Written and researched By Jason Mckevitt © (Historian) April 2020
The story of Belvedere House with its many myths, legends and infamous characters has been part of the historic and social fabric of the town of Mullingar and its hinterlands for centuries. Indeed, the many owners and residents and close relatives associated with the house have entered the annals of the local history of not only of this County town of Westmeath, but also in that of the nearby villages of Tyrrellspass and Castletown-Geoghegan and most tellingly Rochfortbridge.
One such owner of Belvedere House who became not only a man of note in Westmeath, but who also left an indelible mark in the world of soldiering, politics and that of adventure and mountaineering, is Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury D.S.O., D.L., J.P. Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury was born on August 15th, 1883 with conflicting reports of his actual place of birth .
Some authors have suggested that he was born in London, while others, state his birth as being at Charleville Castle in Tullamore, Kings County (Co Offaly) . Notwithstanding these conflicting accounts of his actual place of birth, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Howard-Bury will be forever associated with Belvedere House in Mullingar, County Westmeath.
Lt Col Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury was born into an aristocratic family from the Charleville Estate and Castle in Tullamore, Kings County . Charles was the son of Captain Kenneth Howard who was descended from the Dukes of Suffolk and Berkshire in England, and Lady Emily Bury the daughter and heiress of the 3rd Earl of Charleville . Lady Emily’s father had died in 1859 and her uncle Alfred had taken over the family estate until he too died in 1865 .
It was as a result of this, that Lady Emily became Heir of the Charleville estate and married Captain Kenneth Howard. After they were married, it was decided that Kenneth would incorporate the name of his wife within his own and as such the family name became Howard-Bury . This was something quite unusual for the patriarchal Victorian period of nineteenth century United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland.
It was reported that when young Charles was born that his father exclaimed to his sister Lady Winifred Howard that ‘The brat is enormous and ugly and it squalls like hell’ . This no doubt was indicative of the paternal instinct of members of the aristocracy during the Victorian era. Indeed, the rearing of children in the Big House was not one where the mother or father took a lead, but rather one where servants and other employees such as Nurses and Governesses filled the void .
Capt. Kenneth Howard-Bury was a noted botanist and had been a Captain in the Royal Horse Artillery travelling extensively throughout the British Empire including Australia, Canada and India . These latter travels to distant lands no doubt fulfilled Kenneth Howard-Burys love of botany and allowed him to compare and contrast different types of flora on his travels .
Indeed, it has been suggested that both Captain Howard and Lady Emily Bury had met while both were on separate Botanical excursion to North Africa . This love for adventure and all things botanic by the parents of Col Charles Howard-Bury would no doubt influence their son as he grew older.
However, influencing patriarchal figure of Capt. Kenneth Howard-Bury on the life of young Charles was to be short lived. Capt. Bury in 1884 had been appointed as the High Sheriff for Kings County and all appeared to be going very well for the Howard-Burys in Tullamore . But then, tragedy struck the family when Capt. Kenneth Howard-Bury died on the 24 August 1885 at the age of only thirty nine . Both Charles, an only son, along with his sister Marjorie were only very young children and were now left without a father to guide them in life .
This loss for the young Howard-Bury children was soon to be replaced by another patriarchal figure to enter their young lives in the form of their cousin Lord Lansdowne . Lord Lansdowne was the Viceroy of India during this period and as guardian of the young Charles Howard-Bury would influence his later interests in both visiting and exploring this Jewel in the British Imperial Crown, as he grew older . Lord Lansdowne later became Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1900-1905, which no doubt further encouraged Charles .
Charles like most of his social equals was educated at home and was later sent to England to attend boarding school and became a boarder in Eton College near London . On completion of his studies, Charles followed the career that was the norm for young landed heirs at that time, and attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as a young Officer Cadet in 1903 .
Charles was Commissioned as an Officer into the Kings Royal Rifles and posted to India in 1904 where his love for adventure was about to begin . Indeed, Michael Parsons writing in the Irish Times in 2012 suggested that Charles Howard-Bury took to Life in the British Raj in India very favourably, with game hunting, climbing and adventure becoming a major part of his time there .
