This account of Churchill and the Verner family is not the result of original personal research; it is an edited version of information supplied by members of the family here and abroad. They wish to remain anonymous.
Peatlands Park must be known to all of us, and many will remember the little three foot gauge railway which crossed the old Portadown-Dungannon road and later ran under the M1 in its own special tunnel, transporting the fresh-cut turf for the Irish Peat Development Company Limited. Yet this area, interesting but bleak, was part of the once beautiful estate of the Verner family in Armagh, Tyrone and Monaghan, and contained the mansion known as Churchill, of which the Newry Telegraph said in 1828 - "a more chastely beautiful and classic building, or more tastefully laid out pleasure grounds we have never beheld".
I, for one, was totally ignorant of the Churchill house and estate until the opening of Peatlands Park. The Department of the Environment seems to be equally ignorant, or else uninterested. Perhaps some of the older members of the Craigavon Historical Society will remember at least the Churchill mansion as a prominent landmark until 65 years ago! After my first visit to the Park, when it opened, the late Bertie Stewart MPS, asked me if there was any sign of the old Verner mansion. When I realised that he was serious I began to think ... Verner's Inn, Verner's Bridge, Verner's Station (or halt) ... there must be a lot more to this. And there was!
The Verner family seem to be of Norman origin as their name first appears in England as "le Venour", in the late 13th century. By the mid 15th century, those we are concerned with had moved across the Scottish border with the name of "Vernour". They had land and property at Auchindinny, near Edinburgh, until 1650, which, in 1702 passed to the Inglis family, still well known in Scotland and Ulster.
The Vernour estate must have been quite large and prosperous, since, though they had no title, they had been granted a coat of arms "argent a fesse sable between three boars' heads couped gules".
The main Verner family in Scotland was probably "planted" in Ulster about 1650. Interestingly, one, Agnes Vernor (another change of spelling) of Edinburgh had gone over earlier as the wife of Sir Archibald Acheson, the then Secretary of State for Scotland and the ancestor of the Gosford Achesons. He died in 1634 at Letterkenny and is buried in Mullabrack Parish Church.
The first Verner records in Ireland are in the form of two wills. On May 15, 1683 Henry Verner of "Gullivenagh", Co. Antrim, registered a will in Armagh, and, on April 24, 1684, John Verner left "the £200 I lent to Sir George Acheson, which is now in his hands, with interest thereon" to be divided between his two sons, and requested to be buried in his Parish of Loughgall, Co. Armagh.
The Churchill Verners trace their ancestry from the former Henry Verner, as shown in the family tree. (Frequent reference to this much pruned family tree is essential to follow the Verner history).
This Henry Verner had a son, Henry, who married an Anne Kerr, and they had a family of five, three sons and two daughters. The youngest son Thomas married Margaret Kerr, an heiress from Co. Meath, in 1749. They lived at Church Hill, may have built the older two-storey house, became large land owners in Armagh and Tyrone, but were childless. For an heir, Thomas looked to his brother David's family.
David had married Elizabeth Crossle in 1743, and they had two sons and four daughters. One son, Thomas, had been killed at the Battle of Bunker's Hill near Boston, in 1775. The other son, James, married Jane Clarke of Summerisland in 1773 and they had a family of five boys and one girl.
The wealthy Thomas appears to have first considered his great - nephew James, second son of his nephew, as his heir. He often had the boy stay at Churchill, and sent him to a Belfast school. However, an unknown quarrel put paid to this idea and Thomas made a will in 1788, the year of his death, naming his youngest great-nephew William (then aged five) as his heir. It was provided that if William did not live to inherit at 25, then the estate would pass up the family - except for James! In the event, William lived 88 years, and became the best known member of the family.
So, in 1788, young William Verner and all his family took up residence at Churchill, where his parents James and Jane acted as guardians until 1807. This was a very troubled period in which occurred the Battle of the Diamond (21.9.1795) and the formation of the Orange Order. There is no doubt that the Verners played a large part in these events, and even young William was a witness at the Diamond before his 13th birthday.
