top of page
  • gardenhistorygirl

Castlewellan - Part 1: An Irish gentleman gardener, the 5th Earl Annesley

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

Profile photograph of Huge Annesley (later the 5th Earl Annesley of Castlewellan) c.1854-55


This month, I’m writing about a Victorian Irish aristocratic horticulturist, garden-maker and photographer, Hugh Annesley, the 5th Earl Annesley of Castlewellan (1831-1908), who devoted himself to improving its gardens as well as creating a fine arboretum. An arboretum which is, today, described as "significantly important" in both Ireland and the UK as well as internationally. However, as the estate declined over the decades following his death you may not have heard of it, or the Earl, although it's presently being restored – with his photographs of the gardens providing invaluable information for the renovation project.

I visited Castlewellan in County Down back in 2010 as part of a garden history tour to Northern Ireland. And it intrigued me from the start. At the time, it was obviously a shadow of its former self: somewhat overgrown and neglected in part, but still with a wonderful array of interesting trees in its arboretum, together with a lovely walled garden. There's also an atmospheric-looking castle, picturesquely located at the side of a large lake and only 4 miles from the sea. In fact, it's Castlewellan's close proximity to the Irish Sea and the Gulf Stream, with gardens facing east and south surrounded by mature mixed woodlands, that contribute to its mild climate. While good rainfall, little frost, gravel subsoil, and a hilly landscape, provide perfect drainage and good growing conditions.

Castlewellan today with many mature trees and shrubs

The last member of the Annesley family to live at Castlewellan was Hugh's grandson, Gerald (son of his daughter, Mabel), the title having passed to another branch of the family following the death of Hugh's heir during the 1st world war. Castlewellan was eventually sold to the Ministry of Agriculture in 1967 and opened to the public as a 'forest park' in 1969. In 2018, following a small award from the National Lottery, some restoration work was undertaken – with the appointment of a knowledgeable Head Gardener 4 years earlier being an important factor. In 2021 however, it received more substantial funding from the National Lottery/local Council to enable a more sustained restoration which is now underway (see Castlewellan – the Future below).

Castlewellan Castle. Designed by Scottish architect William Burn and built c.1856-59 at a cost of £18,128. It stands on 2 long terraces looking down over the lake, with views from the windows to the Mountains of Mourne It's now a private conference centre, not open to the public

As a huge fan of Victorian glasshouses, when I visited back in 2010 I was both fascinated and saddened by those that remained at Castlewellan. They appeared to be completely filled with overgrown (albeit possibly once interesting) plants, as well as weeds – and there was even what looked like a tree making a bid for freedom through the glass roof, as can be seen below in my photograph. Little information was to hand about who had created the gardens and arboretum – and as we moved on in our tour to more glamorous gardens such as Mount Stewart and Powerscourt, I tucked Castlewellan away in my mind 'for future research'. Recently however, while researching something entirely unrelated, I came across several articles about Castlewellan in the Victorian horticultural press, which finally prompted me to take a look at the story behind this special place which has stayed with me for so many years.

Neglected glasshouses at Castlewellan. Photograph by author, September 2010

After scouring the horticultural press and investigating other sources, I've found a huge amount of information about the gardens at Castlewellan. For example The Gardeners' Chronicle, The Garden, Irish Gardening, and William Robinson's short-lived publication, Flora and Sylva, all contain articles with a wealth of detail about the 5th Earl's Castlewellan – often written by eminent horticulturists of the day. In addition, an article in Country Life provides more detail about the flower gardens. One of these 'other sources' is the present Head Gardener at Castlewellan, Alwyn Sinnamon, who's interested in its history (being involved in its ongoing restoration), and who has very generously shared many wonderful unpublished photographs and information with me (with the kind permission of the family), as well as answering many queries. Any errors in this post are, therefore, entirely my own!

As there's so much of interest – and this post is already quite a long read, in order to do the subject justice I will be publishing 3 further posts about Castlewellan in due course: about its glasshouses, the 5th Earl's Head Gardener, and a rare daffodil, named for one of the Countesses of Annesley.


To begin with, some brief history on Castlewellan. The original estate, which is situated north of the foothills of the Mourne Mountains in County Down, dates back to medieval times. The Annesleys, who bought the Manor of Castlewellan in 1741, can apparently date their line back to a nobleman who came to England at the time of the Norman Conquest. However, the Irish branch of the family seems to have begun with Sir Francis Annesley, employed in Ireland by James I, who acquired land there in various counties by both Royal Grant and purchase. Over the generations, the Annesleys improved the estate and, in 1750, laid out the nearby town of Castlewellan as well as a formal park – the wife of the local Dean writing at the time that the Annesleys had "walled in and planted with oak etc. 350 acres of ground for a park... [and are] going to build a town".

