Mapping the world of 17th century Derry onto the streets of the city

Derry as painted in the 1700s - a world away from the city it is today. (90112JC1)
Derry as painted in the 1700s - a world away from the city it is today. (90112JC1)

In this article, local genealogist Brian Mitchell explores the original leaseholders of the plantation city named ‘Londonderry’. In particular, he explores the unique insights provided by local writer and historian John Bryson in his book ‘The Streets of Derry 1625-2001’, and in follow-up work since the book was published by Guildhall Press in 2001. That research is regarded as an indispensable tool for helping families trace their roots in that era.

The Charter of 1613 (which renamed Derry as Londonderry) obliged the Irish Society to build a walled town. By 1619 the city was completely enclosed within a stone wall, 24 feet high and 18 feet thick.

The Irish Society laid out a town with about 300 house ‘lots’ or burgage plots. The plan of the new town, within the walls, was of a functional grid pattern. From the four central gates, the four principal streets met in an open area or Diamond. All other streets then met the main streets at right angles. Housing extended along both sides of the main streets, with long narrow gardens behind. Outside the walls, gardens were also laid out from the walls to the river Foyle. By May 1628, 265 houses had been built inside the walls and leased to 155 families. These details are all recorded in a Rent Roll dated 15 May 1628.

Owing to a unique piece of work (as yet unpublished) by John Bryson it is now possible to identify leaseholders of buildings within the Walled City through the 17th and 18th centuries. John has compiled spreadsheets that link all leaseholders within the Walled City and their house lots recorded in the rent roll of 1628 with the lists of tenants compiled in John Lane’s Survey of 1695, Archibald Stewart’s Survey of 1738 and J. C. Beresford’s survey of 1826 and, uniquely, to present-day street and house numbers. This information was extracted from original manuscripts and microfilm copies of documents held in the City of London Records Office.

With John’s work it is now possible to link the lot numbers established in the rent roll of 1628 with the new numbering system introduced by Archibald Stewart in 1738 (and maintained by J C Beresford in 1826) and with present-day house numbers

An example of just one entry from John Bryson’s work, following the changes in ownership in one property which was originally assigned to Peter Lavey (also spelt Lavie, Delavie), a wine merchant from Bordeaux, demonstrates the value of this work:[see below]

John’s work clearly gives new insight into the Plantation of Londonderry. Furthermore, John has identified the gardens and farms allocated outside the Walled City to the leaseholders who settled within the Walls.

In the original laying out of house ‘lots’, tenants were also allocated a garden of 34 perches (i.e. about one quarter of an acre) outside the walled city but still located on the island of Derry (i.e. that area bounded by the River Foyle and the Bogside) and a farm of four or six acres in size in the Liberties of Londonderry. Thus the occupiers of houses within the walls had a garden just outside the walls and a farm in the liberties surrounding Derry. Thus in its early years the city was a farming enterprise as well as a centre of commerce and business.

Each of the first 214 house lots listed in the 1628 rental (out of 265 house lots) were allocated land outside the Walls – numbers 1 to 147 to a garden of 34 square perches and a ‘farm’ of 6 acres and numbers 148 to 214 to 34 perches of garden and 4 acres of ‘farm’. The house plots with 34 perches and 6 acres of farm were located on Shipquay Street, Diamond and Bishop Street and those with 34 perches of garden and 4 acres of farm in Butcher Street and Ferryquay Street.

The leaseholders within the walls were allocated ‘farms’ in the Liberties of Londonderry. The lots (1738 lot numbers) called the ‘City Acres’ covered on the west bank – Shantallow and Ballynashallog (lots 1 to 46 and 48-72); Ballynagard (lot 47); Ballymagroarty (lots 73 to 83 and 87 to 107); Springtown (lot 84); Cloughglass (lot 85) and Sheriff’s Mountain (lots 108 to 112); and on the east bank – Gransha (lot 113) and Rossnagalliagh (lot 114).

John Bryson’s research on Derry leaseholders has been widely commended. In fact, Vivien Costello of The Huguenot Society, said of the Derry-born author’s work: “To the best of my knowledge John’s amazing study is completely unique in the British Isles.

“For no other city is this information available. It should be lauded from the rooftops by all historians, genealogists and historical geographers.”