Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

WILMONT HOUSE

The descendants of  Sir Thomas and Lady Edith Dixon look on with anguish, as this Victorian country house, gifted to the people of Belfast in the 1950’s, falls into ruin.

Wilmont House - Belfast City Council
Wilmont House is a house of 1859 in a demesne established in 1740. Since 1959 the demesne has been subdivided, part being given to Belfast City Council for public recreation as the Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park. Image: Belfast City Council.

Back in April 1956, the gift of Wilmont House, at Dunmurry, Co Antrim, might have seemed a blessing to Belfast Corporation. Lady Edith Dixon offered Wilmont and its 140 acres of land to the city, with the wish that it be used as a hospital, convalescent home or home for old people, and that the lands be used as a public park. The old lady was winding down her affairs, the only other stipulation was that she be able to occupy the house and lands for her lifetime, thereafter they should be managed by the Corporation for “the greatest good of the citizens of the city.”

Lady Edith died in 1964 and her wishes were granted. Wilmont House became a home for the elderly, a role it carefully fulfilled until closure in 1992. However, by now the old house was less of a good thing, and more of a burden for Belfast City Council.

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The present house was built in 1859 to the design of Thomas Jackson for James Bristow, a director of the Northern Banking Company. Image: Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland.

By 2013, Wilmont House had been used for occasional events, as a parks office for the council and briefly as the headquarters for the Belfast Marathon. A proposal for a seven-year refurbishment was rejected, the house was too expensive to maintain, and the only viable option might have been to hand back Wilmont to the Dixon family.

Six years later, the situation hasn’t changed. Wilmont House has deteriorated, windows are broken and boarded-up, and the Grade B1 listed former country house is designated a ‘Building at Risk.’

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“Sadly what we look at now bears little resemblance to what the house was in its heyday. It’s boarded up, windows are broken, and it stands in a place of such beauty that it’s disappointing to see all the history of the house.” – Andrew Dixon. Image: Belfast Telegraph.

Its sorry condition hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Dixon family. This week the Belfast Telegraph reports that Andrew Dixon (58), a great, great nephew of Lady Edith, has told Belfast City Council that it should make “alternative arrangements” if it cannot look after the stately home in its most famous park. ‘The family has watched on in horror as the derelict house in the grounds of Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park in south Belfast has gradually decayed since it was handed over to the council by his great, great aunt.’

It is suggested that discussions took place at Belfast City Council several years ago on the future of Wilmont House during which it was suggested the Dixon family should be contacted to discuss its future. According to Andrew Dixon that call never came.

The situation at Wilmont House is no different to many other country houses that ended up in the care of local authorities. A recent Country Life article on Oldway Mansion at Paignton, in Devon, reads remarkably similar, although on a grander scale.

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The present Wilmont House is the second of that name to stand on this site. The original Wilmont was built c. 1740 by William Stewart, son of John Stewart of Ballydrain. Image: Albert Bridge.

Wilmont House was one of three houses that belonged to the Dixon family – the others being Drumadarragh House and Cairndhu, also in Co Antrim. Drumadarragh remains in the family, the seat of Lord and Lady Glentoran, but Mr Dixon fears that Wilmont might go the same way as Cairndhu in Larne, another property gifted by the family, presented to the Northern Ireland Hospitals Authority in 1947, which now lies in ruins.

Andrew Dixon might be frustrated by events at Wilmont, but Belfast City Council remains restrained over the situation. “We’re currently preparing an invitation for expressions of interest to go to the market to seek a suitably qualified developer for the restoration and regeneration of Wilmont House, to bring it into a new use. As part of this, we’re pursuing efforts to get in touch and engage with the beneficiaries of the will of Lady Dixon.”

For now,  Wilmont House is surplus to requirement and only time will see how it emerges from a distinctly despondent period.

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The architect chosen to design the new Wilmont was an up-and-coming young Waterford man, Thomas Jackson (1807-1890), whose Belfast Buildings included the Museum Building in College Square North, and St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church, Alfred Street. Image: Lisburn.com.

The house was built in 1859, ‘a plain two-storey red-brick Victorian house, with a three-bay front and balustraded porch.’ It replaced a 1740 property built for William Stewart, the son of John Stewart of Ballydrain, an important farming family.

