Crichton (Creighton), John (1802–85), 3rd earl and 4th baron of Erne (Ireland) and 1st Baron Fermanagh (UK), landowner and progressive agriculturalist, was born on 30 July 1802, the elder son (he had a brother and two sisters) of Colonel John Creighton (1772–1833), governor of Hurst Castle in Hampshire and professional soldier (son of John Creighton, 1st Earl Erne (1731–1828); younger brother of Abraham Creighton (1765–1842), 2nd earl) and his wife Jane (née Weldon) (d. 1849).
Family traditions and identity
The 3rd earl was born Creighton, but changed the spelling to emphasise the family's connection to the Scottish Crichton family who claimed descent from the viscounts Frendraught in Scotland. Originally based at Killynick on the Cavan–Fermanagh border (which they purchased from a plantation grantee in 1613), they acquired the core of the Crom estate through marriage in 1655 and augmented it by later marriages and purchases. (Some of the 3rd earl's obituarists emphasised that the entire estate derived from purchases rather than conquest.) At the core of the family's collective identity lay the memory of their role in the Williamite wars, when Colonel Abraham Creighton commanded a regiment in defence of Enniskillen and fought at Aughrim, and his fifth son, David (direct ancestor of the nineteenth-century Creightons), successfully defended the 'old' Crom Castle (destroyed by fire in 1764) against two Jacobite offensives and played a prominent and bloody role in the Williamite victory at the battle of Newtownbutler (10 August 1689). The Creightons maintained a strong tradition of involvement in the regular army, while their senior representatives were active in the Fermanagh militia and continued to regard themselves (and to be regarded by their protestant tenantry) as natural military leaders in the event of a nationalist uprising. Into the 1880s the family maintained, armed and officered an unofficial yeomanry corps, recruited from protestant tenants, whose motto was 'Croppies lie down'. This underpinned the 3rd and 4th earls' position at the heart of the network of south Ulster landed families which provided the leadership of Irish conservative and unionist politics throughout the nineteenth century.
Heir presumptive and politician
Since the 2nd earl was declared insane in 1798 and privately confined until his death in 1842, it was clear Creighton would eventually inherit the title. Sheriff of Co. Fermanagh (1827) and Co. Donegal (1831), in 1838 he became colonel of the Fermanagh militia and was thereafter known as 'Colonel Creighton' until his accession. He was appointed lord lieutenant and custos rotulorum of Co. Fermanagh in 1840, retaining the title until his death.
In 1828, on the death of his grandfather the 1st earl, Creighton was bequeathed the family's estates in Fermanagh and Cavan around Crom, and in Donegal (4,826 acres in the vicinity of Lifford), Sligo (1,996 acres), Mayo (two small properties near Ballinrobe and Castlebar, amounting to 2,184 acres), and Dublin (a small area around Sir John Rogerson's Quay). These were later augmented by inheriting from his mother the lands of Aghalane on the Cavan–Fermanagh border (adjoining the estate) and by the purchase (1842–72) of Fermanagh lands costing £93,108 and with a rental of £4,601 in 1875; by 1883 the Crom estate amounted to 31,389 acres and Erne's overall rental was valued at £23,850.
On 6 July 1837 Creighton married Selina Griselda, daughter of Revd Charles Cobbe Beresford, rector of Termonmaguirk, Co. Tyrone; they had three sons and one daughter. He succeeded as 3rd earl on his uncle's death (10 June 1842). (The Creightons had been created Earls Erne of Crom Castle in 1789, but from the accession of the 3rd earl the family thenceforth seem to have styled themselves 'earls of Erne'.)
In 1845 Erne was elected an Irish representative peer. He was a Conservative who opposed Sir Robert Peel (qv) over the Maynooth grant and the repeal of the corn laws, an Orangeman, and an evangelical who strongly supported the attempt of the Church Education Society to establish an Anglican denominational school system. Throughout his life he was a generous financial supporter of, and participant in the governance of, the Church of Ireland, particularly in his native diocese of Clogher, where he was known as 'the lay bishop'. (He is alleged to have quarrelled with at least one Clogher bishop, however, leading to the construction (1840–42) of his estate church – Holy Trinity, Derryvore – across the lake in Kilmore.) Erne was a trustee and vice-president of the exclusively protestant Adelaide Hospital in Dublin, and founded (c.1859) and chaired the Fermanagh Protestant Orphan Society, which supported seventy orphans annually. In 1868 he and his eldest son, Viscount Crichton (see below), campaigned against the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland; in that year Erne became a knight of St Patrick. In 1876 he was created a UK peer as 1st Baron Fermanagh of Lisnaskea (though he remained an Irish representative peer). His principal concern, however, was the development and beautification of his estates; for over half a century 'the Old Earl', as he became known in later life, was a powerful presence in Co. Fermanagh.
