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(The story of Susan Burney and Molesworth Phillips)


(By Declan Quaile)

(First published in our Review 2005 journal)


To the casual observer of local history the names of Molesworth Phillips and Susan Burney would appear to have no association with the Termonfeckin area. Molesworth Phillip’s name is linked peripherally with Captain Cook and his last voyage to the Pacific while that of Susan Burney’s is unfamiliar to most. Yet in the last years of the eighteenth century this couple; he from Swords in Co. Dublin and she from a literary and musical family in London, would come to live in Termonfeckin and through Susan’s correspondence with her sister we are given a unique glimpse into the world of the landed class in the Termonfeckin area. In their story of family loyalties, marital disharmony and the challenge of a harsh new life in Ireland we have an important source of information on our locality in the turbulent years at the end of the eighteenth century.        



Molesworth Phillips was born in Swords, Co. Dublin on 15th August 1755. He was the son of John Phillips, Surgeon to the train of Artillery in Ireland, who was the natural son of Robert Molesworth, the first Viscount Molesworth of Swords. Phillips’ mother was Henrietta Eccleston, daughter of John Eccleston of Termonfeckin, whose parents were William Eccleston and Rose Brabazon of Drumshallon in Co. Louth.1  At the age of twelve Molesworth was sent to St. Paul’s School in London to further his education.2

By the age of twenty Phillips was destined to join the Royal Navy but Joseph Banks, the naturalist and friend of the family, recommended that he enlist with the Royal Marines instead. And so, at Plymouth in July 1776, he embarked as a second lieutenant on what would be Captain Cook’s third and final voyage to the Pacific. On board Cook’s ship the Resolution he was the commanding officer of the marine detachment.

During the expedition Resolution, partnered by Discovery, travelled the length of the Pacific Ocean and in January 1778 they located new land which they named the Sandwich Islands (later called the Hawaiian Islands). Histories of the voyage record Phillips as a competent lieutenant but William Bligh (of subsequent H.M.S. Bounty fame), who was master of the Resolution, noted inauspiciously in his memoirs that Phillips was a ‘person who never was of any real service the whole voyage, or did anything but eat & sleep’. The two ships headed north for the rest of the year in an unsuccessful attempt at finding the Northwest Passage before returning to the Sandwich Islands in February 1779.

However, what began as a series of friendly meetings with the natives quickly turned to tragedy when the shore party were attacked as they endeavoured to have a  missing boat returned. In the ensuing melee at the shoreline Captain Cook was fatally wounded. Phillips, despite receiving a shoulder injury, helped save the life of one of his marines. It is also claimed that he killed Cook’s murderer in follow-up engagements between the ship’s crew and the islanders.

Despite the tragedy of Cook’s death and Bligh’s misgivings, Phillips’ reputation was enhanced after his escapades in the South Seas. He was promoted to the rank of captain in November 1780 amid the exposure and public adulation that accompanied his return to England. And it was during this time that his close friend James Burney, who was a lieutenant on the Cook voyage, introduced Phillips to his sister Susan.


Susannah (Susan) Elizabeth Burney was born in Kings Lynn in Norfolk on 5th January 1755, the daughter of music historian Charles Burney and younger sister of Frances (Fanny) Burney, who would become a noted author and diarist. The family moved to London in 1760 and Susan was educated for a time in Paris. She cultivated a passion for writing in her youth and went on to record, in many volumes of letters and diaries, her experiences of the social life of late 18th century London as well as pursuing a lifelong personal correspondence with Frances. Though troubled periodically by ill health (she suffered from TB, which had been the cause of her mother’s death) Susan was socially active in London and met her future husband Molesworth Phillips there in late 1780, following his return from the Pacific. After a brief courtship they became engaged in 1781. They married at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, London on the 10th January the following year and honeymooned afterwards in Chessington Hall, home of Samuel Crisp, a friend of the Burneys. At this time Phillips was regarded as a ‘gallant and agreeable young fellow’ but was also noted as ‘…never quite being in tune with the inner circle’. He had ‘…unquestionably many good and attractive traits. There was kinship with all the Burneys in his “raw youth” and ‘…as a duellist he seems to have been at once a man and a gentleman. He was a sworn pal of James (Susan’s brother) and reached distinction in his profession’.3  Their first child Frances was born in 1782 and two years later, in 1784, they moved to Mickleham, near Dorking in Surrey. Two other children were born there, Charles Norbury in 1785 and John William in 1791.

   Portrait of Susan Phillips
            (nee Burney)


Phillips had continued with his career in the Royal Marines and he took a posting to France (with Susan accompanying him for health reasons) where they resided (in Boulogne) in 1784 and 1785. Susan returned to England with the children while Phillips remained in France, spending much time there, probably in a military capacity, until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.


