Thursday, 1 May 2014

Wheatfield House (1)

Originally the name Wheatfield was associated with a large house and estate and down through the years the residents included several prominent industrialists and a UVF officer who went on to serve in the 36th (Ulster) Division and was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  Later it became a Roman Catholic retreat and then it was demolished to make way for St Gabriel's Boys School.

The house has long gone, to be replaced by new housing developments, but the name survives in the names of a number of streets and in the name of Wheatfield Primary School.
When George Benn wrote The History of the Town of Belfast in 1823 he recorded the residents of two 'country seats' in the Ballysillan area and named the principal country residence as Wheatfield, the home of James Blair.  Pigot's Directory of 1824 also names the owner of Wheatfield as James Blair.

The reference to 'country seats' reminds us that Ballysillan was a rural area at that time and it remained so until the early 20th century.
Samuel Lewis produced a Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1837 and in it he listed 'the gentlemen's seats in the parish' which were 'most conspicuous for their elegance'.  They included 'Wheatfield, the residence of J Blair'. 

From these two early sources we see that Wheatfield was the home of James Blair, that it was described as a gentleman's country seat and that it was particularly elegant.  This was a 'large and beautifully situated dwelling house together with 26 acres of land'.

Blair was a wealthy man with a large estate and in 1837 he was able to provide a site for the building of Ballysillan Presbyterian Church.
In 1852 the Ewarts opened the Glenbank Bleachworks and they played a prominent role in the linen industry, both at Ligoniel and the Crumlin Road.  William Ewart senior lived at Glenbank, overlooking the bleach green, and his son William lived down at Wheatfield.  The Ewarts built up a linen empire and became the largest linen manufacturing company in the late nineteenth century industrial world.
The 1861 Belfast Street Directory included a 'village directory' and one of these was for 'Ardoyne, Ligoniel etc.'  This recorded William Ewart senior at Glenbank and William Ewart junior at Wheatfield.

This was a substantial estate and it was common for such estates to have a gate-lodge.  In 1876 a new gate-lodge was built at Wheatfield for E Blair.  This was designed by the Belfast architects Young & MacKenzie and replaced an earlier lodge that was still there in 1862.

The next part of the Wheatfield House story will follow in a second post.

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