Dublin in the latter years of the 19th century was a city in rapid decline. The southwestern corner was particularly poor, having missed out on any major development that had improved other parts of the city. The Famine had a devastating impact and the Parish of St. Bridget had witnessed an influx of poverty-stricken country people seeking work and lodgings, while the better-off left the area.
Edward Cecil Guinness passed through the Liberties area regularly on his way to the Guinness Brewery. He was appalled at the conditions that prevailed in this corner of Dublin. A warren of foul-smelling laneways lined with crumbling and overcrowded houses that were no longer fit for habitation. In business, Sir Edward was very successful. Having steered the Guinness Brewery through rapid expansion, he oversaw the flotation of the company on the stock exchange in 1886 and amassed a considerable fortune. Towards the end of the decade, Sir Edward began to think about how he might put his fortune to good use. Together with his close friend, Lord Rowton, who was equally concerned about the impoverished living conditions that dominated many parts of London, Sir Edward set about planning to establish a major philanthropic housing Trust.
Notice of his intention was made public in November 1889. Sir Edward announced that he would donate £250,000 ‘for the amelioration of the condition of the poor labouring classes’ of London and Dublin, through the provision of structurally sound, clean and affordable housing. The gift was split unevenly; £200,000 was allocated to London, with the remaining £50,000 given to Dublin, however, in Dublin Sir Edward would ultimately invest an amount considerably greater than the original gift for the Dublin and London funds combined.
On April 2nd 1890, the formal Deed of Trust for the Dublin fund was signed; setting in train a mammoth undertaking that has endured for 130 years. The Deed outlined Sir Edward’s vision and made it clear that the entity that would later become The Iveagh Trust, was not only to concern itself with the provision of ‘improved dwellings’, but all that encompassed the creation of a community.
Lord Rowton was among the three Trustees first appointed in 1890 to govern the activities of the Guinness Trust and remained Chairman until his death in 1903. Sir Edward had a close interest and involvement with the work of the Trusts in London and Dublin. He appointed himself a Trustee in 1892 and on Lord Rowton’s death became Chairman of the Guinness & Iveagh Trusts, holding office until his death in 1927.
Initially the Guinness Trust was administered from London and early management of the Dublin Fund was given to the Dublin Artisans’ Dwellings Company (DADC).
The Trust’s first buildings were erected by the DADC in 1891 at the corner of Thomas Court & Bellevue, close to the Guinness Brewery. Two large three-storied, red brick blocks were constructed, providing 118 single room flats with shared toilet & bathroom facilities. The DADC handed over the property to the Trust in June 1892 and the Trust’s first Dublin office was located there for a short time.
By 1894 there were 343 persons in the Thomas Court Buildings. This first enterprise was an experimental forerunner of the later and larger Trust buildings and ultimately did not meet with the aspirations of Trustees. It was reported that the condition of the ceilings and chimneys in the new dwellings was not satisfactory; the Trustees resolved that they should be repaired, or replaced, with the expenses met by the Trust. Furthermore, the Thomas Court buildings contained no surrounding open spaces other than narrow communal yards.
The constant need for repairs of these newly built dwellings proved costly and the Trustees eventually deemed them wholly unsatisfactory; in December 1895, the Trustees authorised Mr. Sutton, the solicitor to the Trust in Dublin, ‘to sell the Thomas Court Buildings to the Dublin Artisans Dwellings Company for any sum over £5000.’