Robb, C. J. 1949). Robb states that the topography of the area makes very interesting reading, in that it mentions places still familiar to us over 400 years later, like Friar’s Bush, Cromac, Drumcairn, Fortwilliam, Benmadiane (Cavehill) and Kernemoney (Carnmoney). The finding of this map was also noted in a posthumously published article by Edward Lynam who was Superintendent of the Map Room at the British Museum, but his findings seem to be based on details provided in the Robb article. Sadly both men have passed away and The Trust can find no further trace of the map.
In a ‘noate’ made in 1574 of “seates for the placying of the gentlemen adventures, for their principal dwellyings”, it is stated that beneath the cave, there are two little pyles, Mr Barkley and Mr Brunker, distant four miles from Cragfergus (4). “Pyles” is an English term for stone houses. These were the old castles of Greencastle and The White House. Brunker of The White House was a soldier who had seen hard service under Earl Essex and Perrott, but he was not able to keep hold of his little Pyle, which thirty years afterwards was included in the immense territory granted to Sir Arthur Chichester (5). Brunker received special thanks from the Queen and in the 1585 parliament represented Antrim.
Late in Elizabeth’s reign, there was a major rising in Ulster led by O’Neill and O’Donnell. When they were defeated, much of the land was confiscated and the new King James I sent Sir Arthur Chichester to assess the situation. He recommended that new loyal settlers be brought from England and Scotland as many had already come to Antrim and Down. They were to build fortified bawns like the White House. Soldiers who had served in Ireland were given land on generous terms as were Scottish landlords who would bring settlers with them to start a new life. Chichester himself received a great area of land including The White House. The land behind it on the slopes of the Cave Hill became his hunting estate (6).
Sir Arthur’s third wife was Letitia, daughter of Sir William Hicks of Knockholt, Essex. They were married at St Bartholomew the Less Church in London on 13th August 1651. Sir Arthur died on the 18th March 1675 at the old Belfast Castle and was buried in St Nicholas Parish Church in Carrickfergus. Letitia later married Sir William Franklin of Maverne, Bedfordshire. These people are mentioned later by Peter Beresford Ellis as owning the White House at the time of King William’s visit (7). When Letitia died she was buried in a vault in the Henry VII’s Chapel (now the RAF Chapel) in Westminster Abbey. She was buried here on 15th May 1691 and the inscription reads “Letitia, Dowager of Arthur Chichester, the first Earl of Donegal 1691”.The map also raises the possibility that although they were given to them in 1574 perhaps Mr. Barkley and Mr. Brunker were not the first tenants and these old buildings were, or in the case of The White House, is, probably much older than imagined.
In 1636, the building was occupied by a
merchant named Thomas Boyde, (8), a friend of Captain Blood,
who may have given him shelter after his attempt to steal
the Crown Jewels, and The Greencastle was occupied by
In 1649 The White House was occupied by George Martin, then Sovereign of Belfast (9). Martin was a merchant of Belfast and was made a burgess in 1645. He was the first non conformist sovereign of Belfast and was great-great grandfather of Henry Joy McCracken. He refused to aid in billeting the parliamentary troops and his house in Belfast was looted. He retired to his country house at Whitehouse and shortly after fled to Scotland(10).
By 1666 Hercules Davis is recorded as having paid taxes on four hearths.
1690 was to see the building’s most famous visitor, when William of Orange landed at Carrickfergus on the 14th June 1690. William’s army landed at the ancient quay near the White House and William rode from Carrickfergus where he met with General Schomberg and other people of note. Of course the Battle which followed William’s visit at the Boyne was to change the course of European history and will be one of the stories told when the building is refurbished.
William’s arrival in Ireland had been preceded the previous year by General Schomberg who, accompanied by approximately 10,000 troops, landed at Groomsport, (or Bangor, depending on which source you believe), on 13th August, 1689 and marched through Belfast towards Carrickfergus to oppose a garrison of about 1,000 who had captured the castle on behalf of King James II. Antrim was captured on 16th August, without opposition, by a force of about 300 men and on 20th August, Schomberg arrived in Carrickfergus.