Part of the Castlewellan estate from OS map survey date 1859 (with modern annotations)

In the early 1800's, the 2nd Earl built himself a summer villa known as The Cottage on the north shore of the Castlewellan lake (demolished in 1861), and around this time the surrounding parkland was transformed into the more naturalistic landscape that remains today. It's thought this was undertaken by John Sutherland (c.1745-1826), the most celebrated Irish landscape architect of the time. However, the Annesley family lived elsewhere rather than at Castlewellan, and it was not until a generation later when the 4th Earl, Hugh’s elder brother William (1838-1874), built the Scottish baronial-style castle on the shores of the lake (between 1856-58), that the family moved there.

View from the castle across the lake to the Mountains of Mourne, late 1800's. This photograph clearly shows the terraces that the castle sits above. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

Postcard below showing view across the lake to Castlewellan Castle in County Down. Date unknown

At around the time the castle was being built, the walled garden was also redeveloped into grand Victorian pleasure grounds, including fountains and glasshouses. Much exotic planting was also undertaken with, for example, 10 giant sequoias (which the Victorians called Wellingtonias), monkey puzzles, and groves of rhododendrons. And one tree in particular has stood the test of time.

Author's photograph of the multi-stemmed sequoia from 2010, alongside Hugh Annesley's photograph of the tree, aged 15 years, from 1871

This rare, multi-stemmed giant sequoia, which I photographed in 2010, stands within the walled garden at Castlewellan. Planted as a sapling in 1856, it was grown from one of the original seeds first brought back to England from California in 1853 by the plant-hunter, William Lobb, while working for the Veitch Nursery.

These trees became particularly popular with Victorian collectors, although this one at Castlewellan is rare, now having 19 trunks – and in 2018 it won a place in the finals of the UK Tree of the Year competition. Hugh Annesley photographed this tree in 1871 when it was only 15 years old (above) – his photograph also showing a monkey puzzle on the left, and a row of Portuguese laurels leading down towards the glasshouses. Castlewellan may not have won UK Tree of the Year in 2018 but did, that same year, become the first Irish garden to receive a plaque from the International Dendrology Society. This award is presented to gardens or dendrological collections of exceptional merit; an IDS spokeswoman describing the arboretum and gardens at Castlewellan as having “the finest collection of trees and shrubs on the island of Ireland”.

Fashionable terracing, added to the area in front of the glasshouses, was completed in 1860. While a little later that decade more conservatories and vineries were added by James Gray Horticultural Builders of Chelsea, London [as there's so much to say about Castlewellan's glasshouses, I will cover them in Part 2].

The terrace and glasshouses as they looked in the 1970's

Hugh Annesley, The 5th Earl

Born in Dublin and educated at Eton, Annesley entered the army and served in the Crimean campaign of 1854 where he was serious wounded – a bullet through the jaw, which eventually led to his retirement from the military in 1860. Images of Annesley from around this time often show a black patch covering the wound to his face and jaw, although photographs of him in later life show him sporting a typical Victorian beard. Interestingly, an article in the New York Tribune newspaper of September 2nd, 1912 – reporting on a visit to New York by Hugh’s son, Francis (after Hugh's death), provides some interesting detail. The author writing that Annesley’s war wound “took off part of the tongue and 24 teeth” [this may, of course, have been an exaggeration], leaving him with a speech impediment, although it also mentions a written history of the Crimean War which speaks of “the courage and composure” of Annesley in bearing his injuries which, at the time, could so easily have caused his death.

Photograph of Hugh Annesley in 1854 showing the patch covering his war wound; and as the 5th Earl Annesley of Castlewellan later in life. Both photographs by kind permission of the Ogilvie family

Not unusually for someone of his status, after leaving the military Annesley entered politics holding a seat in a neighbouring county for some 17 years; however, he seems to have been a reluctant politician, generally only speaking in the Commons on Army matters [perhaps problems with his speech played a part in this]. And just before an election in 1874, he gave up on politics altogether (due, it's said, to the county he represented becoming a centre of support for 'home rule'). Only 6 months later he became the 5th Earl upon the untimely death of his unmarried brother, William. This turn of events enabled Annesley to devote himself entirely to the Castlewellan estate and, together with his Head Gardener, Thomas Ryan (1851-1910), he continued to expand the gardens and created its notable arboretum.

