Belfast Telegraph

Rare glimpse into family life in a Belfast's 'Big Houses'

Delving into photographic collections, archives and people's memories, Aidan Campbell has produced a new book offering a fascinating insight into some of the mansions and villas in the east of the city - and the prosperous people who once frequented them. Ivan Little finds out more

The writer whose best-selling books revisit all our yesterdays in east Belfast has now captured the very essence of how the other half lived in a very different city over a hundred years ago.

Aidan Campbell's latest publication, East Belfast Big Houses, does what it says on the cover and gives readers an intriguing glimpse into substantial dwellings in the area, and also features the families who lived in them.

And the characters in the book are almost as big and colourful as the houses themselves, ranging from CS Lewis to Ernie Camlin, the singing frogman.

Many of the houses are gone now - distant memories of a bygone era - but the properties and the wealthy people who owned them are woven into the very fabric of Belfast's history.

And Aidan's meticulous research has uncovered a veritable treasure trove of information and photographs, which take readers on a fascinating journey through a sometimes forgotten past.

Aidan has concentrated on eight lesser-known houses in the book. He says: "Four of them are grand mansions and four of them are the next level of big houses, the 'plump and prosperous' villas of the middle classes, the smaller business owners."

Many of the grand mansions were in the Belmont area and were built for members of the prosperous Greeves family, who made their money from the linen trade.

Aidan estimates that in the 1900s 40% of the working population in the north of Ireland were employed in spinning mills. The city was dubbed Linenopolis and Aidan says there was a huge influx of people into Belfast looking for employment, almost tripling the population from 120,000 to 349,000 in just 40 years.

And the profits made by the linen bosses were enormous.

At one time many well-to-dos resided in homes around Donegall Place and College Square, which was known as the Harley Street of Belfast because of the large number of doctors who lived in the area.

But in the late 1800s many wealthy families wanted to move away from the city centre and Aidan says east Belfast was one of the most popular choices for their new homes.

The ghosts of some of the affluent residents stare out - most of them unsmiling - from images in Aidan's book, dressed in their finery posing for pictures on the imposing entrances to their grand design homes such as Lismachan, which is still standing on the Belmont Road

The house was owned by John Greeves, who was once described as "the father of the flax-spinning trade in Ulster". The Greeves' best-known mill was at Conway Street, off the Falls Road, and the workforce came from both sides of the religious divide.

Lismachan was built in 1870 on an 18-acre site and stayed in the family until it was sold in 1961 by four elderly Greeves sisters.

The house is now made up of apartments, and a high hedge means that it can't be seen in all its glory from the Belmont Road.

Lismachan is on the cover of Aidan's publication, but it isn't the only eye-catching feature of the photograph that was lent to the author by John Greeves' great-granddaughter Rena Greeves Brien, one of a number of descendants of the big house families who attended the book launches.

In the picture there's another ghost there too. It's a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, which would have cost Greeves the equivalent of £100,000 in today's money. The driver in his white hat and summer uniform is a chauffeur.

Other staff employed at Lismachan down the years included three gardeners, two servants, three part-time workers, three nurses, and there were also carriage horses, one riding horse and five cows to produce the milk.

Another of the big houses in Aidan's book is Tweskard, which was owned by John Greeves' brother Thomas Malcolmson Greeves.

The brothers married two sisters whose architect father Thomas Jackson designed many of the big houses of east Belfast including Lismachan and Tweskard, which was built at the top of the Belmont Road with gate lodges front and rear and a cottage in the middle of the sprawling estate.

After its owners passed away the house was used by Campbell College as a junior boarding school for several years before it was demolished in 1932, and private housing development Tweskard Park now stands there.

The third of the grand mansions in Aidan's book is Altona, which was also in the Belmont area overlooking Lismachan. It was built in 1864 for the architect Jackson who designed schools, banks, museums, churches, and music halls and was seen as the father figure of architecture in Belfast.

Altona was later turned into apartments.

One picture of a house near Altona shows one of Belfast's most famous literary figures in another guise… as a tennis player. CS Lewis was a friend in his youth of John Greeves' son Arthur and the two are among a group of people photographed in 1911 at a tennis party at a house called Glenmachan, which Aidan says isn't to be confused with Glenmachan Tower, for many years a hotel.

