Rockingham House was a large, Classical mansion, remarkable for its dome front and renowned for its fine interior.
About two miles eastward of Boyle, near the southeastern shore of Lough-Key, is Rockingham House, the superb residence of Lord Viscount Lorton. This beautiful building is of the Grecian lonic order, of a species of marble, with a splendid portico of six columns, of which six others of the same proportion appear in the facade on either side.
On the north side is a colonnade also of six columns. On the east is entrance through beautiful orangery of 54 feet in length; it occupies prominent situation, apparently alone, the offices being concealed; and since the great improvements which have taken place—both in the house, which has been raised, and the orangery added, forms altogether one of the most beautiful and picturesque residences in Ireland. The demesne consists of upwards of 2,000 acres of gently undulating grounds and verdant lawns, luxuriantly planted. Leading into the demesne are four grand entrances.
[Roscommon & Leitrim Gazette - 13 December 1834 ]
Built in 1810, the original mansion at Rockingham was a two storey house designed by John Nash (renowned for the layout of Regency London, including Buckingham Palace). It was commissioned by Co. Roscommon's second largest landowner: the 1st Viscount Lorton aka The Honourable General Robert Edward King (1773-1854).
Ireland's leading Orangeman, he was actively engaged in efforts to convert the Catholics on his estate through schools and 'moral agents'. However, he was by all accounts a fair landlord, much praised for his generosity to his tenants especially during the Great Famine. He invested a great deal of money in the development of his estate, reduced rents, created jobs and took care of any workers who fell ill.
Rockingham's superb demesne was "bounded on the north by the beautiful, island-studded waters of Lough Key and, on the south, by a long line of lofty wall, overhung from within by a bordering estate along the road from Boyle to Dublin". The demesne was magnificent, with a straight beech avenue three-quarters of a mile in length; and 75 miles of drives within the estate. Rockingham also boasted superior gardens.
ROCKINGHAM, THE SEAT OF LORD VISCOUNT LORTON.
Rockingham, the splendid seat of Robert Viscount Lorton, is situated three miles south of Boyle (a market and post town on his Lordship’s property), on the grand coach road, which opens a communication between Dublin and Sligo. It is one of the most distinguished features of beauty that line of road, and according to the note before us, embraces within the sphere of its domestic territory, 2,668 Irish acres, mountain and plain, wood, water, and lawn, included. The extent and aspect of this place, bespeak the magnificent mind of the proprietor, in reference to taste and topographical improvement. Not only the princely mansion and demesne, upon the right hand, as you approach Boyle, but the neat habitations and cultivated lands upon the left, clearly show, that the lord of this scene is worthy of his dominion; and the character which, as landlord, he maintains in the most remote provinces of his empire (where every tenant is said live under the shadow of liberal laws with security and comfort) clearly prove, that the princely embellishments of Rockingham are not the impious ornaments of an oppressor’s court; but the open and honorable indications of that just and generous policy, by which the whole of his Lordship's estates in this and a neighbouring county, is said to be governed.
In reference to its scenery, Rockingham, to be known must be inspected on the spot. Neither the pen of the poet nor the pencil of the painter can give to the eye an imagination, an adequate conception of its varied beauties.
In 1828, the house was 'improved' by the local architect, Samuel Jackman, with the addition of an extra floor.
IMPROVEMENTS AT ROCKINGHAM HOUSE. ... The former external beauty of the building is not only retained, but considerably augmented; and, so neat and correctly has been the execution of the new work, that the most critical eye will not be able to observe the slightest difference between it and that of the old. The House is now covered in, and will, trust, fit for the reception its noble proprietor in the ensuing spring. The execution of the work, and the zeal and ability of the architect, Mr Jackman, have been such as gain, for that gentleman, a name, which will decidedly place him at the head of his profession in the province. The several mechanics employed in the above building, seventy in number, dined together Tuesday last, in the castle situated on the lake, near Rockingham. [Roscommon & Leitrim Gazette - 11 October 1828]
In 1830, works began on Rockingham Canal.