A clear account of the siege which
followed was written at the time by George Story, one of the
chaplains in his army and afterwards Dean of Conor and
Rector of Carrickfergus. This is contained within Clarke’s
publication (11). He informs us that
“The garrison, which consisted of two regiments of foot, defended itself bravely. For eight days Schomberg pressed the attack and when a great breach was made in the wall, the Irish troops surrendered. The English lost about 150 men and 60 wounded, with the Irish casualties amounting to about 150. The garrison was allowed to march out armed with colours flying and was guaranteed a safe conduct to Newry. Unfortunately for Schomberg, he found it impossible to keep his promise. The southern troops left the town with a regiment of Dutch proceeding them and with a party of horse appointed for their rearguard, but as they marched towards Belfast the whole countryside rose up to demonstrate against them. Remembering their wrongs and sufferings of previous months, men and woman broke into the Irish ranks, tore arms from the troops and roughly handled the soldiers’ wives. So rude were the Irish Scots that the Duke was forced to ride among them with his pistol in hand to keep the Irish from being murdered. The country fell on them and took their arms. In Belfast, women tore the clothes of the backs of the soldiers’ wives, stripping some of them naked. We did suppose that by the time they passed Lisburn they would have nothing left but their lives”.
Another source, which is contained in the
Society of Friends (Dublin) documents in the Public Record
Office of Northern Ireland (12) and is contained in George
Benn’s History of Belfast, quotes from the following:
“An exact account of His Majesty’s (William III) progress from his first landing in Ireland to his arrival in Hillsborough, London 1690”. Sadly the author is unknown. It reads as follows:
“Belfast June 16th 1690. The general (Schomberg)
expecting the King’s landing, came here on Friday afternoon
and sent men to all adjacent coasts to watch, and at nine
o’clock that night the post boy from Donaghadee brought
advice that the King had passed. On Saturday about three
o’clock in the afternoon the general received advice that
the King was come into the Lough, and thereupon in his coach
and set of small (Barbary) horses posted away to meet the
King at Carrickfergus. The King immediately after landing
mounted his horse and rode through the streets of the town,
where almost numberless crowds received him with continuous
shouts and acclamations until The White House where he met
the general’s carriage at 4 o’clock. He was pleased then to
dismount and enter the coach which attended by one troop of
horse rode over the strand to Belfast.”
It later continues:
“As the King was driving over the strand another coach of the generals met him, which his Grace called to and ordered to be driven straight forward to White House to receive such persons of quality as they should find landing.”
The same source reports:
“ The Lough between this and Carrickfergus seems like a wood, there being no less than 700 stand of ships in it, mostly laden with provisions and ammunition, so that now we fear no more Dundalk wants. The plenty and order of all things here is most wonderful and scarcely credible to those who witness it.” (13).
The diary of Gideon Bonnivert, one of William’s scribes, also gives an insight into White House in 1690. He says
“We landed at the White House, where we saw on our arrival great numbers of poor people. The women are not very shy of exposing to men’s eyes those parts which are usual for the sex to hide. We went that night to Belfast which is a large and pretty town, and all along the road you see an arm of the sea upon your left and on the right great high rocky mountains, which tops are often hidden by the clouds, and at the bottom a very pleasant wood, and very full of simples of all sorts.” (14).
According to Peter Beresford Ellis,
“William and his party were greeted by the Duke of Schomberg at White House, the residence of Sir William Franklin, husband of the Countess of Donegal, which stood on the point on the Lough halfway between Carrickfergus and Belfast. Constantijn Huygens noted in his journal that William was very cold to the old duke. Most of William’s generals gathered at the Whitehouse to be received by William. Among them was Meinhard, Count Schomberg, the duke’s third son, who had recently been appointed General of Horse. Also at the Whitehouse were the popular German commander of the 7,000 strong Danish division, Lieutenant General Ferdinand Wilhelm, Duke of Wurtemberg-Neustadt, Godert, Baron de Ginkel of Utrecht, the Count of Soloms-Braunfels, Count Henry Nassau, Sir John Lanier, Gustavus Hamilton, the commander of the Enniskillen regiments and civil dignitaries such as George Clark, William’s secretary at war in Ireland, Jean Payen de la Fouleresse, the ambassador from Christian V of Denmark, Sir Robert Southwell, Secretary of State for Ireland and numerous others. Having received them, William rode on to Belfast in Schomberg’s coach amid cheering colonists and soldiers.” (15).
