The Plantation of the City of Londonderry

Derry to Londonderry

Derry did not become Londonderry until 29 March 1613,  but the process by which this came about had started as early as May 1609. The previous summer (1608), the British conducted a survey in the six so-called ‘escheated’ counties of Armagh, Cavan, Coleraine (later Derry or Londonderry), Donegal, Fermanagh and Tyrone.

These were the lands deemed to be forfeit to the Crown by the ‘flight of the earls’ - the departure or escape to the continent of the defeated leaders of Gaelic Ulster.

The bold new plan to deal with all this land and simultaneously to solve the contemporary version of the ‘Ulster question’, was ‘plantation’ or colonisation; the same policy was being used to exploit the land and resources of the New World in the Americas. large numbers of ‘loyal’ (mainly Protestant) English and Scottish settlers would be introduced to Ulster to farm the land and secure it for Crown interests.

The wealthy merchants of the City of London (organised as trade and craft ‘companies’), were coaxed into organising and sponsoring one of the plantation areas. The territory in question was based on the existing county of Coleraine with a few smaller areas added, including a strip on the west bank of the Foyle based on the ancient settlement of Derry. The Londoners were ‘persuaded’ that among the advantages to their becoming involved would be that:

Many thousands [of their unemployed citizens] would be set at work, to the great service of the King, the strength of his realm and the advancement of several trades. It might ease [London] of an unsupportable burthen of persons ... and it would be a means to free and preserve [that] city from infection ...

King James himself seems to have been particularly enthusiastic for the project: 'An action which is likely to prove pleasing to Almighty God, honourable to the city [of London] and profitable to the undertakers'.

There was little enthusiasm among Londoners for this enterprise in, what must have seemed to them, a land as wild and remote as Virginia on the other side of the Atlantic. However, the court of Aldermen of the city agreed to send ‘four wise, grave and discreet citizens’ to Ireland to investigate conditions and possibilities. 

The privy council, acting for the king, wrote to Lord Deputy Chichester in Dublin explaining the importance of securing the involvement of the Londoners, emphasising that their agents would, therefore, have to be suitably impressed. It was essential that, ‘matters of distaste, as fear of the Irish, of the soldiers ... and such like, be not so much as named’.

The four inspectors arrived in Ulster on 22 August 1609. They spent a month touring the territory intended for them, assessing local resources and collecting and sending back to London local produce. When they got home they reported favourably on what they had seen. Immediately, the plantation began to be organised and investment money called in from the separate companies. Negotiations were opened between the City and the privy council, representing the Crown, on the details of the arrangements.

The original idea was that the City of London would become a sort of ‘foster mother’ rather than a ‘beneficial owner’ of the new city of Londonderry. However, so anxious was the Crown to secure the involvement of the Londoners that all the demands of the latter were conceded. 

A new body, known as The Honourable Irish Society, was set up to exploit the colonial settlement it spawned for commercial gain. That body still exists and retains interests in the Derry area but is now principally concerned with using the funds it generates for philanthropic undertakings.