When Rev Richard Burgess Labarte, the rector of what is now St Mark's Church on the Holywood Road in Belfast, departed for a new incumbency in England in 1871, the entire contents of his residence, St Helier's on the Belmont Road, were advertised for auction, as was customary. Most of the sale items were unspectacular, but one would hope that a suitable new home was found for his "Thirty Singing Yellow and Splashed Canaries in fine health and plumage".
Dr Richard Whytock Leslie and his family occupied St Helier's from 1894 until his death in 1931. The doctor was known to the pupils of Campbell College as "Spotted Dick" and, for a variety of reasons, he elicited much derision from CS Lewis and his brother. An inventory of his domestic possessions at the time of his death was even less impressive than those of Labarte - with eight Chippendale chairs attracting the highest valuation of just £21.
St Helier's - which as late as the end of the 20th century, when it was occupied by the Short & Harland Staff Supervisors' Club, was reputedly haunted as a result of the suicide of one of Leslie's daughters in 1917 - was among a number of substantial mansions built in east Belfast around the beginning of the 1860s.
The business and professional classes of the town were attracted to the more peaceful and salubrious environment of the district beyond the Holywood Arches in Strandtown, Sydenham and Belmont.
The development of the area was the aspiration of Belfast businessman Thomas McClure, who in 1856 had acquired, for the best part of £100,000, much of the land between Belmont and Knock, stretching down towards Belfast Lough.
Whenever McClure renewed a lease or created a new one, he incorporated the demand that the lessor build a permanent residence on the site, usually within 18 months or two years.
In April 1865, for example, he signed a lease for 10,000 years with William Quartus Ewart for 18 acres of land known as Schomberg Park (directly opposite Belmont House), which required (the future Sir) William to "build premises fit for habitation and use as a villa residence" by May 1, 1867. Schomberg was to remain in the hands of the Ewart family for many years; in 1916 it was occupied by one of Sir William's sons, Charles Gordon Ewart, who at the end of 1915 had married Elizabeth (Lily) Greeves.
A close neighbour who had grown up at Bernagh on Circular Road opposite the Lewis family (who were also friends of the Leslies) at Little Lea, Lily long haunted the fantasies of the teenage CS Lewis, who admitted in a letter to her brother, Arthur, that her rear view was "shaped with an intolerable grace".
Most, if not all, of these mansions and villas in the area were probably endowed with a name which held some meaning for the original occupant.
Belmont House (now the site of Campbell College) had existed on the estate of the same name since the mid 18th century; its adopted name stemmed from the fact that it stood on a prominent position which afforded an attractive view.
Even towards the end of the 19th century it was still possible to see from that location the Antrim shore across Belfast Lough.
Its neighbour, Schomberg, most probably derived its name from the fact that the Williamite duke, having landed at Ballyholme Bay in August 1689, marched over Craigantlet and camped in those fields before moving on to Carrickfergus and eventually to his death at the Boyne the following year.
The muse for such residential names has often long since faded and must remain conjectural. Labarte may have adopted the name of St Helier's as a result of an association with the Channel Islands town.
Nostalgia and imagination, even humorous vanity, was often the prompt for naming a house. When Robert Furley (Roby) Davis arrived as senior classics master at Campbell College in 1902, he changed the name of his residence at Kincora from Penrith Villa to Rodven, an appellation which he took with him in 1920 when he moved to Wandsworth Road and changed the given name of that house from Springvale to his preferred Rodven.
While it remains purely guesswork, one suspects that the Latin scholar constructed the name from the affectation Roby Davis venit - Robert Davis came (here).
In the Knock district, Rudesheim (along the Rhine) may have conjured fond memories for the first resident and, as it is a unique geographical location, it is possible that the first occupant of Lythe Bank on King's Road may have originated from close to one of the steepest gradients in Britain (at Sandsend in North Yorkshire).
When the Knockdene estate at Knock junction was built at the close of the 19th century, the first resident of Astolat probably had a fondness for Arthurian legend. Brugh, for a long period the home of the artist JW Carey, however simply means mansion or large house.
A similar lack of imagination was devoted to the naming of the more expansive Ballyhackamore House, which once stood on the site of Strandtown police station.
