The historic house of Florence Court
Florence Court epitomises the Irish country house: a grand and elegant house in a romantic setting with self-sufficient demesne complete with gardens, parkland, woodland, and supporting buildings. The beauty and peacefulness of Florence Court bely the sometimes turbulent lives of those who lived and worked here during the course of its 300-year history.
Who lived at Florence Court?
Captain William Cole came to Ireland as part of Elizabeth1’s army of colonisation in 1601. He oversaw the creation of Enniskillen at its strategically important location on Lough Erne and lived in Enniskillen Castle, becoming Provost and then Governor. Many generations of the family continued to be involved in the governance of the area and as members of parliament. A century later, his descendant Sir John Cole (1680-1726) built a lodge to the south west of the town, and named it after his wife, Florence. The house he built in the 1720s was not fortified as the early 1700s were a time of relative peacefulness in Ulster compared to the previous century. The present Florence Court house we see today was built by Sir John’s son, also called John Cole, who was raised to the peerage as Lord Mount Florence in 1760. The house was still unfinished at the time of young John’s death. The colonnades and pavilions were completed by his son, William Willoughby Cole (1736-1803) who became Earl of Enniskillen in 1789.
Through the 19th century the 3rd and 4th Earls of Enniskillen continued the work of their ancestors by investing in and developing the land and the estate. William, 3rd Earl, was also a keen palaeontologist, and gathered a large collection of fossil fish which he eventually sold to the British Museum. As Grand Master of the Orange Lodge of Ireland he was also involved in many civic duties. William’s first wife, Jane Casamaijor, laid out the American garden with rhododendrons and azaleas on the slopes south of the house. William invested heavily in the estate and demesne. The 3rd Earl also built a Tile, Brick and Pottery Works which turned local clay into drainage pipes, bricks and tiles (no longer extant). The sawmill transformed trees into everything from coffins to fence posts, railway sleepers, furniture and gates.
Who built the house at Florence Court?
The house is a bit of a mystery: the architect or architects are unknown and in some of the main rooms superb decorative plasterwork survives though there is no record of who the skilled plasterers were. The main block probably dates to the 1760s and its colonnades and wings to the 1770s. These hide extensive yards and service buildings, grouped cleverly around the back of the house.
The demesne and gardens at Florence Court
At around the same time, the formal landscape of the 1720s was re-designed by William King, one of the great landscape gardeners of the late 18th century, who planted belts of trees to provide shelter and woodland, and clumps of trees in open parkland, where sheep, horses and cattle could graze. The mass of Benaughlin mountain provides a dramatic backdrop to the composition. The demesne provided the immediate needs of the household and employment for staff, servants and farm labourers, with grazing for cattle, sheep and horses, a large deer park, arable land for crops and woodlands for timber. A major restoration of the 19th century walled garden is underway through the dedication of volunteers and staff. The vegetable and fruit garden is full of activity once again, giving a sense of Florence Court as the hive of industry that enabled it to be largely self-sustaining. At its height, it was further supported by nearly 30,000 acres of tenanted farmland, which provided much-needed rental income. The latter part of the 19th century in Ireland was dominated by the Land Wars: a period of unrest and reappraisal of the historic form of land tenure and landlord- tenant relations. Like most other estates, Florence Court’s estate was significantly reduced by various Land Acts brought in by the British government in around 1900 to deal with the situation. In so doing, many houses in Ireland lost their main source of income from tenanted land and began a gradual decline in fortune. With the impact of the 1st and 2nd World Wars and rising taxes, Florence Court eventually proved impossible for the family to maintain and the house was transferred to the National Trust in 1954.
The fire at Florence Court
After a devastating fire in 1955 the interiors of the house were quickly rebuilt and repaired. The contents had been on loan from the family and many had miraculously survived the fire. They were removed by the 6th Earl in the 1970s, when he and his wife went to live elsewhere but were generously returned by his widow, Nancy, in the 1990s. This breathed renewed life back into the house and the Trust continues to restore the gardens and demesne buildings so that all can enjoy this remarkable house, gardens and demesne and hear the story of those who created them.