Big thank you from


Dr. Raymond Gillespie

On Sunday 20 August 1707, in the space of three hours, Lisburn was razed to the ground by an accidental fire. It was the fate most feared by urban dwellers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who inhabited towns often constructed mainly of timber and plasterwork which burnt easily. It was not an uncommon occurrence. Newry was partly destroyed in 1600 as a result of a fire caused by an accident when distilling whiskey, and Bangor almost suffered the same sad end in 1623, when one of its inhabitants fell asleep while reading by candle light. The corporation of Belfast, fearing fire, ordered in 1638 that inhabitants of the town who did not replace their wooden chimneys with brick ones would be fined forty-eight shillings while at Lurgan, the landlord, Arthur Brownlow, took care to include in his leases the stipulation that chimneys should be built of stone or brick. In some ways the burning of Lisburn was a blessing in disguise, for within a few years it was rebuilt as one of the most modern towns in Ulster, largely due to the initiative of the landlord, Lord Conway.1

The town which had been destroyed in 1707 was largely the creation of one man, George Rawdon, who served as Lord Conway's agent in Ireland from the 1630s until his death in the 1680s.2 During this period the Conways were absentee landlords attending to their English estates at Ragley in Warwickshire or fulfilling the duties required by their offices at Court in London. The result was a voluminous correspondence between Rawdon and his master, most of which has been preserved and is accessible through the Calendar of State Papers, Ireland and the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic. These records provide an almost unique view of the seventeenth century development not only of the town of Lisburn but also of the surrounding estate.

There had been a town on the site of Lisburn before the rebellion in 1641 but it was destroyed in the early weeks of the rising. So complete was the destruction that Lord Conway, the commander of the settler forces in east Ulster, claimed that it was not possible to find billets for the support of his soldiers and up to 300 had died as a result of the harsh conditions.3 That early seventeenth century town had been a small affair. The first landlord, Sir Fulke Conway, had done little to develop the estate mainly because the English and Scottish immigrants were slow to move so far inland. They tended to settle near the main ports where they landed, at Larne, Carrickfergus and Donaghadee. As the areas nearest the coast became settled, migrants began to move inland. In 1627 Lisburn was granted a patent for a market and fair and became the administrative centre for the estate. Shortly after the grant was made, however, Sir Fulke died in a fire caused by smoking his pipe in bed. The estate then passed to his nephew, Sir Edward Conway, who installed George Rawdon as his agent in 1632. The town which Rawdon found was not inspiring. Sir William Brereton, travelling through Ireland in 1635, described Lisburn, then known by its old name of Lisnegarvey, as `well scaled but neither the town nor the country thereabouts well planted being almost all woods and moorish until you come m Dromore.' Brereton was, however, optimistic about the future, noting 'though the land hereabouts be the poorest and barrenest I have yet seen yet it may be made good land with labour and charge. '4

An early seventeenth century sketch map of Lisburn recorded fifty-three tenements, possibly representing a population of about 260 people. By 1659 the number had grown, 357 people being recorded on the poll tax for that year. This may represent a population of about 700. Of these 357 persons, 217 were settlers and 140 were Irish. The town was then the sixth largest in Ulster after Belfast, Armagh, Coleraine, Derry and Canickfergus.5 The 1650s had seen a dramatic recovery of Lisburn's fortunes. This was in no small measure due to the large influx of Scots but more especially English settlers from the north of England, anxious to take advantage of the cheap land available in Ireland following the Cromwellian war. By 1658 a school had been established and the fairs were again operating. Rawdon was instrumental in the town's revival, attempting to encourage new industries such as soap and potash making, as well as improving agriculture.6 However, the real growth in Lisburn came in the later part of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries: by 1725 there were 787 houses representing a population of about 4,000 souls.

