03 August 2023
The Irish diplomat and
aristocrat who refused
a posting to Athens
150 years ago in 1873
I was in Southwark Cathedral earlier this week, and as I walked around Southwark during the day I was reminded of how the Irish philanthropist Lord Brabazon played an instrumental role in saving the Cross Bones Graveyard near Southwark Cathedral and how his diplomatic careeer came to an end when he refused to go to Greece 150 years ago.
Lord Brabazon, who eventually succeeded as the 12th Earl of Meath in 1887, was an Irish diplomat and aristocrat who turned down the opportunity to become the Ambassador to Greece in 1873, and so may have missed the opportunity to join the ranks of the Irish Philhellenes a century and a half ago.
Reginald Brabazon (1841-1929), 12th Earl of Meath, was an Irish politician and philanthropist, was born in London on 31 July 1841 into the Brabazon family of Killruddery House, near Bray, Co Wicklow.
He was the son of William Brabazon, 11th Earl of Meath, who laid the foundation stone of the first Catholic church in Rathmines, Dublin, after the site was bought from his father 200 years ago in 1823.
When his father succeeded as the 11th Earl of Meath in 1851, nine-year-old Reginald Brabazon became known as Lord Brabazon. He was educated at Eton and in 1863 he became a clerk in the Foreign Office, and as Lord Brabazon, he became a British diplomat.
He married Lady Mary Jane Maitland, daughter of the 11th Earl of Lauderdale, in 1868. But, in response to pleas from his wife’s family, Brabazon refused to go to Athens 150 years ago when he was posted to the Greek capital in 1873.
Many diplomats who were Irish-born or from Irish families had served as diplomats in Greece in the immediate preceding years, and had earned for themselves reputations as Philhellenes. The most notable of these predecessors was Sir Thomas Wyse (1791-1862) from Waterford, who was the British ambassador in Athens in 1849-1862, and who died at Athens on 16 April 1862.
It is doubtful whether Brabazon would have ever gained a reputation as a Philhellene, unlike many of his Irish predecessors in Greece. He was given offered no alternative to that posting in Athens and, indeed, because of his refusal he was suspended from the Foreign Office. Brabazon was still suspended when he resigned from the Foreign Office in 1877.
Brabazon now took a new interest in his home town in Co Wicklow. Bray had been without a market house since the old one was demolished in the 1830s, and in 1879 Brabazon wrote to the town council offering to build a covered market house for about £4,000 – the final cost turned out to be £6,366.
The building was designed by two of the leading architects of the day, Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (1827-1899) and his son Thomas Manly Deane (1851-1932), with input from Sir Edward Guy Dawber (1861-1938), later a prominent figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in England.
The Market House is built of local red brick, with timber framing to projecting first floor bays and gables. The pitched roof is tiled and the two-storey portion facing the Main Street is surmounted by a tall copper-clad fleche, complete with clock. The wrought iron gates in the north porch are dated 1881, although the building was largely built in 1882-1883. The town council first met in the new chamber in 1884.
Looking at the building from the side, it is still possible to imagine the original busy market area, 62 ft long by 50 ft wide, with its arcades opening onto the street.
The upper floor is reached by a stone staircase at the east side and with an open timber roof and oak chimney-pieces with carved panels. In the south porch, there is a battered mock Tudor inscription:
Who traffic here beware no strife ensue
In all your dealings be ye just and true
Let [justice] strictly in the scale be weighed
So shall ye call God's blessing on your trade.
On the north front there are relief carvings on the gables of the Brabazon coats of arms, and 30 stained-glass panels in the windows display the heraldic arms of the Brabazon family and their wives from Norman times on.
Brabazon and his wife then decided to devote their time to working with ‘social problems and the relief of human suffering.’ His charities included the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association which he founded in 1882. The association created public parks and gardens in London.
Brabazon leased Ottershaw Park from Sir Edward Colebrooke in 1882-1883, and he was High Sheriff of Co Wicklow in 1883. He wrote to The Times that year to protest against the planned sale of Cross Bones Cemetery as a building site. He urged the public ‘to save this ground from such desecration, and to retain it as an open space for the use and enjoyment of the people.’
Brabazon succeeded his father as 12th Earl of Meath in May 1887, and returned to Ireland with his wife, promising to devote their considerable energies to ‘the consideration of social problems and the relief of human suffering.’
Brabazon was Chancellor of the Royal University of Ireland in 1902-1906. His principal titles were Irish, but he held a seat in the House of Lords with the title of Baron Chaworth. He became a prominent Conservative in the Lords and an ardent imperialist, and was responsible for introducing Empire Day, which was recognised in 1916.
He was a member of the London County Council, the Privy Council of Ireland and the Senate of Southern Ireland, which only existed in 1920-1921. But he did not attend either of the meetings of that short-lived senate in advance of the formation of the Irish Free State.
Lord Meath died on 11 October 1929 and is buried with his wife and son in the churchyard of Christ Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Delgany, Co Wicklow. The streets and squares in The Coombe, Dublin, named in his honour include: Reginald Street, Reginald Square and Brabazon Square. Meath Gardens in Bethnal Green is a public park.
There is a Portland stone memorial to him by the artist Joseph Hermon Cawthra (1934) outside the Columbia Hotel in Lancaster Gate, London, and a stained-glass window in Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
As for Cross Roads burial yard, it only received the Church’s first official blessing eight years ago on Saint Mary Magdalene’s Day, 22 July 2015, when the recently-retired Dean of Southwark Cathedral, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, conducted ‘An Act of Regret, Remembrance, Restoration.’ Today, this burial ground saved by Lord Brabazon is home to a garden of remembrance that has evolved into a contemplative space and a memorial shrine created by local people.
The present sad commercial use of the town hall in Bray is hardly a fitting tribute to a man who had a genuine sense of public duty, despite scuppering his diplomatic career by refusing to go to Athens 150 years ago.