Annesley married Mabel Markham in 1877, when he was in his 40's, and had 2 children: his heir, Francis, who was killed during the 1st world war, and a daughter, Mabel, who went on to become a well-known illustrator and wood-engraver. After the Earl's wife Mabel died in 1891, he married Priscilla Moore. They had 2 daughters, Clare and Mary Constance.

Photographs of, left, Hugh Annesley's first wife, Mabel Wilhelmina Frances Markham (1858-1891) date unknown and, right, his second wife, Priscilla Cecilia Armytage Moore, (1870-1941), photographed c. early 1890's by society photographer, Alexander Bassano

When Priscilla married Hugh Annesley in 1892, he was nearly 40 years her senior. She was considered one of the great beauties of the period (the National Portrait Gallery has over 40 photographs of her in their collection), and was a noted hostess at Castlewellan. Several plants were named 'Countess Annesley', but the most famous, Narcissus 'Countess Annesley' (which I will cover in Part 4), was probably named for Annesley's first wife, Mabel.

The Gardening Earl

The grounds at Castlewellan initially consisted of 12 acres of the old walled garden (now called the Annesley Garden), later enlarged to over 100 acres, while the arboretum was part of the 900 acre historic Annesley estate [or demesne – the land attached to a manor and retained by the owner for their own use], including the castle built for the 4th Earl. The 5th Earl would later became the third largest landowner in County Down after expanding the estate to some 25,000 acres in total.

Map of the Castlewellan Demesne as of 1873. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

Once Hugh Annesley took on the title and care of the Castlewellan estate, he certainly seems to have immersed himself in the horticultural world of the day, facilitated by the fact that the family spent most summers in London – as he complained, in a paper presented to the Royal Horticultural Society in 1902, of “our abominable custom of going to London in the summer [so] we are never in our gardens in the most enjoyable season of the year, when they are at their best, but see most of them in the winter” [see The Earl as Photographer and Author below].

The Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society records him as being elected a 'Fellow' (member) in June 1893 – membership of the RHS being, at the time, by recommendation from other Fellows. Annesley was also a member of the RHS Council for a 2 year term ending in 1895, as well as being, for a time, a council member of the Royal Botanic Society (the horticultural press noting his membership in 1895 and 1896). Annesley was also in contact with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: the Kew Miscellaneous Bulletin recording that he (or more likely Ryan) provided them with lists of plants that were considered hardy at Castlewellan in 1897.

Excerpt from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Library Catalogue for 1901, detailing information received – including Annesley’s list of hardy plants at Castlewellan as of 1897

I've also found mention of Annesley and Castlewellan in relation to two RHS conferences. Castlewellan gets a mention in the horticultural press coverage of the RHS Conifer Conference held in 1891, in relation to its outstanding collection of hardy trees and shrubs. And, according to The Garden, Annesley was present at the RHS International Conference on Hybridization's 'festival' dinner in July 1899, no doubt rubbing shoulders with the horticultural elite (although it's not recorded if he attended the actual conference).

Annesley's daughter, Mabel, described her father as reserved and gloomy, writing that he “toiled from dawn to dusk… [working] in the manner of a giant landscape gardener… opening vistas to mountains and seas, and digging out marshy swamps to make glistening pools of work” (see Note). Annesley also increased the tree collection at Castlewellan, planting some 3,000 rare trees and shrubs, creating the arboretum, adding plantations of conifers, and creating paths through the trees to achieve the vistas mentioned by Mabel. Due to the climate and position of Castlewellan, Annesley was often able to successfully grow and establish many plants which, in other parts of the UK, were too tender to survive the winters.

'The Moorish Tower at Castlewellan' during the Earl's time. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

Annesley also created a 3 mile drive around the lake, built several 'tea' houses, one of which, according to an article in Country Life from March 1900, was a "quaint old summer house...lined with inlaid woods and curving lattice-work, and with a conical ceiling patterned elaborately with shells”. However, it was the summer house known as the ‘Moorish Tower’ which was the family's "pet spot for picnic lunches" which had, according to Country Life, a small partially walled-in cave just below the tower with a small lift installed so servants could send up refreshments.