Charles Howard-Bury’s love for adventure was to raise quite a few eyebrows and indeed consternation amongst his superiors, especially Lord Curzon the then Vice-Roy of India . It was reported that in 1905, the young Army Captain had decided to go on an adventure and secretly entered Tibet disguised as a native . Howard-Bury it appears, won the support of the native “Holy Men” when he shot and killed a man eating tiger which had terrorised the area and was reputed to have killed twenty one people . Howard-Burys’s fondness for the natives and yearning for learning languages, saw him being able to speak Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu as well as English and French fluently .
This flair for languages did not go unnoticed by his senior officers and he was recommended for promotion within the Intelligence Service of the Army . Indeed Howard-Bury writes in his diary that ‘he felt so secure with the native’s customs and practices that on having a very severe tooth ache, he decided to avail of the local native dispensary so as to obtain a native remedy to reduce the pain of his tooth ache’ .
This native remedy was so successful in relieving the pain for Howard-Bury that he became an advocate for its promotion. And what was the name of this native remedy many of you may inquire???? Well, its name was ……Cocaine!!!!!!!
In December 1907, tragedy struck Howard-Bury once again, when his only sibling, Marjorie died of Typhus at the family estate in Charleville Castle in Tullamore . This no doubt was to have a profound effect on him and it could be suggested that it furthered his need to get away from the family estate of Charleville Tullamore. However, his travels were to be curtailed once again, when in 1912 his cousin Charles Brinsley-Marley died and left him the Belvedere estate in Mullingar, Co Westmeath .
Charles Howard-Bury now found himself with not only a new estate but also a new found wealth and income and as such decided to resign his Commission from the Army and focus on running the Belvedere Estate . Notwithstanding his new life as a country squire, Howard-Bury began to yearn for adventure and travel, and once more and set about the process of planning for his next adventure.
The yearning for adventure and travel which was to pulsate within the very being of Charles Howard-Bury saw him viewing the Tian Shan Mountains in Central Asia as a location for his next adventure.
This mountainous region of Central Asia lies like a blanket along the bordering nations of Russia, China, India, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan . It was nearing the end of May 1913 when Howard-Bury departed his residence at Belvedere House via London and Berlin on his quest to navigate and explore the peaks of these salubrious Mountains.
It may also be added that Howard-Bury may have been attracted to this region due in part to the Chinese Revolution which had occurred the previous year. This event also witnessed abdication of the Chinese Emperor in 1912 . It is also recorded in Howard-Burys’s diary from his time in the Kuldja Province that ‘the area is suffering from a sense of lawlessness’ with a criminal element operating between the border of Russia and China .
However, crime and revolution did not get in the way of Howard-Burys love for nature and indeed animals. It was while journeying to Kuldja that Howard-Bury noticed some local hunters playing about with a three week old bear cub .
Howard-Bury records in his diaries that he took ownership of the bear cub and named the bear cub “Agu” which is the Kazak for bear . The bear cub was eventually relocated to Belvedere House in Mullingar and became a familiar sight for visiting guests and friends before ending its days in Dublin Zoo . Today as I write in April 2020, the head of Belvederes most notable bear, Agu, may be seen in the museum section of the Greville Arms Hotel, Mullingar.
Charles Howard-Bury had spent six months travelling the region and as such looked forward to returning home to Belvedere House to rest and plan his next adventure. As the year 1914 came into being so would the next mission for Charles Howard-Bury albeit one out of a sense of duty rather than choice.
The events of August 1914 once again saw Charles Howard-Bury return to the colours with the outbreak of World War 1. He re-joined his old regiment, the Kings Royal Rifles and by 1915 had been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel .
The life of a soldier appeared to come natural to Howard-Bury with him seeing action in campaigns such as Arras, The Somme and indeed Ypres . By late 1917, Howard-Bury was once again back in the Ypres region, fighting at the third Battle of Ypres, more commonly known amongst Military Historians as the Battle of Passchendaele .