The restoration of Charles II in 1660 brought the Court back to London and with it came Conway, who had been in exile with the king during the 1650s. Together with his agent, Bowdon, he began to develop his town. This they did by establishing it as the premier centre in the county of Antrim. In 1662 it was incorporated and, given the right to send two MPs to the Dublin parliament. In addition, the church was transformed into the cathedral for the united dioceses of Down and Connor. The status value of these developments was clear to the bishop, Jeremy Taylor, who urged that two MPs should be selected immediately for the parliament already sitting, since `it would add reputation to us and give solemnity to the new erection of the cathedral.'7

Two other measures were also taken to add to the town's prestige. The first involved an attempt to upgrade the school which had been established in the 1650s and rebuilt in 1666. A further reconstruction was planned in 1683. This second rebuilding was part of a scheme to have the school declared the diocesan school, which hitherto had been located at Carrickfergus. Lord Longford, then governor of Carrickfergus, objected and the move seems never to have taken place. By the 1680s the Lisburn school had become the foremost centre for education east of the Bann and rivalled the Royal Schools at Armagh and Enniskillen for quality of education.8 In the 1680s it had some forty students of whom twenty-seven were boarders in the town. Between 1660 and 1700 about a quarter of all the Ulster entrants to Trinity College, Dublin had been educated in it. Part of its success was due to the master, Robert Harvey, who remained in post from 1675 until the early eighteenth century. Such long periods in one school were unusual in seventeenth century Ulster but the salary of £30 a year provided by Conway was an attractive incentive to stay. Harvey's eventual parting from Lisburn came as a result of a dispute over salary.9

The third area of prestige which was developed for the town was the location of Rawdon's army troop there. This made Lisburn the military capital of the county, with the result that in 1689 Schomberg chose to make the town his headquarters rather than Belfast. It also had other benefits; most importantly the troop provided protection from bands of raiders (known as tories) who plundered the surrounding countryside. Many of the soldiers evidently settled in the town. Quarter-master Wright and Sergeant Rogers, for example, are noted in one of Rawdon's letters as building houses in Lisburn in 1676.10 Moreover, as the local military centre, the town attracted numerous soldiers and formed a local centre for manoeuvres. In 1672, for instance, a rendezvous of forces at Lambeg brought soldiers to Lisburn which, Rawdon noted, `will be a particular advantage to the town of Lisburn, who ought to have directions given to them in every house to provide meat and drink for this little army.' In all, Rawdon estimated his troop was worth between £1,400 and £1,500 a year to the town in the 1670s.11

Thus under Rawdon's guidance Lisburn became the ecclesiastical, educational and military capital of the county. To fulfil these roles properly, the town also had to have the physical appearance to match its new-found status. As neither Rawdon nor Conway had the kind of money required to build the town themselves, they relied on a device known as a building lease, whereby they leased plots of land in the town at nominal rents and in return the occupier built on them. However, such building was not to be at random. Major Stroud, who had a tenement outside the Belfast gate, was required to build his houses `all the length streetwards before two years and to level and pave the street before them and to move his pales near his house in a direct line with Coronet Rogers house and to lake away all the trees before his house except the nearest row.12 Such town planning brought favourable comment from many late-seventeenth century visitors such as George Storey, who, arriving in 1690, found Lisburn `one of the prettiest inland towns in the north of Ireland and one of the most English-like places in the kingdom.' Earlier in 1677 Richard Mildmay, the receiver of rents on the estate, had written to Conway that `the town is abundantly finer than when you saw it last, many of the houses being whited and new rough cast.'13

However, improvements did not stop with the physical appearance of the town. The very dry summer of 1676 led Rawdon and a number of tenants to explore the possibility of a piped water system. Rawdon, together with a carpenter called Colson, proposed to bring water from some `limestone springs' for a distance of some 360perches,using ditches, and then by means of a wooden pipe, to carry it a further seventy perches, to a source near the market house. He calculated the cost to be £100 but the fate of the scheme is not known. In Ulster, only Moneymore in Co. Londonderry could boast a piped water supply at the time, which however had fallen into disuse because of frequent splitting of the pipes.''

