History of Our Buildings
After returning to Derry, having lived abroad, we resolved to provide accommodation for visitors which would serve as an alternative to the modern, often bland, purpose-built hotels and guest houses then (and now) mushrooming throughout Ireland. We embarked on a process of restoring neglected properties in the city centre, some of them listed buildings of historical or architectural significance. We have endeavoured to preserve these building for future generations by adapting them to meet the needs of Derry’s growing tourist industry. Working within heritage guidelines we have tried to be sympathetic to the aesthetic of each of our properties and have retained, as far as possible, their original fabric and character. Some of this restorative work had to be carried out during a period of political upheaval in Derry when visitors were few and optimism was in short supply.
In 1871, George Skipton of Beechill House (now the Beech Hill Country House Hotel), a local landowner, sold a plot in Great James Street to William Dickson, a saddle maker. Dickson, whose business was located in nearby Waterloo Street, undertook to build and complete within two years “a good and substantial dwellinghouse … and to expend thereon the sum of three hundred pounds at the least”. Dickson promised that the house would not be used for the “slaughtering of cattle or for [the] making of soap or rendering of tallow… or for any other objectionable or improper use…”
After the house was finished, he and his family lived there for almost forty years until his death in 1910, when the property passed into the possession of his widow Eliza Anne. When she died, 8 years later, she directed that the house be sold and the proceeds divided between three of her sons who had emigrated, two to Canada and one to South Africa. John Alexander Dickson, the fourth son, a general merchant who had remained in Derry, bought the house for £400 pounds. On his death in 1941, he left No. 36 to his widow, Grace Brooke Dickson.
About this time the Dickson family ceased to reside at 36 Great James Street. The house was leased to a Mrs. Roulston and her two daughters for £50 pounds per annum and was used as a boarding house. During the Second World War there were up to 14 lodgers living there. In 1971, Grace Brooke Dickson died and left her estate to her daughter, Maureen Elizabeth Hamilton Parke, the wife of the Rev. John Cecil Parke. In 1978, the Parkes, possibly influenced by the deteriorating political situation in Derry, and the consequent violent unrest in the city centre, sold the property to us. Not long before, a British soldier had been hurled by a bomb blast through the inner hall door before landing uninjured on the stairs leading to the first floor!
We began renovations soon after purchasing the property and were fortunate that no radical alterations to the original structure had been made. We acquired virtually all the original features and fittings, including panelled doors, marble fireplaces, ceiling plasterwork, pine floorboards, and sliding sash windows. However, the only heating came from coal fires, and there was only one bathroom, supplemented by an outdoor toilet. We endeavoured to retain the building’s original fabric and character while installing modern heating, plumbing and electrical systems. During the 1980s and 1990s, number 36 served as a family home in which we brought up our three daughter. In 1984 a nearby bomb caused considerable damage to the roof and front windows, but fortunately the structure of the building was not affected, nor were we.
About 1990 we began operations as a B&B, initially using rooms on the ground and first floors. At that time, because of the “Troubles”, there was a lack of accommodation in the city centre, together with a low volume of visitors. Business improved after the 1998 Good Friday political settlement. As our daughters grew up and moved out, we increased the number of en suite bedrooms to seven. In 2008, we modernized the kitchen and extended the dining room to cater for the needs and tastes of the current generation of tourists. We feel sure that George Skipton and William Dickson would approve of our changes to the house!
Number 16 Queen Street is an imposing four-storey over basement 19th-century townhouse. A listed building of architectural importance, it forms part of one of the best preserved terraces of Georgian-style houses in Londonderry. Its origin dates to 1867, when Robert Hastings, a surgeon in the Royal Navy, purchased a plot in Queen Street for the erection of “one good and substantial dwelling house”. Unfortunately, Hastings died of fever caught in the discharge of his professional duty the following year.
