Derry’s Earl Bishop - monkeys, parrots and priceless paintings

The Earl Bishop and his grand-daughter.
The Earl Bishop and his grand-daughter.

In his second article on Derry’s Earl Bishop (1768-1803), Ken McCormack delves into the archives to see what Frederick Hervey was up to here in the city and at his country mansion on the cliff top at Downhill.

Picture some of the most precious paintings in the world with gales howling outside, a bad-tempered monkey that bears its teeth and a parrot that interrupts Sunday prayers. That’s some of the Earl Bishop’s legacy, this brilliant character who loved Derry and brought the city’s name to every corner of Europe.

The ruin of Downhill on the cliff top.

The ruin of Downhill on the cliff top.

Recently I was quite pleased to be able to hold the Earl Bishop’s last letter from Italy to his second cousin Henry Hervey Bruce in Co. Derry. It was dated 1st July 1803, and posted from Albano just outside Rome. A week later he would be dead at the age of 73, his remains destined to come home by ship in a wooden crate labelled ‘Statue, Earl of Bristol’ for fear of upsetting superstitious sailors.

He left Derry in 1792 never to return. Yet despite his 11-year absence he managed to keep his diocese in the best of order. Reading the Earl Bishop’s letters you can see how this was done. There was a continual flow of correspondence between Rome and Derry. The quickest letter I have seen took three weeks to arrive here – not bad going when you consider coach and ship conveyed it. His men on the ground so to speak were the loyal Henry Bruce who was his general factotum and the strong and efficient Dean Hume at St Columb’s Cathedral.

Frederick Hervey knew every blade of grass in Derry, every bit of his property rented out and every bit of gossip. He had about 20,000 acres of land under his control. What comes across in the correspondence is a man of high intelligence, with a first class head for business but also a big heart; in one letter, he thoroughly reprimands his groom at Downhill for treating a servant girl badly. It is compassion that regularly shows through.

The Earl Bishop died a rich man. One estimate is that he was worth at least £80,000 per annum; this would make him a multimillionaire in today’s world. In Ireland alone, he owned Downhill, Ballyscullion and the Casino in lower Bishop Street in Derry. Hervey never liked the Bishop’s Palace and built the Casino nearby as a retreat. However, he rarely used it preferring to stop at Downhill, which was just about becoming habitable by 1780.


The Casino, now Lumen Christi College, has a remarkable boundary wall. Anyone looking closely at the stonework will see that it is capped with purple or greenish-black material. This actually is lava from Vesuvius; the volcano fascinated him. The Earl Bishop purchased the lava from vendors who sold it commercially at the foot of the mountain and then had it shipped home to Derry from the port of Santa Lucia at Naples.

Hervey made five major trips or Grand Tours during the thirty-five years of his bishopric. This means that he spent half his time on the continent, no doubt a sign of his love for all things European. Yet when he was here he put his time to great advantage – erecting churches, making clerical appointments and securing vast acreages of land; the latter much to his own advantage.

Dinner in the Bishop’s Palace took place in the evenings with boiled beef and pudding frequently on the menu. One notable who enjoyed such fare was John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists. Hervey and Wesley took to one another instantly – ‘He is a good writer and a good speaker – admirable...’ writes Wesley, who liked Derry so much he visited here several times.

Dear Bess

Hervey’s wife Elizabeth also came for a short sojourn with their two daughters. By this time the marriage was under strain and in 1782 after an argument he took her for a carriage ride and thereafter never spoke to her again in 20 years. Both his daughters also had broken marriages. Of these Bess, or Dear Bess as she was sometimes known, became nearly as famous as her father. She was mistress to the Duke of Devonshire and confidante of his wife Georgiana and finally became the sixth Duchess of Devonshire. However, Bess was ever restless and like her travelling papa eventually left for the continent where she had at least one notable affair and died in Rome in 1824.

And what of Downhill or The Down Hill as the Earl Bishop called it or as he joked sometimes, his ’bathing box’? He used Michael Shanaghan, a talented architect from Cork for the construction of the cliff top house that had 365 windows. The house itself was smaller in Hervey’s day and saw substantial architectural additions over succeeding generations. The Mussenden Temple dedicated to his young sweetheart Fridiswide Mussenden sits on the cliff edge nearby.

