On 13 December 2018 a large audience met in the café of the North Down Museum for the final Bangor Historical Society meeting of 2018. The speaker was Roger Dixon of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. He gave an excellent lecture on great houses of the Belfast area.

He began with a general outline of the topic. Most of these houses belonged to business families, not aristocrats. They had park land around them rather than the large estates with agricultural land which would normally be found in England. There were a number of reasons for this, including cultural differences. Businessmen often did not care for the aristocracy: they did not like the latters’ lack of respect for God and for money.

Mr Dixon then turned his attention to particular families. Almost all of the land in Belfast and its vicinity was in the hands of three families, descended from military commanders who had come to Ireland in the early seventeenth century: the Chichesters, Marquesses of Donegall, the Seymour-Conways, Marquesses of Hertford and the Hills, Marquesses of Downshire.

The Chichesters held 90,000 acres, one of the largest estates in the United Kingdom: all of Belfast, half of Carrickfergus together with land in Donegall. They built four country houses in Northern Ireland and one in England. The first of these was the old Belfast Castle, a very large Jacobean house which stood at Castle Junction in Belfast. No trace of it remains. It was burnt in a fire in 1708 in which the three daughters of Lord Donegall were killed. The house was never rebuilt. The family’s next house was Joymount in Carrickfergus. By the 1740s they no longer lived there as they were absentee landlords. Another reason was Carrickfergus’s failure to elect the man Lord Donegall wanted as MP for the borough.

The third family house was the splendid Fisherwick Place in Staffordshire, on which the Marquess spent a fortune. Indeed the family had one of the greatest fortunes in the United Kingdom. The 2nd Marquis, however, got through all his fortune by the end of his life, mainly by gambling. He was even imprisoned for debt. In jail he met Sir Edward May, who had been put out of the army for immorality and gambling. He was a card shark. He lent money to heirs at high interest rates, on the assumption that they would inherit the family fortunes. He promised to sort out the Marquess’s problems on condition that he would marry May’s illegitimate daughter. The marriage horrified the Donegall family, but turned out to be very happy. Donegall persuaded the family trustees to sell some of the family land. He raised £200, 000 to pay off his debts, but spent the money on such things as racehorses and yachts. He also built Ormeau House, another of the family’s homes. He had discovered that as a member of the House of Lords he could not be imprisoned for debt

His eldest son wanted to marry the Earl of Shaftesbury’s daughter, but a week before the wedding Lord Shaftesbury received an anonymous letter saying that the groom to be was illegitimate. It turned out that the 2nd Marquess’s marriage was not properly carried out. Although the matter was sorted out the marriage of the son did not go ahead and the 3rd Marquess married another lady. His only son died in Italy on the grand tour and the estates were inherited by his daughter and her husband’ another Earl of Shaftesbury. They built Belfast Castle in 1870, the last of the family houses in Belfast..

Mr Dixon then turned to the Seymour-Conways. The head of the family, the Marquess of Hertford was the richest man in Ireland. He owned land in Co. Antrim and the Lagan Valley, but he rarely visited it. The Marquesses were experts at marrying heiresses. The third Marquess, a politician, married Maria Fagnani, the daughter of a singer and dancer, and of the Duke of Queensferry, who left her his fortune. She moved to Paris while her husband pursued his political career in London. They had three children. He never came to Ulster, but used agents to look after his property there. Lord Steyne in W.M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair was based on him. His son the fourth Marquis spent only five weeks in Ulster, and instead spent most of his time in Paris. He built up a great art collection. He had no legitimate son and so left his fortune and his art collection to his illegitimate son, Richard Wallace. The latter came to Ulster and built a house in Lisburn, but then returned to Paris. He left the art collection to the nation and it is now housed in the Wallace Collection in London.