As 1983 marks the tercentenary of Richard Dobbs’ now famous work, 'A brief description of County Antrim’, it is perhaps fitting that this edition of The Glynns should salute the memory of the man Richard Dobbs.
When in the spring of 1683, Richard Dobbs undertook the task of conducting the survey and reporting his findings to Mr. Molyneaux in Dublin, he provided a documentary record, which has since proved to be an invaluable source of information for local historians. His work may be one of the most widely quoted references used both in lectures and materials published by the Glens of Antrim Historical Society. Details of Dobbs’ work are available in several places. A transcript copy of his survey to Molyneaux is held in the library at Trinity College Dublin. A further transcription of the Dublin copy is published as an appendix in Hills’ The Macdonnells of Antrim. Thirdly, the original manuscript of Dobbs’ preparatory notes is held in the Northern Ireland Public Records Office.1 The latter was the subject of an article by Jimmy Irvine in the 1979 edition of The Glynns. 2
Richard’s grandfather was John Dobbs, 3 a settler who arrived in Ireland around 1596. Seven years later he married Margaret Dalway, the only child of John Dalway4 a landowner who by grant of King James I, held lands in Kilroot and Ballynure and so, on the marriage of his daughter, he granted her and her husband a freehold lease of a portion of his lands in Kilroot, where John proceeded to build a residence which was called Castle Dobbs.
John and Margaret had two sons, the elder named Foulk and the younger named Hercules. It was therefore natural that in making his will in 1610, that John Dalway nominated his grandson Foulk5 as his heir. However a family row developed which led to a dramatic sequence of events concerning the Dalway’s estate.
On the death of his first wife John Dalway remarried a widow named Jane Norton, and, as sometimes happens, Margaret Dobbs was destined to quarrel with her new Stepmother. This resulted in the second wife prevailing on her husband to make a new will in favour of a nephew.
John Dalway’s death in 1618 signalled the beginning of a protracted legal battle in which John and Margaret Dobbs claimed the estate on behalf of their son Foulk. At the first hearing, the court ruled in favour of John and Margaret, but their opponents challenged this ruling. In consequence, John and son Foulk set off to London to petition the King and succeeded in obtaining His Majesty’s Grant to the lands of the late John Dalway.
An unfortunate tragedy befell the pair on their return journey, and both John Dobbs and his son Foulk were drowned at sea, when their ship perished off the bar at Chester in the year 1622. In consequence, the legal confrontation continued in the name of the younger brother Hercules. The law suit was eventually settled when referees appointed by the Lord Chancellor ruled that Hercules Dobbs be awarded the lands at Castle Dobbs and Ballynure, and the rights to tenement in Carrickfergus. The remainder of the estate was awarded to Dalway’s nephew.
Hercules married Magdelene West of Ballydugan Co. Down in 1633. They had only one son, Richard born in 1634. Hercules died in the same year. The reason for his premature death at 21 years of age is not known. Therefore at the age of three months, the infant Richard Dobbs inherited the property at Castle Dobbs together with a portion of land at Ballynure.
It would seem that young Richard was reared by his mother’s kinsfolk in Co. Down. It is interesting to note in his survey that he makes two references to having been born and reared in Co. Down, 6 and his survey included a recollection of his boyhood days at Saul and Downpatrick, accompanied by a fascinating description of Struell Well and its associated customs. At 21 years of age, he married Dorothy Williams, daughter of Bryan Williams of Clints Hall, Yorkshire. The wedding took place in London. It is evident from the Dobbs’ papers that he was widely travelled in England and Scotland. Among these is a manuscript, which describes a journey from Scotland to London and back to Liverpool. 7This paper runs to fourteen pages and give a topological description of the Scottish and English countryside. It describes the highways, towns, the people and their produce. It might well be described as a ‘Practice Run’ for the Co. Antrim survey, which was to follow fourteen years later. 8 One significant aspect of these papers is the distinctive character of Dobbs penmanship. Though perhaps not always in best copperplate, the same hand can readily be identified in various letters and manuscripts etc. 9
After his marriage, Dobbs settled in his estate at Carrickfergus where he set to work effecting improvements to his house and gardens at Castle Dobbs.