Downhill Treasures

The Earl Bishop absolutely loved Downhill and filled it with art treasures, statues ancient busts and magnificent furniture. He also had an organ and at least one harpsichord or similar keyboard instrument. Upstairs in the east wing facing landwards towards Coleraine was what came to be known as the Curate’s Corridor - a series of cubicles where visiting clerics could stop over; it was a place not without tales of amorous liaisons. The west wing, looking out across the sea to Inishowen Head, contained the Earl Bishop’s private quarters and had a long gallery housing his priceless art collection.

Among dozens of the Earl Bishop’s pictures were at least 10 major paintings, each of which would be worth several millions in today’s world. His favourites were Reni, Corregio, Perugino Vernet, Cranah and Durer. He also had many works by up-and-coming artists who later became famous and this was repeated in his County Derry dwelling at Ballyscullion along with a Titian that would be impossible to put a figure on. It is also believed he had Cimabue and Raphael paintings that because of their rarity and value would simply never see a saleroom. When one considers that he lost precious paintings in storm damaged ships and had £20,000 pounds of art works seized by the French in Rome in 1797, the vast measure of his fortune can be appreciated. His collection was unequalled in Ireland.

Hervey also collected valuable books and I have been fortunate to locate a list, written in his own hand, of the volumes he had at Downhill in the early days of the house. Here we find many Latin and Greek texts and books on travel, philosophy and art - a sizable collection. A most interesting item I discovered was a note saying he had books and letters belonging to Lord John Hervey, his father. Anything to do with the brilliant but infamous Lord Hervey is of significant historical importance. Sadly, all of this, including priceless books the Earl Bishop was continually adding to the library, was lost in the great fire at Downhill in 1851. However, most of the paintings were saved.

The Earl Bishop entertained lavishly. Enormous game pies, containing grouse, pheasants, crows, rooks and larks, were the usual fare and we can imagine the after dinner toasts with champagne and port flowing copiously at each end of the table. No wonder he was a slave to gout.

Earl Bishop’s Heirs

The Hervey Bruces were heirs to Downhill after Hervey died in 1803 and a later descendent HJ Hervey Bruce, a well-travelled diplomat, tells us that life in the big house became more sober over the decades. As a boy, he recalls that despite the beautiful rooms he and his brothers were confined to tiny living quarters the motto being, ‘children should be seen and not heard.’ He relates that on stormy days you dared not leave the cliff top house for fear of not getting back in because of the force of the wind – ‘...seagulls did not fly past Downhill, they were blown past it.’

Yet there were still echoes of the Earl Bishop’s eccentricities with the Hervey Bruces. HJ’s father had a pet grouse that could wander where it pleased. More alarming was the monkey perched on his father’s shoulder that bared its teeth at the servants and with its screeches tried to outdo their nasty, ill-tempered parrot. This aggravating bird reserved choice expressions for Sunday prayers and continually upset the family dogs by imitating their master’s voice.

Along the way there were two big surprises. Firstly, in 1846 engineers building the Derry–Coleraine railway set off the greatest explosion ever heard in Ireland as they tunnelled through the Downhill cliff. It came to be known as ‘The Big Bang’. The Mussenden Temple on the cliff edge shook but held its ground, while the doors and the 365 windows of the house rattled and nothing more.

Then there was an odd situation at the turn of the 1920s. Fearing that Downhill might be destroyed in the ‘Troubles’ a British Navy destroyer was anchored out in Lough Foyle with a searchlight that shone on the house during the night hours to ward off possible attackers. By 1922, the Hervey Bruces decided that it was time to vacate Downhill. Thereafter it sat empty, seeing only the gradual dispersal of the Earl Bishop’s great treasures. There was a temporary spark of life when the RAF moved into the house for a time during World War II but finally the slates were removed and the building crumbled, leaving the rather forlorn looking ruin we see today. The Earl Bishop may have gone but certainly he has not been forgotten and continues to add colour to the life of Derry to this day.

* Ken McCormack’s play on the Earl Bishop, directed by Catriona McLaughlin, with actor Howard Teale and music by American composer Adam Burnette, will be staged at The Playhouse from Tues. Feb 19–23.