The Dunville Family – Whiskey, charity, football and a Belfast Park

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The lives of the Dunville Family and their impact on Belfast

John Dunville – Early Life

Dunville Fountain
Dunville Park Fountain

John Dunville was born on 15th June 1785, the youngest child of William Dunville of Lurgan and Mary Agnes McNeilly of Carnmoney. At the age of 16 John joined the company of Napier & Co as an apprentice. This was a tea importing and whiskey blending business situated in Bank Lane, Belfast.

“Bank Lane was once a little country pathway, leading through fields and gardens, called ‘The Back of the River’, on account of the open river running down one side of it. This river ran beside Napier’s brewery, under the Bank Buildings, as it does today, and so into Castle Place”. (See our article on The Farset – Belfast’s Hidden River)

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out 1946

Dunville & Co Whiskey

John made a rapid rise through the firm and by 1808 was a company director and named partner. By 1825 John Dunville bought William Napier’s share of the business and Dunville & Co was established.

Belfast Commercial Chronicle 12 Oct 1808 - Napiler & Dunville Advert
Belfast Commercial Chronicle 12 Oct 1808 – Napiler & Dunville Advert

The Dunville Company moved to Calender Street and continued to operate as successful whiskey blenders. In 1837 its most popular whiskey, Dunville V.R. was produced. This was to celebrate Queen Victoria ascending the throne – Victoria Regina. The Dunville Three Crowns is another well-known spirit.

Belfast Street Directory 1892 - Dunville listing
Belfast Street Directory 1892 – Dunville listing

John Dunville Family Life

In 1811 John Dunville married Ann Douglas. The couple had four children William (1812-1874), John (1814-1841), Sarah (1817-1863) and Margaret (1819-1832). The family lived on the fashionable Donegall Square East.

John had became a prominent businessman and served as a town alderman. As the company flourished the Dunvilles moved to the impressive Richmond Lodge on the Holywood Road. This was a late Georgian style house built c.1798. It had a large front porch and octagonal bays at either side. The building sat in an estate of 24acres. John Dunville died here on 21st March 1851.

“Mr Dunville was one of the oldest and most respectable merchants of Belfast; a liberal supporter of local charities, and a consistent advocate of the principles professed by the Whig party here, of which he was a prominent leader”

Belfast Newsletter 24th March 1851

William Dunville

John’s only surviving son, William, took over the running of the thriving business. William was an enterprising businessman, a Justice of the Peace and an active member of the Liberal Party. In the 1860’s the tea importing side of the company ceased and all the focus was on whiskey production.

In 1869 William had his own distillery built next to Great Victoria Street Railway Station – The Royal Irish Distilleries. The situation allowed ready access to coal and grain and an easy distribution system for the finished product. This was a large red brick building of four stories dominated by a 160ft high chimney. It had 5 pot stills and was able to produce a million gallons of whiskey a year. The company also owned bonded warehouses in Adelaide Street, Alfred Street and Clarence Street as well as the main offices in Calender Street. The Dunville product was popular throughout Ireland and beyond. (It is interesting to note the Dunville brand spells its Whisky without the ‘e’).

On 24th November 1864 William Dunville married Anne Georgina Knox, daughter of the Venerable Edmond Dalrymple Hesketh Knox, Archdeacon of Killaloe. The marriage took place in the Parish of St Ann in Dublin. The family had one son and continued to live in Richmond Lodge.

The Sorella Trust

In 1873 William set up a charitable foundation – the Sorella Trust. He named this after his unmarried sister Sarah, ‘sorella’ is the Italian word for sister. Sarah died in 1863; she herself seems to have been involved in charitable works.

In her will as well as leaving money to family and friends, she bequeaths £100 to the Committee of the Ladies Industrial School in Frederick Street, £100 to the Unitarian Domestic Mission, £50 to the Belfast Destitute and Sick Society and £50 to the Belfast Clothing Society.

The purpose of the Trust was to build decent houses for the working classes in the Grosvenor Road area of Belfast. The Sorella Trust also funded scholarships for education. Queens University still awards two postgraduate Dunville Studentships each year, one in Engineering and Physical Sciences and one in Biological Sciences

William’s Death

William died on 18th June 1874 and his remains were placed in the Dunville Mausoleum in Clifton Street Cemetery. A plaque for William on the family vault reads

‘Tis he who scatters blessings round,

Adores his maker best,

His walk through life is mercy crowned,

His bed of death is blest

William Dunville tribute on the Dunville Family Vault in Clifton Street Cemetery

Robert Grimshaw Dunville

William was succeeded by his nephew Robert Grimshaw Dunville. Robert was the son of William’s deceased brother John and Mary Grimshaw. The Grimshaw family were wealthy cotton barons. Nicholas Grimshaw had established the first cotton mill in Ireland in 1784 at Whitehouse near Belfast. Under Robert’s control the Dunville business continued to flourish, increasing its output to 2.5millon gallons in 1890. Robert was also a Justice of the Peace, a Deputy Lieutenant of County Down and a High Sheriff of County Meath. He was a member of the Liberal Party and a founder member of the Reform Club, a prestigious business, social and dining club at 4 Royal Avenue. He also dabbled in poetry and was an amateur artist.

