The Widow Gamble
Did she exist and if so who was she?
Many placenames in modern Monkstown remember a character in history called the Widow Gamble. For instance, the unofficial name for the crossroads at Mounttown is Gamble's Hill, while a nearby house is named "Gamble's Lodge". A snug bar beside the historic Purty Kitchen pub in Old Dunleary is known as "Widow Gambol's". The widow's name also lives on in chilling folk tales known to local children as late as the 1930s, although many history books on the area question whether she ever existed. Historyeye investigated who might have been the real-life inspiration for these stories and came up with at least two candidates who lived over fifty years apart.
The stories told about the Widow Gamble are particularly wild and garbled. According to different sources, she lived during the time of the Cistercians at Monkstown Castle, but she also happened to be informing on fugitive priests during Penal Times. Then again she was a poor woman who put curses on people who denied her charity. At the end of her life she was supposed to have been lynched for her treachery. Alternatively she was poisoned by one of the local gentry for laying a widow's curse on their child, who ended up with a face like a pig. Her ghost is said to now haunt Carrickbrennan Graveyard, Monkstown Castle and Mounttown,typically carrying an axe in one hand and a key in the other. (1.)
Surprisingly, Mounttown Hill is a supernatural hotspot, claiming a long folk tradition of headless coachmen, malign fairies and ghostly apparitions extending up to De Vesci Place. As if sensing something other-wordly, horses would routinely baulk on their way up the hill and refuse to go forward. Perhaps it was the hill's close proximity to Carrickbrennan Graveyard or the fact that the Semple family who owned the demesne house close by chose to call it Fairyland.
By the 19th century the area was also known as Sunnyhill,although locals preferred the more evocative Dark Hill. (2.)The present Upper Mounttown Road marks the boundary wall of Monkstown Castle Farm and is an ancient byway that connected with the now lost Back Road to Dunleary. It was once prone to eery mists coming from the lake or fish pond beside Monkstown Castle, known as Copinger's Pond. (Drained in the 20th century).
In the 1930s children in Monkstown collected stories about the area from older relatives. Some of these tales included the Widow Gamble. These stories were set down by the Irish Folklore Schools Programme in 1937 and are available on the Dúchas website. Some of the children also referred to Widow Gamble as Widow Gammon.
Who was the real Widow Gamble? Plainly an unpopular woman judging by the tales told about her. One possible candidate was Hannah Gamble, an inn keeper at nearby Blackrock. Records show that the Gambell, Gambol or Gamble name was associated with a famous place of local hospitality in the mid 18th century.(3.) The Sign of the Ship tavern at Blackrock was run by Thomas Gambell and his wife Hannah Peters, daughter of landscape gardener Mathew Peters and his Dublin-born wife, Elizabeth Younge.
Hannah was born about 1740, most likely on the Isle of Wight where her father was working. She came to Dublin after Mathew Peters set up a seed shop and garden centre near Hammond Lane on the north side of the city. The Stowe-trained Peters was much in demand among Dublin's gentry. His work for the Earl of Charlemont's magnificent, now lost glasshouses at Casino Marino was documented in the 2014 exhibition, Paradise Lost.
Parish records show that Thomas Gamble and Hannah Peters were married in 1761 at St. Paul's Church, North King Street, Dublin. (4.) The groom was likely to have been a relative of the Gambles who traded as linen merchants in the Liberties of Dublin. There is no evidence that he was connected to the Rev. Thomas Gamble of St Michan's parish, best known for ministering to Robert Emmet before his execution in 1803.
All traces of the Sign of the Ship tavern are long gone, but it was likely to have been situated overlooking Dublin Bay near Tobernea Terrace, not far from modern-day Seapoint Dart Station. It was a popular and fashionable destination for Dublin day trippers and was reputed to have had its own ballroom. Historian Francis Ball described it as the principal public house in the area. An alternative name for the tavern was the Man of War.
Hannah was widowed eight years into her marriage in 1769. Monkstown Church of Ireland parish registers record the burial in Monkstown churchyard of a Thomas Gamble of the Black Rock in April 1769. Hannah carried on with the business and over time the Sign of the Ship became known increasingly as "Widow Gamble's". Newspapers of the 1770s would often refer to various events taking place at the Widow Gamble's, Sign of the Ship in the Black Rock. (5.)
Hannah Gamble sold the Sign of the Ship to Londoner, Augustine Moore, in 1775. Moore took out ads to let people know that he was changing the tavern to reflect the so-called London Method.This meant there would be less emphasis on food and traditional entertainment and more on choice of wines and other alcohols available to customers.
Records show that Hannah also sold a property at Black Rock which may have been connected to the tavern. It was described as being next to the now lost Price's Lane and bounded on the south by Mr Pim's garden wall and on the west by Anthony Grayson's holding. (6.)
That same year Hannah Gamble sold her inheritance in a farm called Longland on the Isle of Wight. (7.) The buyer was a Mathew Peters, likely to be either her own father or brother. Hannah's brother, Mathew William Peters (1742-1814), was probably the best known of the Peters family. He became an accomplished painter of landscapes and portraits, some of them considered to be rather racy. This proved to be an embarrassment to Peters when he went on to pursue a career in the church, which saw him become chaplain to George IV for a time.
It isn't certain what happened to Hannah Gamble after 1775. The sale of many of her assets that year would suggest that she may have had money troubles or that she was intending to embark on a new enterprise. Unfortunately her trail goes cold at this point and she disappears from primary records.