Acquisition of Irish Estates:

Through his links with the Molesworth family Phillips inherited entailed lands4 in Swords, while in the mid 1780s he was bequeathed a large parcel of land in the townland of Termonfeckin from his uncle William Eccleston together with a lease on land at Bellcotton, Termonfeckin.5  Following this a legal action was initiated in June 1785 by George Eccleston, John Darcy and William Eccleston of Drumshallon against Phillips, concerning the ownership of these lands. The ensuing court proceedings would drag on for many years (at least to 1799) but in the meantime Phillips set out to gain an income from his new possessions. He was in Ireland from August to the end of October 1787 overseeing his estates while in November 1789 a lease document notes that he let part of his lands, known as ‘The Corgans’, (adjacent to the mill on the Ballywater river) to the Markeys of Glaspistol.6

Though he derived income from his Irish estates the expenses incurred in running them, being an absentee landlord with a flamboyant lifestyle and a predilection for excessive gambling, led him in the early 1790s into severe financial straits. In an effort to reduce his financial burden he approached his wife’s family in England to help him out and persuaded them to take out mortgages on his lands in Ireland. This arrangement would give him access to some £2,000 by early 1795, and some of it was used in debt reduction. The deal included monthly interest payments by Phillips to Susan’s father Charles Burney who was the principal underwriter. Unfortunately, as Dr. Burney would find out, these payments by Phillips were seldom honoured!        


Agitation in Louth:

In the early part of the 1790s the Catholic Association together with the more militant Defenders became active in Co. Louth, with violent incidents taking place at several locations. Even shipments of arms were being imported for subversive purposes.7 In 1792 Molesworth Phillips was at Portsmouth awaiting a naval assignment, though at the same time he was considering his long term future in the marines. He was made aware that agitation was increasing around the south Louth area and he decided to return to Ireland to check on the security of his estates. His sojourn in Louth seems to have convinced him that he should be there to meet whatever threat unfolded and to garner what help he could from the local Volunteers in the area. In January 1793 Phillips reported that his neighbour in Termonfeckin, Wallop Brabazon of Rath, had written to him voicing concerns about the deteriorating situation in the locality. After some time in Co. Louth Phillips returned to England and, as early as 1794, correspondence between the Burneys refer to him already considering a permanent move to Ireland. However this time he would have his family accompany him.

The compulsion to relocate to Ireland seems to have coincided with a marked change in Phillips’ personality, the cause of which remains obscure. Apart from being at home to defend his property against local disturbances, which were intensifying rapidly, he may also have felt compelled to distance himself from the constant pressure of financial burden to his lenders in England. His monetary difficulties may also have been the cause of his increasingly erratic behaviour. It is also conceivable that in his visits to an ever more chaotic Ireland he experienced a sense of urgency that was more in tune with his military instincts than he was accustomed to in Surrey, a climate that rekindled the more adventurous days of his youth.

One other reason may have veered him towards a return to his native soil. On previous visits to Ireland he had established contact with the most influential family in the Termonfeckin area, the Brabazons of Rath. Distant cousins of Phillips, their decades long dominance in the locality together with the social circle they inhabited at Rath, Drogheda and Dublin, may have persuaded him that this was a chance to return and establish himself amongst his peers in Ireland. With his marriage to Susan deteriorating and his exploits away from home beginning to earn him a dubious reputation, his next move, involving the transfer of his family to Ireland, showed a propensity for scheming which heeded little the feelings and welfare of his wife and children.

By March 1794 he had been promoted to the rank of major and some time later in that year he removed his son Norbury from school in Greenwich and brought him to Ireland for private tuition in Dublin.8  In June the following year Phillips, pressing ahead with his plans, decreed that their family home at Mickleham should be vacated in advance of a move to Ireland, with James Burney (Susan’s brother) housing them temporarily in James Street, London. Susan, in correspondence with her sister Frances, expressed much anxiety at losing Norbury and of her husband’s unrestrained plans for his family. Then in the middle of 1795, to the further dismay of his family and peers, Phillips resigned his commission in the Royal Marines and travelled to Ireland to prepare for his family’s arrival. James Burney begged him to reconsider his resignation but he dismissed all pleas to change his mind and pushed ahead with his plan. Frances, wrote that he was ‘retiring’ to Ireland ‘upon half pay’ after his resignation, because ‘he cannot in any decency remain in England’. Susan, already devastated at the removal of her eldest son to Ireland, would remain in London with her two other children, seeking solace from her family while awaiting the dreaded call from Ireland. Her health, never robust, was affected by the turn of events and she would become ever more prone to illness in the months and years ahead.


To Ireland and Bellcotton: 

By 1796 Susan and the two children were living with her father in Chelsea. In August of that year Phillips had informed her that he would bring Norbury home to London to see her but as was his penchant for reneging on agreements, he travelled to England alone using Norbury’s absence as leverage in forcing Susan to return to Ireland with him. His plans were now at an advanced stage and work was well underway in having accommodation ready on his lands at Bellcotton. In a previous foray to Termonfeckin he had chosen two adjoining cottages and had proceeded to have them converted into one habitable unit.9 

Also, around this time, Susan began to hear uncomfortable rumours about her husband’s exploits whilst away in Ireland. She had been discreetly informed that the Major, while socializing in Termonfeckin, had being paying undue attention to the sister of a sailor (whom Susan’s brother James knew) and that the Brabazon family were somewhat embarrassed by the spectacle he was making of himself.

Some weeks later, in September, with their departure to Ireland imminent and with this new information weighing heavily on her mind, Susan met her two sisters for the last time.10  She discussed her plight with them but, as was the etiquette of the times, they reluctantly reminded her to acquiesce in a wifely manner to her husband, though, at the same time, her father vented his anger in a family letter criticizing Phillips and his ‘wrong headed and tyrannical spirit.