Rawdon not only wanted Lisburn to have a planned and pleasing appearance, he also desired to develop in the town a sense of community and urban pride and condemned those who were not prepared to help in his improvements. `Richard Close' he noted acidly in 1677 `forgets his father's rise here and will lay out nothing to beautify the town.15 In particular, he did not wish to have any disruptive elements in the vicinity. Chief among these, in his opinion, were the Presbyterians who refused to acknowledge the king as head of the church. Rawdon saw them as detracting from the king's royal authority. He refused to permit a Presbyterian congregation to be set up in the town and it was not until 1687, after his death, that a congregation was organised. As a rule he also refused leases to Presbyterians but he had little control over the sub-leases and it was as sub-lessees that members of the church came into Lisburn. In March 1681, on his way to church, be noticed a man preaching in Bow Lane but only later realised that it had been a Presbyterian preacher, brought in by a number of under-tenants who were dealers in butter. A request for a site to establish a church came shortly after, to which he replied that a petition should be sent to Lord Conway on the matter. He subsequently confided to Conway that his reason for adopting this approach was to elicit the names of Presbyterians in the town.16

Under Rawdon,  therefore, Lisburn in the late seventeenth century became one of the socially most significant towns in Ulster. It was only able to support that position, however, because of the dramatic economic growth of south Antrim and north Down. The early seventeenth century town had been largely based on the surrounding agricultural economy which was still concerned with producing unprocessed raw materials, mainly live cattle, for export. With the rapid expansion of population in the late seventeenth century, it became clear that such activity could not support the growth in the urban population. New sources of employment were required. New urban industries began to appear in the late seventeenth century town, the most important being linen weaving.

The production of linen yarn had always been a feature of the Ulster rural economy but relatively little was turned into cloth. That which was woven (mainly in the countryside) was made into coarse twelve-inch wide linens known as handle linen. Rawdon was keen to improve the quality of the yarn and accordingly imported both flax and hemp from Ostend. Town-based weavers making their own living almost entirely from weaving (although most also had small farms outside the town, one contemporary estimating ten acres to be sufficient) were a new development. Moreover the type of linens which they wove were not for local use but were large pieces of fine linen-not yet cambrics or lawns but nevertheless fine-for sale outside Ireland. According to a statute of 1710, pieces of linen one yard by twenty yards were known as Lisburns. Other pieces were known as Lurgans and Coleraines. The trade for most or this linen passed through Dublin, where weavers brought their goods for sale. In 1671, for instance, Phelim O'Neill wrote to Conway from Dublin that 'I expect our Lisburn weavers here this week. 17 Lisburn was only one of many towns in the area in which linen was to become one of the most important elements in the urban economy. The way was led by Lurgan, where the landlord, Arthur Brownlow, encouraged a market for linen by buying up all that was brought to the market.18 Whatever the importance of the Huguenots to the later development of the Lisburn linen trade, it is clear that before their arrival, linen weaving was already a flourishing business in the town.

It was not as a cloth town specialising in linen that Lisburn was to achieve fame and wealth in the late seventeenth century, however, but rather as a commercial centre. The trend of diversification which was clear in Lisburn's urban economy was even more pronounced in the rural economy. The prohibition of export of live Irish cattle to England in 1665 destroyed one of the main elements of the east Ulster trade and forced the economy to diversify. This reinforced a trend already present as the population grew by immigration after 1660. New types of activity were encouraged to provide incomes for the newcomers19, with the result that the area around Lisburn moved increasingly to butter production and export of hides. Much of this trade was channelled through the fast growing port of Belfast, which traded mainly with continental Europe.

Belfast grew from being the eighth largest port in Ireland in the 1660s to the fourth largest in the 1680s. By the 1690s some commentators regarded it as the second largest port in the kingdom. While this was not true, the fact that some believed it possible is indicative of the scale of the town's trade. This bad a considerable effect on the towns in the hinterland of Belfast. As one of the main merchants in the town, George MacCartney, wrote to Rawdon in the 1680s: 'if our town prosper your town of Lisburn certainly must, for one depends on the welfare of the other.'20 What Lisburn became was an outport of Belfast and a trading centre for the products of the newer market towns of north Down, such as Lurgan, Hillsborough, Moira and Dromore. The importance of this in Lisburn's life was stressed by Rawdon's expression of fear in November 1679 that the Belfast merchants would by-pass Lisburn and establish agents for the butter trade at the smaller inland towns: Lurgan and Moira for the Armagh trade and Hillsborough and Dromore for the Down trade.21

