Tribute to a gentleman

In this tribute to John Randal Beresford-Ash at yesterday's Service of Thanksgiving in St Columb's Cathedral, Denis F Desmond CBE, the Lord-Lieutenant County Londonderry, reflected on the strong connections the Beresford and Ash families have had with the City, and the Late JR Beresford-Ash's absolute devotion to his family.

IT is a great privilege to be asked by the family to pay a tribute in celebration of John's life.

I only hope I can do him proud for his beloved wife, Agnes, his loving children Melanie, Louisa and Angelique, his adoring grandchildren, Nicholas, George, Gemima, Jonathan and Larragh, and you, his dear friends by whom he was affectionately known as Bash.

Firstly though, on behalf of the family I would like to thank the Dean not only for organising today's service but more especially for his sympathy and support for Agnes, her children and family during the recent difficult days.

John and I had three important things in common which influenced our lives.

Firstly, we were the only offspring of elderly parents. His father, Douglas married Lady Helena Rous, youngest daughter of the Third Earl of Stradbroke in 1930. John arrived eight years later on January 21, 1938 when his mother was 39 and father 52. He was born within the sounds of Bow Bells (which makes him a cockney) in a private clinic at 27 Welbeck Street, London, and was delivered by the late Queen Mother's Obstrecian.

Handsome child

I gather he was an angelic and handsome child. When General George Marshall, the American Chief of Staff, visited Ashbrook in 1942 during an inspection tour of US troops in Londonderry, he saw John as a small boy with long blonde locks, dressed in a velvet suit.

He asked Lady Helena the name of her "little lady". He is a little "gentleman" Lady Helena corrected him. Apologising for his understandable error the General promised to send him a box of candy on his return home and when he did he addressed it to "the Little Tow Haired Gentleman".

Secondly, both of us endured life at the same prep school, Castle Park in Dublin somehow surviving on the inevitable school diet of lumpy turnips, stale bread, fatty mince and tapioca with prunes. I have to say John's lifelong appreciation of good food and cooking was hardly based on his experience at CP. It was a tough regime where caning, classics and cricket were an unrelenting part of daily life. Nevertheless John survived and passed into Eton with flying colours where he made many friends, followed by a period of service in the Irish Guards before he returned to Ashbrook to assist his father in running the family estate.

Of course John was some years ahead of me but I do remember on my very first day at the school I was being taken through the big school room by my parents where I saw a large board on which the names of the leavers were printed in gold. I read J R Beresford Ash 1949. "Is that the same John Beresford Ash we know, Mother?" I asked. "Of course", replied mother and she added "and you have a lot to live up to my boy".


The third and probably most important thing we had in common was we both married French girls and even more extraordinary was the fact that Agnes and Annick were old friends who had first met at school in Bar-le-Duc at the age of 14. We had asked Agnes to spend our first Christmas in Ireland after we were married in 1965. We organised a dinner party at which John was a guest and as you now know the rest is history. So began a long and happy relationship. John and Agnes were married in Paris in 1968 and he rapidly embraced the warmth and informality of Agnes's close but huge family network which was in marked contrast to his own family circumstances.

Earlier today John was laid to rest beside the Beresford family vault at Christ Church, Limavady. He was extremely proud of the accomplishments of his ancestors, starting with Tristram Beresford who was sent over by the Irish Society in 1610 to oversee the building and fortification of Coleraine. He served as its first Mayor and by 1616 was the Agent for the Society. By the turn of events, good luck and hard work, he made investments in land and forestry and thus founded the fortunes of a great family, who in the 18th Century were ennobled as the marquesses of Waterford. John's direct ancestor Henry Barre Beresford, who died in 1837 is buried in this family vault.

He was the agent for what had become the extensive Waterford Estate in County Londonderry. The obelisk at Ballyquin in the Roe Valley was erected through subscription by the grateful tenants of the Waterford Estate. The family were known as improving landlords who treated their tenants sympathetically.


Indeed the Irish Society was to note somewhat sniffily in the 1830's that "his Lordship's expenditure was directed more towards promoting the domestic comforts of the tenantry than to encourage public institutions".