The house was then acquired for £250 pounds by Ross Hastings, probably a relative of the first owner. Ross Hastings was a prominent city merchant who became a city councillor, a Justice of the Peace, a member of the Port and Harbour Commissioners, President of the Londonderry Unionist Association, and a governor of Foyle College and of Gwyn’s Institution. The 1901 and 1911 Censuses show that Hastings and his wife employed two live-in servants to cater for their needs. A later owner of the house informed me that King Edward VII had taken tea in the ground floor parlour, possibly while visiting the city as Prince of Wales in the late 19th century. Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the boy scouts movement, may also have stayed in the house during the 1930s.
After the death of Ross Hastings in 1915, the house passed into the ownership of William McCullagh, another wealthy city merchant. Following McCullagh’s death in 1928, the property was acquired by the Church of Ireland and was used as a rectory by the incumbents of St. Augustine’s Church for the next thirty years. Following its sale by the Church in the late 1950s, the house was broken up into several flats or apartments rented to tenants. It was then acquired for offices in 1974 by James Doherty, a prominent pork butcher, after his former premises had been bombed during the “Troubles”. He eventually sold the house to the Bank of Ireland who used it as offices until we acquired it in 1993 and began the process of returning the building to its original domestic usage.
While renovating the house in the 1990s we discovered an infestation of dry rot which took time and patience to eradicate. The building had to be rewired and re-plumbed, and a modern central heating system installed. Using research and imagination we endeavoured to reinstate the building’s original character and its “institutional” ambience was gradually replaced with a more gracious, elegant feeling. Ugly fire doors were removed, bricked-up fireplaces opened up, the original floor boards were uncovered and varnished, and items of period furniture replaced desks and filing cabinets. Because No. 16 had originally been owned by two prominent members of the mercantile class we decided to name it the “Merchant’s House” and it has been operating as a successful B&B from the late 1990s. The most recent renovations, completed in 2009, saw the transformation of the old basement kitchen area into three en-suite bedrooms with under floor heating. The house has been featured in several newspaper articles and interior design magazines, and has appeared on TV. We were honoured to receive a Civic Trust award in 1997 from the Gulbenkian Foundation for our work in restoring this house.
Although the deeds of these properties date to the late 18th century, the rough cellar walls of No. 14 suggest the existence of an earlier structure on this site. Stewart’s Map of 1738 shows that a house and plot of land extended from Pump Street along London Street as far as No. 14. The owner was John Darcus (1680-1730s), a member of a prominent Derry family. One of his sons was wounded while fighting with the British Army in the American War of Independence (1775-1783).
In 1767 the Irish Society transferred the lease of this property to another of John’s sons, Henry Darcus (1718-1795). This holding included houses on London Street (14 to 22 in today’s numbering). In 1823, John Darcus (born in 1800), grandson of Henry Darcus, sold part of his inherited property in London Street (including Nos. 14 and 16) to George Franks, an attorney at law in Derry. John, enriched by the proceeds of his sale, took off to London with an actress, Mrs Lascelles. We decided to name 14 London Street “Darcus Cottage” to commemorate its long connection of the Darcus family, and no. 16 “Cathedral Cottage” because it faces St. Columb’s Cathedral.
According to the 1832 Valuation Records, Mr. Franks’ house in London Street (now No. 14) had a pantry, privy, cellar store, and office. Attached to it was a coach house and passage (now No. 16), with a dwelling overhead. City maps show that sometime between 1832 and 1873 the property was split into two separate houses, and No. 16 acquired its own front door and staircase. In 1862 the now ageing George Franks transferred several properties (including 14 & 16 London Street) to his daughter Mary Ann, and her husband Thomas Knox, in lieu of the dowry he had pledged to pay when she married in 1842. Mary Ann died in 1875 and her husband in 1888. Their children sold their inherited house property to David Spain in 1922. The following year, David Spain disposed of 14 & 16 London Street to Sir Frederick James Simmons, grandfather of the noted Irish poet James Simmons.