Thus it was as a trading centre for the rapidly rising port of Belfast that Lisburn grew. One index of the importance of trade in the life of the town was the number of tokens issued by the Lisburn merchants and traders in the late seventeenth century. Such tokens functioned as a substitute for small change which was in short supply. Fourteen individuals issued them in Lisburn, making it the third biggest issuing centre after Belfast and Derry, which had twenty-six and eighteen issuers respectively.22 Market tolls also provide an index of growth. Initially the Lisburn market tolls had been leased at £10 but by 1677 the yield was about £30, by which time the tolls of Lurgan were bringing in £10 a year. To encourage this scale of growth, better facilities for merchants were offered as an incentive. In the late 1670s the abolition of tolls was under consideration as the existing lease on them had run out. This abolition would, it was thought, encourage more merchants to come to the town and hence boost overall prosperity, which would eventually compensate for the loss of toll income. Conway, however, seems to have been unwilling to forego the income from the tolls.23 Instead, Rawdon concentrated on improving the facilities in the market place, to encourage merchants. In 1677 he demolished a ruined tenement in the town and levelled the ground, with a view to moving the butchers' stalls from the main market place, which he felt could be enlarged as a corn market. He also considered setting up a timber market which would direct some of the timber trade from Belfast. The scheme, he argued, would be profitable since the butchers would pay £10 a year for the new stalls. In the event, the plan took some time to materialise and it was not until 1680 that the new shambles-described as 'very noble'-was completed. Rawdon's optimism for income was more than justified, as all the new shops were let in two days and the butchers paid double the amount (that is, £20 a year) for their stalls. Further improvements were carried out in 1683, when the market place was paved.24

One other area of investment was required to attract merchants: easy communications. There had been a plan in the early seventeenth century to make the river Lagan into a canal but this had been abandoned for fear that it would drain the water out of Lough Neagh. In the later part of the century Rawdon put much energy into road building in the Lisburn area. In 1683 Richard Dobbs, Mayor of Carrickfergus and author of A Briefe Description of the County of Antrim, noted that 'all the highways within 8 or 10 miles of Lisburn are very good-not only from the nature of the soil ...but from Sir Geo. Rawden's [sic] care (who is, I believe, the Best High Way man in the kingdom) and the Industry of the Inhabitants.'25 Thus Lisburn became part of a complex network of markets and fairs throughout north Down. This type of investment to attract merchants is a powerful indicator of how commercial activity had become the core of the Lisburn economy in the late seventeenth century.

The centrality of commerce to the life of Lisburn could only be maintained by attracting merchants to the town. Part of this was achieved by providing them with suitable facilities but the landlord also played a key role. In the 1630s Conway offered to purchase cattle from a large number of tenants, which would then be brought to Lisburn where they could be sold to merchants. 26 In this way the market was guaranteed for the merchant who would not have a wasted journey. Landlords would also fulfil the role of bankers in making loans to merchants, since there were no banks in Lisburn until the early eighteenth century, when the Dublin banks established agents there. (At that lime, tbe banks were more interested in providing bills of exchange than in making loans). The workings of the landlord are shown in the case of Thomas Taylor, a Lisburn merchant who traded with London in the 1670s and 1680s. In December 1679 Taylor wrote to Conway stressing the problems of Lisburn's trade which, he claimed, was being destroyed by Scottish merchants from Belfast, who had commissions from London merchants to buy up local tallow and butter and ship it to London. He asked Conway to intervene with the Londoners to obtain commissions for him. As the main trading season approached, he wrote to Conway again in June 1680, informing him that he had commissions from London merchants but that he lacked the working capital to carry them out He asked for a loan of £400 or £500 for six months which he would use to encourage the Lisburn trade, the money to be repaid in London al the end of that time. His case was further strengthened by his claim that Conway had dealt with his father, Oliver, in this way. Such support was not unusual; Arthur Brownlow had supported the linen market at Lurgan with his own funds until it became established.27

The years between the restoration of Charles II and the burning of the town in 1707 had thus seen a dramatic rise in the fortunes of Lisburn. The small estate town of the early seventeenth century had become unrecognisable. Tenants still came to the town to pay their rents to the agent on market days or to attend the manorial courts which resolved minor problems between tenants on the estate but Lisburn now had important ecclesiastical, educational, political and commercial functions as well.28 The transformation of the town into a centre of status had been planned by George Rawdon, who had created a neat, smart-looking town much admired by visitors. It had only been possible to realise this because of the important commercial function which Lisburn had achieved as an outport of a rapidly growing Belfast. As with so many other small towns in seventeenth century Ulster, Lisburn's success was due not to landlord or merchant alone but to a combination of both, working together.