In 1855, the estate had been sold to Alexander Mackenzie Shaw, a Belfast brewer, but he was quickly forced to sign over the property to the Northern Banking Company in lieu of debts of £12,505. About 1858, it became the property of James Bristow (1796-1866), a director of the aforesaid bank, who demolished the run-down old house and substituted it with the present mansion designed by Thomas Jackson, one of Belfast’s outstanding architects.

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James Bristow. Image: Lisburn.com.

According to historian Eileen Black, Wilmont House was really a house of two-halves. One part was occupied by James Bristow, the other by his son, James Thomson Bristow (1827-1877), another banker.

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James Thomson Bristow. Image: Lisburn.com.

Following J. T. Bristow’s death in 1877 the estate passed to his trustees, William Laird of Birkenhead, and his brother, Samual Smith Bristow of Liverpool, and was sold in 1879 to Robert Henry Sturrock Reade (1873-1913), of the York Street Flax Spinning Company. After his death, Wilmont passed to his son George who sold it to Sir Thomas and Lady Edith Dixon in 1919.

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Robert Henry Sturrock Reade. Image: Lisburn.com.

Sir Thomas Dixon (1868-1950), Privy Councillor for Northern Ireland, and a well-known figure in Irish and British racing circles, belonged to a family of shipowners and timber merchants who had been among the founders of modern Belfast.

His father, Sir Daniel Dixon, 1st Baronet, was the first Lord Mayor of Belfast and MP for North Belfast, half-brother to Lord Glentoran, president of the Ulster Unionist Council.

Thomas Dixon entered the business of his father, Thomas Dixon & Sons, timber merchants, and owners of the Lord Line Shipping Company of which he was a director. On the death of his father in 1907 he became managing director, a position in which he remained until the closing of the firm in 1938. (He was also a director of the York Street Flax Spinning Company).

When Larne was created a Borough in 1939, Sir Thomas was elected its first Mayor. He was a Senator until 1949, was a member of the Ulster Unionist Council from its inception and was appointed to the Privy Council in 1930.

He died in Harrogate in 1950 and was survived by Lady Edith Dixon (1871-1964), formerly Miss Edith Stewart Clark, daughter of Stewart Clark, of Cairndhu, and Dundas Castle, South Queensferry, whom he married in 1906.

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Sir Thomas and Lady Edith Dixon. Image: Lisburn.com.

Lady Dixon was appointed a Dame of the British Empire in June 1921, in recognition of her valuable work on behalf of all the services during World War One.

For the time being, Wilmont House must live with its memories. To the time when Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the famous Antarctic explorer, visited during his stay in Belfast in 1904. To 1934, when it became the temporary residence of the Governor of Northern Ireland when Government House at Hillsborough was damaged by fire, and to the Second World War when it was the headquarters of the American Army in Northern Ireland.

The last word goes to Andrew Dixon and the uncertainty over Belfast City Council’s ownership of the property: –

“They have said they would like to talk to the family. I have plenty of ideas on how it could be used and surely that’s more preferable than letting it go to ruin. I and my father Robin Dixon, Baron Glentoran, have already watched how another of the properties at Cairndhu in Larne has been handled and I would hate to see Wilmont House go the same way,” he said.

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Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, was a guest in 1935, during Sir Thomas Dixon’s period as His Majesty’s Lieutenant. During World War II, the house served as the Northern Ireland headquarters of the United States Army. Image: drumbe65.

GILFORD CASTLE

A Victorian Scots Baronial-style ‘castle’ dating back to 1865, on sale for the first time in more than 100 years.

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Gilford Castle, Gilford, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Image: Savills.

An asking price of £2.3 million is being asked by Savills for the Gilford Castle Estate in Co. Down, Northern Ireland. It is a residential, agricultural and sporting estate with amenities extending to about 207 acres in total. It is for sale as a whole or in five lots. The historic, Category B1 listed castle occupies a commanding position within the heart of the estate and dates from circa 1865. It is constructed in the Scottish baronial style and includes well-proportioned principal accommodation, plus two flats. Adjoining the castle is an extensive range of traditional outbuildings, including a former farm yard, sawmill and kennels.