Another mansion house bears a name that still resonates with many people in Belfast because of its use as government offices, most recently for the Department of the Economy.

More than 30 pages in Aidan's book are devoted to stories and photographs of Netherleigh, originally a home for wealthy Waterford retailer William Robertson, who was one of the first occupants of Bank Buildings, recently destroyed in a fire.

Netherleigh once had a massive - but now demolished - greenhouse called the Orange House, which looked remarkably similar to the Palm House in Botanic Gardens but was apparently three times bigger.

The entrance to Netherleigh is now in Massey Avenue but it used to be on the Belmont Road where its gateposts are still clearly visible opposite the old Holywood Road.

Netherleigh had a number of owners including meat packer James Stamford Reid - said by Aidan to be "seriously wealthy" - and linen merchant and politician Major Samuel Hall-Thompson before it became a preparatory school for Campbell College, a military hospital during the Second World War, and then government offices.

In Aidan's book the four smaller big houses - so to speak - that he features were spread out around different parts of east Belfast.

One of them, Aspen Villa, which was later renamed Beechgrove, was located at the corner of Sydenham Avenue opposite St Mark's Church, Dundela. It was originally the home of builder James Entwistle, who came up with the name Sydenham for the area he developed.

The Georgian house was bought from the Entwistles by wine merchant Edward Gullery in February 1920, but it was demolished in 1983 and in its place there's a private development called Sycamore Grove.

Aidan's book also focuses on another house, Loretto Cottage, which stood on the site of a modern day snooker club, the QE1, on the Castlereagh Road

Loretto Cottage was at first the home of WH Campbell, a Catholic engineering contractor.

His son Joseph Campbell was a poet and a blue plaque in his memory was unveiled near the snooker club.

Joseph later became a Sinn Fein councillor in Wicklow.

The next occupants of Loretto Cottage, which was knocked down in 1974, were the Emerson family who were milkmen, delivering their wares from a horse and cart before acquiring their first mechanised trucks, photographs of which all appear in Aidan's book.

The author says that it was vital for the Emersons to deliver their milk quickly before it went sour and drivers couldn't dawdle. He adds: "The vehicles had a periscope on the roof which allowed the driver to check if he was being followed by the traffic police who had the habit of driving very closely behind the lorry in the driver's blind spot."

The third of the villas in the book is still standing, but Kingsden Park House off the Knock Road can't be seen from the main road.

The owner Ernest Camlin developed a swathe of land in the area as nurseries in the 1920s and the ever-expanding business supplied the flowers to the women who famously sold their blooms outside the City Hall in Belfast.

Bizarrely, Camlin's opera singer son Ernie also worked as a Press photographer and was also a part-time frogman, who was once photographed walking to a film premiere in Belfast in his full frogman's kit, which drew quizzical glances from people on the streets, as evidenced in Aidan's book.

The story goes that Ernie also starred as a novelty act in Bruce Forsyth's Sunday Night at the London Palladium show.

The nursery business was later transferred to Newtownards but the land was eventually sold for housing developments.

Last but by no means least in Aidan's book is a house that is particularly close to his heart. Beaconfield, or Beaconsfield, is now home to the Marie Curie Hospice and the money raised by Aidan's books goes towards helping the charity and other good causes, such as Guide Dogs Northern Ireland.

Beaconfield on the Knock Road was built for insurance man Joseph Miller in the 1860s, but within 30 years it had been acquired by Fred Thomas Hurley, a tea merchant with premises in Waring Street.

Aidan, a retired business consultant, is a volunteer for the hospice, which cared for his uncle several decades ago, and his first book was about the history of Beaconfield. Little did he know that it would be the first of so many publications.

He's compiled 16 books about east Belfast and there's no sign of him slowing down even though he's had to fight back against the impact of a brain tumour that affected his balance, cognitive skills and memory.

Aidan says his books are his passion and he's raised a staggering £150,000 for charity in 13 years. And no matter where he goes to give talks about his publications, he says people are always offering him new pictures, new insights and information about east Belfast.

Which is why a second volume about the big houses of east Belfast is already in the pipeline.

Aidan Campbell's book, East Belfast Big Houses: The Families That Lived In them is available from the Hillmount Garden Centre; the Marie Curie Hospice and the Eastside Visitors Centre, £10

Belfast Telegraph

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