Clandeboye is a 2000 acre estate lying into the outskirts of the town of Bangor in County Down. Bangor was once a seaside town but is now a commuter town feeding Belfast, which lies about ten miles to the west along the shores of Belfast Lough.
The estate has been the home of the Blackwood family since the early seventeenth century. The family originally rented a small area of land from the Earl of Clanbrassil, but through judicious marriage and hard work they gradually built up the estate to about 18,000 acres by the turn of the nineteenth century.
The transformation of Clandeboye from a sprawling landed Irish estate with hundreds of tenants into the jewel that we know today is due to the integrity and vision of Frederick Blackwood. He was born in 1826, the only child of Captain Price Blackwood and Helen Sheridan, grand-daughter of the famous Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Price died when Frederick was only fifteen, leaving Helen to bring him up at Clandeboye. We can attribute much of Frederick’s sensitive and refined nature to Helen’s personality and influence. As a young man he became a great favourite of Queen Victoria and was appointed Lord-in-waiting in 1848. His diplomatic skills were first recognised in Syria where he was sent to investigate the causes of the 1860 civil war between the Christians and the Druze. However was his posting to Canada as Governor General (1872-1879) that marked the beginning of a glittering career whose high point was his appointment as Viceroy of India (1884-1888).
Although he spent much time away from his beloved Clandeboye, he was deeply immersed in its transformation into a home befitting a person of his principles and growing stature.
Before his posting to Canada he had already fallen out with Gladstone over the Irish land problems. He was convinced of the need to pass the ownership of land to the tenants and took the lead by selling off the greater part of his estate to his tenants in advance of the Irish Land Acts, which were finally introduced in 1870. There is another theory that he was living beyond his means and sold out to his tenants knowing that the Land Acts would soon depress the price of land.
He certainly had great plans and had already set about the transformation of the landscape around Clandeboye House by employing the Scottish designer James Frazer to plant 1,000 acres of woodland and enclose large areas of parkland. He built a romantic tower in his mother’s name at the southern end of the estate and at the northern end a railway station on the Bangor to Belfast line, complete with a three mile coach drive from the house. He had many other plans but the costs of his diplomatic career gradually wore down his reserves and later projects became increasingly more modest and homespun.
His last project, on his retirement in 1896, was to convert several farm buildings in the estate courtyard to create a banqueting hall, and indoor tennis court, a bowling alley and a chapel. Five years later he was to suffer the final indignity of being left off the guest list to Queen Victoria’s funeral. Despite this and a current bout of ill health, he rushed to London and arrived just in time for the ceremony. It is said that the rigours of the journey further impaired his health and contributed to his death in February 1902.
Frederick’s demise coincided with the start of a century that was to witness two world wars and a social revolution. The Land Acts left Irish estates with insufficient agricultural income to cover the cost of their upkeep and many were split up and sold. Clandeboye was only kept going through the frequent injection of family funds, but even this could not last.
So it was that, eighty years after his death, the 5th Marquess and his wife set up a team to bring Clandeboye to life and restore it to the glorious days of the 1st Marquess as a lasting memorial to his unique vision. This has been a major project, but the result has been a complete reversal in the fortunes of the estate from a financial quagmire into a thriving business community.