Tales of Wilmont and its grandeur have for years figured largely in my life. My great-grandfather, William Hudgins, was head gardener and lived on the estate from c. 1908 to 1938. The house and its characters were frequently the subject of family reminiscences and conversations. R. H. Reade ('big R. H.' as he was known locally) and his pride in house and grounds, the Dixons with their yellow and black Rolls Royce and green-liveried footmen - all were 'real' people to me, not merely hazy figures from other people's pasts. Curiosity combined with sentiment has prompted me to write this piece. I should like to dedicate it to the memory of my grandparents, May Hodgins and Alexander Dugan, whose early lives revolved around this place.
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 Ballydrain1, The Ordnance survey Memoirs of 1837 describe it as being 'a commodious structure two stories high and double roof. The yards are well enclosed, the offices extensive and all slated, the garden about one Irish acre is enclosed and partly by a good stone and lime wall and partly by a quickset fence. And contiguous two large green houses. The lawn in front of the house is large and ornamented with a variety of forest trees. Entrance to the house from the Malone Road, by a long winding Avenue. Contiguous to the house stood a good ice House2. The Demesne containing 108 Irish acres is laid off in large well-enclosed Fields, and the seat of extensive young and grown plantations, of almost every Description of Forest Trees. It was also the seat of an extensive Bleach Green, which has been disused 22 years ago.'
The house was enlarged considerably between 1740 and 1750, when William Stewart added a new front. The Memoirs describe it as being, at this time, 'one of the most commodious buildings in the county'. Regrettably, no illustrations of this early house are known. By 1837, both house and offices were in a state of decay, not having been occupied since 1830. The property had passed into the hands of the Court of Chancery, and a lease of seven years only was granted to any tenant. The building appears to have lain empty for several years.
In June 1855, the estate was purchased by a Belfast brewer, Alexander Mackenzie Shaw, who however remained in possession for only a short time. In February of the following year, he was forced to sign the property over to the Northern Banking Company, in lieu of a debt of £12,505:13:63 which he owed to the Bank. The estate was bought by James Bristow, c. 1858.
In 18594, the house was pulled down and replaced by the present building, (fig. 1). The architect chosen to design the new Wilmont was an up-and-coming young Waterford man, Thomas Jackson,5 (1807-1890), whose Belfast Buildings included the Museum Building in College Square North, and St. Malachy's Roman Catholic Church, Alfred Street. Although the whereabouts of Jackson's plans of the house are unknown, and Wilmont consequently remains undated in his output, it seems reasonable to assume a dating of 1859, as, by 1860, the Belfast Directory records Bristow as being in residence.
Burke's Guide to Country Houses6 describes Wilmont as having a three bay front with balustraded porch, a lower wing ending with wing as high as the main block, and an adjoining front with central curved bow, and a bay on either side. Additional features include camber headed windows (windows with curved tops) in the upper storey of the main block, and an eaved roof on a bracket cornice. Burke, however, omits to mention that the building was in fact designed as a double mansion,7 to house both the family of James Bristow, and that of his son, James Thomson Bristow. The house was 'really only a large semidetached', to quote Lord Glentoran, who remembers Sir Thomas Dixon knocking down walls and uniting the two quite separate halves, sometime during the 1920'5. The second entrance can be seen on the opposite side of the house from that containing the balustraded porch.
James Bristow - his initials can be seen on the side of the house, (fig. 2) - was born in Coleraine in 1796, the son of Skeffington Gore Bristow. He served his apprenticeship in Narcissus Batt's counting house, and later became corresponding clerk in the banking house of Batt, Houston and Batt. In 1826, he was offered the position of Manager in the Northern Banking Company, (formerly the private banking house of Orr, McCance, Montgomery and McNeile) and remained with the firm for thirty-eight years, eventually becoming a Director. As a banker and businessman, he was highly thought of, and was President of Belfast Chamber of Commerce in 1849, 1855 and 1859. The portrait reproduced here, (fig. 3) shows him to be a benevolent and kindly looking man. He died on 12th April, 1866, and was succeeded in the property by his eldest son, James Thomson Bristow, (fig. 4).8
J.T. Bristow, was, like his father, a banker. AL the age of
sixteen, he entered the Northern Bank and, after five years, was appointed
pro-Director. In 1852, he was elected a member of the Board of which his father
was then Chairman, and in turn became Chairman, on his father's death. In 1877,
he was elected President of Belfast Chamber of Commerce, but was forced to
decline the honour, owing to ill health. He died at Wilmont on 25th July, 1877,
at the age of fifty. The estate passed into the hands of his Trustees,9
William Laird of Birkenhead, and his brother, Samuel Smith Bristow of Liverpool,
and was sold, in late 1879, to R.H. Reade, (fig. 5).
The new owner, Robert Henry Sturrock Readel0 appears to have purchased the estate for reasons which were partly practical, partly sentimental. The house was situated reasonably close to the Railway (and therefore convenient for business) and, furthermore, had belonged to ancestors on his mother's side, the Stewarts of ballydrain. Born in Coleraine on 23rd May, 1837, the son of Thomas Reade H. D. of Belfast, he was educated privately and later at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. In 1854, he entered the York Street Flax Spinning Company, as an apprentice, and began what was to become a highly successful business career. Two years later, he was sent to New York, to organise the firm's business interests there. In 1864, he was appointed a Managing Director, and eventually became Chairman of the Board.