Local tradition says that the King slept the night of Saturday, 14th June, 1690, at The White House but sadly very few sources point to this being the case, many saying he rode from the White House in the Duke of Schomberg’s coach along the strand to Belfast where he was met by the civic dignitaries in their formalities. From here he progressed to the Old Belfast Castle, which was situated around the present Corn Market. He stayed here for a few nights before progressing to the Boyne. No English sovereign, King or Queen, had passed that way since King John’s visit about four and a half centuries previously in 1210.
William is also reputed to have tethered his horse to an ash tree which stood outside a row of neat terraced houses opposite the Shore Road entrance to Rathcoole. Each member of the old `Newtownabbey Urban Council’ was given a small portion of this tree, as a memento, when it was removed for safety reasons, and Bob Armstrong personally had the pleasure of examining one belonging to the widow of Councillor J. Mason. However he asks us to bear in mind that it would have taken it to be a mature tree of perhaps 50 to 100 years old to hold a horse and that episode was in 1690, so the tree would have been approximately 300 to 350 years at time of removal, whereas Ash trees usually have a life span of about 150 years (16).
The Trust recently acquired a rare map which is believed to date from 1750 and is in French. It is after the map of Captain Grennville Collisn and clearly states William’s landing place at Carrickfergus and where the White House currently sits is stated “La Maison Blanche, ou De Barqua L’armee De Roi Guillaume” – which translates “The White House – The army of King William got off the boats.” The map also shows place names like Bangor, Graypoint, Conswater, Donnaghadee and Kilrote (17).
Further sources include Taylor and Skinner’s map of 1777 which shows The White House in the same position as today and names some of the other properties in the area including Parkmount, Fortwilliam and Jennymount.
In 1839 we are given a much more detailed history of the building when the first Ordnance Survey was carried out. The White House had fallen into some disrepair and had become a barn and stable. To accompany the survey, a floor plan was drawn of the White House and this has been traced to the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin and the Trust has been able to obtain a copy of this. The survey reads as follows:
“The castle consisted of a square building, (standing nearly north and south), 70ft long and 27ft wide in the exterior. Attached to each angle in front is an almost circular tower, 11ft 3ins in diameter in the interior. There is a third tower of similar dimensions attached to its rear centre. These towers communicate with the interior of the building; and in those in front there is a door opening from the outside. The walls are 3ft thick. The height of the building, which is now occupied as a barn, stable etc. consists of two floors, is from 16ft to 18ft. It is said to have originally been from four to five stories high, and to have been reduced to its present height 70 years since. The castle is divided into three unequal apartments separated by main walls which seem to have been carried up the entire height. The lower storey does not exceed 7ft in height. In the central apartment the floor has been removed, but in the others the floors of the upper-stories are supported by massive beams of white oak, from 7in to 10in square still remain. The beams are well squared and are perfectly sound. The building received light through several square windows from 2 to 2ft 6 inches square. In the lower storey are several embrasures about a foot square in the exterior. They are about 4ft from the ground. As some of these, as also the windows have (Been) built up, it is impossible to ascertain how many of each there were originally.
In the apartment at the northern end is a spacious fireplace, 9ft wide and 5ft deep. The brace or front of the chimney is supported by a massive oak beam, about 10ins square, supported by the walls at each side of the hearth. The chimney is very wide, but gradually narrows as it ascends. In the tower at the S.E. angle are the remains of a much smaller fireplace and chimney. The hearths appear to have been removed, they as also the floors being at present earth. In the upper storey the apartments seem to have been communicated by large doorways. But there is no evidence as to the manner in which the upper storeys were attained.