The character of Howard-Bury and his legacy of daring escapades witnessed him being captured by the German Army and transported to a Prisoner of War camp at Furstenberg in Germany . Military tacticians and instructors, often state that when a soldier is captured by the enemy, that the soldier’s first response is to plan his/her escape as soon as possible while their physical and physiological condition is still in relatively good shape . This idea was not lost on Howard-Bury and after much preparation and planning he managed to escape from Furstenberg, lasting three days on the run before he was once again captured by German soldiers .
Howard-Bury remained a prisoner of war until after the Armistice on the 11th November 1918 and was not released until May 1919 . This determination and bravery of Howard-Bury was recognised by the British Government and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order medal, more commonly known as the D.S.O. which is awarded to Officers of the British and Commonwealth Forces for distinguished services rendered in time of war . Once Howard-Bury had been repatriated after the war he decided to once again, return to the life of the country squire at Belvedere House, Mullingar.
Lt Col Charles Howard-Bury may have been seen as a hero to the British Government but on returning to his home in the Irish midlands in late 1919/20 he saw a landscape which was in a state of flux both socially and politically due to the Irish War of Independence. The old Anglo-Irish elite were now being left in no uncertain terms, that they were no longer welcome with many big houses being burned to the ground by Republican forces .
The burning and destruction of the homes and estates of the landed Anglo-Irish was all too familiar for Howard-Bury, with fourteen big houses having being burned in nearby Kings County/Offaly during this period .
In spite of these occurrences, Howard-Bury was appointed Deputy Lieutenant and Justice of the Peace for County Westmeath and appointed to the role of High Sheriff for Kings County/Offaly in 1920 . These roles by this stage in Irish history were no doubt seen by some sections of Republican society as being a representation of a foreign Government’s power over their newly proclaimed Republic.
These social and political implications no doubt had an effect on Howard-Bury and could be construed as an influencing factor in the next important decision he was to make and indeed encourage his more adventurous side. As the War of Independence intensified in Ireland during 1920, so too, did Howard-Burys sense of escape and adventure.
If the early 1920’s was a time of great upheaval in Ireland the remainder of the U.K., especially in that of England saw many former military officers and adventurers focus less on the act of war and more on the cause of exploration and adventure. The Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Club (R.G.S.) were planning to carry out a reconnaissance of the World’s highest mountain, Mount Everest with a view to reaching its peak at a later date .
Sir Francis Younghusband the President of the R.G.S. needed someone who could not only lead this expedition but also someone who could communicate with the local authorities of the region . Howard-Bury on hearing of these developments, offered his services at his own expense, as expedition leader and also his polymathic skills regarding Asian languages .
Howard-Bury was duly accepted in January 1921 and was dispatched to India to negotiate with local officials and indeed the Dali Lama of Tibet to gain permission for the expedition’s team to access these regions with a view to gaining the best possible access route to Mount Everest . Not long thereafter, Howard-Burys linguistic and negotiation skills paid off and the expedition team was granted permission to access the region .
The expedition team led by Lt Col Charles Howard-Bury finally moved out towards Darjeeling in North India in early 1921 and was in situ by mid-May . Included amongst the members of the expedition were the noted climber, George Leigh-Mallory along with others such as Guy Bullock, Harold Raeburn and Dr A.M. Kellas amongst others . Also included were many Tibetan and Nepalese coolies as Sherpa’s as workers and guides for the western led expedition .
Charles Howard-Bury points out in his book, “Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance, 1921” that the local Indian administration was very supportive of his expedition’s endeavours, and although unable to provide much financial support, supplied an officer from their Geographical department and met much of the costs of the actual survey .