The house is built of Portland stone and Scrabo sandstone, multi-gabled, with a slate roof. Its most striking feature is the portico, which is topped in the same way as its bay windows with two stone urns resting on the two corners.

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Gilford Castle, Gilford, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Image: Postcards Ireland.

The present castle superseded another dwelling dating from the seventeenth century. In 1635, John Magill, a Scottish settler, acquired land around the present-day village of Gilford from the Magennis clan.

John Magill strengthened his position locally and the village began to develop around ‘Magill’s Ford’, from which the name of Gilford was derived.

The Magills based themselves at Gill Hall near Dromore, but a branch of the family – the Johnstons – resided in Gilford and developed the village. The will of Sir John Johnston Magill had left his estates to the heirs of his two sisters, Mary and Susanna. Gill Hall went to Mary, and Gilford passed to Susanna, who married her first cousin Richard Johnston of Emyvale, Co. Monaghan. On coming to the property, the Johnstons built the original Gilford Castle and the property remained in the male line of Richard Johnston for five generations. The original castle is believed to have been built by the Johnston family close to the present-day bridge (situated at the north-west of the estate) which passes over the River Bann.

His great grandson, also Richard, was a pioneer of free-range pig farming. He succeeded to the family estate in 1758 and commenced pig farming in 1760. In those days pigs were more valuable than cows, Ireland had a good export of corned and salted pork.

He also took a prominent part on the landlord side in the Hearts of Steel men.  In 1772, the castle was the scene of an attack by the disaffected group, who were suffering from failure of the harvest and a rise in taxation. Richard just escaped with his life, but the castle was sacked and set on fire.  Richard was made a baronet, but died a bachelor in the 1840s, his property divided between his two sisters.

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Gilford Castle, Gilford, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Image: Savills.
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Gilford Castle, Gilford, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Image: Savills.

In the 1860s, the Gilford portion granted to one of the sisters, Catherine,  was purchased by Benjamin Dickson, who at that time was a partner in the prosperous local linen thread company of Dunbar McMaster.

As well as being a successful businessman, Dickson was also a keen farmer, keeping a celebrated herd of shorthorn cattle and an accomplished horse breeder.

When Dickson bought Gilford Castle, the old property had fallen into decay, and he engaged the fashionable architect William Spence, based in Glasgow, to design the present-day mansion on a new site in the Scottish Baronial style, creating a majestic grouping of river, park and house.  A year later, Spence also built nearby Elmfield House for Benjamin Dickson’s brother James.

The cost to build Gilford Castle was reported to be £42,000, but Dickson never lived here, with Percy Jocelyn McMaster, younger brother of Hugh Dunbar McMaster (proprietor of Gilford Mill), believed to be the first occupant, leasing the house between 1887 and 1891.

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Gilford Castle, Gilford, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Image: Savills.

After Dickson’s death in 1894, the property passed to his trustees and was bought for £15,000 by Miss Katherine Carleton, a spinster, in 1902, and subsequently sold in 1914 to James F. Wright. It has remained in the Wright family’s ownership ever since.

the linen houses of the bann valley - the story of their families

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Gilford Castle, Gilford, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Image: Savills.
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Gilford Castle, Gilford, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Image: Savills.
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Gilford Castle, Gilford, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Image: Savills.

James Wright was the son of a mill owner from Ballinode, Co. Monaghan who had become a successful Hong Kong and Manila merchant and stockbroker. His wife, Mary Menary, was the niece of Sir Thomas Jackson, third Chief Manager of The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (now known as HSBC), who was responsible for financing the development of Colonial Hong Kong under the first large scale bank.

James and Mary furnished their Gilford home with memories of Manila and Hong Kong, also furnishing it with keepsakes and memories of the histories of their families, both of which had roots in Ireland going back at least 400 years.

A news account at the time of James Wright’s marriage said he had service in South Africa, where he was badly wounded, but had “forged his sword into a pruning hook”.  In his decades at Gilford, it seems that James got his wish. On his death certificate, his profession was recorded as farmer.

In 2004, the Belfast Telegraph reported that GML Estates agreed to buy the site and convert the mill into a 132-bed luxury hotel and the grounds into a golf course in what was expected to be a £30 million “world class resort”.