Builder and improving landlord
Creighton's grandfather left him a large sum in money and government stocks, much of which was earmarked for the construction of a new family seat at Crom Castle on the shores of Lough Erne (constructed in neo-gothic style (1832–7) by the architect Edward Blore and rebuilt (1841–3) after a severe fire, despite insufficient insurance). Creighton combined willingness to spend large sums on upholding the family's prestige with shrewd attention to detailed expenditure (observable in his dealings with the architect and his unscrupulous contractors). To the end of his life he used waste or leftover paper for correspondence.
Creighton was already agent on the estate before his grandfather's death; to the end of his life he regularly toured the estate (at first on a distinctive white horse, later in a light carriage), visiting the tenants, inquiring brusquely about their affairs, and three times a year hearing their complaints (seated at a window while the tenant stood outside on a terrace).
In the 1830s Creighton imported two Scottish agriculturalists, Andrew Mair and William Milne, to teach better methods of agriculture, such as crop rotation and indoor feeding of animals. He founded agricultural societies, and from c.1834 held an annual show and farmers' dinner at Lisnaskea, and another on the Donegal estate. Erne gave premiums for draining, ploughing, reclaiming, and for the best cattle, while Lady Erne awarded premiums to farmers' wives for knitting, butter and poultry. Erne paid one-quarter of the cost of tenants' new buildings and gave rent abatements for improvements. He constructed an agricultural museum at Lisnaskea (1839) and a factory that manufactured tiles to line drains.
Erne was in the habit of distributing among his tenants circulars which might advocate the use of manure or contain such mottoes as 'A drunkard will not inherit the kingdom of heaven', and 'If a man will not work neither will he eat' (Hoppen, 124). In the 1850s he tried to combat drunkenness on the estate by founding coffee rooms. While he was reasonably generous with rent abatements in hard years, he actively withheld them from tenants who defied his electoral wishes.
During the great famine, Erne was active in relief, importing food at cut rates along the Ulster Canal, chairing Lisnaskea poor law guardians, and raising a subscription in Castlcoole poor law union to attract the grant in aid (most unions preferred to borrow). In 1847–51 he enlarged the farmyard at Crom, creating a model farm which was probably the most advanced and best equipped in the country and which was lighted by his own gas-making plant.
Always concerned with improving transport links, in 1843 he served on the Lough Erne Navigation Committee, which undertook the deepening of the lake to improve navigation. Erne himself possessed a large steam yacht, on which he periodically travelled to Enniskillen, and a fleet of yachts and pleasure craft; in the lake country yachting was as important for upper-class socialisation as was fox hunting elsewhere, and the Lough Erne yacht club centred on the boathouse at Crom. This milieu was key to the Ernes' long-lasting personal and political friendship with Edward Saunderson (qv). In the 1840s Erne offered scenic plots of building land along the shores of Lough Erne in the hope of making the Fermanagh lakeland a second Killarney. In 1854 he became chairman of the Fermanagh and Enniskillen Railway Company, in which he invested £100,000, and was thus chiefly responsible for the extension of the railway from Castleblayney across Fermanagh to Enniskillen and beyond (with the prospect of making his estates more productive); he travelled on the first train to Enniskillen (15 February 1859). The railway company's decision to extend a branch line to Lisnaskea (on the Erne estate) rather than taking an alternative route via Lisbellaw provoked a dispute with J. G. V. Porter (qv) and a bitter libel suit.
Land war and last years
Erne responded to the difficult season of 1879–80 by distributing food, clothing and fuel to poorer tenants on his estates and promoting a major drainage scheme, but as the economic downturn continued and the Land League became active on his Ulster and Connaught estates, he grew intransigent.
