A Metropolitan Air

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In his Irish Sketchbook of 1842, William Thackeray describes visiting a cotton mill in Belfast: ‘There are nearly five hundred girls employed in it. They work in huge long chambers, lighted by numbers of windows, hot with steam, buzzing and humming with hundreds and thousands of whirling wheels, that all take their motion from a steam-engine which lives apart in a hot cast-iron temple of its own, from which it communicates with the innumerable machines that the five hundred girls preside over. They have seemingly but to take away the work when done – the enormous monster in the cast-iron room does it all…I have seldom, I think, seen more good looks than amongst the young women employed in this place. They work for twelve hours daily, in rooms in which the heat is intolerable to a stranger; but in spite of it they looked gay, stout and healthy; nor were their forms much concealed by the very simple clothes they wear while in the mill.’ Thackeray came to Belfast with introductions from the Irish novelist Charles Lever who he had met in Dublin (and who the following year in a review of the Irish Sketchbook described it as ‘the pleasantest reading for a morning in the country, and the most amusing text of an evening’s conversation in town.’) Thus he was able to meet the owner of the cotton mill he visited, one of the era’s most successful entrepreneurs, Andrew Mulholland.

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Before the Beerage came into existence, there was the Linenocracy: a group of predominantly Ulster families who became exceedingly rich thanks to their involvement in the region’s linen industry. The Mulhollands were one such family, the origins of their rise traceable to Thomas Mulholland, described as a ‘dealer’ who in 1803 bought two houses on Belfast’s Upper Church Lane: the fact that he signed the contract for this transaction with an X is often taken as indicative of his illiteracy but this could be unfair. In any case, he must have possessed abundant shrewdness because in 1815 he and three of his sons entered an already-flourishing cotton industry by purchasing a mill. Five years later Thomas Mulholland died but the trio of siblings carried on the business, building a large spinning mill in the city near York Street. There was a set-back in June 1818 when this premises was almost completely destroyed by fire. Undaunted, the brothers set about rebuilding their property with one crucial difference: instead of cotton, it was now used for spinning flax. Not only was the former business beginning to experience economic problems, but a new method of flax spinning by machine had recently been developed in northern England without yet being subject to patent. Hence the Mulhollands were able to benefit from this technological advance. As indeed they did: when the York Street mill opened in 1830 it had 8,000 spindles, and by 1856 it had grown to 25,000 and was probably the largest such enterprise in the world. Also by that date it had entirely passed into the control of one brother, the aforementioned Andrew Mulholland and it was he who had shown Thackeray around the site. Where Mulholland led, other Belfast businessmen followed: by 1850 the city boasted 29 flax-spinning mills compared with only four premises spinning cotton. On the advent of the American Civil War in the early 1860s, which had the effect of almost cutting off the supply of raw cotton to Britain, linen became ever more important. In 1864, Andrew Mulholland & Son became a limited company, the York Street Flax Spinning Company Limited, its prospectus proclaiming the business possessed ‘the largest flax mill and linen factory in the North of Ireland, covering about four acres of land.’ With branches in Paris (opened 1870) New York (1871) London (1874) Berlin (1876) and Melbourne (1882) it soon became the largest firm of flax spinners, linen manufacturers and distributors in the world.