Howard-Bury also states out that the Viceroy of India, Lord Reading and his wife donated 750 Rupees towards the expedition . The Tibetans called Mount Everest, which at its peak reaches 29,000ft, ‘Chomo-Lungma’ meaning ‘Goddess Mother of the Earth’ . Indeed, this Tibetan name was not lost on the expedition members as they recorded new types of flora and fauna as well as surveying the mountain and possible routes to its peak. During the reconnaissance, Howard-Bury as a botanist, was tasked with recording new species of flora and fauna along with his leadership role . One such discovery led to the plant white primula, being renamed after Howard-Bury with the new name of Primula Buryana .
The Reconnaissance expedition had spent several months from late May to late August 1921 exploring both the central and northern routes of Mount Everest to gage which route was the most accessible and safest to reach its peak at a later stage .
It was during the reconnaissance that Howard-Bury provided the beginnings of what was to become the legend of the mysterious “Abominable Snowman” or “Yeti” . Howard-Bury described that on being about 20,000ft above ground, he noticed human like figures crossing an open space several feet below their position . On coming across the tracks in the snow to examine them, the Tibetan coolies exclaimed they were the tracks of the “Methokangmi” translated roughly, as the Abominable Snowman .
However, Howard-Bury in his book, suggests that this may have been more likely the tracks of the grey wolf in soft snow which appear bigger . Notwithstanding this latter statement by Howard-Bury, the western media sensationalised the story with later adventurers and climbers to the Himalayas also proclaiming this myth.
The expedition team also encountered some difficulties including poor hygiene by the coolies who prepared the food leading to stomach problems and equipment issues . The death of Dr A.M. Kellas from dysentery was also a major blow to the team notwithstanding the continued tension between Howard-Bury and Raeburn, with Mallory stating that ‘He found Howard-Bury to be a fine leader but that he did not like him very much’ .
By the autumn of 1921, the expedition had returned to “civilisation” as Howard-Bury referred to it, and the expedition’s efforts had been declared a great success by all . The expedition had according to Howard-Bury succeeded in locating a possible route to the peak of Mount Everest up the North East Ridge .
The Surveyors had also recorded thousands of miles and the geology of the area which as Howard-Bury stated ‘further opened up thousands of miles to human knowledge’ . The reconnaissance had paved the way for the further exploration of Mount Everest and with Mallory making his ill-fated return to reach its peak in 1924 which ended with his death .
When the success of the reconnaissance reached London and indeed the western world, the members of the expedition were feted as celebrities. The original cost of the expedition was estimated at £10,000 but in reality came to the more reasonable cost of £4,000 . Howard-Bury as leader of the expedition along with his team were provided a reception at Buckingham Palace by King, George V .
He was awarded the Founders Medal by the R.G.S. on the 20th of March 1922 and became much sought after by the Conservative Party who due to his celebrity viewed him as a great potential candidate who could win a seat in the forthcoming Westminster elections .
Later in 1922, Howard-Bury as a Conservative party candidate won a seat for the party representing the Bilston in South Wolverhampton . Having lost his seat in 1924, he went on to run as the Conservative candidate in 1926 for Chelmsford once again winning the seat . However, it was during these years while being involved in British politics that Howard-Bury felt the yearning for his beloved Belvedere House back home in Mullingar and ran unsuccessfully for the Irish Senate in 1925 . By 1931 and with the death of his mother, Lady Emily, Howard-Bury retired from politics and returned to Ireland to focus on his Irish estates at Belvedere and Charleville in County Offaly .
On returning to Belvedere, Howard-Bury set about putting things in order around his estate and other properties in his possession around the Mullingar area. Amongst some of these housekeeping duties included letters from the solicitor of a local well known businessman, inquiring if Howard-Bury would sell nearby Bloomfield House to him for the sum of £3,200, this offer was refused with great vigour .
Other mundane issues for the great adventurer to deal with included the provision of a metal pump for the Garda Barracks in Kinnegad for which Howard-Bury happened to be its landlord .
It appears that the unsettled nature of Howard-Bury, once again made itself known, and he began to show little interest in his Irish affairs and looked to travel and adventure once again.
