Randolph Jones, Research Associate, Beyond 2022.
Information on the past custodians of Ireland’s pre-1922 archives can be found in some unusual places. While searching online for digitised copies of any published material by James Frederic Ferguson, I came across the following holograph letter available for sale on e-Bay. Ferguson (d. 26 November 1855) worked as a clerk in the Chief Remembrancer’s office in the Irish exchequer in Dublin. By the time he wrote the letter (17 April 1854), he was unremunerated and his income as a free-lance record agent had also dried up. He therefore turned to writing articles for various periodicals in order to keep the wolf at bay.
The letter was addressed to John Gough Nichols, the editor of the ‘Topographer and Genealogist’, a journal that was published in London at irregular intervals. Ferguson had not written for this publication before, and the five articles that he did eventually write for it, were all published after his death.
The vendor of the letter on e-Bay only posted a single image of the inner side of the bi-folded letter, but it is clear from the text depicted that Ferguson and Nichols had corresponded previously. Ferguson refers to the early fifteenth-century illustration of the Irish court of exchequer sitting in session, which once appeared in the exchequer’s famous ‘Red Book’, with the suggestion that a copy should be made in Ireland. Ferguson depreciates his own ability to write an article worthy to accompany such a plate and suggests that William Henry Black, Assistant Keeper of the Public Records in England might do a better job. Ferguson had met Black when the former came to Ireland in 1849 to examine the records in the Chief Remembrancer’s Office. Ferguson’s comment about Black’s ‘soreness of eyes’ is confirmed by Black himself, when he recorded in his personal notebook on 6 July 1849, when he examined the same ‘Red Book’, his inability to read a passage of eighteen short lines because they were ‘almost utterly illegible at least in the present state of my sight’. Despite Ferguson’s reticence, he did indeed write such an article on the Irish court of exchequer, which was published with an accompanying plate in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ in 1855.
Which brings us to the final section of Ferguson’s letter, in which he takes up Nichols’ suggestion to write a piece on the murder of James Cornewalshe, chief baron of the Irish exchequer, in 1442 at Baggot Rath castle, Dublin. According to an entry that was once contained in the exchequer memoranda roll for the year 21 Henry VI, Cornewalshe
‘was sitting tranquilly at supper only with his servants. On the twenty-eighth day [of September], a certain William Fitzwilliam, late of Dondrum, Esq, came with a great multitude of armed men, in warlike array, and entered upon the hall of the aforesaid manor, in Bagot-rath, with swords, bows, lances, and clubs, and there, on the same day, traitorously and feloniously murdered the said James, against the peace of the Lord the King, as is commonly and notoriously reported.’
Baggot Rath had been granted to Sir Edward Perrers and his wife Joanna in 1402. After Sir Edward died in 1428, his wife continued to hold it until her own death, probably in 1442. Fitzwilliam was married to Ismay, the Perrers’ only surviving child and clearly considered himself to be the new owner. It is not clear how Cornewalshe obtained the castle, but it was usual for exchequer officials to be granted temporary custody of lands held by the crown following the death of a tenant-in-chief, in lieu of their wages. Yet Ismay was not the eventual heir of her parents, for in 1448 it was established that Sir Edmund’s heir was one John Hall of Southwark, the great-grandson of Sir Edmund’s brother Richard Perrers of Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire.
Ferguson does not seem to have written his article on the murder of Chief Baron Cornewalshe. If he did, it was not one of the five that was published later in the ‘Topographer and Genealogist’ or indeed anywhere else. Ferguson probably never wrote it, for on 25 February 1856, a paper was read before Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, by Mr. Huband Smith, on the history of Baggot Rath castle, which was printed in that institution’s journal in 1858. Smith quoted portions from the original Latin text that once appeared in the memoranda roll, which were probably supplied to him by Ferguson, whose willingness to share his knowledge of the documents in his care was legendary.
What has happened to the original of Ferguson’s letter to Nichols? It appears to have been sold a long time ago and reference to it can no longer be found online. If you happen to be the new owner, please get in contact with the Beyond 2022 team so that we can have an image of the other side!