Open winner Darren Clarke was called on board to realise the golfing aspect of the site, but the project never materialised.

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Gilford Castle, Gilford, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Image: Savills.
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Gilford Castle, Gilford, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Image: Savills.
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Gilford Castle, Gilford, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. Image: Savills.

BELVOIR PARK

A five-day auction that brought the curtain down on a fine country house

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Belvoir Park. A watercolour painted by the artist Jonathan Fisher at the request of the house’s then-owner Arthur Hill-Trevor, 1st Viscount Dungannon. Image: The Irish Aesthete.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of an important and interesting five-day sale of the ‘magnificent surplus furnishings’ at Belvoir Park, Newtownbreda, near Belfast. It was an indication that times were changing for this country house… and not for the better.

Belfast News-Letter 1 Jun 1918 (BNA)
The start of the five-day sale. It is not recorded how much money was raised from the sale of the contents. From the Belfast News-Letter. 1st June, 1918. Image: The British Newspaper Archive.

The estate, once called Ballyenaghan, had once been the home of the Hill family, named so it is said, by Michael Hill’s wife, Anne Trevor, subsequently married to Lord Midleton, owing to the view (belle voir’) and in part to her childhood recollections of Belvoir castle in Leicestershire. She was responsible for creating the grand mansion and it is suggested used the German architect Cassells for the design.  Her son, who became Viscount Dungannon in 1766, inherited the estate before it was sold in 1809.

It was originally bought by three Belfast merchants – John Gillies, Robert Davis and William Blacker – for £35,000 – until it was bought by Robert Bateson, a Belfast banker and landowner, in 1818.

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Belvoir Park. This photograph is one of several provided by the Northern Ireland Forestry Service to the website – ‘Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland’.

Robert Bateson was born in 1782 and died in 1863. He was created a Baronet in 1818. His eldest son, Robert, was an MP for Co Londonderry; his second son, Thomas was born in 1819, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Deramore in 1885 after 34 years of service in Parliament and died in 1890.

Decline set in after the death of Baron Deramore. For a time, it was occupied by Walter H. Wilson, a shipbuilder and partner in Harland and Wolff’s. It was his widow that instigated the sale of its contents in 1918. Its last resident was Sir James Johnston, Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1917-1918.

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The west front of Belvoir Park. The house was sometimes referred to as Belvoir House. Image: Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland.
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An interior photograph of Belvoir Park during prosperous times. Some of these contents may well have been included in the auction of 1918.

Belfast was quickly growing, and the estate which had once stretched to more than 6,000 acres, was now only a few miles from the city centre. It falls into the category ‘swallowed by suburbia’; the land was more valuable than the house and was prime residential development.

In the 1920s parts of the estate became a golf course and at one time it was suggested that Belvoir Park might be used as a residence for the Governor of Northern Ireland (Hillsborough Castle was chosen instead).

Belvoir Park before it was blown up
Awaiting its death. Belvoir Park is seen here shortly before demolition. It is unclear if any parts of the house were salvaged and used elsewhere.
belvoir-just-before-being-blown-up (Irish Aesthete)
Members of the Army can be seen standing in front of Belvoir Park as it awaits the inevitable. The house was demolished by the Forest Service in 1961. We must presume the army used explosives to blow it up as a training exercise. Image: The Irish Aesthete.
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The last days of Belvoir Park. The photograph shows the entrance to the yard. The house and former grounds are in a pitiful condition. Image: The Irish Aesthete.

Belvoir Park stood empty until 1934 when the building company, W.J. Stewart, leased the building and land. The obvious motive was to build houses on the estate, but this was scuppered by the outbreak of war. The Admiralty requisitioned the house during World War Two as a temporary armaments depot and built over a hundred nissen and elephant huts.

Afterwards, it was handed back to Stewart and Partners and used for the storage of building materials.

From the 1950s Belvoir Park was in serious decline. Empty, derelict and populated only by its by ghosts, the estate was sold to the Northern Ireland Housing Trust in 1955. 150-acres of former parkland was leased to the Forest Service and became Belvoir Park Forest, while the rest was used to build much-needed housing.

Belvoir Park was blown up by the Army, presumably as part of a training exercise, in 1961. The site of the Georgian mansion is now used as a car park.