John's great Grandfather John Barre Beresford of Learmount married Caroline only child of William and Lady Elizabeth Hamilton-Ash of Ashbrook in 1853. Their son, John's grandfather, William Randall Hamilton Beresford changed his name to Beresford Ash by Royal Licence in 1901 on inheriting Ashbrook.

This conveniently brings me to the Ash family who have a particularly close association with the events leading up to and including the siege of Derry in 1689. Thomas Ash was a defender at the siege and wrote a journal which became a prime source for historians providing much detail about the events and conditions within the City.

It is therefore with a sense of history that John so arranged things that his mortal remains now lie among the Beresford's and this afternoon we celebrate his life in this great Cathedral Church and City where the name of Ash will always be remembered.

The family connection with the Cathedral continues to this day. Melanie, Louisa and Angelique were married here by Dean Morton. At Melanie's wedding we saw another example of John's pride in his ancestors when he exercised the right granted to the eldest daughter of the successors of Captain Thomas Ash by the Apprentice Boys of Derry to be escorted up the aisle with the flags taken by him after the battle of Windyhill which to this day are laid up in the sacristy of the Cathedral. Melanie was in fact the first Ash in the female line to be married for 150 years so enabling this unique ceremony to take place.

I also recall at the wedding service one of Agnes's family noticing the French flag of the Ancien Regime with the Fleurs de Lys hanging in the body of the Cathedral.

"What on earth are they doing here?" she asked.


I didn't have the heart to tell her that they had been captured during the siege from the French who were on the wrong side!

Apart from his family ancestry John's other great interest was 20th Century British, Military and Colonial history. He was extremely well informed on many points of detail and every Christmas I struggled to find a book to interest him which he had not already read.

His love of history and in particular his interest in his father and grandfather's army service in India during the days of the Raj led him to visit that country on several occasions. He went to his father's birthplace Lucknow and Simla in the foothills of the Himalayas where his grandparents spent the hot season and incidentally where they still play polo matches competing for the Beresford Cup.

The family was the centre of John's life. Agnes was always a tower of strength and he was justly proud of his three daughters. In May last year Angelique made it a trio of Cathedral marriages and John remarked "thank God they are all safely married off".

Of course his marriage to Agnes gave him a lasting opportunity to indulge his love of French life and culture. He was of course already extremely knowledgeable especially through his interest about the First World War and the battlefields. His favourite question to astonished listeners was to ask "What was the only route nationale not to have a number?" The answer, La Voie Sacree between Bar-le-Duc and Verdun. Agnes totally by coincidence had been born in Verdun and lived in Bar-le-Duc where of course she had first met Annick.

He loved France and he was especially happy at their house in Burgundy – the culinary treasures, the countryside, villages, markets and people were of enduring appeal. However, it has to be said there was a limit to his integration with the natives even allowing for his rapidly improving French. His beret bourguinon might have worked but for the tweed jacket, the ever present thick blue socks and his espadrilles.

At Ashbrook he was always so happy when his grandchildren came to stay. He took delight in their high spirits and they simply adored him. As if to make up for his own somewhat spartan childhood nothing gave him greater pleasure than constantly spoiling them. Preparing breakfast for the boys became a ritual which they looked forward to with unremitting delight. It was much to the horror of their mother that she discovered papa's breakfast always included large pieces of white chocolate which he had hidden away for such occasions. Even worse was the morning they were found eating Mars Bars. John simply commented with a twinkle in his eye, "nothing to do with me dear".

Lady Helena's "little gentleman" had certainly grown up to embrace all the qualities of gentility. He was kind, courteous and always the most generous host. He was especially good with the young generation and made them feel important. Not for him the condescending behaviour typical of so many of the older generation. Equally he always remembered old friends and took time and trouble to visit them.

His was a simple philosophy; love for his family, support for his friends and pride in the accomplishments of his ancestors. His practice of the traditional social virtues might appear a bit old fashioned in this modern world but they were of enduring importance to John. They were what made him and sustained him throughout his life. Virtue is its own reward.