Eventually, on Monday the 17th of October 1796, after all the forewarnings and delays, Phillips, Susan, her maid and their two children set out from London on the long and arduous journey to Holyhead. After stopping overnight at several towns en route they eventually arrived at the Welsh port and set sail for Dublin on Saturday evening, the 29th. They crossed the Irish Sea and arrived in Ireland on Monday afternoon, the 31st October - two full weeks after leaving London.

On their arrival, while Phillips made arrangements for their onward journey to Bellcotton, Susan was reunited in Dublin with her beloved son Norbury whom she hadn’t seen for nearly two years. They were found temporary lodgings by the Kiernan family11 of Henry Street until the second week of November, at which stage the family proceeded north to Drogheda and then on to Termonfeckin, eventually arriving at Bellcotton on Friday 11th November 1796.

Map of the Termonfeckin Estate of Molesworth Phillips, surveyed by James Frain in 1795. (Reproduced by kind permission of Noel Ross

Early Impressions:

In letters to Frances in the period after her arrival she expresses her views on her new abode and the neighbourhood around. ‘Shall I tell you anything of Belcotton? The parlour is warm … has two little closets, some shelves in a recess for books, and the walls, tho’ neither painted nor papered are adorned with some precious drawings. The room meant for a drawing room, but in which we sleep till another is finished, is large and lofty - but very dark, as is the parlour, having only one window and that small. The kitchen is really convenient tho’ small. There are 3 rooms upstairs and one below which except papering are finished.    

The country around is flat, and I think very dreary - some little hills appear at a distance, 3 spires12 and the sea which is a grand object… it is a mile and half distant from us. We have a garden at present in great disorder, and the house is almost surrounded by barns and outhouses, where blacksmiths and carpenters are continually at work. Our nearest neighbours are the Brabazons. We have indeed a few wretched cabins much nearer, one of which is in sight from the window of the room where I write’. 

They were barely unpacked at Bellcotton when rumours of a French invasion of Ireland began to circulate, compounding her family’s concern for their welfare.13  Correspondence at this time hinted at much alarm among the ruling class concerning the threat of invasion, whether the Irish would remain loyal and of the safety of families in the area. In support of securing his possessions Phillips had attempted to establish a Yeomanry unit at Bellcotton. Many were set up throughout the country in 1796 in response to the deteriorating security situation and were utilised alongside the county Militia. At this time the Brabazon family were successful in establishing a Yeomanry unit of Cavalry in Termonfeckin for local defence purposes14 and as Phillips’ own efforts proved unsuccessful he joined their group in Termonfeckin. On Christmas Day 1796 all the Yeomanry members in the area gathered at Rath, donned uniforms for inspection and made ready for any possible threat to the peace.

In spite of the military crisis in Ireland Susan was trying to put a brave face on her new life. Norbury, by now a precocious and intuitive young man, stayed at the house over Christmas, keeping her spirits high and in letters home to her family in England she further elaborated on her surroundings. ‘During a hard frost the roads are impassible on foot for women who like us are encumbered with shoes and stockings and the distance (to the church at Termonfeckin) is above two miles. The church is neat and warm, containing about 5 large pews for the gentlemen’s families about (amongst which are Mr. Brabazon’s, an uncle of his who resides at Caresetown15 and ours) and 6 or 7 others for the farmers and poor people. The clergyman is a well looking young man but a wretched preacher, with a vile pronunciation tho’ no considerable brogue.16

I believe I have already told you we are upon a dead flat, with scarce a tree to be seen except a few which have been planted by the Major (Phillips). On one side of us at a distance of 3 miles we see the spire of Ballymakenny church, and beyond it some gentle eminences which are perfectly bare. On another side we have a view of the Boyne; and beyond the town of Termonfecan in which stands our church, we see the sea. I have not yet made my peace with it, and cannot look that way without sadness.

Belcotton at a little distance from us looks like an Irish village, but of cabins - the house itself is formed of two of these cabins which the Major found standing together and 3 or 4 lesser ones which were detached he has connected, and transformed into stables, store houses and workshops - amongst the latter are a carpenter’s and a blacksmith shop compleat. These face the front of the house, in an inner circle. But the front (of the house) contains only an entrance - no windows - and has a very curious appearance’.

Life at Bellcotton soon settled into a routine for the Phillips. Susan tended to the children, Frances and John, and busied herself in the house. Norbury returned to his studies in Dublin while the Major spent much of his time on various projects as well as keeping company with the local gentry. 


Grace and Favour:

Despite being left to her own devices for long periods Susan became acquainted with her neighbours in the area, particularly the Brabazons of Rath House. On her introductory visits to Rath she was presented to Wallop Brabazon, his wife Jane and their family. One of the extended members of the Brabazon family introduced to Susan was another Jane Brabazon, a daughter of Harry Brabazon of Mornington, who, after her mother’s early death, spent much of her time at her cousin’s in Termonfeckin.17  She was described as being tall and rather large with a brilliant complexion, small white teeth and blue eyes!