This tower was built on a rocky ledge high above the lake at the cost of just over £200 (as evidenced by a note detailing the costings shown below). By the 20th century, it was overgrown and nearly in ruins, but was saved by The Follies Trust which undertook conservation work in 2014/2015. According to the Trust, Annesley, who photographed its construction, probably designed it as well as he is known to have photographed Moorish-style buildings during his travels.

Detailed note of costings for the 'Moorish Tower' dated October 1884, together with one of Hugh Annesley's photographs taken during its construction. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

One new pine introduction, which Annesley established at Castlewellan from seeds sent to him from Northern India, was subsequently named Picea annesleyana in his honour. Although the only mention of this I've found is that from The Daily Telegraph's report on the Earl’s death in December 1908. The article stating that “not long ago” Dr Augustine Henry, the botanist and plant-collector, discovered an entirely new pine in Tibet, although it was later discovered that several specimens of this tree had been flourishing at Castlewellan for some years from seeds sent to the Earl – and duly named in his honour.

Annesley did obtain plant material from the National Botanic Garden, Calcutta during the late 1890's, as it records distributing “specimens of carefully named Indian plants to scientific institutions and to private botanists in various parts of the world”, including the Earl, who received boxes of plants as well as packets of seeds. The example shown below is for the year 1894-1895 when he was sent one box containing 67 plants; and, for 1897-1898, he received 35 packets of seed. Unfortunately, I've found no detail of what seeds or plants were actually sent.

Extract from ‘The Annual Report of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta’, Appendix II, for the year 1894-1895 showing number of boxes and plants sent to the Earl

When Annesley was back in Ireland, it seems he was not above being involved in the local horticultural scene. Annesley (or least his gardeners), exhibited at Irish shows; The Gardeners’ Chronicle reporting in November 1895, for example, of Annesley being “a leading exhibitor in the vegetable classes” at the Ulster Horticultural Society’s annual show in Belfast.

That year, exhibits from Castlewellan included “enormous Leeks and heads of Celery in great quantities, and good Cauliflowers... [which] were the finest in quality”, although the reporter added that the parsnips and beets “were too large and coarse for ordinary use”. Other members of the family were also involved: The Gardeners' Chronicle recording that the Countess opened the November 1898 show alongside the local Mayor. The Ulster show was obviously a highlight in the Irish horticultural calendar of the time as, for 1898, Queen Victoria sent a “decorative table of fruit” from the Royal Gardens at Windsor (the exhibit, perhaps not unsurprisingly, being awarded a Gold Medal).

Annesley was also a patron of Mr. William Bull's Establishment for New & Rare Plants. Based in the King’s Road Chelsea, it appears to have been a fashionable nursery as other patrons included the Queen, various Emperors, Kings and aristocrats from across Europe, together with a prodigious number of English, Scottish and Irish dukes and earls.

William Bull, Plant Merchant of King’s Road Chelsea – Retail List of New Beautiful & Rare Plants for 1882, including page listing their "distinguished" Patrons

After the Earl's death, The Daily Telegraph article already mentioned, reported on his life and achievements – by far the most important of which were considered to be that his “studies and practice in arboriculture have been of immense service to the neighbouring country, and have afforded a large amount of employment for the people about the estate”. As well as his devotion to “sylviculture”, and establishing the gardens and grounds of Castlewellan as amongst “the richest in the UK for rare trees and plants”, whilst his obituary in The Times noted that it was also the "largest" such collection.

A Gardening Partnership

However, Annesley did not achieve this alone. When he inherited his title, Thomas Ryan had already been working as a gardener at Castlewellan for some 10 years, and was promoted to Head Gardener in 1881. Together, Annesley and Ryan certainly seem to have been a horticultural force to be reckoned with as, between them, they created an important garden as well as an arboretum full of rare and often newly introduced species of hardy trees and shrubs. One critic of the time remarked that Castlewellan was “the noblest monument to horticulture that any single man of our age created”. Although, of course, he should perhaps have said 'two'...

Mabel certainly recognised Ryan's importance to her father, writing of him being for nearly 40 years "gardener, friend, and constant companion" as together they "laboured over many little-known shrubs and trees, striving with all their skill to acclimatise any that gave promise of adding, by their use or beauty, to our gardens. Like window-dressers they spent long hours arranging the display of their wares in the most attractive and advantageous fashion”.