From 1874 Erne employed Charles Boycott (qv) as agent on his Mayo estate. During the 1880 agitation against Boycott, tenant representatives appealed over Boycott's head, but Erne dismissed their charges as frivolous; the trouble seems to have arisen from a combination of Boycott's hauteur and Erne's view that an early rent abatement of 10 per cent was sufficient recognition of his Mayo tenants' difficulties (they wanted 25 per cent). After Boycott's departure, Erne supported a subscription for his former agent which raised £2,000; since this left Boycott £4,000 out of pocket, some believed Erne should have done more for him.
Erne responded to the developing land war by joining the Property Defence Association, which coordinated landlord resistance to tenant agitation, and financing the Fermanagh Times newspaper, founded in 1880 as a pro-landlord rival to the pro-tenant Impartial Reporter edited by William Copeland Trimble (qv). Erne maintained close supervision of his estate despite declining health; when his right hand became disabled he taught himself to write with the left. In response to increased competition from Danish and Belgian butter, he promoted improved butter-making techniques, sometimes driving around in a carriage festooned with butter-making utensils. In 1884 he oversaw the construction at Crom of a stone silo for making silage (the first example in Ireland) and during his final illness he drafted a letter to the tenants announcing a demonstration of a simpler silage-making process at the Lisnaskea agricultural show (Fermanagh Times, 15 October 1885). Thus, to the very end, he was at the cutting edge of Irish agricultural developments. He died at Crom Castle on 3 October 1885 from a long-standing kidney disease.
Erne represented landlord paternalism in its most progressive and most rebarbative aspects. He displayed a genuine sense of responsibility towards his tenants and desire to improve his estates, but his economic modernisations helped to undermine the feudal authority structures on which his authority rested. In his memoir of childhood and youth, Shan Bullock (qv), the son of Erne's estate steward, memorably portrays the demesne both as a glimpse of a wider civilisation and as an exotic feudal imposition, set down incongruously amid Fermanagh smallholders, paying wages which (though fair by the standards of the day) were pitifully low, and maintained by a constant stream of rent from embattled smallholding tenants. The 'Old Earl' looms above this portrait like Slieve Rushen, 'remote and terrible as God' (After sixty years, 204).
The 4th earl
Crichton was succeeded as 4th earl of Erne and 2nd Baron Fermanagh by his eldest son, John Henry Crichton (1839–1914), landowner, Conservative politician and Orangeman, who was born in Dublin on 16 October 1839, and known as Viscount Crichton (1842–85). He was educated privately, at Eton and at Christ Church College, Oxford, graduating BA (1861) and MA (1863). Shortly afterwards he was initiated into LOL 362, the private lodge of William Willougby Cole (qv), 3rd earl of Enniskillen. He became a captain in the Fermanagh militia (1862), and high sheriff of Fermanagh (1865) and of Donegal (1867).
Ulster Conservative politician
In 1868 Crichton was elected Conservative MP for Enniskillen on behalf of the Cole interest; the previous MP, John Lowry Cole (1813–82), a brother of the 3rd earl of Enniskillen, was retiring, and it was felt that the future 4th earl of Enniskillen was too young to take the seat. Crichton was opposed by the liberal-reform faction led by the Collum family; he centred his campaign on opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. Crichton's connection to the Coles was cemented on 28 December 1870 when he married Florence Mary Cole, the 3rd earl's daughter. In subsequent years Crichton became a deputy grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland and assistant and heir apparent to his father-in-law, the grand master; in December 1885 they responded to Gladstone's 'Hawarden kite' (indicating his support for home rule) with a co-signed call for resistance.
At the 1874 election Crichton held off another Liberal challenger, and in February 1876 was appointed a junior lord of the treasury and government whip. At the 1880 general election Crichton vacated the Enniskillen seat in favour of Lowry Egerton Cole (1845–1924) (later 4th earl of Enniskillen (1886–1924)), and successfully contested the two-seat Co. Fermanagh constituency (partly by declaring his acceptance of the principle of tenant right). By now he had emerged as the leading parliamentary spokesman of Ulster Conservatism (though less influential within the party than the more cosmopolitan Trinity members David Plunket (qv) and Edward Gibson (qv)). He subsequently engaged in unsuccessful attempts to mobilise Orange opposition to the Land League.