Jane Brabazon made some courtesy calls to Susan at Bellcotton and these were reciprocated by visits to her at Rath and to Harry Brabazon (Jane’s brother) at Seafield.18  Susan, removed from her social circle in England and longing for friendship, found her companionship entertaining and rewarding. Jane was well received by the Phillips children and she already knew Norbury from visits he had made to Rath with his father before Susan was summoned to Ireland. As their friendship blossomed Jane made every effort to help Susan acclimatize to her new home, bringing flowers and even what newspapers were available from Drogheda. It is unclear however when Susan first became aware that her new found friend was the same person who was the subject of her husband’s attentions! Perhaps this delicate matter was not mentioned for some time, if ever, but from the extant correspondence it would seem that Phillips’ passion for Jane Brabazon, the woman he wanted as his mistress, was not mutual and was never reciprocated.19 

During the year, her family in England, particularly Frances, grew apprehensive over the way Susan’s circumstances were deteriorating. Family letters from England were being opened by Phillips, forcing the sisters to resort to writing in code or even on occasions in French in order to impart specific information.

Together with his increasing debts, wild schemes and tyrannical moods, the Major’s behaviour unsettled both his peers as well as his wife and her family. Phillips had hinted that they would return to England in October 1797 and this news sparked renewed hope for Susan and the Burney family. But it came to nothing, other than showing Phillips' prowess for deception and creating confusion among many of those closest to him.

Although he now had his family in situ, his pursuit of Miss Brabazon continued unabated with his indiscretions being noted with disapproval by many in their social circle. But the very fact that the object of his desire was not reciprocating and was ironically on friendly terms with his wife led him towards further turmoil. Susan noted in a letter to Frances in January 1798 that ‘She (Jane Brabazon) is I find adored in the village and her good works …I am convinced has awed the Major from anything like open declarations, or rather from any declarations save of friendly regard … in the meanwhile his pursuit of her is flagrant and his assiduity unceasing. …I am far enough removed from a jealous wife by my nature’.  She went on to describe how Wallop Brabazon’s wife laid the responsibility of what was happening with Jane and even her visits to Bellcotton to see Susan and the children were construed as being ill-intentioned and creating further disharmony.


Some observations on the Rebellion:

Despite all the domestic turmoil Susan and Frances still had time to discuss other matters as 1798 unfolded, most notably the events surrounding the insurrection of that year and how it impinged on their lives. The Rebellion in 1798 impacted little on Co. Louth compared to other areas, though this did not stop a sense of fear and anxiety from permeating through those of the landed class in the county. The double blows of a potential French invasion in tandem with a general uprising of the Irish exerted them to stiffen their defences and seek refuge for those non-combatants among them.

In early January Frances queried, ‘I am very impatient to know if the Invasion threat (from the French) affects your part of Ireland’, while in a letter written in April she stated ‘Ireland is so dreadful - so menaced a state, that my heart aches when I reflect upon her (Susan’s) residence there’. 

Because of Susan’s domestic predicament as well as the security situation Frances suggested in May, ‘The public state of things in Ireland makes any want of intelligence uncomfortable… Write my dearest Susan… I conclude the Major too much occupied (to deal with a request to evacuate his family to England). I have no doubt that James would fetch you, if the Major will consent. We expect invasion here or in Ireland daily - we are alarmed’.

By the end of May the Rebellion was affecting much of Leinster. Susan advised her family in England that she was safe and that ‘all her neighbourhood are friendly & good & loyal, & all the poor people about, & all the Major’s workmen are even kindly attached to them. And… that if the rebellion continues, the Major has promised to take them (Susan and the family) to Dublin’. 

In June Frances noted, ‘Since the rebellion has broken out I have lived with newspapers and maps - & when I saw that the Insurgents have been within 8 miles, as well as I can calculate, of Belcotton, I was taken with a tremor… for the account of this conflict at Lusk’.20  Though Louth remained peaceful Susan and the children left Bellcotton in June for the supposedly safer confines of Dublin, where they again stayed with the Kiernan family in Henry Street. Susan wrote to Frances from there, ‘…let me assure you there is nothing to apprehend for our personal safety. At Belcotton all continues as tranquil as when we left it and I could almost regret our precipitate departure from it. A great number of English troops… have landed and have revived and comforted even the most timid. Lord Cornwallis is looked up to with confidence and tho’ perfect tranquillity may be distant a state of open rebellion….will soon be at an end’.

By the end of July she observed in a letter to England, ‘Nothing of Rebels around about Drogheda. Dublin is very quiet, there has been no attempt at tumult since I have been in it, notwithstanding the executions which are daily going on, and which at first created a good deal of alarm, and notwithstanding that the city has almost been surrounded by Rebels, who have fled and concealed themselves on the approach of the military in the mountains - the vigilance of Government and the activity of the yeomanry have been admirable’.