Other honours included being elected President of the Linen Merchants' Association, in 1876, President of the Flaxspinners' Association 1888-1894, President of the Flax Supply Association 1893-1905, and President of Belfast Chamber of Commerce, in 1881 and 1906. A committed Unionist, deeply involved in Unionist politics, he was also a J.P. and Deputy Lieutenant for Belfast. In 1875, he married Dorothea Emily Florence Robbins (she died in 1883) and had five children. He died in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, on 24th February, 1913, while attending meetings in that City of the Representative Body of the Church of Ireland, of which he was a member. Memorial windows dedicated to his memory were installed in Drumbeg Parish Church in 1915, and in St. Ann's Cathedral, Belfast, in 1917.
After his death, the property passed to his son George, who sold it to Sir Thomas and Lady Edith Dixon ll in 1919, (fig. 6). Wilmont was one of three seats belonging to the Dixons, the others being Drumadarragh, Co. Antrim and Cairndhu, Larne. The Dixons were a highly respected and illustrious couple. Sir Thomas Dixon, born in Groomsport, Co. Down on 29th May, 1868, was the eldest son of Sir Daniel Dixon and his first wife, Elizabeth Agnew (died 1868). He succeeded his father to the title in 1907, and was for many years His Majesty's Lieutenant for Belfast; also High Sheriff for Co. Antrim in 1912, and, in the following year, High Sheriff for Co. Down. He married Edith Stewart of Dundas Castle, South Queensferry, Scotland on 7th February, 1906.
Both Sir Thomas and Lady Edith Dixon had distinguished public careers. From 1939 to 1941 they served as first Mayor and Mayoress of Larne, and were great benefactors to the Borough. In 1935, they handed over Dixon Park to the Council, as a gift, together with £500 for the provision of music in the park. Cairndhu they gave to the Hospitals Authority, for use as a convalescent home. In 1957, Lady Dixon presented the Mayoress Chain of Office to Larne Borough Council, and in 1964, robes to be worn by Aldermen, Councillors and Mace Bearer. In the early Sixties, she donated £10,000 towards the cost of converting and renovating the former Technical College into Council Offices. They are now known as Sir Thomas Dixon Buildings.
Sir Thomas Dixon died at Harrowgate on 10th May, 1950. Lady Dixon, who was created D.B.E. after the First World War, in recognition of her work for the Forces, died on 20th January, 1964. A year before her death, on 3rd April, 1963, Wilmont Estate was officially handed over to Belfast Corporation. The house, according to her wishes, was shortly afterwards opened as a home for old people, while the grounds, at her behest, were opened to the public. The park, called after its benefactors, consists of 134 acres,12 and has been the venue for the City of Belfast International Rose Trials, since 1964. Over the years, it has become one of the most popular parkland areas in the vicinity of Belfast.
Many distinguished visitors have stayed at Wilmont in the past. Captain Scott, the famous Antarctic explorer, was a guest, during his visit to Belfast in 1904. In 1934, the house became the temporary residence of the Governor of Northern Ireland, When Government House, Hillsborough, was damaged by fire on 7th August of that year. Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, was a guest in 1935, during Sir Thomas Dixon's period as H. M. L. During World war II, the house served as the Northern Ireland headquarters of the United States Army.
Wilmont has seen many changes. Owners have come and gone, and with them, a way of life. In the words of the poet Pierre de Saint Victoire:
Memories whisper here-ant echoes gossip
History passes with a linger to her lips
|1.||Alec Wilson's 'Fragments that remain', contains much information on the Stewarts of Ballydrain.|
|2.||During the eighteenth century, virtually every mansion had an ice house. Host ice houses were constructed underground and consisted of an egg-shaped well, with the small end pointing downwards. The construction was lined with brickwork. A long brick-lined passage with several doors led to the outside. Ice was collected from a lake or pond, pounded into small pieces and placed in the well of the ice house. Clean spring water, at the rate of one gallon to one pound of common salt, was poured over the granulated ice. The following summer, it would be a frozen mass, ready for use. See the Belfast News Letter, 28th October, 1957, 'Forgotten Ice Houses' by Colin Johnston Robb.|
|3.||As stated in the Title Deeds of the house, held in Belfast City Hall|
|4.||R. M. Young, 'Belfast and the Province of Ulster', (Brighton 1909).|
|5.||Hugh Dixon, 'Honouring Thomas Jackson', Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, Proceedings and Reports, Sessions 1970/71-1976/77, Second Series, Vol. 9.|
|6.||Mark Bence Jones, 'Burke's Guide to Country Houses - Ireland', (London 1978).|
|7.||George Bend, 'History of Belfast', (London 7.877).|
|8.||Edwin parley Hill, 'Northern Bank Centenarv Volume 1824-1924' (Belfast 1925).|
|9.||Will of James Thomson Bristow, P.R.O.N.I., ref. T.1009(610).|
|10.||Obituary notices in Belfast Telegraph, Northern Whig, and Belfast News Letter of 25th February, 1913 contain much biographical information.|
|11.||Who's Who in Northern Ireland,
R.N. Young, 'Belfast and the Province of Ulster'; Larne Borough Council.
Information from Belfast Corporation.