An annual street directory of Derry, first published in 1862, provides information on the tenants who lived in these houses. No. 14 served as a pub run by Eliza Gallagher in 1870. By 1893 the City of Derry Unionist Registration Office was located there, and Daniel Holland, its agent, lived next door in No. 16. He later became Governor of the Apprentice Boys Society. By 1902, the Londonderry Unionist Association was also based in No. 14. For some years following 1916 the property housed the office of the Orange and Protestant Friendly Society together with its agent, James Goligher. During the remainder of the 20th-century Nos. 14 and 16 passed through numerous ownerships.
By 1975, No. 16 London Street had fallen into such a state of disrepair that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive considered it unfit for human habitation and ordered its demolition. Fortunately, remedial work carried out by its new owner, the Inner City Trust, enabled the demolition order to be rescinded in 1979. After purchasing 14 and 16 London Street from the Inner City Trust in 1998 we embarked on a programme of renovation and since then these quaint historic houses have entered a new phase in their long and chequered history. Darcus and Cathedral Cottages now function as self-catering residences for tourists and visitors who want to experience life within Derry’s ancient walls at first hand.
Old maps of Londonderry indicate that there has been a dwelling on this site from the early 1600s. Stewart’s map of 1738 shows that the corner lot, which now corresponds to 17 & 19 Ferryquay Street and 2-4 Pump Street, was leased by a Benjamin Davis. In 1767, The Irish Society, who controlled the land on which the city was built, assigned this lease to Jane Davis, possibly Benjamin’s widow or daughter. Over half an acre of land close to the city walls, and a further eight acres further out, were attached to the property, allowing its city-dwelling leaseholders to grow their own foodstuffs and graze livestock. In September 1816, the Irish Society renewed the lease in favour of Roger Murray and John McClintock Murray for a further period of lives. Eighty years later, in 1896 the Irish Society transferred ownership of the property to Alexander Grant of Ohio, Frederick W.S. Grant of London, James P. Grant of New Zealand, and several others, most likely members of the same Derry family. Certain conditions were attached to this transfer. The Irish Society reserved the right to inspect the premises twice yearly and to specify repairs to be carried out. All corn, grain and malt consumed on the premises was to be ground at the Irish Society’s mills. No thatched house or cabin could be built on the city site, nor could cattle be slaughtered, or soap made, or tallow rendered. Finally, there was to be no interference by the leaseholders with the salmon and eel fisheries in the nearby River Foyle.
It is not possible to date precisely the age of the present Grade B listed building, but evidence from street maps and its architectural style suggest somewhere between 1832 and 1873. Two wooden beams, visible on the top floor, were hand-cut, suggesting an 18th century or earlier provenance and these timbers may have been salvaged from an older building on the site. During the early decades of the 20th century, the original property holding was split into three parts, two of which are now retail shops in Ferryquay Street, the third being No. 2 Pump Street. The latter may have functioned as a dwelling house until the 1930s when it began to be used for commercial purposes. At various times it housed a tailoring business, a printing works, an art gallery and framing business, and a building society. The upper stories were infrequently used in more recent years, and their condition deteriorated. Structural changes were also made. By the time we purchased No. 2 Pump Street in 2003, all of the ground floor (apart from the hallway), and part of the first floor had been incorporated into the adjoining shop premises at 17 Ferryquay Street.
The building was then in very poor condition and presented a dilapidated, almost Dickensian appearance. Rooms full of cobwebs had not been used for twenty years or more and pigeons were the only residents. Bulging walls and cracked chimney breasts were evidence of structural problems, and the staircase hung precariously from its supports. Floor boards were missing in places and it was possible to look into rooms below and above. There was no kitchen, and one antiquated WC and wash basin provided the only toilet facilities. In the major renovation project which followed, we endeavoured to retain as much as possible of the building’s surviving features and to harmonise these with present-day requirements, including the installation of a small lift. Following the completion of refurbishment in 2010, guests in the Pump House Apartments have been able to experience living in a building of age and character located in the historic centre of Ireland’s only fully walled city.