He also built a ‘House of stone and lime with a slated roof’ on his land at Castletown, Ballynure. From his own letters and reports and other records we learn that he was a man of many and varied interests including horticulture, natural history, riding and hunting. He had a keen interest in poetry and had an arrangement with his cousin who lived at Dublin, to keep him supplied with the latest verses from London and Dublin.
The Civic Officer.
On settling at Kilroot, Dobbs soon became involved in civil affairs and in 1664 he was appointed High Sheriff of County Antrim, an Office which would involve considerable travel throughout the county and provide the opportunity to meet with legal dignitaries and the landed gentry.
A few years later in 1671 he was elected Mayor of the town of Carrickfergus, an honour bestowed on him on four later occasions i.e. 1683 (the year of the survey) 1688, 1689, and 1690.
In Dobbs’ time, the office of the Mayor was one of considerable significance as Carrickfergus was then rated as one of the four most important towns in Ireland. Administration of civic affairs was in accordance with the charter granted by King James I. 10 By this constitution the freemen of the town elected 41 burgesses to form an assembly or Town Council. Of these, 17 were Aldermen who became eligible for election to higher stations such as Mayor, Recorder, Town Clerk, etc. As Chief Executive, the mayor was also the judge of the Assizes and presided over other minor courts. On public occasions he would process through the town wearing his scarlet robe, being preceded by the bearers of the mace and sword.
The old records of Carrickfergus show that the mayor enjoyed many prerequisites. Among these was the stipulation that tenants of the corporation were required to ‘furnish the mayor with a number of fat hens at Christmas or a specified sum in lieu.’ Again another byelaw required that ‘the owner of West Mill was bound to grind all such grain as shall be sent from the Mayor's house, toll free.’ As Governor of the market, the Mayor was entitled to tax (the mayor’s fee) on all goods sold in the market place.
From his ‘Description of the town of Carrickfergus’ it can be readily seen that Richard Dobbs was very proud of the town, its charter, and its recent history. At the end of first term as mayor, he left a note in the Town Records, which tell us that:
In the year of his mayoralty, the way out of the north street was first paved; the walls that brings the water through the churchyard was built, and the town pump was set up by benevolence. The Sword and Standard in the church was refurbished, and money was ordered for recasting the bell. 11
We are fortunate that Richard Dobbs had developed the habit of leaving ‘notes for the record’, as they give us some indication of his sense of duty and dedication, towards the town and townspeople that he served. He left a brief report of his experience when Duke Schomberg’s Army besieged the town of Carrickfergus in 1689. Dobbs account of the siege runs as follows:
“...when King William’s Army under General Schomberg invested this towne (being possessed by
the Irish) the 20th August 1689, I was upon the first appearance of the army committed prisoner in the vault next to the mayn guard, and the next day committed to the common Gaole, into which I had this book and towne chest, (wherein all the Record Deeds and Charters of the Towne were), brought into the gaole where they remained till the towne was delivered on the 27th, and the English entered; next day I delivered the Sword (which was hid by my Serjant) to General Schomberg, in the market place, whoe was pleased to restore it unto mee, and I continued (as mayor) till the 29th September 1690.”
Richards Dobbs mayor. 12
Again, amongst the Dobb’s papers is a list of the mayors of Carrickfergus 1607-1687. The manuscript is written in a fine legible script and runs the full length of the sheet. In the right hand margin is a note in Richard Dobbs inimitable hand, which runs as follows:
“1687.88.89 Richard Dobbs Mayor.
King Will’m landed at the Key of Carrickfergus 14th of June 1689. Neyther Recorder or Aldermen
except me being present. The rest eyther dead or absent by the ruggedness of ye times.” 13
Although these two notes relate to military circumstances it would seem that Dobbs’ involvement was simply that of a civil officer attending to his duty, as there is little evidence to suggest that he had any interest in military affairs. On the contrary, his County Antrim survey is far more indicative of a man with an eye on trade, commerce and civilian matters.
From the Survey.
Quite apart from the descriptive aspects of Dobbs’ Co. Antrim survey, his reports also gives us some insights as to the author's personal interests. For example, he tells us of his unfruitful attempts at coal mining at Kilroot and his aspiration to develop his estate at Castle Dobbs. His personal contact with Lord Chichester and the Earls of Antrim is much in evidence. Indeed, his mention of the hunting amenities enjoyed at Glenarm would suggest he was well received at Glenarm Castle.