Resisting the Land League
Crichton abstained on the second reading of Gladstone's 1881 land bill and was the only Ulster Conservative MP to vote against clause 7 which provided for 'fair' rents to be fixed by a tribunal (rather than by market rate or the landlord's discretion).
The land act dissipated most protestant support for the Land League, and Crichton subsequently had more success in mobilising Orange resistance to the 'invasion of Ulster' by the National League and calling for a cross-class protestant alliance to meet the nationalist threat. In December 1883 he participated in the Rosslea incident, staging a banned Orange counter-demonstration in close proximity to a Land League meeting; while Crichton obeyed police instructions to re-route his Fermanagh Orangemen, Lord Rossmore (Derrick Westenra (1853–1921)), heading a Monaghan contingent, refused to stop, and large-scale violence was narrowly avoided. Rossmore was subsequently removed from the magistracy. On 8 February 1884 Crichton replied in parliament to a motion moved by Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) denouncing Orange lawlessness in general and the Rosslea incident in particular; Crichton claimed Orangemen were generally peaceful but provoked by nationalist lawlessness. In 1885, addressing Orange rallies, Crichton justified Rosslea as showing that Ulster loyalists could also threaten physical force, which the Parnellites had shown was the only way to get concessions. He accused Parnell of wishing to drive protestants out of the country, and spoke of defending Crom against rebels as his ancestor had done.
After the death of Disraeli, Crichton was a close political ally of the Conservative leader in the house of commons, Sir Stafford Northcote, who retained him as a party whip. In October 1883 Crichton helped to organise a high-profile visit to Ulster by Northcote, which attracted attention because of the prominent role of the Orange order and minor civil disturbances. On 6 October in Belfast, Lady Crichton laid the foundation stone of Clifton Street Orange Hall in Northcote's presence. (Northcote declined to lay it himself.) The party then went by train to the seat of the duke of Abercorn (qv) at Baronscourt; en route the train was stoned and Lady Crichton injured. (The Crichtons had the stone mounted and kept it as a memento.)
Ulster Conservative hopes were dashed when Northcote subsequently ignored Crichton's private and public demands that the Conservative party should insist that the redistribution of Ulster seats under the 1884 reform act be adjusted to favour Conservative interests (on the grounds that superior protestant education and property should offset mere numbers). Ulster tories were regarded by the Conservative leadership as dangerous troublemakers who undermined Conservative opposition to the 1881 land act for the sake of their own electoral survival; Lord Salisbury, now the dominant Conservative leader, saw no particular reason to accommodate Northcote's Ulster clients. Crichton led an unavailing last-ditch commons attempt to modify the reform act, subsequently lamenting: 'The protestants have been left out in the cold. They have been left to fend for themselves' (Fermanagh Times, 15 January 1885).
This perceived Conservative betrayal strengthened those elements within Ulster Conservatism (led by Edward Saunderson) who favoured organising as a separate party and seeking to create a cross-class alliance with pro-union Liberals. When Salisbury formed a government in June 1885 Crichton was not invited to take office (possibly due to his father's ill health and the prospect of his elevation to the lords). Crichton distanced himself from the Conservative government's willingness to accommodate Parnellite attacks on Earl Spencer (qv), though he told his followers that the Conservatives were still fundamentally trustworthy while the Kilmainham treaty showed Liberal unreliability. Crichton took an active role in Ulster Conservative electoral organisation in preparation for the 1885 general election.
The lords, and Orange leadership
After succeeding to his title in 1885, Erne became the principal Ulster unionist spokesman in the house of lords. That year Lord Enniskillen resigned the position of Fermanagh county grand master in his favour, and after his father-in-law's death Erne was elected grand master of the Orange Institution in December 1886. In 1888 he oversaw the celebrations for the tercentenary of the glorious revolution and the formation of the Lord Enniskillen Memorial Orange Orphan Society; he was re-elected imperial grand master at subsequent triennial gatherings. In 1889 he was created a knight of St Patrick, and in 1897 was appointed to the Irish privy council.
