From Barrow Boy to Viscount

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Winter 1999), Medieval History (pre-1500), News, Volume 7

He started life as an illiterate barrow-boy and died a viscount, having taken three wives on the way. This is the incredible story of Matthew Barnewall.

‘Never without an idiot or a lawsuit’

The Barnewalls were Normans, and took their name from the small sea-side town of Berneval le Grand sur Mer, a little way north-east of Dieppe. The head of the family was a senior lieutenant to William the Conqueror for the invasion of England. There the family took to the law and eventually followed Strongbow to Dublin. Here, they rose to power as lawyers and politicians. They first acquired land in Drimnagh where they built the castle. Later, they moved to much bigger estates in north County Dublin when Henry VIII made them a grant of the convent of Grace Dieu in Lusk (despite the fact that they remained Catholic). When Sir Patrick Barnewell came to take over the convent the abbess cursed the family saying: ‘The Barnewalls will never be without an idiot or a lawsuit’. They later built Turvey House in Donabate, using the very stones of Grace Dieu for that purpose. The family also served as stewards to the great Earls of Kildare, with all the perks which that entailed. Over the years, through wheeling and dealing and making strategic marriages with other Norman families, the Barnewalls became one of the most powerful families in Leinster.
There is a lovely tomb of the sixteenth-century Sir Christopher and his wife Marion still to be seen in Lusk. Marion, through her second marriage, was the great-grandmother of St Oliver Plunkett. Some of them were not without bravery: Sir Christopher’s son Patrick was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his defence of Catholic doctrine. He was later released, but the curse was working!

Viscount Kingsland

Step forward, Nicholas, friend of King Charles I. When Cromwell revolted against the king Nicholas was made responsible for defending County Dublin against the Roundheads, but he ran away to Wales instead. He was afraid, not of Cromwell, but of what the native Irish might do to him! However, he remained loyal to the crown, and the restored monarchy made him Viscount Kingsland, the title which our hero Matthew later inherited. For our purposes, it is necessary to note that Nicholas had five sons. The first, second and fifth died unmarried. The third did marry and had a son to carry on the title, which eventually fell to George (see below). And the fourth, who was Francis of Beggstown, also married and had descendants. However, being the youngest son, he was fobbed off with only a wood for his fortune; but keep him in mind!

Although Nicholas’s heir managed to use the Treaty of Limerick to retain his lands (they were politicians after all), the power and affluence of the Barnewalls were largely shattered from that time. For instance, Nicholas’s grandson, although married to an heiress, was constantly strapped for cash, and couldn’t pay the dowry he had promised his daughter until her husband took her to court (what a powerful curse!).
We jump now to the late 1700s, and to George, the fifth Viscount Kingsland. George was the first to be a Protestant, and was thus able to sit in the Irish House of Lords. Alas George also fell under the curse: he became a lunatic (which may say something about the Irish House of Lords). George’s cousin Baron Trimleston took responsibility for him, until he died in a French asylum, unmarried, and his estates passed to the Trimlestons. But what became of the title of Viscount? Step forward, our hero Matthew, at last!

Matthew Barnewall, barrow boy

Matthew was born in Stonybatter, then a respectable suburb of Dublin. His father married twice, and Matthew was a product of his second union. Matthew would have heard from his father that he was one of the great Barnewall family, through descent from the Francis Barnewall of Beggstown whose ‘fortune’ from his aristocratic family consisted only of a miserable wood. His childhood would have been filled with stories of his kinship with the great Normans, and how badly the big shots had treated his side of the family.
He first became a barrow-boy in the Liberties, then worked in a Dublin tavern as an ‘under-waiter’ (some say ‘under-writer’, an easy confusion if they sold insurance there as in Lloyd’s tea-rooms in London). And then Matthew saw his chance to achieve the position he thought his descent warranted. He heard of George’s death in the lunatic asylum and he immediately laid claim to the Kingsland title. Naturally, the legal establishment found this upstart distasteful, so nothing happened for a long time. Impatient at the delay, Matthew collected a gang of colleagues and occupied Turvey House, the Barnewalls’ country seat in Donabate, where he was no doubt soon joined by the cornerboys from that area. There for a time he dispensed rude hospitality to his supporters by rifling the cellars and cutting down trees for firewood (while thinking wryly about his poor forebear Francis of Beggstown). His defiance couldn’t last, of course, and Baron Trimleston soon had him and his mob evicted and Matthew ended up in Newgate Jail.

John Hitchcock, solicitor

Here Matthew met the next influential person in his life: John Hitchcock, a solicitor, and one who was well connected in Dublin politics. For some reason (curiosity, pity, amusement or hope for advantage?), Hitchcock took up Matthew’s case, and first achieved his release from prison. How galling for the proud Norman to have to truckle to this upstart scrivener! Hitchcock gave Matthew and his wife financial support, and even invited them to his house. Matthew was so aware of his lowly position that he was at first reluctant to enter; and when he eventually did so, he would sit uneasily only on the edge of a chair. His language was full of mispronunciations, which his wife was constantly correcting.
Hitchcock took the trouble to prepare the documents for Matthew’s claim; and even unearthed an aged female relative upwards of 100 years old, for corroboration. Hitchcock pursued the case diligently, and eventually reached the highest court in the land, the House of Lords. And there, in 1814, he won recognition for Matthew at last.
Consider the enormous chances against Matthew inheriting. First the two eldest sons of the first Viscount had to die without children. George the lunatic had to die unmarried. Then, the first wife of Matthew’s own father had to die, plus the four sons he had by her. By his second wife, Matthew’s father had three more sons. The first two had to die young leaving our hero as his father’s only surviving son out of seven born.

‘Mrs Kingsland’

Alas, there is no happy ending. There was no property to go with Matthew’s new title; all he had was a pension of £500 a year granted by the state to distressed noblemen, not insignificant for that time, but no fortune. Alas, in his new affluence, Matthew forgot his obligations to Mr Hitchcock. This mightily miffed Hitchcock’s son from whom comes the tales of Matthew’s humble origins, illiteracy, and gaucheness, so perhaps a grain of salt is in order. Matthew probably considered that Hitchcock deserved nothing for all the indignities he had had to suffer while in the lawyer’s care. Nor was Matthew lucky in love either. His first wife died just before his elevation to the viscountcy, their only son soon after. Five years later, in 1819, he married Mary Anne Bradshaw of Cork, and moved to London where Mary Anne died childless in October that same year. The bold Matthew was not long without consolation: within a scandalous three months he married his third wife, Julia Willis of Lambeth. It was in the home of his father-in-law that he died in 1834, still childless; and the title became extinct. His pension died with him, and his widow ‘had to earn by her needle a precarious and miserable sustenance’. Ashamed of her poverty, she styled herself simply ‘Mrs Kingsland’. Unlike her spendthrift husband, she was a saver: her name appears as a beneficiary of a small old-age-pension fund. She died as recently as 1890, aged eighty-six, and is buried in East Finchley.

Colm Culleton is a local historian and former curator of Lusk Museum.

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