As one source expressed it, "two fields distant", at the junction of the Holywood and Belmont Roads, stood Sydenham House and Seville Lodge, both owned by William Thomas Waterson, a solicitor.
If Waterson had named the latter because it offered an illusion of exotic Spain, it quickly developed a history which was as disturbing and Machiavellian as that country's Inquisition.
Around 1856, an Englishman, Thomas Scott, his sister Julia, her husband William Trousdale and his adult children all occupied Ballyhackamore House.
Scott, whose financial dealings exhibited unreliability, had already borrowed £500 from Waterson for an assignment on the mortgage of Ballyhackamore House.
In April 1857 the solicitor then rented Seville Lodge to the Trousdales, who moved in with all their possessions - and soon proceeded to ignore paying their rent.
By the following year it had become a complex and expensive legal process for Waterson to resolve the various issues, during which time he instructed bailiffs to remove the possessions of the Trousdales — who retaliated by threatening to sub-rent out Seville Lodge to a notorious Mrs Smith, “the keeper of a house of ill-fame” located at the improbable address of 3 Queen Street in the town centre.
Waterson’s professional partner was John Dinnen who, at that same time, was purchasing the Cabin Hill estate, adjacent to Belmont House. Cabin Hill was built in 1785 by United Irishman Sam McTier and his wife, Martha, who contemplated a number of bizarre names for their home — such as Medly-Cot, Mount Modicum, Entre Nous, Badinage and Competence — before eventually settling on the most sensible one.
Cabin Hill passed to her more celebrated brother, William Drennan, before Dinnen was to demolish the old Cabin Hill cottage and construct a modern dwelling which was acquired in 1902 by the McMordies who, in September 1910, briefly played host to the second richest man in the world, Andrew Carnegie. Cabin Hill has survived, but stands at that half-way stage between life and death, abandoned and dilapidated.
Another historically more significant residence at Belmont, only one mile distant and suffering the same fate, is Craigavon. Originally the family home of the Craigs, by 1913 it had become the centre of operations to resist the imposition of Home Rule and co-ordinate the activities of the incipient Ulster Volunteer Force, and was visited regularly by such as Sir Edward Carson and the gun-runner, Fred Crawford.
During the First World War, James Craig, later the first Prime Minster of Northern Ireland, offered it as a hospital and in recent years the house has suffered from a lack of finance and total neglect.
Many of the other substantial mansions in the area were built with the remarkable wealth pocketed from such as the engineering, linen and shipbuilding industries. Many of the working class were paid a pittance.
In September 1910, one commentator seeking reforms in the linen trade observed that “since he arrived in the city, he had seen on the hoardings an announcement that ‘the wages of sin is death’, but when he took up the papers, he saw that the wages of virtue were three-farthings per hour. He thought that was hardly a sufficient distinction”.
One of Sir William Ewart’s brothers rather disingenuously retorted that: “If there is in operation a rate of payment at which it is impossible for a worker to earn sufficient to live in comfort, such has only to be brought to light in order to be remedied.”
A number of these residences have long since given up the ghost, victims of evaporating fortunes and the need to accommodate an ever-expanding population. Clonallan, Norwood, Edgcumbe, Tweskard, Edenvale, Kin-Edar, Glenmachan and others — once glamorous and cherished homes, which once stood within a mile of each other in Strandtown and Belmont — now survive only among the record of street names.
Glenmachan, another Ewart residence, derives its name from Irish roots, as did Tweskard, which was Anglicised from “tuaisceart”, meaning “north”. Norwood Towers, the Henderson family home, probably obtained its name from English connections, as did Westbank on Palmerston Road, occupied by William Holmes Smiles, one of the founders of the Belfast Ropeworks.
Smiles adopted the name of his original London home in which he had been raised by his father, Sir Samuel Smiles, the author of the Victorian classic, Self Help. The elder Smiles was an admirer of Sir Edward Harland, whom he also visited in east Belfast. Before his move along the Belmont Road to Ormiston, the Yorkshire shipbuilder had lived at Edenvale, which was later the home of John Joseph Jaffe, one of four sons of Daniel Jaffe, who had arrived from Hamburg in 1851 to establish the most successful linen export business in Belfast. The eldest Jaffe brother, Martin, lived briefly at Magdala House (adjacent to Ballyhackamore House), a name which was probably inspired by his Jewish ancestry. Boasting 11 bedrooms, Magdala was seriously damaged in a storm in January 1875, which necessitated structural repair and re-decoration.
