Re: Re: ‘Dutch Billys’

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The second paper is by Brendan Twomey who comes from a banking background and is entitled ‘Speculative property development in eighteenth century Dublin’.

In the first half of the paper, Twomey outlines the rapid growth of Dublin in the crucial first half of the 18th century and illustrates the unfolding scene with quotes from contemporary commentators who frequently noted, not always approvingly, the dramatic scale of the city’s expansion and, in the case of Swift in particular, the financial recklessness with which groups of tradesmen seemed to be going about the place borrowing heavily to build houses that they often didn’t have the financial means to finish. As always with Swift, the commentary in the piece is almost incidental to the target of the piece, which in that instance was ‘a certain fanatic brewer’ identified subsequently as Joseph Leeson of Stephen’s Green, who, according to Swift, was busy amassing a vast property portfolio by picking up these unfinished speculative houses at distressed selling prices.

In the second part of his paper, Twomey follows the financial trail of William Hendrick, an ambitious but inexperienced property developer, in what ultimately became a tale of riches to rags. Hendrick’s stomping ground was the area between the Royal Barracks and Smithfield, where the construction of Bloody Bridge and land reclamation between it and Bridewell Bridge had opened up development opportunities. At this time, the early decades of the 18th century, Smithfield would have been fairly comprehensively developed following the initiative of Dublin Corporation forty years earlier and was occupied mostly by merchant types availing of the proximity to the markets. Queen Street, with a parade of grand houses looking westward over the grounds of the Blue Coat School and the Bowling Green complex with its Banqueting house pavilions was perhaps the most prestigious address in the district, however by the time Hendrick appeared on the scene around 1718, there were already clear indications that Queen Street had begun to lose its fashionability and house construction in the area in general was settling into the lower to middle income bracket, with just a couple of exceptions. Barrack Street and its continuation eastward, Tighe Street, [Gravel walk on Rocque] were filling out with largely three storey houses on 18 – 21 foot wide plots almost from the moment the Barracks project began in 1701, with a high percentage of houses distinguishable in the records as inns or taverns, all of them with conspicuously English signs such as The Robin Hood, The Star and Garter, The White Lyon, The Three Crowns etc.

What only slightly comes across in Twomey’s account is that Hendrick was a pinky in a pond full of sharks.

The land that Hendrick set out to develop, and which included Hendrick Street, was a part of the Bowling Green site which the sharp-as-nails Tighe family had contrived to acquire title to from Dublin Corporation. Presumably this acquisition had originally been intended to comprise some kind of stewardship role over one of the city’s grandest recreational amenities, but by 1724 Richard Tighe, ‘one of his majesty’s most honourable Privy Council of the Kingdom of Ireland’ had succeeded in having all the restrictive covenants on the property lifted and before you could say ‘rezoning bonanza’ he was flogging the site for residential development.

What Tighe sold Hendrick [John] in 1724 was a leasehold of a part of the Bowling Green site, subject to an annual rent of £180 sterling. Servicing an annual debt of that magnitude was a big ask for a novice property developer and to be a successful venture it would have required the off-loading of a substantial number of building plot leases quickly, given that individual building leases typically started out with at least the first half year at a peppercorn rent.

Leaving the Hendricks to assemble the infrastructure and market the development, in May 1728 Tighe sold on what amounted to the freehold of the entire Bowling Green site [excluding the site on which the city stables had previously been built] to Luke Gardiner for £4,020 sterling [RD 57, 165 37830], passing the Hendricks on to a new ground landlord in the process.

Luke Gardiner; the Dutch Billy Years, remains an unexplored episode, so we’ll have to wait awhile to find out whether L.G. was an active developer of the Bowling Green site or still just a money man and property speculator at this time. Not having the deep pockets of Luke Gardiner, Twomey explains Hendrick’s subsequent financial difficulties in the late 1720s on bad timing; ‘. . . the Irish economy experienced several years of recession which culminated in the famine of 1729’ and while there may be something to this, the conspicuously boom years of the mid 1720s would have brought their own perils in the form of intense competition. The impression given in Registry of Deeds records for the mid 1720s is of a city in a frenzy of speculative development, perhaps not unlike our own recent brush with insanity.