Many in the horticultural world also acknowledged Ryan's input. The Gardeners' Chronicle noting, for example in an 1896 article, that the grounds and arboretum had been “remodelled and in parts wholly laid out by Mr Ryan under his Lordship’s unremitting superintendence in the course of the last 30 years”. While in 1904, F.W. Burbidge (1847-1905), best known as Curator of the Botanical Gardens of Trinity College Dublin at Glasnevin writing in Flora and Sylva, thought Annesley had created “one of the most wonderful collections of native and exotic trees and shrubs in the kingdom”… ably assisted” by Ryan – who he described as a “past master in propagation and cultivation of choice shrubs and trees”. [Such is Ryan's importance in the story of the 5th Earl's Castlewellan, that I'll post about him separately in Part 3]

Thomas Ryan pictured with the giant sequoia planted in 1856. From a photograph by Hugh Annesley, 1900. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

The Horticultural Press

As regards Castlewellan, the horticultural press of the day is a treasure trove of information. Several publications contain a large amount of reporting in relation to the gardens and arboretum, often covering the trees and shrubs that were grown there and flourished under the care of Annesley and Ryan, in some detail.

An unnamed author from The Gardeners’ Chronicle, who visited Castlewellan in May 1891, noted some 12 acres devoted to "specimen Conifers and plants, and flowering shrubs from every quarter of the globe...”. The author was also much impressed "with the luxuriant health of all the things”, and thought that "His Lordship is an enthusiastic lover of trees and rare plants, and no expense or exertion has been spared to obtain them and to grow them in the best possible manner”. Just a few years later in 1896, an article in The Gardeners’ Chronicle detailed the various glasshouses at Castlewellan, but also provides other fascinating details, describing the very large gardens which “abound in plants from Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Peru, California and Chili…whenever their hardiness in [Castlewellan's] mild climate had been ascertained".

Plants such as senecios, pittosporums, podocarpus, bamboos, osmanthus, and Japanese acers were grown, and the article details the size and shapes of many of these shrubs and trees. The Gardeners’ Chronicle also reported on the various species of conifer growing at Castlewellan which formed, in their opinion, “the more conspicuous glories of the place”. This particular article is also notable for providing a photograph (below) with the dimensions of the giant sequoia already mentioned which, by 1896, was some 69 feet high.

'Sequoia gigantea at Castlewellan. From a photograph by Lord Annesley'. From The Gardeners' Chronicle, December 12, 1896

'The clipped Portuguese laurels planted in the 1890's by Hugh Annesley' (these were replaced with Eucryphia species in 1947, and it's now known as The Eucryphia Walk)

The article also mentions the “large round-headed standard Portugal Laurels” arranged in a straight line alongside one wall of the kitchen garden down towards the greenhouses (as pictured). But it wasn’t all just trees and shrubs, the article also describes wide borders of flowering plants “mostly Gladious, Dahlias, and some herbaceous perennials”. While an earlier article described “a blaze of colour with crocus, hyacinths, amaryllis, daffodils in hundreds, hybrid Rhododendrons, and some early flowering Azaleas... [and where, near to the castle] large Orange trees and Camellias are planted out…”.

View through a doorway, where decorative gates once stood, to the herbaceous borders and a fountain beyond. Photograph by author September 2010. Below, same vista showing gates in place. Date unknown

Ryan's articles about the plants at Castlewellan are numerous and varied, often illustrated with Annesley's photographs. Like many other Head Gardeners at grand estates or famous gardens of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, Ryan appears to have been intelligent and articulate – and his articles were published in The Garden, The Gardeners' Chronicle and Irish Gardening; the earliest I've found dates from 1880. As for Annesley himself, it seems that he only wrote directly to the horticultural press occasionally. One example being June 1899, when he sent a photograph (below) to The Gardeners’ Chronicle, with a note about the shrub Cedrus deodara nivea which was, he wrote ”very beautiful now, being nearly as white as its name implies… Annesley”.

'Lord Annesley’s Cedrus deodara, growing at Castlewellan, Co. Down.' Photograph by Hugh Annesley. From 'The Gardeners’ Chronicle', June 17, 1899

Although not strictly a horticultural publication, an article on Castlewellan features in the March 3rd, 1900 issue of Country Life Illustrated (see Note), which provides a few details I’ve not seen elsewhere. For example, the article’s unnamed author mentions that a number of trees had been planted at Castlewellan by “well-known people” as “living mementoes of their visits” – including Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George V and Queen Mary, grandparents of the late Queen).