Here is a brief note on the fortunes of those at Churchill, apart from William, at this time. His father James was an Irish MP with a house at Dawson Street, Dublin, until the Act of Union in 1801. He also took charge of the estates until 1793, when John Crossle took over. It is thought that he was responsible for enlarging the house by the building of the 3-storey block in front of the older building. He died in 1822, his widow in 1827, and both are buried at Loughgall. His eldest son Thomas married Elizabeth May (hence May Street in Belfast) who was a sister of Lady Donegall.
The unfortunate James would not settle down so he was allowed to enter the Army with a commission bought by his father. After service in India he had to retire due to ill health, but later rejoined and was posted to Dublin with a commission purchased by William. He finally gave up the Army, and lived at Newry and then at Warrenpoint, with an allowance of £400 per annum from William. David married a Miss Cole, and lived in the Channel Islands. His twin John died in 1814, a young man. "He caught a bad cold accompanied by a cough, which increased, and his breaking a blood vessel led to his death", wrote William. Elizabeth married a Captain Aldrige, ADC to Lord Cornwallis.
Now we may turn to William, the heir. He was educated at Woodville Near Lucan, and his father would have sent him to Trinity College Dublin, but William, having commanded the Churchill Yeomanry, preferred the Army. He joined the 7th Hussars under Lord Paget, was for two years on the Staff of the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin, and then went to Spain to take part under Sir John Moore, in the Peninsular Campaign of 1808-9. Later, under the Duke of Wellington, he fought at the Battle of the Pyrenees in 1813, Orthez and Toulouse in 1814, and Quatre Bras and Waterloo in 1815.
Returning home to recover from the wounds of Waterloo he saw that his father's health was failing and that he must look after his estate, so he retired with the rank of Colonel. Both house and estate, which his great-uncle Thomas had referred to as Church Hill were now simply referred to as Churchill.
The derivation of the name is obvious. The old grave-yard is still there, but the ruins of the church are gone. The bell had been used in the Verners' farmyard, and at this time, 1816, William's father James offered it to the Church of Ireland for their new building at Tartaraghan. The offer was refused because the bell was inscribed to the Virgin Mary.
William decided he needed a wife and he found one, in London, in the person of Harriet Wingfield, daughter of Colonel Wingfield who was a son of the 3rd Viscount Powerscourt. They married in 1819 and soon afterwards purchased 86 Eaton Square as their London house. There was a family of ten, with only two boys. At least two of their daughters died in infancy, and were buried at Powerscourt as their mother, Harriet, frequently visited her parents at Corke Abbey nearby.
William joined the Conservative party, and after one unsuccessful election attempt, became MP for Co. Armagh in 1832. He retained his seat through ten elections until he resigned in 1868. The Verners were never absentee landlords, but obviously much time was spent at Eaton Square, and their land agents (and relations), members of the Crossle family, did their work well.
William was High Sheriff of Monaghan in 1820, Armagh 1821 and Tyrone 1823. He was also a JP and Deputy Lieutenant of Tyrone. He was made a Knight Commander of Hanover in 1837, by William IV, British monarchs being also kings of Hanover until Queen Victoria came to the throne. In that same year, the Tory party being in opposition, William attended a banquet at which he drank a toast to the "The Battle of the Diamond". The Whigs demanded an apology, which was refused, and William was stripped of his office of Deputy Lieutenant. When the Tories returned to power, he would not allow them to restore his office, but the Queen was asked to reward him, which she did by conferring a Baronetcy on him i n 1846.
This was the time of the potato famine, and Sir William reduced rents by up to 50% and offered employment to any of his tenants who were in need. The parish of Milltown, partly owned by Sir William, was very badly hit. The rector, Charles Crossle, went to England to raise funds. He was very successful - in one case a parish sent him £50 per week until the worst was over. The same Rev Crossle organised road building, new drainage, tree-planting etc.