... commenced in the Rockingham Demesne, from the Farmyard to the Lake, a distance of about two English miles, for the purpose of procuring, in the first instance, employment for the people, and to enable the workmen to transmit heavy lumber, manure, &c., &c. from one part of the Demesne to another, instead of, as hitherto, conveying such carts to the several places.
It having been announced to Lord Lorton, that the Canal was in such a state of forwardness, as admit the passing of boats, &c., his Lordship ordered a dinner to be prepared for the tradesmen and labourers employed since the commencement of the above undertaking, as well as those who were concerned in the harvest work, &c., [...] Canal, Lock, Bridge, &c., have been executed under the immediate direction of Mr William Ginty , his Lordship’s Nurseryman, and now Rural Architect, on whom the entire undertaking reflects much credit. [Roscommon & Leitrim Gazette - 16 October 1830]
D'Alton: Rockingham Demesne contains about 2,000 acres and is accessible through four grand entrances with suitable gate-houses. The house, overlooking all the beauties that environs it, occupies the summit of an eminence that gently descends to the waters of Lough Key. The grand entrance is under a portico of Ionic columns, into a hall of great extent and fair proportions, the sides of which are embellished with fine scenic paintings. Off this hall open extensive reception-rooms, a library and study. A noble staircase expands from its centre to the upper rooms; the whole interior, in every department, affording all that could be coveted for luxury or comfort. One of the most striking peculiarities of this mansion consists of its single and insulated appearance, no office of any description being visible in its immediate vicinity, but the whole circuit being (as Wald observes) surmounted by smooth shorn grass, interspersed with beds of flowers and ornamented walks, an arrangement which has been effected by covering the basement story, and carrying subterranean passages toward, the lake in one direction. and towards the stables in another, there is thus no appearance of menial movement near the home. The supply of fuel is had through the medium of a canal from the bogs beyond the lake, to the mouth of the souterrain, whence it is brought up to a magazine room on the basement, communicating with perpendicular square shaft or trunk, where, by machinery, a box, fitting within the shaft, can be raised to each floor, and so delivered Into store-rooms appropriated for the purpose. Water is alike dispensed through the interior. Adjoining the house is a fine conservatory, well filled with orange trees and other exotics; there are also in the demesne a variety of gardens, shrubberies, flower parterres, pheasantry, laundry-house, gamekeeper's lodge, fish temple, boat-house, farm-yard, with workshops, stables, etc. etc. Such are, however, but the ordinary acquisitions of a wealthy nobleman's abode. Rockingham affords gratifications more intellectual, more reflective; the enchanting scenery of the demesne, its extent of winding avenues, disclosing new beauties in every direction; lawns and groves, dales and uplands, magnificent trees, intersecting each other with their gigantic branches, and forming, in their over-archings, arcades and avenues of nature's grandest architecture; long reaches of canals, dividing the grounds and connecting the waters, over which ornamental bridges are thrown, in convenient and well-selected situations, as illustrated in one instance in the vignette title of this work; the lake, studded with wooded islands, consecrated by holy and historic ruins, while the enjoyment of there varied enchantments is throughout the more grateful as they are the willing source of permanent and extended employment to the poor and humbler classes of the vicinity, thus shedding back, with reproductive and impartial bounty, the comforts that had been from them derived. This centre of attraction is always open to the public, with the most unreserved confidence; and even boats and men are ordered attainable for those, who may seek to navigate the lake. [Roscommon & Leitrim Gazette - 24 May 1845].
During the famine, Lorton appears to have behaved well, reducing the tenants’ rents and creating jobs for them. In 1846, Lorton encouraged his tenants to sow wheat and rye, offering free seed to those holding less than 10 acres. In protest to the Poor Law Commissioners continued refusal to give the board a loan, Lorton resigned as Chairman of Boyle PLU. Shortly afterwards, he moved his household to London.
