Friday, 6 October 2017

Rockport House

THE NEILLS OWNED 94 ACRES OF LAND IN COUNTY DOWN

ROCKPORT HOUSE, Craigavad, County Down, is a two-storey, three-bay Georgian house with basement and attic storey.

It has a single-storey porch with columns and Ionic-style columns.

The walls are rendered, with quoins.

A large wing or extension was added to the eastern elevation in 1919.

Rockport, engraved by E K Proctor, 1832

Rockport was built by John Turnly, of Drumnasole, County Antrim, between 1800-1815.

John Turnly's younger brother Francis (1765-1845) of Richmond Lodge, Knocknagoney, County Down, had made a fortune in China and the East Indies.

The Turnlys appear to have sold all their land and property in County Down before 1870.

Atkinson’s survey of 1823 described the house thus:-
"A good modern edifice ... embellished with plantations, and very neatly laid out. The lands appear in high heart; and in point of prospect, nothing can be more beautiful than that view of the town of Carrickfergus over the crystal surface of the bay which this seat commands.”
It is listed in the Townland Valuation of 1834 as a house and offices with steward and gardener’s houses, occupied by Mr Turnly.

Numerous outbuildings are listed, including piggeries, a boiling house and a carpenter’s shop.

In the late 1850s Turnly leased Rockport to Edward Stephen May, a son, I think, of the Rev Edward May, Vicar of Belfast, and very likely related to the May Baronets.

It was remarked at the time that the house was,
“A fine substantial block of a house, but plainly built and furnished ... does not appear to be kept in very good order, offices inferior...Mr Turnly, the proper heir of this is a lunatic but John Turnly is his brother and receives the rent.”
Some time after 1867 the house was leased by Robert Neill (1800-73), shipowner and coal importer.

His son, Henry James Neill (1831-91), purchased the property outright.

Although the Neills owned 94 acres in 1870, I feel confident that the original acreage, when Turnly lived there, would have been considerably more.

Rockport pre-1919

A key-block within the front porch is dated 1871, with a corresponding monogram, HJN.

A third key-block is carved with a lion (presumably the Neill crest) and appears throughout the house on fireplaces (the school crest is a lion).

Henry James Neill had made a fortune providing a provisioning service for Australian gold miners.

Having married in Australia in 1856, he bought Rockport on his return to his native land and took on an ailing wine and spirits business which he directed to financial success.

Neill had a large family of twelve children and a grandson, the Rt Rev Stephen Neill, became a celebrated missionary, bishop and scholar.

Coachman’s and steward’s houses were added to the plot in 1882.

Column detail at front porch

Henry James Neill died in 1891 and left the house to his widow Isabella, who herself died in 1898 in Cannes.

In 1904, the property was taken over by James T Barrett, when it was said to be "a very fine house, but old – a long way from road; vacant for a long time."

The owner had spent £200 on renovations.

At this time there were three sitting-rooms, nine bedrooms and a bathroom with hot and cold water; a large basement; and the house obtained water from a private supply.

In 1906, Rockport was taken over by Geoffrey Bing, who converted the house for use as a boys’ preparatory boarding school.

The first enrolment was four boys and Mr Bing, the headmaster, was assisted by one master and a matron.


In 1919 a large wing or extension was added to the eastern side of the house.

Adaptations included a football and cricket pavilion, and dormitory cubicles.

Mr Bing was headmaster until 1945.

Entrance front, 2017

Towards the end of his tenure the school became a charitable trust which introduced girls as well as weekly boarders and day pupils.

Building work took place in the 1970s which added a classroom block, additional changing-rooms and shower facilities.

Garden front, 2017

A pre-prep section was also added to the school.

In the 1980s, pre-school and day care facilities were introduced; and in 1998 a Senior School.

The school now caters for about 200 pupils.

The grounds are thought to extend to 64 acres, and command a fine prospect of Belfast Lough and Carrickfergus on the County Antrim side. 

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