The eastward expansion of the city was becoming relentless in the 1720s with Henry Street, Abbey Street and Jervis Quay [Bachelor’s Walk] stretching development ever eastward on the north side of the river and with Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Poolbeg Street and Lazer’s Hill [Townsend Street] stretching development eastward on the south side of the river. South of the College, urban development had reached the line of Dawson Street and in June 1726 Richard, Lord Molesworth, launched the development of the ‘Molesworth Fields’ with an advertisement in the Dublin Weekly Journal where punters were enticed with 99 years leases [for which he didn’t yet have parliamentary approval] and invited to view a ‘plan of the lotts, streets etc’ at his agent’s offices in Peter Street. Further to the southwest, even the dormant Aungier Estate had suddenly kicked back into life in 1725 with the Longford inheritance finally settled on Michael Cuffe and Robert Macartney and where new streets and densification was spear-headed by the arrival of major development figures; Jacob Poole and David Diggs LaTouche. All of this outward expansion was in addition to the on-going renewal and densification of the city centre and the on-going filling out of the streets in the Liberties where the most recent additions, Poole Street and Braithwaite Street were newly laid out in the early 1720s.

Add into the mixture the aforementioned Luke Gardiner fermenting his plans for the Bolton Street area and it’s not hard to see how Hendrick might have had a job on his hands at the best of times getting attention for his little development venture westward of Smithfield, in a location now primarily associated with the Barracks, live animal markets, service yards, middle income housing and a Temple Bar density of pubs.

Whether it was a general recession in the economy or intense competition from more fashionably located developments, William Hendrick appears to have been caught with development plots he couldn’t sell and with exposure to both his ground landlord and his private financial backers [the Bury family from Limerick]. By 1731 his goose was cooked and Hendrick was cooling his heels in Debtor’s Prison.

In fairness to Twomey, this is gripping stuff, but what we don’t get from Twomey’s account is any tangible information on the actual houses that all these development energies and financial speculations were producing, and there are worrying indications that Twomey is under the impression that these houses were Georgian.

This is a statement from early on in Twomey’s paper;

‘Most of the domestic buildings built prior to 1720 were of the Dutch Billy type. However from that date the form, which is now seen as the epitome of Georgian Dublin, began to appear.’

Straight away, this statement is decades wide of the mark and a glance at pictures of the six earliest Hendrick Street houses or the three longest surviving Haymarket houses, illustrates that point clearly. The Haymarket houses are perhaps even more interesting because of the involvement of the Tighes.

Images of Robert Tighe’s house at no. 4 Haymarket [the tall one] with the two Billys to the west also developed by Robert Tighe and sold to John Stones and Adam Blomfield respectively. In the last image, no 4 has lost its roof and attic storey and nos. 5 + 6 have been re-fronted as two-bay houses

These three Haymarket houses were originally classic Dutch Billys, developed by Robert Tighe in 1724 and incorporating all the characteristic features; shared corner chimney stacks, cruciform roofs, tidy closet returns and [originally] three bay facades reducing to a single window in the attic storey which [we can conjecture from typological studies] were each framed in a curvilinear and pedimented gable. Grainy 19th century images suggest that nos. 5 and 6 featured that peculiarity often seen in pairs [examples on Longford St. and Stephen’s Green South] where one of the pair was given a two bay arrangement on the first floor [of a wider window dimension] in an otherwise three-bay composition. This pair of Billys adjoined Robert Tighe’s taller house to the east, which itself adjoined the colourfully named ‘Cat and Bagpipes’ inn. The three houses had extensive vaults underneath not just the houses themselves but under the back yards and coach houses as well, vault structures that may conceivably still exist under the 20th century layers.

Whether it is by coincidence or not, the houses developed or acquired by at least two of the sons of Richard Tighe were among the sharpest Billys for which records survive. Robert Tighe, as we’ve seen, lived at the exceptionally tall gabled house at no. 4 Haymarket, the one which subsequently had Robert Emmet associations and which, with its two neighbours, was demolished in the 1980s for the blank concrete block wall of the Tully’s Tiles emporium. Robert’s younger brother, Stern Tighe, lived at no. 12 Usher’s Quay [illustrated elsewhere in the book]. The latter house featured not just, precision crafted, limestone downpipes, but also a richly carved stairs to complement its beautifully panelled interior.

Images of Stern Tighe’s house at no. 12 Usher’s Quay

Despite their abundant architectural merit, it was perhaps the very fact that these formerly gabled houses, and hundreds more like them, did not perfectly fit the Georgian profile that they were so readily swept away for the most mundane of replacements.

With the couple of misgivings noted above, Brendan Twomey’s article sheds valuable light on a period that has been neglected for too long.

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