In 1892 Erne was one of the principal organisers and speakers at the Ulster Convention in the Botanic Gardens, Belfast, which threatened to resist Gladstone's second home rule bill, by force if necessary; he emphasised the threat of catholic clerical domination and the danger of capital flight. After the defeat of the bill (1893) and the fall of the Liberal government (1895), Erne, like Saunderson, came to be seen as an increasingly ineffective and sectional figure; his susceptibility to influence from Conservative Dublin Castle administrations over such issues as the banning of an Orange parade in Rostrevor, Co. Down, was widely criticised, and the Independent Orange rebels led by Lindsay Crawford (qv) and T. H. Sloan (qv) regarded him as the embodiment of ineffective and unaccountable aristocratic leadership.
Local affairs and financial problems
Erne remained active in Church of Ireland affairs (he was a member of Clogher diocesan council, holding almost every office open to a layman; he also assisted methodist charities) and local politics in Fermanagh (including the Fermanagh Protestant Orphan Society, succeeding his father as president and patron); he was lord lieutenant of Co. Fermanagh (1885–1914). At the inception of Fermanagh County Council in 1899, Erne was elected to represent Enniskillen, and at the first meeting was elected chairman. Displaced by Jeremiah Jordan (qv) when nationalists won a majority under controversial circumstances in 1902, he regained the chair in 1905 and held it until retiring from the council in June 1914 for health reasons. He continued to participate in the Lough Erne yachting fraternity (though from 1884 drainage works restricted its activities) and chaired Enniskillen Rifle Club. He also chaired Enniskillen, Lisnaskea and Clones Guardians (as an ex officio member before the 1898 local government act) and the board of Fermanagh County Hospital.
Erne never, however, enjoyed the same financial stability as his father, partly because his father's will made ample financial provision for his younger brothers, but principally because of the land acts. By 1908 most of the tenanted land had been sold off to the tenants; Erne did not, however, restrict his lifestyle to accommodate his reduced means and by 1910 was selling off timber (for relatively small returns).
Erne was a member of the Ulster Unionist Council from its foundation in 1905, and the third home rule bill crisis gave him an Indian summer. Despite failing health, Erne chaired the huge unionist demonstration at Craigavon House on 23 September 1911, conventionally seen as the start of the Carsonite campaign against home rule. In his opening speech he quoted the famous declaration by Gustavus Hamilton (qv) during the Williamite defence of Enniskillen: 'We stand upon our guard, and do resolve by the blessing of God rather to meet our danger than to await it.' He also presided over the meeting at Enniskillen held by Edward Carson (qv) on 18 September 1912, the beginning of the 'Carson trail' of rallies leading up to the signing of the Ulster covenant across the province on 28 September. (Erne was the first to sign the covenant at Enniskillen.) He subsequently made the Crom demesne freely available for UVF training and exercises.
On the outbreak of the great war, Erne issued a manifesto calling on Orangemen to serve their country in the crisis; his sons (and several brothers and nephews) served in the British armed forces. He died at Crom Castle on 2 December 1914, some time after an operation for appendicitis. His memorials include LOL 647 (Earl of Erne).
Erne's death marked the end of a social and political era. The land and local government acts had definitively rendered the aristocracy politically and socially subordinate to the unionist business and professional classes of east Ulster. Erne's eldest son, Lt.-Col. Henry William Crichton (1872–1914), was believed to be a prisoner of war, but was later found to have died in battle shortly before his father's death. Erne was succeeded by his grandson, John Henry George Crichton (1907–40); during his long minority the residual demesne was only saved by drastic economies (including the laying-off of many employees) aimed at transforming it into a working farm, while war, partition, the destruction of many big houses, and further Lough Erne drainage ended the pre-war aristocratic milieu which had gathered around the yachting club. Revisiting the estate for the 5th earl's coming-of-age, the elderly Shan Bullock saw its reduced state as symbolising the demise of Irish feudalism. The 5th earl in turn was killed in the 1940 French campaign and was succeeded as 6th earl of Erne by his two-year-old son, Henry George Victor John Crichton (b. 1937). These two long minorities ensured that the Crichtons (unlike such gentry families as the Brookes and the Archdales) played a relatively minor role in twentieth-century Fermanagh politics, though the family retained the house and towards the end of the century the demesne became a tourist attraction under the supervision of the National Trust. There is an extensive collection of Erne family and estate papers at PRONI.