Country Life also describes planting along the lake shore at Castlewellan where the beautiful Countess Annesley daffodil spreads in “sheets of gold”, together with Scilla siberica “in masses of rich blue, and little groups of snowdrops…interspersed among the Himalayan rhododendrons and the Japanese maples”. It also mentions a small enclosed space known as 'My Lady’s Garden', closed in by yew hedges and home to poppies, sunflowers and other colourful flowers, with sedums, stonecrops and rock plants lining the gravel paths. It also had beds filled with “homely sweet-scented” flowers, “nearly all planted by Lady Annesley herself”.

Photograph from 'Country Life Illustrated's' article titled 'Castlewellan, Co. Down. The Seat of Earl Annesley' dated March 3rd, 1900. (This photograph, although not captioned in the article, may show the Countess)

The Earl as Photographer and Author

Annesley may not have contributed much in the way of written information to the horticultural press, but he did record Castlewellan extensively in many beautiful photographs; wrote a detailed paper for the Royal Horticultural Society about the trees and shrubs growing there; which, in turn, led to the publication of his one and only book, Beautiful and Rare Trees & Plants.

A young Hugh Annesley "photographing" c.1855. From the Annesley Photographic Collection, courtesy Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

According to the Encyclopedia of 19th Century Photography (published 2008), Hugh Annesley was among the first people in Ireland to own a camera, often using an outdoor photographic tent [a necessity at the time], and documenting his photographic equipment as can be seen in many of his photographs. Annesley seems to have been just as meticulous in his photographic process as he was in the cultivation of his exotic plants, being careful to record the shrubs and trees accurately.

Castlewellan's current Head Gardener, Alwyn Sinnamon, tells me that Annesley used his photography to assist him with making changes to the garden, sometimes making notes on the back of his pictures, such as "remove the tree at the front to improve the view", etc.

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (‘PRONI’) holds the photographic archive of Annesley’s work, and describes him as being “one of the pioneers of amateur photography in Ireland”. The archive consists of 35 of his albums, although some also contain commercial photographs and those taken by other family members.

‘Ponsonby and Campbell, Crimea’. Photograph by Hugh Annesley of 2 British officers in a military encampment in the Crimea, Ukraine, November 1855

The earliest of his photographs however date from the early 1850’s when he was serving in South Africa. They depict friends and army life while later, in the Crimea, his photographs are better described as 'war' pictures. His later photographs also show various holidays, as well as his trips to India, Nepal and Japan – from where he obtained seeds directly, and from which he successfully grew on trees and shrubs.

The photographs in Annesley's early albums were produced using the ‘wet collodian’ process – a challenge even for technically-minded amateur photographers, but for later albums featuring Castlewellan, his garden improvements, friends and family, he was able to take advantage of the new ‘dry-plate’ process. This process was much more reliable and convenient, with less heavy photographic equipment to carry about. According to PRONI, Annesley’s collection of photographs is undoubtedly the largest and most important collection of early photographs in the north of Ireland. Although, they add, his best work as a photographer was as a young man, using the 'wet collodian' process.

Photograph of Hugh Annesley pictured with a camera and photographic equipment, September 1883. By kind permission of the Ogilvie family

In July 1902, a paper was read at a meeting of the Royal Horticultural Society titled Ornamental Trees and Shrubs at Castlewellan, written “By the Right. Hon. The Earl of Annesley” and illustrated with some of his own photographs (available online – see Notes). In the preamble to the paper, Annesley explained that as he had derived “such an infinite amount of pleasure from the collection, the culture, and the possession of beautiful and new and rare plants that I was very glad to receive an invitation… to contribute a paper… to be read before [the Society]”. In accepting the invitation, he also hoped that it would “increase the knowledge and the love of numbers of plants which, though at present rare in most gardens, are both ornamental and easy of cultivation”. Although in its coverage of the lecture, The Gardeners’ Chronicle noted that H.J. Elwes (botanist and co-author of The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland 1906-1913) had "done well to caution the hearers” that Castlewellan’s favourable growing conditions were not replicated in the majority of gardens in England.

Annesley also mentions that when he told "his gardener" [Ryan presumably] about the request from the RHS, "he promptly presented me with a list of 300 different plants in the garden, any one of which he said it would be a shame to omit! However, out of the 1,600 varieties which are in the plant list of my garden I must try and select the most desirable ones”. Annesley himself wrote that he feared his paper would be more of a “catalogue” of plants growing at Castlewellan – and he had a point. It goes on for page after page, mostly providing only quite brief (but nevertheless interesting) descriptions of various trees and shrubs. However, there are lengthier entries, amongst which are some fascinating nuggets of information.