Sir William was known as 'Taffy' by his children, and seems to have been on the best of terms with them all. His first son William helped him in constituency work, and he himself succeeded his father as MP for Armagh until his own death. Edward Wingfield, the second son was MP for Lisburn from 1863, and on the death of his brother became MP for Armagh until he resigned in 1880.
Sir William must have had a very strong constitution as his health only began to deteriorate in 1870. He was at Eaton Square for his birthday on the 25th October, and died there on the 20th January, 1871, having lived 88 years. His body was brought by ship and train to Armagh, and he was buried at Loughgall.
A few details of the funeral show that the first Baronet, a member of Parliament for 36 years, a Deputy Grand Master of the Orange Order for Ireland, and a Grand Master for Armagh, was held in the highest possible esteem by the people.
The cortege left Armagh at 11.00am with over 140 carriages of various sorts following the hearse. The pall bearers were Lord Lurgan, Sir C Molyneux Bart., J Y Burges DL., Col. Pakenham, Maxwell Close DL., Lt Col Cross JP., Parker Synott JP., Sir James Stronge Bart. MP., Sir John Stewart Bart., the Hon. Col. Knox MP., A H Pakenham JP., John Irwin JP., Joseph Atkinson DL., Col. Simpson JP., and Major Burleigh Stuart. The number of people following was estimated at 10,000 and, though Orangemen formed the majority, all creeds and classes were well represented. The procession was over two miles in length, and arrived in Loughgall at 1.30pm. After a service in the church, the interment took place in the old cemetery nearby.
The second Baronet, also William, was born in 1822, and joined the Coldstream Guards in 1841. He married Mary Pakenham in 1850, and they had two daughters, Alice Emily, and Edith, and one son, William. They lived at Churchill and London from the early 1860s, the first Baronet and his wife having moved to Corke Abbey at this time. Not much is known of the second Baronet as he was completely overshadowed by his father, and only survived him by a little over two years. He made a will in March, 1872, and died a year later. He was buried in Loughgall.
The third Baronet, also William, was born in 1856, so he must have known his aunts, his uncle Edward Wingfield, and his illustrious grandfather, the first Sir William.
As a baby he was ill, and was baptized at home. There may have been a tutor for his early education, but he was sent to Eton from 1870 to 1872. His short stay may hve been due to the failing health of his father.
Under the terms of his father's will, with Joseph Atkinson and Major Burleigh Stuart as executors and guardians, the young William and his mother were to reside at Eaton Square and for a reasonable time each year at Churchill. He was to inherit all the estates on becoming 21, or marrying before that, but the guardians were "to take special care not to permit the Minor to marry without the permission of the Court''.
There was some difficulty in enforcing the injunction about living for a reasonable time at Churchill. The boy's mother preferred to live in London and seldom came near Churchill. Because of this, less than a year later, when "Billy", as he was usually known, became 18, the guardian decided to send him on a "Grand Tour" with a Mr. Greenslade to look after him. The tour was to America, Australia and China, but many other places may have been visited on the way home.
At some stage, probably on returning to London, Billy met a Miss Annie Wilson and her son, Harry, from Melbourne. Billy and Annie were married in London on 29th January, 1877, a few days after his 21st birthday. The Verner family was not pleased.
On coming of age, one of the 3rd Baronet's first acts was to engage a new solicitor, a Mr A R Jackson of Cannon Street, London. The Irish estates were promptly dis-entailed. Annie's son, Harry, assumed the name Verner. He was privately educated until he was sent to Eton, 1882-84
Sir William and Annie had no children. They divided the time between Eaton Square and Churchill, and entertained on a lavish scale. Money must have been spent like water for several loans were obtained, one of them for £60,000. Considering the fact that Billy died 9 years after inheriting, and his wife 2 years later, it would seem that such huge amounts of money could only have been lost by gambling, or possibly to unscrupulous "friends".