The masonry is substantial, built in courses and somewhat modern in style. The stones, which have undergone a little dressing, are large and well bedded. Many of them appear to have been procured from the beach, but the majority of them bear no indications of having been subject to the action of water. They are of basalt of the district. Several bricks occur in the exterior of the building. They are exceedingly hard and well burned. They are of the modern size and are of a yellowish colour. The cement is of a coarse and very hard grout, made of badly burned lime and very coarse sea-sand. All the doors and windows aresquare-headed, nor is there an arch in the entire building. It should have been stated that very heavy slabs of white oak occur in the interior and exterior of the walls. One of these beams appears in both sides. In the interior the plaster has been entirely removed. In the exterior it still remains, as does also the roughcast with which the castle seems to have been covered.
There are not remains of outworks or defences about the building. A little to the west of the it are traces of a pleasure garden, in which is a low mound, 30 feet in diameter and enclosed by a little parapet of stone, there are also traces of a fish pond near it. A few silver coins of the reign of King William III, and copper and brass coins of the reign of James II, besides some very thick window glass, are the only articles which have been found about the ruins.”
It later states:
“At Whitehouse Point a low promontory projects a little from the ordinary line of the western coast of Belfast Lough and near the White House are imperfect remains of an ancient quay or pier, which (seems) to have been constructed and to have been the usual landing place previous to the formation of a quay at Belfast.
A few yards to the northeast of the quay which has just been described is an artificial island, commonly known as Donald’s Island, in consequence it is said, of a vessel belonging to a man named Donald having been lost on it. It is now only visible at very low water. It is however, evident that it had been connected with the quay or landing place. It is about 70ft in length, but little than 30 or 40ft in breadth. It seems to have been founded on one of the low rocks which appear along the coast, and to have been raised to some height above high water by driving oak piles round and filling up the internal space with stones and oak beams. It is said the upper framework was formed on oak beams, squared, morticed and fitted and secured to each other, and that its surface was formed of a pavement of large stones. Of these no trace now remains.
The local tradition of the country with respect to this island is similar to that concerning the quay, namely that it was a landing place of great antiquity, that iron ore was landed here from England; it was smelted here and then carried on horseback to the manufactories in the interior of the country and in county Tyrone. King William is said to have landed a portion of his army at this Island or at the Quay near it in June 1690.”
Later parts of the memoirs state:
“In the Townland of Whiteabbey, within three quarters of a mile of Whitehouse, there is a trifling swell, to this day known as Camphill, from the circumstance of a portion of King William’s Army having encamped there after landing at the Whitehouse point in the month of June 1690. It stands within a few feet of the shore of Belfast Lough, above which it is elevated not more than 5 or 6 feet.” (18).
Further accounts of the building include one by Thomas McTear, the son of a provisions merchant who lived in Hazlebank. He wrote his memoirs about 1882, aged 82 but was remembering the 1820’s. He said
“The Whiteabbey and Whitehouse were mentioned in an old chart of the Lough as a landmark for guiding vessels past the Holywood Bank. Both buildings, being white washed and not then surrounded by trees or other obstructions, were very visible objects from the sea.”(19).
The chart which McTear refers to above was said to him to be 350 years old, but he does not say where this map was at the time of writing.
Clarke in his “Thirty Centuries in South East-Antrim” seems to recall information from O’Laverty regarding the history of the White House. He also states that The White House stood at Macedon Point. Bob Armstrong in his publication states that this implies that it no longer stands, although Bob does point out that when Clarke wrote his book in 1938, he had been resident in England for many years and was, therefore, unable to observe for himself if the building was still there or not.
The OS Memoirs did establish however that it had remained an important building until 1770. The house from which the village takes its name is on the shore near the village, north east of it, but is now an office house. It was 3 ft thick and was 3 storeys high. A new 2 storey house near it was built by James Thompson. This we take is Conningsby House. This is the large white house opposite the White House. It is interesting to note this house was named after William’s paymaster general, Lord Thomas Conningsby, and also contains a well which would have served the White House.