By early September the family were back in Bellcotton. At this stage Humbert’s French and Irish forces were causing chaos in Connaught. In a letter to Frances Susan observed, ‘An officer of the Dumfrieshire Militia or Fencibles now stationed in Drogheda21 was here yesterday and said no news whatever (was) received since Sunday from Lord Cornwallis, tho’ it was concluded some action must have taken place…. The people around us work on tranquilly, and show no alarm except when they conceive we are likely to leave them - so little is known about the Invasion22 that they conclude the French to have been all killed. Since this letter was begun I have obtained news. Lord Cornwallis is at Carrick on Shannon.- the French have eluded pursuit thus far… they quitted Castlebar and proceeded northward to Foxford - thence to Colooney, Drumahair and Manorhamilton in Leitrim - but they are reported to have proceeded as far as to Cavan - and it is said they mean to push on to Dublin - but this is almost incredible…sometimes I wish my Norbury were with me in this obscure quiet corner…indeed everything is so quiet as not to render great exertions necessary and the harvest requires him (Phillips) at home. General Lake came up with the French on Saturday at a place called Ruskey Bridge in Longford and totally defeated them…a great number of the Rebels who had joined them were killed or taken prisoner’. 

Thus Susan Phillips recounted the final death throes of the 1798 Rebellion from her peaceful and secluded corner of Co. Louth.


Betrothal and Denial:

In England Frances continued with her efforts to persuade Susan to return, even temporarily, until the situation in Ireland returned to normality. In letters written at the time between Phillips and James Burney, the Major advised that returning to England with his family would be advantageous to all concerned. But the Burneys were aware that Phillip’s financial situation for funding such a journey home was bleak and therefore a financial package was proposed as an inducement to proceed with the arrangements. However Phillips again procrastinated and eschewed a final decision while Susan refused to accept the proposal, mainly on two grounds - as a face-saving measure out of embarrassment for her husband not being able to afford her fare and a refusal to return without Norbury, whom Phillips insisted remain with his tutor in Dublin.

Throughout the year of rebellion Phillips was apparently too preoccupied with matters of security, both local and national, to give heed to his intentions for his family.23  During her stay in Dublin Susan spoke of her frustrations of not having enough time with him to establish what his ultimate plans were and when she did succeed in raising the subject with him he was, at best, non-committal. ‘..the same morning the Major arrived from Drogheda. He had been one of a detachment employed in guarding the Speaker24 to town and was to have returned the next day - however he found every day so much business that it was with difficulty he could leave Dublin at the end of a week. He is but just gone and he has left me uncertain of my destination for the next three months. When we were alone…all my endeavours to lead to what most nearly concerned me…were ineffectual…I could not obtain one word from the Major by which I could infer what might be his secret and ultimate determination’. 

Despite Susan’s earnest attempts at trying to establish her husbands objectives it is obvious from the above that Phillips was prepared to let Susan and the children remain stranded in a domestic limbo. Perhaps, from his point of view, he felt he had to leave his options open as the Rebellion was still raging in several parts of the country and he wasn’t prepared to offload his family to England from where their return would be problematic. Maybe he also felt that Susan’s family were exerting too much influence on her thinking (his reading of her correspondence may not have helped!) and the more the Burneys tried to persuade her to return the more his insistence that they remain with him in Ireland. In a letter to Frances in August Phillips finally vetoed any attempt at returning his family to England, again backing away from earlier promises and leaving Susan’s family disheartened and fearful. 

Jane Brabazon, who had also gone to Dublin during the crisis, kept in touch with Susan while both were in the city. During their stay Jane introduced Susan to an elderly lady, a Mrs Patience Disney, whom Jane regarded very highly. Susan also noticed that on occasions one of Mrs. Disney’s sons would walk Jane home from the Disney household. This turned out to be Robert Disney, a clergyman in the parish of Kilcullen, Co. Kildare. A short time later Jane confided in Susan that she and Robert were engaged and soon to be married.25  Susan was in no doubt delighted with this news and it was not long before Phillips was also made aware of the betrothal. Because Jane had recently admonished him over his obstinacy in refusing to send his family to England, their already strained relationship had deteriorated even further. In October Susan wrote ‘I was not with him when this news reached him - but guessed he had heard it by his manner - his great pleasure now is to represent her as being completely passé - too old for her husband, whom he is so good as to pronounce a fool etc… He (Phillips) is now at Castle Bellingham and stays for a Fair held there tomorrow’.  With Phillips’ moods volatile at the best of times and his pursuit of Jane Brabazon now stymied forever, this development further compromised Susan’s life with him, though her stoicism in the face of marital as well as physical adversity was admirable. Another letter from October 1798 revealed much about her state of mind and displayed genuine concern for her prospects of remaining in Ireland with her husband. ‘…I fear I am destined to endless conflicts… I strive to submit patiently…but because what I endure appears inevitable - or avoidable only by a mode of action which my best friends could not wish me to pursue (i.e., marital separation from Philips) and which would in the end render me more hopelessly wretched than now…my heart has again yearned to be restored to my father, my sisters, my beloved friends’. 

                                            Bellcotton House in 1960


Final Deliberations:

Throughout the following year, as Molesworth Phillips continued with his wild schemes, ran up more debts and became ever more unlikely to clear them, Susan’s health was worsening noticeably. Tuberculosis, which led to her mother’s death, was affecting her as well as early symptoms of dysentery and whatever fragile health she enjoyed deteriorated as the year progressed.

Her father, despite Phillips financial debts to him and of which Susan was painfully aware, offered her accommodation at Chelsea if they should return, but she baulked at his proposal as the Major refused to release Norbury. During the summer of 1799 Norbury had returned to Bellcotton from his studies in Dublin and his presence again acted as a positive stimulant for her. Frances suggested that if Susan could not travel to England then she would go to Bellcotton and nurse her through the illness there. This proposal was also gently turned down by Susan who, with resignation borne of emotional and physical fatigue, refused to accept help from her family - even Frances.

However, in spite of his stubborn refusal to allow them leave Ireland, Phillips could not escape from the fact that his wife was now a very sick woman. Three winters far away from the comforts of London, in an unsuitable country house in Bellcotton, had gravely aggravated her physical condition and though she sought to conceal the worst of her ailments from her family even her husband was now expressing concern in letters to England. Phillips had written to his former neighbours in Surrey, the Locks, in September, informing them that he was anxious to have Susan return to England as her health was not improving and that perhaps a change of air would assist her. Frances noted that ‘…he promises that the first £50 he can command shall restore Susan to her friends…but my terror is lest he only wants again to play upon our feelings by exciting our hopes’.    

In a letter to Susan in October Frances openly addressed the Major about having her sister returned home. ‘My dear Major - I hate to torment you with what I know you dislike, letters - but I am now so uneasy about our Susan I can no longer defer ocular proof of her state of health’. Frances, beside herself with concern, was torn between having Susan back in England whilst knowing that her physical condition was such as would impede any long journey.


Homeward Bound:

In the autumn of 1799, after two years of prevarication, Molesworth Phillips finally relented and agreed to allow Susan and the children return to England, helped in no small manner by discreet funding for the journey by the Lock family. In mid-November he went to Dublin to make arrangements for the sea crossing. Susan’s last letters from Bellcotton were dated 19th November 1799 but even before then she had finally warmed to the idea that she was being released from her incarceration in Ireland and was being allowed home after all the false promises. She advised Frances ‘I must tell you it is in England we must meet, where only some strange fatality can now prevent my being in about a month…November is as good a season as the present and often milder - I am making arrangements for warm clothing for the journey and carefully endeavouring to strengthen myself’. Frantic correspondence criss-crossed the Irish Sea as the Burneys tried to balance the progress of the return while at the same time remaining propitious towards the Major, fearing that he would change his mind - again!

In late November Phillips, Susan, her maid and the children finally set off from Bellcotton.26  They arrived in Dublin, staying again at No. 22 Henry St., while transport to England was finalised. The journey from Louth to Dublin had put further strain on Susan’s delicate constitution and an eminent physician, Dr. John Purcell, was brought in to examine her. His advice was that she rest for some weeks before the final leg of the journey home. The Kiernan family called regularly to see her and even Jane Brabazon, now Mrs. Disney, dropped in while she recuperated in Henry Street. Meanwhile final preparations for the homecoming were being made by her family in England. It was agreed that Susan’s brother Charles would collect them at Parkgate27 on their arrival before bringing them to Dr. Burney’s house in London.

The Phillipses spent much of December in Dublin while Susan fortified herself for the sea and land journey ahead. They eventually set sail from Dublin around Christmas 1799 on ‘a nobleman’s yacht’, arriving initially at Holyhead in north Wales. Charles, expecting them at Parkgate, journeyed to that port from Chester, only to be told that they had landed at Holyhead because of unfavourable winds in the Irish Sea. He spent the next three days ‘…in the snow and ice, in December, over Welsh mountains’ on a fruitless 180 mile round trip to Holyhead and back, only to discover that on Monday the 30th December, the Phillipses had indeed finally disembarked at Parkgate. 


Peace at Last:

As the first days of the new year, and century, dawned, the Phillips family was resting in lodgings at Parkgate.  Though very ill and unable to travel any further, Susan managed to write brief letters to her father and sister, advising them that she had arrived in England. Charles, back from his trek to Holyhead on Tuesday night, made contact with the new arrivals the following morning, New Years Day 1800. When he saw Susan, for the first time in over three years, he was dismayed at her physical appearance and felt ‘she could not live two days’.         

As her condition continued to deteriorate and to afford her some respite Charles left her with her maid and brought Phillips and the three children to Liverpool on Friday the 3rd January, returning two days later on the Sunday to find Susan in good spirits though still very weak. Charles retired to his own lodgings for the night and came back the following morning to breakfast with the family. He later reported the subsequent events to his father:

‘…She passed a sad night. The complaint in her bowels, which had torn her to pieces for several weeks and had reduced her to a shadow, raged violently.28  This morning, while we were at breakfast the maid came and called out to the Major… with a face of alarm and with tears. They went upstairs but returned in about ten minutes. The Major was silent… The maid called me up…I staid an hour by the poor soul’s bed; but she knew me not - she saw me not - she spoke to me not’. So close to home and yet so far, Susan Phillips’ life finally ebbed away shortly before two o’clock on Monday 6th January 1800. Her forty-fifth birthday had been the previous day.


Neither Phillips nor Charles could bring themselves to write to Frances about the tragic news. Phillips eventually scripted a brief note to his friends the Locks, advising of Susan’s demise, ‘Dear Sir, Death has released our poor friend from great suffering. Have the goodness to communicate this intelligence to Mrs. D’arblay29 in what manner you may think most proper. You were one of the last she spoke of. Yours much obliged, M. Phillips’.

The funeral of Susan Phillips took place on Friday 10th January with her family in London not able to make the journey because of the harsh weather. The service and interment, attended only by Phillips, the children and Charles, was held at St. Mary and St. Helen’s church, High Street, Neston, just south of Parkgate on the Wirral peninsula.30 Susan Phillips was finally at peace.



Frances would spend the rest of her long life grieving for Susan and never forgave Molesworth Phillips over the ill-treatment and neglect of her sister.

Norbury continued his education in Ireland, became a clergyman in Donegal but died in 1814, aged only twenty-nine. John William went to sea and also died young in 1833. Their eldest daughter Frances married, had one daughter, and lived until 1860.

Portrait of Molesworth Phillips
              as an old man

As for Molesworth Phillips he remarried, only ten months after the death of Susan, to twenty-six year old Ann Maturin, the younger sister of Norbury’s tutor in Dublin, and with her he had four children. This marriage did not last.                                              He and his family visited France in 1802 without official permission and were subsequently detained there by Napoleon until 1804 when they were released and returned to England. In 1817 he served some time in jail for debt and by that time most of his lands in Ireland had been lost through a long series of sales, conveyances and surrenders. Thomas Fitzgerald of Fane valley, outside Dundalk, bought up the remaining parcels of land for £6,000 with an annuity of £200 to Phillips for the remainder of his life.31

Phillips lived out his last years in Lambeth, in London, where he eventually died from cholera in September 1832, at the age of seventy-seven. His final resting place was alongside Susan’s brother James at St. Margaret’s church, in the parish of Westminister, London.32



1.      Rose Brabazon’s father was Capt. James Brabazon, who appears to be the same Captain Brabazon that repaired Termonfeckin castle after the 1641 Rebellion.

2.      Robert B. Gardiner (Ed), Admission Registers of St. Paul’s School, from 1748 to 1846 (London , 1884), p138.

3.      R. Brimley Johnson, Fanny Burney and the Burneys (New York, 1971) (reprint), p122.

4.      Lands passed from generation to generation through the same family.

5.      Bellcotton (with two 'L's) is the official spelling of this townland on the 1835 and subsequent Ordnance Survey maps and is spelled thus throughout this article apart from direct quotations in the Burney correspondence.

6.      The Corigan family held a house and land at the end of Nunneryland lane and are recorded in the Tithe Applotments and Griffith Valuation lists.

7.      A large group of Defenders had converged and rallied at Queensboro’ as early as June 1788. (See CLAJ 1989, p 31.)

8.      Norbury was schooled in Dublin by Henry Maturin whose father Charles R. Maturin had been rector of Rathdrummin in the mid 18th century.

9.      These cottages were on the lane where Jimmy Meegan’s old house and yard are situated at Bellcotton. Before the construction of the Blackhall Cross - Balls Cross road in c.1790 this lane, connected to Nunneryland lane, was the main route to Termonfeckin from Bellcotton and Blackhall. 
‘M. Phillips Esq’ is noted as having ‘one loom’ in the 1796 Flax Growers survey.

10.  Esther and Frances Burney.

11.  Molesworth Phillips’ in-laws.

12.  The three spires were probably those of St. Feckin’s church in Termonfeckin, St. Peter’s Protestant church in Drogheda and St. Nicholas church at Ballymakenny.

13.  A French fleet of forty-five ships and some 15,000 men sailed from Brest (with Wolfe Tone on board) on 16th December 1796. Many eventually turned back due to severe storms but around four hundred troops did manage to land at Bantry, only to be annihilated by local yeomanry units.

14.  Cavalry units were set up and maintained in Termonfeckin by Wallop, William and Harry Brabazon in the 1790s and the first decade of the 1800s.  See CLAJ 1976, p291.

15.  Philip Brabazon (1739-1828) of Carstown House.

16.  Rev. Arthur Ellis from Donegal, subsequently rector of Ardee.

17.  Jane was born on 1st June 1767 per Hugh Disney in his publication 'Disneys of Stabannon', p200.

18.  In the parish of Togher.

19.  Much of Susan’s correspondence from this period was destroyed later by Frances as she felt the emotional sentiments they contained were too confidential for any public scrutiny.

20.  Frances was referring to an engagement at Lusk, Co. Dublin at the end of May. However her geographical measurements were incorrect, even though her anxiety for Susan and the children was evident. Early on 14th July 1798, remnants of the Wexford pikemen engaged with government forces at Knightstown, south of Nobber, in Co. Meath, only 10 miles west of Collon, Co. Louth.

21.  The Dumfries regiment was instrumental in destroying the final remnants of the Wexford insurgents (who had retreated south from the earlier engagement at Knightstown) at Drishogue Lane, east of the village of Ballyboughal, in north Co. Dublin on 14th July 1798 (www.mc.taramagic.com/drishogue).

22.  General Humbert’s landing with French troops at Killala, Co. Mayo, in late August 1798.

23.  He had also been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel on 1st January 1798, though he was still known as ‘The Major’. Though now retired from the military officers like Phillips could still technically be promoted through the ranks.

24.  The speaker of the Irish parliament at this time was John Foster, later Lord Oriel (of Collon).

25.  Rev. Robert Disney (1769 - 1832), son of  Brabazon Disney and Patience Ogle, married Jane Brabazon on 22nd November 1798 and between them produced nine children. He was transferred to St. Marks in Glasnevin in 1800 and then to Mitchelstown in Co. Cork in 1809 where he and Jane lived for the rest of their lives.    

26.  Interestingly, Marianne Fortescue of Stephenstown House, Knockbridge, Co. Louth,  noted a meeting with the Phillipses in her diary entry of 26th November 1799, as they rested overnight at the Man o’ War Inn, three miles south of Balbriggan, on the old Dublin-Dunleer turnpike road: “… Major Phillips & his son drank wine & tea with us. They have just retired & ’tis near ten o’clock.” (see 1999 journal of the CLAHS, p371.)  

27.  Eighteenth century Parkgate (on the west side of the Wirral peninsula) was the main port for sea-faring traffic to and from Ireland. It was able to accommodate ships which were too large to travel up the Dee estuary to Chester.

28.  Susan was in the final throes of consumption (TB).

29.  Frances Burney had married a French nobleman, Alexandre d’Arblay, in 1793.

30.  Susan Phillips’ original headstone was ‘re-discovered’ by the vicar of St. Mary and St. Helen’s in 1960 and subsequently replaced with a new stone by the local parishioners. (J. Hemlow - Journals and Letters, Vol IV, p383.)

31.  Mr. Fitzgerald was advertising the letting of the land and house at Bellcotton in the Drogheda Journal as late as 20th March 1824.

32.  Frank Nugent, Seek the Frozen Lands - Irish Polar Explorers 1740-1922 (Collins Press, 2003), p10.



Appendix 1:

Extract from the Drogheda Newsletter dated 27th October - 31st October 1801:

Sheriff’s Sale.

Rev. Henry Bunbury, Plaintiff -

Molesworth Phillips, of Bellcotten, in the Co. of Louth, Esq. Defendant.

George Kieran against same. Rev. Wm. Campbell against same.

To be sold by auction, by the Sheriff of the County of Louth, at Bellcotten in said county, on Tuesday the 3rd day of November next, by virtue of the writs of Fieri Facias in these causes; all the defendants goods and chattels, consisting of corn, hay, cattle, household furniture, &c. &c. - The sale to begin at eleven o’clock on said day, and continue till all are sold or the executions satisfied.

Dated this 20th day of October 1801.

JOHN JOCELYN, Sheriff Louth.



Appendix 2:

VOL. 20, NO. 581, SATURDAY, DECEMBER 15, 1832.


(From a Correspondent.)

Colonel Phillips was the last surviving person who accompanied Captain Cook in his last voyage of discovery to ascertain the practicability of a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, along the northern coast of America. I was an inmate of his residence in Lambeth in the summer of 1828, for some few weeks, and during that period received many commissioned attentions, for he ever avoided meeting or seeing strangers. He was invariably his own cook; slept but little, and seldom retired regularly to bed, but rested on a sofa, or chairs, as accident might dictate. His employment chiefly consisted in turning fanciful devices at his lathe, but he seldom completed his designs: however, I saw the model of a mausoleum dedicated to Napoleon, which evinced much taste and ingenuity. His workshop at once intimated that its occupant was not abundantly gifted with the organ of order. Plates, dishes, knives, forks, candlesticks, coats, hats, books, and mathematical instruments, lay in one confused mass, each enveloped with its portion of dust. To attempt any thing like arrangement, was at once sacrilege in the estimation of the Colonel. To summon his attendant he usually approached the stairs, and rang a small hand bell, accompanying it with his deep-toned voice with the words: "Ahoy! ahoy! all hands ahoy!" His liquors, and tankards of ale he always drew up from the window of his room, to avoid intrusion, and in returning the empty pewters he would frequently take too sure an aim at the potboy's head. Then came a concert of "curses" and every association but amity. The close of the scene was generally modified with something in the shape of a shilling, and the parties separated, mutually satisfied. Colonel Phillips, during his residence in Ireland, was possessed of considerable property, but from what circumstance he suffered a reverse of fortune I am not informed; indeed, so unwilling was he to connect himself with bygone days that it was impossible to gather from him a clue to the active services he had given to the world.
Thus lived Colonel Molesworth Phillips, glorying in most of the eccentricities of human nature. It is astonishing, considering the active part he took in society, that he should, towards the close of life, have secluded himself so entirely from the world, and those with whom he must have from circumstances have been associated. Colonel Phillips might probably have survived some years longer, had he not fallen a victim to cholera.





Main Sources:

All quotations (unless otherwise stated) are taken from -

1.  The Journals and Letters of Fanny Burney:  Vol. I (1972), Vol. II (1972), Vol. III (1973) & Vol. IV (1973) edited by Dr. Joyce Hemlow together with P. Boutilier and A. Douglas

2.  R. Brimley Johnson, Fanny Burney and the Burneys  (Books for Libraries, reprint 1971).


Other Sources:

Sarah Kilpatrick, Fanny Burney (David & Charles, 1980).

The Captain Cook Society website.

Brian Tompsett c/o University of Hull website (Phillips/Eccleston genealogy).

Maturin family genealogical website.



Much gratitude and thanks goes to Noel Ross of the Co. Louth Archaeological and Historical Society and Philip Olleson of the University of Nottingham for their generous assistance in compiling this article.


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