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One of Andrew Mulholland’s brothers, St Clair was a Justice of the Peace for County Down and High Sheriff of County Louth while Andrew was elected Mayor of Belfast in 1845. In his speech of thanks he undertook to ‘ameliorate the condition of the operatives,’ proposing the introduction of public gardens and washhouses, free libraries and coffee shops for workers which would promote ‘their health and cleanliness and give them better tastes.’ The onset of the terrible potato famine later that year put paid to such ideas, and instead Andrew Mulholland was a generous contributor to relief programmes. When better times returned to the country, he provided Belfast’s Ulster Hall with the grand organ still in situ. The donation was initially anonymous but once his identity became known, he explained the intention was ‘to give an opportunity to the working classes to hear from time to time the best music from a truly splendid instrument, at such a rate as would enable the humblest artisan to enjoy advantages which even the opulent could rarely purchase until now.’
Andrew Mulholland died in 1866 but before then the family business had passed into the hands of his only son John. He nurtured more overt political ambitions than had his father, serving as a Justice of the Peace for Antrim and Down, and as High Sheriff of Down in 1868 and of Tyrone in 1873. He stood as Conservative candidate for Belfast in 1868 but was beaten by the Orange populist William Johnston of Ballykilbeg. However John Mulholland was subsequently more successful, being elected MP for Downpatrick between 1874 and 1885. Three years before his death, on the recommendation of the outgoing Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury in 1892 he was created Baron Dunleath of Ballywalter.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that an affluent urban entrepreneur must be in want of a rural retreat. Thus Andrew Mulholland, having acquired great wealth through his early engagement with linen production, sought a spot to which he could retire and found a suitable estate on Ulster’s Ards Peninsula. Originally this was called Ballymagown and in 1729 had been acquired by the Matthews family from the Montgomerys of nearby Grey Abbey. Walter Harris’ Ancient and Present State of the County of Down (published 1744) refers to the property built there and now named Springvale, as being of two storeys over a semi-basement and containing a collection of curios gathered by George Matthews while a captain in the Royal Navy (including ‘several Figures of Mummies in divers kinds of Earth, in wood that is said never to decay…’). In 1805 a remodelling of the house was begun but remained incomplete before being abandoned seven years later: this was the building, together with surrounding estate, bought by Andrew Mulholland in 1846 for £23,500. He also acquired the adjoining Ballyatwood demesne, uniting the two of them with a replanting programme that ran to 41,000 trees and shrubs. The whole was now called Ballywalter Park, taking its name from an adjacent town founded in 1605.
Andrew Mulholland also turned his attention to the old Matthews house which over the next few years was encased inside a much larger structure (although traces of it survive in the basement), the greater part of the building being absorbed into a top-lit inner hall sixty feet long. In addition, the entrance was moved from south to east side, signalled by the presence of a porte-cochere with coupled Doric columns. Two single storey wings were added to either side of the main block and these have bows on the garden front the better to contemplate Ballywalter’s well-planted parkland. The eventual house’s appearance is sometimes described as emulating an Italian palazzo but more often and truthfully is said to look not unlike one of London’s smarter gentlemen’s clubs as designed by Sir Charles Barry. In a much-quoted observation, Professor Alistair Rowan has remarked that Ballywalter possesses ‘a metropolitan air and all the architectural trappings of a London club, dropped as if by chance in the open country of the north Irish coast.’

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Ballywalter Park was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon and the interior is one of his most accomplished pieces of work. As mentioned, the core of the building is its inner hall which rises to a gallery from which in turn springs a glazed roof, thereby filling the entire space with natural light: note how plain Doric columns and pilasters of the ground floor give way to the richer Corinthian order above so as to encourage the eye upwards. Also worthy of attention here and in the other main rooms are the deep and heavily ornamented cornice mouldings, and the beautiful parquet floors. The effect throughout is opulent yet by no means overwhelming: as Alistair Rowan commented the house exudes an air of ‘solid comfort.’
One advantage of the inner hall is that it gives direct access to a succession of reception rooms, moving from morning room to library to drawing room and from thence to dining room. Despite having certain decorative elements in common, each of them possesses a different and distinct character, and all of them has – like the space at its core – ample natural lighting: even the library where the pedimented mahogany bookcases were installed in 1866 is a singularly bright room: Ballywalter is entirely free of the oft-cited Victorian gloom. Although the main block was completed by 1852, in 1863 Lanyon returned to carry out further work, adding a billiard room onto the north-west corner of the garden front and, at right angles to this, a large domed conservatory which provides a spectacular conclusion to any tour of the house.

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Ballywalter Park epitomises mid-19th century splendour, but this has proven hard to maintain in subsequent eras. By the time the fourth Lord Dunleath inherited the property more than 100 years after its completion, there were no live-in staff, the house was suffering serious structural problems and its future looked uncertain. What saved the place was both a young owner’s determination to battle on, and a visit in 1961 by future Poet Laureate and life-long champion of Victoriana John Betjeman who urged the house’s preservation at all costs, since he recognised the then-rampant detestation of mid-19th century architecture was a merely a passing fashion in taste. Of course he was proven right, and luckily Ballywalter was not demolished or reduced in size: its survival has become even more precious since two other of Lanyon’s Ulster houses, Dundarave, County Antrim and Drenagh, County Derry, both of which have hitherto remained in the ownership of their original families, are now being offered for sale.
Meanwhile Ballywalter continues to benefit from ample care and attention to its welfare and future. Both inside the house and in the grounds, the sixth Lord Dunleath who succeeded in 1997 has together with his wife tirelessly continued the programme of refurbishment and restoration embarked upon by their predecessors, and as a result Ballywalter today looks better than was likely the case half a century or more ago. Displaying the old Mulholland entrepreneurial spirit, the Dunleaths have made the property available for a variety of events, not least film and television production (as a result of which it has appeared in an disconcerting assortment of guises) and yet the spirit of the place and its distinctive character have remained uncompromised, which is too rarely the case. Ballywalter survives as a tribute to the once-mighty Ulster linen industry and, equally important, as a very happy family home.

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For more information on this house, see: http://ballywalterpark.com (and while there don’t forget to look at Lady Dunleath’s stylish blog – http://ballywalterpark.com/category/walled-garden-blog – in which she displays her encyclopaedic knowledge of food).

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