Is it believable that Hannah Gamble, née Peters, a hard-working and enterprising tavern keeper, inspired some of the Widow Gamble legends in Monkstown? She seems an unlikely source for these very dark tales.
Monkstown parish registers don't throw any light on her fate after 1775 because there is no record of her death there. No Gambles were recorded in the parish registers in subsequent decades and there is no indication that Thomas and Hannah had any children. The Peters family continued to be represented locally for a time by Hannah's sister, Margaret Peters, who perhaps came to live at the Black Rock because of her sister's activities there. She married Dublin paper stainer, Joseph Unthank, at Monkstown church in 1769. The baptisms and deaths of several of their children are recorded in the following decades and Margaret Peter's own likely death is also recorded in May 1788.
By coincidence another individual named Gamble lived beside Carrickbrennan Graveyard in the 1770s, but he appeared to be unconnected to Thomas and Hannah of Sign of the Ship. In 1771 John Gamble from Enniscorthy transferred his interest in this house by the graveyard along with a detailed list of his possessions to his beloved companion, Anne Kirwan, with whom he had been cohabiting for many years. Among the household goods which Anne Kirwan acquired were Gamble's backgammon tables,his fishing rods,tea chest,ink stand and a little mare 'blind of an eye'. (8.) Perhaps the closeness of John Gamble's house to Carrickbrennan Graveyard reinforced the association of the "Gamble" name with the graveyard in the minds of the locals.
Property deeds relating to the Mounttown area from the mid 18th century describe a rural landscape devoid of its present-day demesne houses. Although Monkstown Castle was still habitable until the early 19th century, there were few other landmarks around apart from the churchyard, Corker's Farm, Windmill Farm and a peculiarly named house known to all in the neighbourhood as The Wandering Jew. (9.)
The 19th century Gamble Lodge stands on the north side of Upper Mounttown Road and is undoubtedly named in honour of the Widow Gamble. By a twist of fate, the same spot is associated with another widow with a peculiar reputation and with a similar sounding name, the Widow Gammon.
Roman Catholic parish records identify a couple called Tom and Eliza Gammon living in this area in the early 19th century. (10.) Mrs Gammon was a local woman - baptised Elizabeth Coonan in 1787 at Monkstown Church of Ireland parish, to Dunleary farmer John Coonan and his wife Margaret Wilson. (11.) She had two older sisters, Anne and Jane, and a younger brother, John. It isn't clear when or why Eliza Coonan changed her religion but she married Thomas Gammon at Kingstown's Roman Catholic church in approximately 1814. The couple are known to have had at least one child, Lawrence, born in 1815.
By the 1830s when trade directories began to describe the south Dublin suburbs, a T. Gammon was trading as a vintner at Monkstown Hill. By 1849, the year of Griffith's Valuation, Eliza or Betty Gammon as she was also known, was already a widow. She continued trading as a vintner on her own account at Mounttown Upper, in a way that was reminiscent of the career of Hannah Gamble. Unlike The Sign of a Ship, her establishment was a ramshackle shebeen near the crest of the hill, and perhaps the spirits she sold there had more than a little to do with the ghostly apparitions seen nearby.
The Widow Gammon's immediate lessor at Upper Mounttown was local builder Christopher Mooney who had acquired the lease from the Semple family of nearby Fairyland House (now St Helen's on York Road). Eliza Gammon's holding had a rateable value of £12 and included a shop,house and yard. (12.) A John Coonan, most likely her brother, lived in the house next to her.
Trade Directories record her presence there through the 1850s when she was often mistakenly called Eliza "Gannon". When the Valuation Office undertook their revisions in the late 1850s, neither Eliza Gammon nor John Coonan were officially listed. With the rapid gentrification of Monkstown from the 1840s, Widow Gammon's establishment would have been dramatically out of place. Her situation was made worse no doubt by the opening in 1860 of St. John's Church, a chapel of ease for Monkstown parish, almost opposite her shebeen.
Christopher Mooney died in 1862 and his will directed that all his leases on Upper Mounttown should be sold. His executor, a local dairyman called John Redmond, drew up a deed two years later which explained a great deal. Widow Gammon had occupied parts of these properties for many years, it stated, and had paid no rent. The buildings had become such a notorious eyesore that the landlords were threatening to refuse a renewal of lease, putting the entire interest at risk. The deed describes how the Widow Gammon, then 75 years of age, was paid £100 plus costs by Redmond to vacate (13.) She apparently agreed to the settlement. John Redmond promptly sold the lease to neighbouring dairyman, Thomas Keegan.
It isn't known what Widow Gammon did with her £100 or where she went after this. It seems unlikely that she would have left the neighbourhood where she had lived her entire life. But no trace of her death record could be found and it isn't known if she died a suspicious death. Like all good legends she disappears into the mists.
As early as 1887, the writer Louise Blennerhassett Poirez, neé Tinkler, (1850-1907), published Eight Tales of Fairy Land, in whch she refers to the hill at the top of Mounttown Upper as Widow Gammon’s Hill.Louise Poirez would have known. She was the daughter of Francis Greene Tinkler, the solicitor who represented Widow Gammon in the 1864 case and who lived for a time at nearby Air Hill. There is no evidence that bad luck befell John Redmond or Thomas Keegan following their transactions with the widow, although neither enjoyed a long life.
It seems likely therefore that the Widow Gamble legend was based on at least two women whose identities were conflated over time to become the sinister figure still acknowledged in the Monkstown neighbourhood.