It is also evident that Dobbs was not an Irish language speaker, and the survey gives several examples of his low esteem of ‘the Scotch and Irish inhabitants’ of Carrickfergus and Larne. His attitude to the local populace did, however seem to mellow as he moved northward in the County as, in his notes pertaining to the Glens, he describes the inhabitants as ‘Highlanders and Irish,’ and he gives the opinion that the Irish people are more civilised by the present Earls living at Glenarm. Throughout his survey Dobbs does reflect a keen interest in folklore and folk tradition, and his reports are well punctuated with a variety of local yarns and tales.
On his retirement from public life, Richard Dobbs continued to live at Castle Dobbs. He maintained regular contact with his relations in Dublin through correspondence with his cousin; he made occasional journeys to Dublin, on horseback, to visit them. Some of his cousin’s letters, in reply, are preserved with the Dobbs Papers in the Public Records Office. From these letters it is evident that Dobbs was beset with a health problem which his cousin described as ‘that most unwelcome and painful distemper – the gout’. This illness seemed to be recurring up to the time of his death in 1701.
The Dobbs Family.
Richard and Dorothy Dobbs had five children, 2 sons and 3 daughters. The eldest son, John was educated at Eton College, as his father had intended him for a career in the church. However, it transpired that young John went to a Quaker meeting in Carrickfergus and became converted to that faith. He subsequently returned to England to study medicine and eventually settled in Ireland as a practising physician in Co. Cork where he died in 1739. This chain of events was not well received by his father, who promptly altered his will, so that John was bequeathed the sum of £10 per annum, and the younger brother Richard inherited the family estate.
Unlike his father, young Richard was very much interested in military affairs and was among the first of the Co Antrim men to enlist in Duke Schomberg's army and fight in the Williamite Wars. He married Mary Stewart of Ballintoy and prior to his father’s death, lived in a house at Castletown, Ballynure.
These were the progenitors of the illustrious Dobbs family. A family that was destined to produce a distinguished line of politicians, statesmen, soldiers, barristers, churchmen, naval officers; the list seems endless. They carried the name Dobbs and Castle Dobbs across the entire face of the globe and, in their turn, several members of this family played their own invaluable part in the affairs of the Glens of Antrim.
Although no tablet of stone can be found to honour the memoryof Richard Dobbs, his own work, conducted during those few weeks in the spring of 1683 now serves as our memorial to the man. Perhaps Richard Dobbs’ own words do provide and appropriate epitaph. When in writing to Molyneaux, he likened his report to a small craft. He wrote:
“I have voluntary committed my little boat where others would not venture with their ships, I hope you will not let her perish on your coasts, and rather excuse her weakness than condemn her of rashness: if the commodity she brings be either too much for the market or not edible, take no more than is fit, and leave the rest in pledge for the duty . . .”
The extracts and references from the Dobbs’ papers are reproduced by kind permission of the Deputy Keeper of the Records at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.
The author wishes to express his thanks and appreciation to Messrs J. Irvine and W. Stewart for their encouragement and interest during the preparation of the above article.
- The Dobbs papers D162 PRONI.
- The Glynns, Vol. 7 p. 35.
- John Dobbs’ grandfather was Sir Richard Dobbs. Lord Mayor of London in 1551, and a founder of Christ's Hospital, London.
- Dalway’s wife was Jane O’Byrne, granddaughter of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone (McSkimin's History of Carrickfergus).
- In 1610 Foulk was his only grandchild, as Hercules was not born until 1613.
- Macdonnells p. 378 and p. 383.
- D162/4 PRONI.
- In his letter to Molyneaux on 14th May, 1683, he points out “this being only my second venture of this kind”. Macdonnells p. 376.
- See The Glynns, Vol. 7, centre pages.
- Among the Dobbs papers is a copy of the charter, written in English and Latin D162/1 PRONI.
- From McSkimin's History of Carrickfergus.
- From McSkimin's History of Carrickfergus.
- From D162/1 PRONI.
This article appeared in Volume 11 of the Society's annual publication, The Glynns, printed in 1983. Copies of The Glynns may be purchased though the society's bookshop.