Saturday, 27 October 2012

Grey Abbey House

The Montgomery family has been of great antiquity and historical importance in Ulster and the Ards Peninsula. I have written an article about the house of MONTGOMERY.

William Montgomery is one of the foremost brokers of country estate management, sales, fine arts and property consultancy in Northern Ireland and, indeed, further afield; and he also represents Sotheby's interests in the Province from Grey Abbey House.

Flora Montgomery, his daughter, is a well-known actress.

Sir Hugh Montgomery (1560-1636), 1st Viscount Montgomery of the Great Ardes, was founder of Newtownards and a pioneer of the plantation of Ulster. 

The 3rd Viscount was created 1st Earl of Mount Alexander in 1661. The titles became extinct in 1757 on the death of the 5th Earl.

The name, Grey Abbey, which is also that of the adjacent village, derives from the late 12th century Cistercian Abbey at the site. The ruins of the abbey can be seen from Grey Abbey House.

The manorial demesne, long known as Rosemount, was established in the early 17th century and the present house was built during the early 1760s.

Originally the property of the Clandeboye O’Neills, Grey Abbey was granted in 1607 to Sir Hugh Montgomery. In 1634 his son, Sir James, built a ‘noble house and stately out-offices’.

It was described by William Montgomery in 1683 as:


‘a double roofed-house and a baron and fower flankers with bakeing and brewing houses, stable and other needful office houses….built after the forraigne and English manner; with outer and inner courts walled about and surrounded with pleasant gardens, orchards, meadows and pasture inclosures under view of ye said house called Rosemount from which ye manner taketh name. The same was finished by …Sir James Ao Domi 1634’.

In 1701 William Montgomery was to add to this account that ‘only some small convenient additions of buildings and orchards were made by ye sd William and improved lately by his sd son James’.

In Harris’s County of Down, 1744, it was related that


‘Rosemount was the mansion house of Sir James Montgomery …he built here a noble house and stately out-offices (which were afterwards burnt down Ann. 1695) and laid out fine gardens behind it, executed in the form of a regular Fortification, some Bastions of which are yet to be seen. 

However the present worthy proprietor [William Montgomery] has built a neat and commodious house with handsome offices on part of the site of the former offices, and laid out his gardens and Out-grounds about it in elegant taste’.

This house too, built in 1717 by William Montgomery (d. 1725), was itself later burnt. 

In the absence of surviving 17th or 18th century Montgomery estate maps (no doubt burnt in one of those fires or in a fire in a fire in the agent’s house) it is difficult to be certain where exactly these various early buildings stood.

The house, which was accidentally burnt in 1695, may have stood in the vicinity of the present stable yard, and indeed could have the 1717 house, but some believe could have stood on the seaward side of the present mansion.

The ‘fortified’ garden may have occupied what is now the walled garden to the north-west, but there seems to be no physical sign of this today.

It is possible that the present yard, being a complex of 18th and 19th century buildings, could incorporate elements of the ‘handsome offices on part of the site of the former house’, mentioned by Harris in 1744.





The present house (above) at Rosemount, located on a rise in the park, was built from 1762 by William Montgomery, who had succeeded to the property in 1755. It was still being erected when James Boswell visited the place on 2nd May 1769 and noted the ‘excellent house of Mr. Montgomery’s own planning, and not yet finished’.

The house is a three-storey block over basement, Palladian in style, with six bay entrance front, hipped roof and balustraded roof parapet.

It has a three-sided bow in the centre of the garden front (Gothic windows on ground floor, inspired by Castle Ward, are a later addition, possibly c.1785) and canted projections and diagonally set single-storey side porches on the side elevations, the latter being added in 1845-6 to design of James Sands, commissioned by Hugh Montgomery, who succeeded to the family property from his father William in 1831.

The roof-balustraded parapets were also added in the 1840s. A single-storey smoking room extension was added to the north-east in 1895.

The existing naturalistic landscape park with its woodlands, shelter belts, meandering walks and sweeping carriage drives, was laid out as a setting for this house in the 1760s or 1770s. 

The old abbey ruins were made a feature of this park and a sunken drive was created below the garden front of the house.

In the 1840s, a masonry pedestrian humped bridge was built, allowing access to the park across this sunken way.

Near the abbey a well house was built in the 1770s, known as ‘The Nun’s Well’, possibly replacing a medieval well-house mentioned by Harris in 1744.

The stable yard, being a complex of one and two-storey ranges of both 18th and 19th century construction, including a free-standing game larder, are hidden within the park, as is the walled garden lying to the north-west.

The three 19th century gate lodges were added in the 19th century; viz. the old gate lodge ca 1820, known as Rosemount Cottage, made redundant by a re-alignment of the public road; the Abbey entrance of ca 1815-20; and the village West Gate Lodge of ca 1860.

The entrance lodge is in Georgian-Gothic style, as is the pinnacles gate-screen, and appears to have been inspired by the lodges at Mount Stewart, designed by George Dance (the younger), in 1808-09.

In 1843, the garden designer, Ninian Niven, made some alterations to the park layout, notably adding a parterre to the terrace on the north east side of the house. This has been grassed over in recent decades. 

The parkland survives today in good order and contains fine mature trees with shelter belts and woodlands down to the lough shore.

Contemporary ornamental planting is maintained to the east and west of the north front; the south entrance front is in lawns, with a sweeping carriage drive.

Part of the walled garden to the northwest of the house is cultivated. A portion of what was once a much larger orchard is retained.

William Montgomery
, who lives with his family at Grey Abbey estate today, is descended from the younger brother of the 1st Earl of Mount Alexander, Sir James, who was given the Grey Abbey estates which remain, in part, in the family today.


The family is, therefore, of the same family but not directly descended from him.

In Victorian times, the family owned land in the Ards Peninsula extending to some 5,000 or so acres, though this figure would have been closer to 100,000 acres in the 16th century.

The Montgomerys also owned the Tyrella estate, near Rathmullan, County Down - it having come into the family through the marriage of William Montgomery to Suzanne Jelly in 1749.

Mrs Daphne Montgomery is the granddaughter of 1st Viscount Bridgeman. William Montgomery is a Trustee of Weston Park estate in Shropshire. The Bridgeman family inherited Weston Park itself during the 18th century and today it is run as a trust by the Weston Park Foundation.

I am grateful to William Montgomery for providing me with further details and images of Grey Abbey House. Mount Alexander arms courtesy of European Heraldry. First published in May, 2010.

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