As well as obtaining plant material and seeds from India, it's known that Annesley commissioned the famous Veitch nursery, as well as others, to collect rare plants for him mainly from the Far East through the famous Yokohama Nursery Company in Japan – and, in his paper, he not only mentions having their “beautifully illustrated catalogues”, but writes that if he were asked the country from which he obtained the greatest number of Castlewellan’s choicest hardy plants, he would “name Japan”. Adding that, next to Japan “I think we get more good things from Australia than from anywhere else…”.

'Evergreen trees in the north of Ireland. Scene in the Earl of Annelsey's garden at Castlewellan, Co. Down'. From 'The Garden', December 20, 1890. Note the same view below from 2018

In another example, he describes importing a seedling of Fagus cliffortioides (or the Red Beech, now Nothofagus fusca), a graceful evergreen tree from New Zealand's south island “in a Wardian case some years ago, and I believe it is a rare tree in this country”. It's thought that this tree was originally first introduced by the Veitch’s famed Coombe Wood nursery in the 1870's, although their specimen failed to thrive due to the harsh winters of the period and died many years ago. However, by 2015 Annesley's tree was, according to the International Dendrology Society, a gigantic specimen, and Alwyn Sinnamon tells me it's now recorded as a British & Irish Champion Tree.

In 1903, only a year after his paper was read to the RHS, Annesley's book, Beautiful and Rare Trees & Plants, with 70 of his own photographs taken at Castlewellan, was published by Country Life Books. In the Preface, Annesley begins “If the reader is as fond of his garden as I am of mine, I hope that he will look with kindly eyes on this collection of photographs of beautiful and rare trees and plants”. He also explains that as he enjoyed the process of taking photographs of those which he had mostly planted himself and “tended for years with much care”, he kept adding to the number of photographs and the book was the result.

Annesley adds that, in describing the plants, he tried to use “the simplest language possible, carefully avoiding all long-winded botanical words and nearly all synonyms” – wanting to avoid the technical language used by “the gardening papers” which, he was sure, was often confusing for the general reader. He also wrote that in relation to plants he always wanted “to see a photograph” [sounding very much like Gertrude Jekyll’s own attitude to illustrating descriptions of plants with photographs].

The Gardeners’ Chronicle announced the publication of the Earl’s forthcoming book in August 1903, writing that it ”will commend itself to every owner of a park and to every lover of a garden”. In December, the paper carried a review of the book, but this particular 'gardening paper' was very much of the view that they would have preferred more technical language i.e. the "long-winded botanical words" that the Earl had so purposely avoided. Despite this, they concluded that “the book forms a valuable, beautiful, and interesting addition to horticultural literature…”.

The edition was limited to only 300 copies, and now seems hard to find. After searching on-line, I found only one original 1903 version for sale at a cost of just over Euro 500. (There are much cheaper modern 'print on demand' versions available; however, it is available online – see Notes.)

'Abies Veitchii' from 'Beautiful and Rare Trees & Plants' by the Earl Annesley, 1903. Note the terracing in the background

'The Garden', December 22, 1888 results of one of the magazine's regular photographic competitions

The Earl also entered some of his photographs into the regular photographic competitions held by The Garden on at least one occasion: the magazine recording on December 22, 1888 that he was awarded the first prize of seven guineas “for a large number of well-chosen, admirably-photographed, and interesting garden subjects, some very remarkable. Undoubtedly the best collection sent to us”.


Over the course of many years, Hugh Annesley, with the help of his Head Gardener, Thomas Ryan, transformed Castlewellan from Victorian pleasure ground to an arboretum of international importance. The gardens and arboretum contained a stunning collection of hardy trees and shrubs from all corners of the globe, with a wonderful walled garden at its heart – while the Earl's photographs recorded Castlewellan for posterity. An article published in the monthly journal Irish Gardening in August 1912, just a few years after both the Earl and Ryan had died, sums up their achievements nicely.

Written by Hugh Armytage Moore (1873-1954), brother of the Earl's 2nd wife and owner of the famed Rowallane Estate in County Down between 1903-1954, he was also for a time Land Agent for the 5th Earl and lived at Castlewellan for many years, so he knew it well. In his article, simply titled ‘Castlewellan’, Moore writes of the richly-wooded slopes bounded by the lake and backed by hills commanding magnificent views, where "a rare collection of trees and shrubs has been effectively placed to add a permanent horticultural interest to a scene of great natural beauty... A finer setting could scarcely be imagined .. [and] by happy chance its permanent adornment fell to the lot of two men mostly singularly fitted for the task, the late Hugh, 5th Earl Annesley, and his gardener, Thomas Ryan. Neither, alas, is here today to view the hillside where for more than 30 years they co-operated so untiringly in an achievement which now stands as a fitting memorial to their united skill and good taste".