On 14th December Robert married Jeannie Chaine at the Parish Church of Ballwillan, Coleraine. Jeannie was the daughter of William Chaine of Moylena County Antrim. Their son John was born on 20th October 1866. Robert employed the top architectural firm of Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon to build him and his new wife a splendid house on the Holywood Road, 2 miles from Richmond Lodge. Redburn House was set on 170 acres of land with magnificent views over Belfast Lough. It had 70 rooms including a ballroom. In 1879 Robert added a walled courtyard and a stable block for 60 horses to the property. The family also had a home in Navan, County Meath called Sion House. Robert died at Redburn House on 17th August 1910, aged 72.

Provincial Directory - Dunville Residence
Provincial Directory – Dunville Residence

Distillery Football Club

To provide recreational activities, Dunville formed the V.R. Distillery Cricket Club in 1879. The following year, in order to continue exercise during the winter months, Distillery Football Club came into being. A waste pond to the rear of the distillery was filled in to form the Club’s first football ground. The team played and won its first match on 20th November 1880, beating Dundela 1-0. They won their first trophy, the Irish Cup, in 1884.

The Club with the support of the Dunville directors, especially James Barr, continued to have success. In 1932 their player Sam ‘Bull’ McAdam set a new club record for the most goals scored by one footballer, a total of 226 goals. Distillery won the Irish League in 1963. In the 1980’s the Club relocated to the New Grosvenor Stadium at Lambeg and is now known as Lisburn Distillery Football Club.

Dunville Park

In 1891 Robert Grimshaw Dunville donated 4 acres of land near the distillery to Belfast Corporation for a public park. This was for the benefit of his employees and locals in the overcrowded and cramped streets of this working class district. Dunville Park is situated on the corner of Grosvenor and Falls Roads. Robert also contributed £5,000 for the laying out of the park and £1,000 to Mr Musgrave for the railings. The centrepiece of the gardens is the fountain (now dry) designed by A E Pearce, costing £665 (also paid for by Robert Dunville). The fountain is in the French Renaissance style and is extremely ornate with intricately carved terracotta panels depicting aquatic life. The inscription on the fountain reads ‘This Park, formed and completed, was presented as a free gift to the City by Robert G Dunville, of Redburn, 1891’.

Dunville Fountain view
Dunville Fountain view

The Dunville Park was officially opened in 1892 by the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava. In his speech the Marquis stated:

“ ..the provision of such a park in an industrial area was symbolic of a new era when employers would think not only of the housing and sanitation of their workers but of their recreation as well”

Marquis of Dufferin 1892


John Dunville

In 1910 Robert’s son John Dunville became the fourth Chairman of the Dunville Distillery. Previously John, an alumnus of Trinity College Cambridge, had been a Lieutenant Colonel in the 5th Battalion of the Leinster Regiment. Subsequently he was Private Secretary to the Duke of Devonshire.

In 1911 John purchased the Scottish Bladnoch Distillery. However, with the outbreak of WW1 John Dunville joined the Royal Navy Air Services and the Bladnoch investment never met its full potential.

John Dunville Family Life

In 1892 John Dunville married Violet Anne Blanche Lambart, fifth daughter of Gustavus William Lambert of County Meath. The couple had four children Robert Lambert (1893-1931), John Spencer (1896-1917), William Gustavus (1900-1956) and Una (1903-1958). They lived in London at 46 Portland Place while spending the holidays at Redburn House.

John was fond of riding, angling, hunting and outdoor pursuits. Both John and Violet were passionate balloonists, the latest craze for the wealthy at the time. They took part in many races and competitions. Their first balloon was called ‘La Mascotte’ and was later replaced by the ‘Banshee’.

John passed away in June 1929 after a long illness, he is buried in Holywood, County Down.

Robert Lambart Dunville

The fifth Dunville Chairman was John and Violet’s eldest son Robert Lambert. However, Robert had suffered from ill-health after a shooting incident in 1916. He died at the age of 38 in January 1931. Robert had a keen interest in animals and zoology. He kept a private collection of animals in a walled enclosure at Redburn House. At his death these animals became the first exhibits at Belfast Zoological Gardens which opened in 1934.

See From Bellevue Pleasure Gardens to Belfast Zoo

The End of an Era – Dunvilles wound up

The Dunville Company was now left in the hands of the directors. Roberts’s younger brother John Spencer had died during the Great War at Epehy in June 1917. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Meanwhile the youngest, William Gustavus, had immigrated to Australia.

Without a Dunville guiding hand, the impetus to push the firm forward seems to have been lacking and in 1936 the business went into liquidation.

“If there is one distillery whose rise and demise parallels that of Irish distilling industry as a whole, it is the Royal Irish Distilleries….Whiskey writers still lament its passing and scratch their heads about how it could have been allowed to happen. While every distillery lost to Ireland is a cause for sorrow, the loss of the Royal Irish can rightly be called a tragedy”

Brian Townsend The Lost Distilleries of Ireland 1997
Belfast Newsletter 1 Jan 1937- Closure of Dunvilles
Belfast Newsletter 1 Jan 1937- Closure of Dunvilles

Dunville Park & nearby streets

Click to enlarge…

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McCall Humes · 24 May 2021 at 7:13 pm

Great post! I have come across the Dunville and Napier names several times in my research of the Batt family. Great to have more information on them. Thank you!

    P&P · 25 May 2021 at 6:42 pm

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