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Caledon Estate and the Alexander Family

The O’Neills continued to live in this area until after the death of Phelim O’Neill in 1653.  Sir Phelim was executed by the Cromwellian government for his part in the Irish Rebellion of 1641.  Following the death of Phelim O’Neill, huge debts remained on the castle and estate at Kinnaird  resulting in them being reclaimed by the Cromwellian financiers. 

In 1661, after the restoration of King Charles II, Captain William Hamilton was awarded possession of Phelim O’Neill’s forfeited Tyrone estate. It is believed as Captain Hamilton was of Scottish descent, he renamed Kinnaird to Caledon as a tribute to his home land – Caledonia.  Capt Hamilton had been living near Benburb and had been working as a ‘middleman tenant’ for the Wingfields at the Manor of Benburb.

The tombstone of William Hamilton can be found in the porch of Caledon parish church and details the death of William in 1674, his wife Marjery (daughter of Lieut-Colonel James Galbraith) in 1674 and their son Captain James Hamilton who died in 1730.

Their eldest son John succeeded to the Caledon estate following the death of his parents. John was an MP for the area and had a son, William who died young, and a daugher and heiress Margaret. In 1738, Margaret married John Boyle, the 5th Earl of Orrery (later Earls of Cork and Orrery)

In 1775, after the estate had passed to the third son of the 5th Earl of Cork and Orrery, but only son of Margaret Hamilton, due to his extravagence, Caledon Estate was sold to James Alexander at a cost of £96,400 –  approx £14 million in today’s money. James Alexander is purported to have made his fortune in the service of the East India Company. He built Caledon House in 1779, either on or a short distance from the site of the Hamilton’s original house, engaging the services of architect Thomas Cooley.

James Alexander became Baron Caledon in 1789, Viscount in 1797 and the First Earl of Caledon in December 1800. He did not live long to enjoy the title of Earl, dying in March 1802. The estate and Earldom passed to his son Du Pre Alexander who became first Governor of the Cape of Good Hope.

The 2nd Earl of Caledon Du Pre Alexander spent a lot of money in the village and engaged the best architects of the day – in early 1820s the Courthouse, Dispensary and Caledon Arms Hotel was built by the earl at cost of £3000 – over ¼ million in todays money.  He engaged Dublin architect William Murray, son of an Armagh man who also designed Armagh Courthouse as well as being the architect of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

Caledon Village

The second Earl engaged John Nash to remodel Caledon House and work was also complete on St John’s church.  Nash was the leading British architect of the period 1800 – 1830, responsible for much of the layout of Regency London including the remodelling of Buckingham Palace. The work on the Caledon House was completed 1811.

The celebrated landscape designer, John Sutherland, re-designed Caledon estate in 1807, with further improvements made by the landscape designer W S Gilpin in 1827.

Under the 2nd Earl’s stewardship, Caledon village was transformed. The 1837 Lewis topographical dictionary of Ireland records Caledon as ‘one of the best built towns in North Of Ireland. The village contained 226 houses, nearly all of which were built of stone’.

The Third Earl “planted and improved the approaches to Caledon “ so that now “Caledon arrests the attention of every visitor by the charm of its surroundings, the excellence of its buildings and the general neatness of its aspects”.  He also organised the supply of an excellent water supply to the village from the collected springs of the demesne by a novel type of engineering – the hydraulic ram. Traditionally doctors believed that waterborne diseases such as Typhus and Cholera were transmitted by bad air/miasma.  A supply of pure drinking water was a great boost to public health, a plentiful supply of water also made personal and home hygiene easier to achieve.


In 1815 Lady Caledon built and funded a girls school just inside the walls of the estate – sometimes referred to as the Doric school because of its stone columns. This was a cross community school where 20 protestant and 20 catholic girls were educated and clothed.

Famine Relief

At the beginning of the 1800s continental wars and several poor harvests caused a rise in food prices – the country was described as being overrun by vagrants.  In order to help their own poor St John’s vestry supplied badges and engaged a special officer to keep away strangers.  It is recorded that in 1816 Lady Caledon gave a Mr William Martin a sum of money directing him to purchase flax in order to reemploy the poor in the spring.  There was no public provision for the poor prior to 1838 Poor Law Act but various charitable bequests were made and Lord Caledon organised £3.16.3 distributed among the poor every Saturday and at Christmas £80 worth of clothes and a further quantity of money.   In 1829 a dispensary was established (currently occupied by Wax and Wave) to provide medicines for the poor (Lord Caledon provided £100 per annum and there was some public subscription).

Since the passing of the act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, several attempts were made by successive governments to come to terms with the problem of chronic poverty in Ireland.  Rapidly rising population, too much reliance on the potato crop and absentee landlords who crammed as many families onto their often neglected land as they could.  The Earl of Caledon did not fall into this category and was very much in tune with the needs of the local community. Caledon Estate lands were reasonably apportioned and well managed by a succession of capable estate managers and the tenant farmers would definitely have benefited from this. 

The Irish Poor Law Act’ was passed on July 31, 1838 – the country was divided into Poor Law Unions and each union was to have a workhouse which accommodated an area of 10 miles radius often crossing county boundaries.  The workhouse was seen as very much a destination of last resort for the poor and destitute.

The arrival of the potato blight in 1845 heralded the start of a catastrophe in Ireland – the famine.  J M Callwell in Old Irish Life writes “In 1845 my father drove down to the Assizes in Galway – he looked at the plots of potatoes lying thick and green on either side of the road, and though that he had seldom seen a richer crop.  He slept in Galway that night and next day as he drove home the smell of the potato-blight was heavy in the air, a new nauseous smell.  It was the first breath of the Irish Famine.”

Fortunately for the citizens of Caledon and the surrounding areas the Earl of Caledon and his agent Henry Prentice who lived in Alexander House had a “most enlightened and humanitarian approach” to the famine.  The success of such is illustrated by the fact that the population of the area did not significantly decrease during the famine (through increased death rates or emigration).

•          Purchased sufficient oatmeal for the needs of the whole area of the estate, some 10,000 people

•          Set up 3 soup kitchens at Model Farm, Dyan village and Brantry

•          Famine relief work – building of estate walls

•          Introduced the most up-to-date drainage to help tenants grow a variety of crops

•          The previous Earl had built Caledon Corn Mills in 1823 which as well as giving employment to local people, the mill milled 9000 tonnes of grain annually. It is reasonable to assume the mill was able to supply local people with oatmeal and flour at reasonable prices during the famine years

•          Set up a factory near Caledon Model School in 1846 and brought over silk weavers from Paisley in Scotland to teach apprentices fine silk weaving in the paisley pattern.

Modern Day

Today Caledon Estate is a private working estate – home of the 7th Earl, Nicholas Alexander and Lady Caledon.  The estate includes an expansive deerpark but at the time of the 4th Earl in the late 1800s there would have been black bear and wapiti (American Elk) roaming the parklands.