This low interest, may be seen in a letter received by his cousin and fellow trustee of the Lady Belvedere Orphanage in Tyrrellspass, Capt. Arthur Boyd-Rochfort V.C. . Within this letter, Mr Smith, Commissioner with the Charitable Donations and Bequests for Saorstat Eirerann, wrote that he received a complaint from Rev J Levis, Church of Ireland Rector of Tyrrellspass and curate for the Orphanage, stating that ‘Lt Col Howard-Bury seems to have little interest in the running of the orphanage and spends most of his time abroad’ . The fact that Howard-Bury paid very generous subventions towards the running of the orphanage appeared to be discounted by the good Rector.
The arrival of another World War saw Howard-Bury once again leave Ireland, but this time to take up a role with the British Red Cross. It was during this period that he met his dear life companion, Rex Beaumont, who was an actor, poet, fashion designer and now an Officer in the Royal Air Force Reserve .
After the war both Howard-Bury and his companion Rex Beaumont set up home at both Belvedere in Mullingar and at his villa in Hammamet in Tunisia . Such was Howard-Burys’s position amongst the British establishment, that his villa was used by the British Ambassador regarding negotiations in terms of Maltese/Tunisian relations .
Back in Mullingar both men became widely renowned for their lavish parties at both Belvedere and indeed in the local Greville Arms Hotel. During the 1950’s and early 60’s, the local race meetings in Kerry and the Rose of Tralee festival, became the regular haunts for Howard-Bury and his companion Rex . Both men were to be found either cheering on one of their horses or indeed sponsoring a race, with Rex acting as a judge for the beauty pageant . By the early 1960’s, time was beginning to catch up on the now octogenarian and his younger companion.
Notwithstanding his age, Howard-Bury became noted for his anonymous donations to charity and his belief in the working together of all the local Christian churches in Mullingar . This was to be seen through his secret donations for the poor of Mullingar through the local Roman Catholic Priests, Rev Fr Joe Dermody and Rev Fr Finian O’Connor and the local Mullingar Protestant Ministers, Rev Ian McDougall, Church of Ireland and Rev James Black, Mullingar Presbyterian Church .
Charles Howard-Bury took ill in September 1963 and died on the twentieth of the month with his dear companion Rex Beaumont being the chief mourner . The funeral for Lt Col Charles Howard-Bury was held in Mullingar with his internment at the family vault at St Catharine’s Church of Ireland in Tullamore . The legacy of Howard-Bury has not been forgotten by climbers and adventurers alike in the twenty first century.
In 2012, mountain climbers, Dan Clarke, Matt Traver and Mike Royer on reaching the peak of P.T.4766 in Kyrgyzstan named the mountain in honour of Charles Howard-Bury with it being now recorded as Peak Howard-Bury . Howard-Bury left Belvedere to his companion, Rex Beaumont, who due to financial difficulties in 1982 sold it to Westmeath County Council.
A brief interview with a friend of Rex Beaumont has made for some interesting anecdotes. It is pointed out that Rex carried on the charitable work of his companion to such an extent that it left him in a precarious financial position . This financial position led to Belvedere being sold and indeed Rex Beaumont settling into a remote cottage outside Mullingar town.
It was further suggested that this left Rex feeling quite lonely. It was further explained that a few months before his death, Rex and Westmeath County Council came to an agreement where he would be allowed to move back into Belvedere until he died . Rex Beaumont sadly passed away at Belvedere on the 22nd of October 1988 with his funeral taking place at the Cathedral in Mullingar with burial at Ballyglass cemetery, Mullingar .
In conclusion, the Anglo-Irish landlord system in Ireland has often been viewed by many over the decades as one of oppression, greed and of a class who were alienated from the realities of their native tenants. However, when one takes a closer look of one such Landlord, such as that of Howard-Bury of Belvedere, a more humane and adventurist side appears. Lt Col Charles Howard-Bury was a man like no other and one who not only changed the face of the map but also one who displayed a kindly nature through charitable donations to the local community, albeit very low key. Some people aim to achieve their life’s desire, but for Lt Col Charles Howard-Bury, to reach his life’s desires; he lived many lives within one!!!!!!
