A cautionary tale for the fifth of November

As we remember the Gunpowder Plot, we would like to share the intriguing but cautionary tale of a Victorian MP who inadvertently contrived a scene similar to that in which Guido Fawkes found himself in 1605, but tragically succeeded where Fawkes had failed. The story also illustrates the difficulty of establishing a clear account of a particular incident from contemporary newspaper reports in the absence of an official record of events.

George Macartney, formerly Hume (1793-1869), was a Conservative MP for County Antrim from 1852-9. In 1828 he had inherited a 12,000 acre estate at Lissanoure, near Ballymoney, county Antrim, from his great-uncle, Earl Macartney, the first British ambassador to China. This included a castle that dated back to the fourteenth century, which had been substantially remodelled in the Gothic style.

According to the fullest account of the incident, first published by the Daily News on 11 October 1847, Macartney was in the habit of storing gunpowder in the cellars of his castle for use by the local yeomanry when called out to practise. Some of the dozen barrels of gunpowder that he had in his keeping were located in a dark and little used passage linking the two wings of the castle. When the barrels were found to have become damp, Macartney reportedly ordered their contents be laid out to dry.

After a few days, on 5 October 1847, Macartney’s wife, Ellen, in apparent ignorance of the situation, took a lighted candle to guide her way through this passage. Scarcely had she been ‘a minute in the place’, continued the Daily News, ‘when an explosion took place, the roar of which was heard like a burst of thunder, and in an instant, with the exception of the opposite wing from the spot, the castle was a mass of ruins, the unfortunate lady being blown to atoms!’ Although a number of servants were in the castle at the time of the explosion, no one else was injured as they were all situated at the other extremity of the building.

Ruins of Lissanoure Castle

Ruins of Lissanoure Castle

However, an earlier account published by the Belfast News-letter on 8 October presented a different version of events, in which Macartney and his wife were ‘engaged with a servant in an office in the castle’ when a barrel of gunpowder was discovered, the hoops of which fell off upon being lifted. After Macartney had been called out of the office, and the servant had ushered a junior member of the family out of the room, the explosion took place. A version still kinder to Macartney appeared in the Coleraine Chronicle shortly afterwards, (and was carried by The Times on 14 October), which explained that Macartney, suspecting that the spilled powder had lost its strength, had taken a sample outside ‘for the purpose of trying its explosive power’. After Mrs. Macartney was left alone in the apartment the explosion occurred which left her buried in rubble from the floors above, and upon being extricated she was found to be dead. It was ‘supposed’ that she had ‘been sweeping about the fire’ and had caused a spark to light the powder.

Curiously, no formal inquiry into this remarkable accident appears to have been held. The Freeman’s Journal noted on 13 October that the Banner of Ulster had failed to report an inquest on the body of the victim, and it transpired that Ellen Macartney’s remains had been buried at four o’clock on the morning of 8 October after a ‘strictly private’ ceremony.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Macartney was said to have been thrown into ‘the deepest agony’ by the event, his reason apparently tottering ‘under the weight of the calamity’, and he never remarried. However, before long the unwitting architect of this ‘lamentable occurrence’ resumed his political activities. He acted on numerous committees as a staunch defender of the Protestant and land-owning interests and became, according to his critics, ‘a great spouter and troubler of railway meetings’. Despite having acquired the nickname of the ‘Old Tyrant’ from the tenants of his estate, he was returned for County Antrim at the 1852 general election and re-elected in 1857, but, being ‘terribly unpopular’ with many of his constituents, he was persuaded to retire in 1859. During his time in Parliament he was a frequent speaker and as a conveyer of insider gossip maintained, in the words of Benjamin Disraeli, a ‘reputation for cock & bulls’. He died at Ostende in October 1869. Lissanoure Castle was eventually rebuilt and sold to a family of Belfast industrialists in 1943.

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