The White House lay virtually untouched as a deteriorating "shell" until under the ownership of Mr William Henry McLaughlin, who lived at Macedon. McLaughlin’s father had founded the building firm of McLaughlin and Harvey. William Henry was Chairman of this company. William Henry died at Macedon on 18th July 1920. In the third codicil of his will, he left The Old Whitehouse to Messrs R.D. Gordon and Alexander Hamilton, which according to the document “is at present used as a Mission Hall for the purpose of carrying on Gospel Evangelistic Work”. The document is dated 2nd day of April 1920 (20). While being used as the Whitehouse Gospel Hall, the old building’s existing fabric was consolidated and it was re-roofed. However, only part of the building was in use while most of the right hand side was left in ruin; only one of the three flankers was utilised.
Writing in 1960 about 16th and 17th Century houses in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology (3rd series), E. M. Jope describes the White House:
“This rambling squat house seems to have had few windows at ground floor; even those traceable at either end of the front face may be insertions. Those at first floor have jambs of two inch brick, but this remained in use through the 18th century here. It has some pistol loops in the gable walls and round towers.”(21).
His accompanying drawings show two storeys but Bishop Reeves in his Diocese of Down & Connor, (Vol. 3, p.3) gives a detailed description of a more substantial building, of four or possibly five storeys, similar to that published in Architecture of Ireland. Sadly we doubt if either of these theories will ever be substantiated.
The building continued to be used as a place of worship until 1997 when the congregation was able to build a new meeting house just across the road. At this point it was purchased on behalf of Abbey Historical Society by Ulster Garden Villages. In 2000, the White House Preservation Trust was formed to preserve and restore the building. In September 2006, The White House appeared on BBC’s “Restoration Village” as one of three regional properties; sadly it was placed second but nonetheless, this gave the project much needed publicity.
The Trust was successful in attracting funds from several sources and engaged Consarc Design Group to give this building a new lease of life as a permanent exhibition to the Williamite/Jacobite Campaign in Ireland and Europe. The exhibition confirms the place of The White House in the history of the locality. The White House also provides a useful meeting space and can be hired for community use.
(1) – The Parish of
Whitehouse –Rev. James O'Laverty's Historical Account of the
Diocese of Down and Connor
(2) - Thirty Centuries in South-East Antrim by the Reverend H. J. St. J Clarke MA, 1938Above
(3) – Through the Ages to Newtownabbey – Robert Armstrong.
(4) - The Parish of Whitehouse –Rev. James O'Laverty's Historical Account of the Diocese of Down and Connor
(5) - The Parish of Whitehouse –Rev. James O'Laverty's Historical Account of the Diocese of Down and Connor
(6) - Through the Ages to Newtownabbey – Robert Armstrong.
(7) - The Boyne Water – Peter Beresford Ellis.
(8) - Day A, and McWilliams, P (editors) Parish of Carnmoney in Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland: Volume 2 Parishes of County Antrim 1, 1838-9 (Belfast 1991)
(9) - Day A, and McWilliams, P (editors) Parish of Carnmoney in Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland: Volume 2 Parishes of County Antrim 1, 1838-9 (Belfast 1991)
(10) – Thirty Centuries in South-East Antrim by the Reverend H. J. St. J Clarke MA, 1938
(11) - Thirty Centuries in South-East Antrim by the Reverend H. J. St. J Clarke MA, 1938
(12) – Society of Friends (Dublin) documents (PRONI) T/1062/49/12.
(13) - Society of Friends (Dublin) documents (PRONI) T/1062/49/12.
(14) – The Diary of Bonnivert 1690 – edited by Robert H. Murray, Published Jan 11 1913 – by the Royal Irish Academy
(15) – The Boyne Water – Peter Beresford Ellis.
(16) - Through the Ages to Newtownabbey – Robert Armstrong.
(17) - Taylor and Shinner
(18) - Day A, and McWilliams, P (editors) Parish of Carnmoney in Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland: Volume 2 Parishes of County Antrim 1, 1838-9 (Belfast 1991)
(19) Childhood memories – Thomas McTear.
(20) - Will of William Henry McLaughlin in the Public Records Office.
(21) - Ulster Journal of Archaeology 3rd Series.