Martin sold it soon afterwards and the auction included exotic and expensive items, such as a piano from Vienna, Brussels carpets, Persian bedsteads and a refrigerator by Higgins of Cincinnati.
Another brother, Alfred, lived at Evelyn Lodge on Pim’s Avenue and the youngest of the quartet — future Belfast Lord Mayor Sir Otto Jaffe — initially lived at Canadian Villas on Park Avenue. He was to edge his way along Sydenham Avenue, via Laurel Lodge (adjacent to St Helier’s), in 1891 to Kin-Edar, a seven-acre estate developed by the side of Belmont Presbyterian Church.
Some have suggested that the name must have had some Hebrew significance, but in reality Kin-Edar was created by the previous occupants, the Hawkins family. Sir Otto was falsely betrayed during the First World War and felt obliged to leave the city in 1916.
Not one of the homes in east Belfast occupied by any of the Jaffe brothers has survived to the present day.
At the upper end of Belmont Road, some of these homes have managed to survive the vagaries of fortune. Ormiston, built in 1867 for James Combe, the owner of the Falls Foundry, took its name from Combe’s birthplace on the outskirts of Edinburgh. One of the neighbouring parishes in the Scottish capital is Dalkeith, which was also the name given to a large semi-detached home built around 1900 at the other end of the Hawthornden Road, but it is unclear why the occupant, school inspector Adam McElwaine, bestowed this name upon it.
Netherleigh, on Massey Avenue, was built in 1875 as the family home of the Robertson family, who opened Bank Buildings. It probably took its name from its location in relation to the Belmont estate, and may cast some light on the plumbing in many of these mansions as, when it was purchased by Campbell College in 1921, it was still using the cess pit for sanitation.
Both Netherleigh and Ormiston may owe their current survival to the fact that they were acquired in the 1920s as junior departments by Campbell College.
A number of the villas built in the 1860s in the Old Holywood Road area of Belmont were designed by Thomas Jackson, so much so that one commentator was to christen the locality “Jacksonville”.
The architect constructed Glenmachan as his personal home, but was made an offer he could not refuse by Sir William Ewart’s father. As a replacement for himself, in 1864 Jackson built Altona nearby in eight acres of land of which he eventually bought the freehold. It is probably unprovable, but there is the likelihood that it may originally have been intended for a member of the Jaffe family.
The nomenclature does not accord with any other in the locality and Altona is the Hamburg borough from which Daniel Jaffe arrived and where many of his offspring, including Otto, were born.
Two of Jackson’s daughters married into the prolific Greeves dynasty, which also flourished, among others, at Lismachan, Tweskard and Bernagh, and Altona has remained in the family’s hands ever since.
Whereas present-day Ulster society is riven by political and religious divisions, in late-19th and early-20th century Strandtown and Belmont, faith and denomination co-existed in reasonable harmony: Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist all boasted a church within a stone’s throw of each other at Knock. The Jaffe family was Jewish and Thomas Jackson and his relations were Quakers.
The principal social dichotomy was economic, but prosperity and a sprawling home did not always foster happiness. The father of Lily Greeves and her four brothers, Joseph Malcomson Greeves of Bernagh, was a strict member of the Plymouth Brethren, who made the life of his wife and children a misery.
His young neighbour, CS Lewis, characterised him as “severe in his dress and expression ... the face at once oppressed and oppressive ... a harsh husband and a despotic father”.
When James Combe died in 1875, his popularity was such that 600 of his workforce arrived to accompany his coffin, and when the later occupant of Ormiston, Viscount Pirrie, passed away in 1924, enormous crowds readily attended his funeral and accompanied his cortege.
When Greeves died the following year, the creator of Narnia implied that the turnout was to ensure that he had definitely passed on!
Keith Haines is the author of Knock, Knock, who was there — A brief history of Knock, Belmont & Strandtown and the people who lived there (Ballyhay Books)