1. Raymond Gillespie, Colonial Ulster.: the settlement of east Ulster 1600-41. 1985, p.173; W.H. Crawford, 'Lisburn at the coming of the Huguenots', in The Huguenots and Ulster, 1685-1985, 1986, n.p.
2. There is no modern biography of Rawdon but M.Beckett Sir George Rawdon, 1935 is a useful introduction.
3. Historical Manuscripts Commission, Hastings Mss., vo1.2, p.351.
4. E. Hawkins (ed), Sir William Brereton, Travels in Holland and the United Provinces, England, Scotland and Ireland, 1844. p.129
5. PROM, T 343. The 1659 figures are conveniently given in Philip Robinson, The Plantation of Ulster, 1985, pP.225-7.
6. Raymond Gillespie, 'Landed society in the Interregnum in Ireland and Scotland', in P. Roebuck, R. Mitchson (eds), Economy and society in Scotland and Ireland, 1500-1939, 1988, pp.42-4; the school is referred to in Cal. S.P. Ire. 164760, p.667.
7. The text of the charter is in W.P. Carmody, Lisburn Cathedral and its past rectors, 1926, pp.93-8; H.M.C. Hastings mss., vol.2, p.444.
8. Cal. S.P.Ire,1666-9, p.22; Cal S. P. Dom 1683, pp.55, 84-5.123, 141, 143, 249, 271; Historical Manuscripts Commission, Ormonde Manuscripts (new series), vol .7, p.26.
9. Raymond Gillespie, 'Education in seventeenth century Ulster', in Douglas Carson (ed), Essays in memory of Victor Kelly, forthcoming.
10. Cal, S.P. Dom. 1676-7, p.575.
11. Cal S.P Ire. 1669-70, p.228; H.M.C., Hastings Mss., vo1.2, p.382.
12. Cal S.P. Dan,. 1678-9. p.383.
13. George Storey, A true and impartial history of the mast material occurrences in the kingdom of Ireland, 1693, p 11; Cal S.P Dom. 1677-8, p.228-9.
14. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1676-7 p.333; Cal. .S.P. Dom 1677-8 p.81
15. Cal. S.P Dom 1676-7, p.576
16. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1680-1, pp.193, 323. On Rawdon's attitude to Presbyterians, see W.D Baillie `Sir George Rawdon; one of the horns against the kirk in the seventeenth century', Bulletin of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, no.13, March 1884, pp.2-9.
17. Raymond Gillespie, Settlement and survival on an Ulster estate: the BrownlowIease book, 1667-1711, 1988, pp.xxxiv-xxxix; Cal. S.P. Don,. 1671, p.286.
18. Gillespie, Settlement and survival, p. xxxvi.
19. The regional context is set out in Gillespie, Settlement and survival, passim. 
20. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1679-80, p.456. 
21. Cal. S.P Dam. 1679-80, p.282.
22. Peter Seaby. Coins and tokens of Ireland. 1970, pp.34-5. 
23. Cal. S.P. Do,. 1676-7, pp.548, 576; Cal S. P. Dom. 1677-8, p.240.
24. Cal. S.P. Do,. 1676-7, p.576; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1679-80, p.259; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1680-1, p.76; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1683, p.249. 
25. Text printed in George Hill, The Macdonnels of Antrim, 1873, p.385.
26. Cal. S.P. Ire, 1625-32, pp.497, 515-6. The plan for the canal is in the PRO, London, SP 63/256/59/89. 
27. Cal. S.P. Dom.1679-80. pp.298.372.
28. To, examples client collection end court sittings, see Cal. S.P. Dom. 1673-5, p.62; Cal. S.P. Dom 1679-80, pp.452,502,

Dr. Gillespie is the author of a number of books and articles on early modern Ireland, including Colonial Ulster the settlement of east Ulster, 1600-41, 1985 and Conspiracy: Ulster plots and plotters in 1615, 1987. In 1986 he edited Settlement and survival on an Ulster estate: the Brown low leasebook,1667-1711, published by PROM.