In 1880 the 3rd Baronet made his will, leaving the estates and Eaton Square to his wife, and then to "the boy who with my consent has assumed the name of Verner and is living under my charge". Sir William Edward Hercules Verner died of cirrhosis of the liver on 8th June, 1886, in London, and was buried at Loughgall, in the same tomb as his father. His widow died 2 years later and was interred in the same tomb. This was, in effect, the end of the Verners at Churchill.
The title now reverted to Billy's uncle, and Edward Wingfield Verner, his father's only brother, became the 4th Baronet. (See family tree). He lived mainly at a house known as The Aske in Wicklow and in London. He died in 1899 and was buried at Powerscourt. His son of the same name became the 5th Baronet and lived at Corke Abbey which he had inherited. He and his family, because of their Unionist and Orange traditions, were forced to sell up, and they went to England in 1922. When he died in 1936 his elder son, Edward Derrick Wingfield became the 6th and last Baronet. He had married a French lady, Angele Becco, in 1948, but they had no children. His only brother, John Wingfield, married Sybil Leigh-Pemberton in 1934, but again there were no children and he died in 1943.
Harry "Verner" was left, a Minor, at Churchill, becoming of age on 27th July, 1889. He continued to live beyond the means of the estate, but seemed to be a popular and hospitable man. He was on the Grand Jury for County Armagh and was High Sheriff in 1896. Often he could be seen playing cricket at Armagh, and he frequently hosted shooting parties on the estate.
Described as tall and good-looking Harry never married. A Mrs. Logan, estranged from her husband, came to live at Churchill and acted as hostess. She was not divorced but local people referred to her as Mrs. Verner.
Sometimes Harry brought in actors and dancing girls from Dublin to enliven his house parties, and when the house was full, they were put up in Verner's Inn.
86 Eaton Square was the first place he sold. Shortly after, in the 1890s, much of the outlying land was sold to pay off the £60,000 loan inherited from the 3rd Baronet, and to finance gambling debts at Monte Carlo, London and Churchill.
Churchill was put up for sale in 1898, but was not sold. The following year it could have been bought for £12,000, but much of the best timber had been sold. In 1900 the Irish Peat Development Company bought 548 acres of bog land, and the most valuable furniture was sold in 1902. More and more bogland was sold to the Irish Peat Development Company. Harry was declared bankrupt in 1913. He made his will in 1914, leaving what remained to Mrs Logan, and died in London on 12th August 1916, being buried at Highgate. He was 48 years old.
The estate was valued at £39,350 but the debts were greater. Mrs Logan moved to a small cottage with what money and valuables she had. Sometimes she would go to live at the old Maghery Hotel, owned by Mr. Mackle. On a few occasions, having sold something, she went to London. But as time went on, these flashes of prosperity ceased, and she died in 1935, being buried at Milltown.
Churchill, left empty from 1918 was known to have wood-rot in 1926. The house and remaining lands were sold in 1927, and the house was dismantled by the end of 1928. Today there is no sign of a classical parkland estate, but a few things can still be seen. Verner's Inn, at Vernersbridge has been restored. If you stand on the old road there, you can look over the Motorway at a row of Irish yew trees which were near the house. At Maghery, the railings and gates at the old Chapel were once at the Southern entrance to Churchill. Nearby, at Milltown is the thin small tombstone where Melville Annie Logan is buried. The inscription is:
"In loving memory of Mell. May 18, 1935".
The entrance to the Masonic Hall at Markethill is adorned by the former portico of the main entrance. The Loughgall graves, in the old churchyard are interesting. The vault where the 2nd Baronet and the 3rd Baronet and his wife were interred could be entered until 1962, when, as it was no longer weatherproof it was sealed up. A full length portrait of Sir William Verner, first Baronet, in the uniform of a Colonel of the 7th Huzzars, is in the Armagh museum.
The marble mantle piece from Churchill's entrance hall is said to be in Derryadd Orange Hall, and the memorial tablet put up by the first Sir William Verner at the spot where he buried his favourite mare Constantia, from Waterloo is also said to be in another Orange Hall, but the ownership is disputed.
It is inscribed: