The Life and Times of Arthur Dobbs Esquire

arthurdobbsAbout 5 miles from Whitehead on the road to Kilroot there is the entrance to a large house and estate called “Castle Dobbs”. The house and grounds are strictly private but in the 17th century it was the home of Arthur Dobbs. He was born there in 1689 and after a short career in the army, returned to manage the estate where, by all accounts, he was a fair and well-regarded landlord. He was also a man of considerable intellect, well read and interested in all manner of things including astronomy, bee-keeping, geology and mineral prospecting in which pursuit he discovered some workable coal seams along the Antrim coast. In 1719 he married a young widow and through that marriage obtained estates in Kildare. They had three children, Edward, Conway and Fanny. In 1720 he was appointed High Sheriff of Antrim and during his lifetime he became Mayor of Carrickfergus three times.

In 1727 he was elected as member of the Irish Parliament for the borough of Carrickfergus. As a strong advocate of free trade he became well respected in political circles for his belief that improvement of the trade between Great Britain and Ireland and the American colonies would help secure them from French encroachment. He became interested in the search for the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic to the Pacific and he had many arguments with the Hudson Bay Company which he felt was not sufficiently serious about the exploration of this area. In 1733 he was appointed as Surveyor-General of Ireland and inherited the responsibility for the completion of the Irish parliament house, still regarded as one of the finest pieces of Georgian architecture in Dublin and for which Dobbs was granted a premium of £250.

Around 1735, in company with other gentlemen of prominence in Ireland, Dobbs purchased a large tract of land in North Carolina with a view to settling it with likely families from County Antrim and Kildare. The later collapse of the Jacobite rising in Scotland in 1745 led to a large influx of Scottish emigrants and these, together with the Irish, contributed greatly to the prosperity of North Carolina. In 1751 Dobbs was appointed Governor of North Carolina though he did not reach his new territory until October 1753. It should be remembered that the French were still very active in North America and had erected forts and blockhouses along the Ohio River and were eager to fight the British for supremacy in both America and Canada. It was left to Dobbs to defend England’s interest in North Carolina. In 1760 Montreal fell to the British and French dominion in the New World ceased.

The years following the defeat of the French were difficult for Dobbs, though in his seventies he remarried a young girl, Justina “Jessie” Davis in Brunswick. Despite the disparity in their ages Dobbs and his young wife were happy and she cared for him through several illnesses. Even as an old man he never lost interest in the Northwest Passage, though by now it was becoming clear that it probably would never be found, and after ten years of governorship he decided to seek leave of absence from North Carolina to return to Ireland for the sake of his health. Sadly just a few weeks before he was due to sail he had a seizure and died in his wife’s arms.

Dobbs was interred in the incompleted church of St Philip in Brunswick, North Carolina. With the passing of years his grave has disappeared, but somewhere in the shade of the now ruined church there lie the remains of a man who, after playing a large part in the politics of Ireland, left his native Carrickfergus to set up and defend the embryo state of North Carolina in the New World.

This has been freely adapted from the book “Arthur Dobbs Esquire” by Desmond Clarke, published in 1958 by The Bodley Head and the book is recommended to anyone who would like to know more about this remarkable man.