After his death, in 1908 (Ryan dying only 2 years later), the estate and title passed to Hugh's son Francis, who became the 6th Earl Annesley of Castlewellan. Sadly, he was killed in the early days of the 1st world war in 1914, although it seems he did carry on some horticultural work on the estate: the 1912 article in the New York Tribune mentioning that “Castle Wellam” (as they refer to it throughout), had “for the last quarter of a century been familiar to every American expert in forestry and curious shrubs”, and that the present Earl had continued his father’s practice of never allowing a year to pass “without planting thousands of them”.

One of the glasshouses in the 1880's – and, below, how the area looks today

After Francis's death, Hugh's daughter Mabel returned to Castlewellan (her husband having died a year earlier), although the title passed to another branch of the family. Mabel had to work hard to maintain the estate, due to crippling death duties and, after her death in 1959, the estate passed to her son, Gerald Sowerby. Gerald took over the running of the estate sometime in the 1940's, and managed to add to the plant collection from time to time. Castlewellan was eventually sold to the state in the late 1960’s and opened as a ‘forest park’. During the 1970's, the arboretum was extended, and some additional unusual trees were added to the original collection. Over the years, and despite the best efforts of people passionate about Castlewellan, it suffered from lack of funds and resources – although remained popular with locals and tourists, who still enjoy walks around the lake and through the arboretum and gardens. Today, however, its future appears much brighter.

Castlewellan: The Future

In 2021, Castlewellan ‘Forest Park’ was awarded £2.69 million investment from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to renovate Castlewellan over a 4 year period. The local council to match this amount, providing some £5.5 million overall for the project – titled Re-Rooting our past in the Future: Castlewellan Historic Demesne. An important part in the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council’s vision is protecting Castlewellan’s heritage and plant collections, while restoring the arboretum. The project also includes the inevitable visitor amenities, with a café, community space and welcome centre to be built. A committee set up to provide guidance and expertise for the current restoration, the Castlewellan Arboretum Advisory Committee, includes experts in the fields of horticulture and arboriculture from across the UK and Ireland. In addition, a garden consultant is working with the Head Gardener and his team.

Alwyn Sinnamon, in whose care the garden now resides, is ably assisted by 4 other gardeners, and is in the process of setting up opportunities for garden volunteers – a resource most large gardens today cannot manage without. Alwyn first started at Castlewellan in 2014 as Head Gardener when it was managed by the Forest Service. He later took a year out from Castlewellan to work at the Rowallane Gardens, returning to Castlewellan to work for the local council which now manage it. Alwyn also advised the team that undertook some initial restoration back in 2018.

As to the future, Alwyn tells me his hope is that the gardens at Castlewellan will be restored to their former glory and put firmly back on the map as one of the greatest plant collections in Britain and Ireland – just as it was during the days of the 5th Earl and his Head Gardener.


Hugh's daughter, Mabel Annesley, is quoted from her notes about the history of Castlewellan, written in 1931, from her unfinished autobiography, The Sight is Bent, published after her death.

Links to:

The Earl's paper read to the RHS in 1902

The Earl's book of 1903

Photograph from Country Life Illustrated's article of March 3rd, 1900 from 'Internet Archive: Free Download'


Castlewellan Arboretum and Annesley Garden Brochure, 2015

Castlewellan Arboretum: A great tree collection in need of restoration by Mark Johnston, Plant Network

Castlewellan House and Demesne: An Outline History by Terence Reeves Smyth, Northern Ireland Heritage Committee Conference, 1997

Visual Representations of the Annesley Gardens by Ailie O’Hagan, Gardens Trust News 13, Summer 2020

1,556 views6 comments


7 days ago

You certainly did your homework on a very interesting estate which i visited lately.


Nov 14, 2023

most excellent work ... very enjoyable ...


Sally Montgomery
Sally Montgomery
Jan 16, 2023

Thank you Paula, an excellent account and research with help tell Castlewellan's story.

Jan 16, 2023
Replying to

Thank you Sally!


Jan 15, 2023

God heavens, Paula, you've done some work here!


Ailsa Wildig
Ailsa Wildig
Jan 15, 2023

love the detail

bottom of page