In 1854, Lorton died at Rockingham and was succeeded by his notorious son Robert King (1804–1869) 2nd Viscount Lorton who also succeeded as 6th Earl of Kingston (and died in London a month later). Unlike his father, the 2nd Viscount Lorton's drinking and extravagance led to money problems. His wife had not been "entirely fastidious about her marriage vows” and their attempted divorce case was the sensation of 1850. Upon his inheritance, Lorton's wife and son Robert (1831–) then ganged up against him to take over Rockingham.
On April 22, 1863, Rockingham House was completely destroyed by fire. Rebuilding works commenced by the contractor, Mansfield Esq. of London that September, causing an increased demand for labourers just as harvest time began. The house was rebuilt to the same specifications as its predecessor and complete by May 1865.
ROCKINGHAM HOUSE DESTROYED BY FIRE
On Wednesday morning this noble mansion – unequalled in Ireland for grandeur and magnificence was entirely consumed. The fire was discovered by the workmen about 6 o'clock. It originated in the western and owing to the strong Westerly wind blowing, the noble House of Lord Lorton was reduced to a pile of ashes at 9 o’clock am. The Hon. Mrs King had a very narrow escape, and her Maid was rather seriously burned, but under Doctor O’Farrell’s medical care, is progressing favourably. We have been told that the house was insured for £30,000. It cost more than £100,000 to build it. When the alarm was given the flames were observed above the roof too late to endeavour to arrest their progress. The police of Boyle, Grevisk and Knockvicar, under command of Mr Davis S.I. and Mr Butler R.M., was at Rockingham at 7 o’clock accompanied by the agent. Captain C. Robertson, and a number of the inhabitants of Boyle, but their efforts, except to save some of the costly furniture, were unavailing. An eye-witness informs that the anxiety of people to save everything they could, induced great many to risk their lives. The Insurance Agent accompanied by Captain Robertson, inspected the ruin yesterday (Friday) when part of it was still burning. It is to be hoped that immediate arrangements to rebuild the house will be made—if not, a number of labourers and tradesmen, who were constantly employed there, will feel very severely the effects of the calamity that has befallen the house of Rockingham, and Boyle will lose its greatest attraction. Too much praise cannot be given to Mr Butler R.M., for his extraordinary exertions the occasion; and to the worthy agent, Capt. C. Robertson who was unceasing in his efforts to save the property from the burning ruin. We cannot express the deep and heartfelt sympathy which is felt by all in this locality for the loss sustained by the Hon. R.E. King and his honoured and amiable lady, and we trust that this occurrence will not have the effect of removing even for a short time their presence from the neighbourhood where they were honoured, respected and beloved, not only by their tenantry but by every visitor to this locality. The origin of the fire is not known - the plate was saved. [Roscommon Journal - 25 April 1863].
The Rockingham estate was inherited by Edward Robert King-Harman (1838-1888) and then passed to his daughter, Lady Frances Isabella Anna King-Harman (died 8 October 1890).
In the Census of 1901, it is recorded as a 52-room house with 30 windows to the front, held by the Court of Chancery. Only the servants were recorded on the census return.
By the time of the Census of 1911, Rockingham House was the seat of Sir Thomas Stafford, Bart – the widowed husband of Frances King-Harman.
In 1918, when the Rockingham Raid was carried out by the IRB, only the servants were present, as Stafford and family were away at the time.
On the evening of 10th September 1957, an electrical fault caused a fire to rage through the house for the best part of 24 hours. Up to that point in time, 4 generations of Pat Flanagan's family had been employed by the Rockingham estate.
Sir Cecil William Francis Stafford-King-Harman, 2nd Baronet (1895-1987), considered rebuilding Rockingham however, the expense was prohibitive, so the estate was sold to the Land Commission.
In 1971, the Irish forest service demolished the ruin of the mansion. (The plan of the house is still visible in satellite imagery). In 1973, the Moylurg tower (a viewing platform) was erected on its north-west corner. Remnants of the house (such as two servants' tunnels) are still accessible today. Other features of the demesne, such as the stables and gazebo, were also retained. Rockingham's former hunting lodge (also built by Nash circa 1810) with its castellated corner towers, is still extant.
[Research by Rua Mac Diarmada]