By Jason Mckevitt © (Historian) April 2020
Research / Referencing to Article etc.
Bibliography French, Robert, The Lawrence Photograph Collection: 1865-1914, available at (http://catalogue.nli.ie/Record/vtls000338376) (7 November 2014). High Sheriffs for 1884, Kings County, available in the Irish Times, 24 November 1883. Howard-Bury, Charles, Mount Everest: The reconnaissance, 1921, (London, 1922). Interview with Ruth Illingworth, 14 December 2014. M Smith to Capt Arthur Boyd-Rochfort, 1 January 1938, (Westmeath County Library, Howard-Bury Papers, M, 1938). Obituaries, Liet-Col C.K. Howard-Bury in The Times, Sat, 21 September, 1963. Obituaries, Westmeath Examiner, Sat, Sept 21, 1963. Obituary, Rex Beaumont in Westmeath Examiner, Sat, 29 Oct, 1988. R.A. Rafferty (O.P.W.) to Belvedere solicitor, W.R. Featherstonehaugh, 26 may 1932,(Westmeath County Library, Howard-Bury Papers, N 1932). Rev J Levis to Capt Arthur Boyd-Rochfort, 1 January 1938, (Westmeath County Library, Howard-Bury Papers, M, 1938). Standish E. Mason to Charles Howard-Bury, 10 Oct 1932,(Westmeath County Library, Howard-Bury Papers, N 1932) Daly, Leo, The Parish of Mullingar, (Mullingar, 1984). Davis, Wade, Into the Silence: Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, (New York, 2012). Davis, Wade, My Hero: Charles Howard-Bury, available at the Guardian Newspaper online, 23 November 2012, (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/nov/23/charles-howard-bury-my-hero-wade-davis) (15 Nov 2014). Dooley, Terence, The Decline of the Big House in Ireland, (Dublin, 2001). Dooley, Terence, The Big Houses and Landed Estates of Ireland: A Research Guide, (Dublin, 2007). Illingworth, Ruth, Westmeath’s Everest Pioneer: Charles Howard-Bury in The Westmeath Examiner Newspaper, Sat, June 17, 2006. Keaney, Marian, Charles Howard-Bury: Mountains of Heaven: Travels in the Tien Shan Mountains, (London, 1990). Keaney, Marian, From Belvedere to Everest, in Westmeath Examiner Newspaper, Sat 9 Nov 1991. Keaney, Marian, Wooing the Widows at Belvedere and when Col Bury was asked to succeed Lawrence of Arabia in The Westmeath Examiner, Sat April 25, 1998. Keaney, Marian, Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury (1881-1963) available at Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (http://www.oxforddnb.com/templates/article.jsp?articleid=62493&back=) (15 Nov 2014). McConville, Seamus, Miscellany in The Kerryman Newspaper, Friday, 03 Sept, 1982. Newman, Sharon, From Mullingar to Mount Everest in The Westmeath Examiner, Sat, 31 May 2003. O’Brien, Gearoid, Belvedere House Gardens and Park, (Athlone, 2000). Parsons, Michael An Irishman’s Diary, available in the Irish Times, 17 March 2012. Reilly, Ciaran J, ‘The Burning of Country Houses in Co Offaly during the Revolutionary Period, 1920-3’ in Terence Dooley and Christopher Ridgway (eds.), The Irish Country House: Its Past, Present and Future, (Dublin, 2011) Reynolds, Adrian P, “The Man Who Walked off the Map”: Lt Col Charles Howard-Bury (1883-1963) (LO 1713, Master’s Thesis, NUI Maynooth, 1997). Sharkey, Olive, Belvedere Restored, in the Irish Arts Review, XIX (Autumn, 2002). The Mountain Named after a Mullingar man, in The Westmeath Examiner, Sat, March 03, 2012.