Lost Mansions: Purdysburn

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Purdysburn Fever Hospital from D.J. Owen, History of Belfast, 1921
Purdysburn Fever Hospital from D.J. Owen, History of Belfast, 1921

For those of us of a ‘certain age’ the name Purdysburn evokes a feeling of dread. However, long before its association as a mental health facility and a fever hospital, Purdysburn was a very grand house and home to some of Belfast’s most influential families.

Situated on the lower slopes of the Castlereagh Hills in County Down, in the townland of Ballydollaghan and the parish of Drumbo, this was once a rural idyll. The river – Purdy’s Burn flowed from the hills into the Lagan, it was named after one John Purdy who owned a nearby mill at Ballycowan.

The site in the barony of Upper Castlereagh on the old road to Lisburn is first mentioned in the records in the 17th century. In 1607 the Scottish-born landowner Sir Hugh Montgomery, granted the area to George Sexton of Dublin.

James Willson and Purdysburn

We know there was a fine house called Purdysburn situated here since at least from the 18th century. It was occupied by the Willson (Wilson) family. In 1712 James Willson, a prosperous merchant with interests in Belfast and Carrickfergus had a property built on the land. He was the local Justice of the Peace and invested his money buying up large tracts of land in County Down.

“James Willson lived the life of a country gentleman, filling the offices expected of the squireen of his time”

Belfast Telegraph, 31st December 1919

James married Armanella MacMullan of Drumbeg. Armanella was said to be a relative of James Haddock’s wife (see James Haddock- The Ghost who gave evidence in court).

In 1707 their son Hill Willson was born. It is thought he was named after their neighbour at Belvoir, Arthur Hill, first Viscount Dungannon. James Willson died a year after his wife in 1741, aged 68. He is interred in Drum churchyard.

Home Improvements

On succeeding to the property in 1741, Hill Willson and his wife, Miss Lutwidge, continued remodelling the house and gardens started in the 1730’s. The main formal gardens to the east side of the house were laid out between 1735-1745.

The geometric design enclosed within red-brick walls were typical of the times.  The parallelogram shaped garden measured 115 by 100metres with paths radiating from a central point. The official name for the design is ‘patte d’oie’ meaning ‘goose foot’. These paths were edged with yew hedges and were meant to direct walkers to different focal points within the garden. That it was a residence of some substance with ornamental gardens is indicated by a notice in the Belfast Newsletter

Purdysburn Statue Theft - Belfast Newsletter 19 July 1773
Purdysburn Statue Theft – Belfast Newsletter 19 July 1773

“Stolen out of Purdysburn garden on the night of the 16th July instant, the figure of Hercules, with his club of lead, which stood on a freestone pedestal. Whoever discovers the thief and prosecutes to conviction within three months from the date hereof will be paid a reward of five guineas”

Belfast Newsletter 19th July 1773

Hill Willson

Hill continued in his father’s footsteps and played a leading civic role in the growing town. He held the important post of Collector for the Port of Belfast and was mayor of Carrickfergus in 1758.

He had a family of five children – James, Hill, Annabella, Elizabeth and Eleanor. Hill Willson died on 9th July 1773, in his 66th year. Purdysburn was inherited by his second son, also named Hill.

 “He was interred on Sunday morning in his family burying place at the Drum. The amazing concourse of people that attended his funeral and the real concern shown on that occasion are the best panygrick to his memory”

From the obituary of Hill Willson Belfast Newsletter 12th July 1773
Obituary of Hill Willson - Belfast Newsletter 12 July 1773
Obituary of Hill Willson – Belfast Newsletter 12 July 1773

Hill Willson Junior

Hill junior, appears to have been uninterested in his rural family home, preferring to lodge at the Donegall Arms Hotel in the centre of Belfast.

One story that is told of him is, that on losing some gold from his breeches pocket, he decided to keep a loaded pistol by his bedside. In the dead of night when his hotel room door slowly opened, he shot at a shadowy figure. The would-be burglar managed to escape. However, he was later apprehended in Newtownards when he sought out a local blacksmith to remove a pistol ball from his leg.

End of an Era

In 1785 the furniture and contents of Purdysburn House were sold at public auction. The building itself was rented to the Rev William Dickson, Bishop of Down and Connor.

After the 1798 Rebellion, the bishop relocated to accommodation in the Bank Buildings at Castle Place. Although advertised for sale in 1799, Purdysburn remained vacant until the early 19th century.

Narcissus Batt

The house was purchased in 1811 by Narcissus Batt, a well-known wine-importer and banker from Belfast. In the 1820’s the house was renovated and extended by London architect Thomas Hopper.

While the work was ongoing Narcissus Batt bought and resided in Donegall House, the previous townhouse of Lord Donegall. The property on Belfast’s Donegall Place subsequently became the Royal Hotel.

The Batt family moved into their new sumptuous house in 1825 having added considerably to the estate by the purchase of surrounding lands.

Royal Hotel image Belfast 1870s
Royal Hotel image Belfast 1870s

Background of the Batts

The Batts originated from Cornwell in England. In the 17th century Samuel Batt, an officer in the Cromwellian army, acquired a large estate at New Ross in County Wexford.

His descendant Robert Batt (1728-83), a captain in the 18th Regiment married Hannah Hyde in 1765. She was the daughter of a wealthy linen draper, Samuel Hyde of Hydebank in County Antrim. The couple lived at 6 Donegall Place and were blessed with five sons, Narcissus, William, Samuel Hyde, Robert and Thomas. In 1779 the Batts moved back to County Wexford, to family lands at Osier Hill.

“A wealthy Belfast merchant, Samuel Hyde, had three attractive daughters, one of whom not only captivated a young officer, Captain Robert Batt, but won his affection for her father’s occupation as well, so he gave up soldiering and settled in Belfast about 1760”

Belfast Telegraph 31st December 1919

Wealth and Influence

Narcissus, the eldest born in 1767, succeeded his father in 1783. His first name was a traditional Batt family name. An enterprising businessman he also inherited the family firm, one of the largest in Belfast. In addition, he held major interests in local textile, rope, salt and sugar manufacturing industries in the town.

In 1783 he was the youngest of the founding members of Belfast’s Chamber of Commerce and in 1816 he was chairman of the Belfast Harbour Corporation. He was also appointed High Sheriff of Belfast in 1835.

In 1808 Batt went into partnership with John Holmes Houston, Hugh Crawford and David Gordon to establish the banking firm Gordon & Company. Their premises were in a private house at the corner of Donegall Place and Callender Street opposite the White Linen Hall (now the City Hall). This became known as the Belfast Bank and was very influential in the developing commercial life of the town.

“…it became known as ‘The Belfast Bank’ and played a major part in replacing specie with banknotes in Ulster, contributing greatly to the expansion of the province’s commerce and industry”

James Quinn, Dictionary of Irish Biography
Belfast Banking Company, Belfast Newsletter

The Belfast Bank

In 1824 the establishment became Batt & Company when Narcissus became senior partner. He remained on the board of superintendence when the company merged with the Belfast Commercial Bank three years later. This joint-stock Belfast Banking Company was situated at the corner of Donegall Street and Waring Street.

Purdysburn House - Belfast Telegraph 31 December 1919
Purdysburn House – Belfast Telegraph 31 December 1919

The New Purdysburn House

The new Purdysburn House was built in a Tudor-Gothic fashion. It was quite severe in style but adorned with tall towers topped with cupolas.

“The new building was a rather awkward stucco-faced gable-ended double pile house comprising a six bay, three storey block with arrays of transomed and mullioned windows, label mouldings, string coursing, plain parapets and an army of chimney stacks. Towers with slender octagonal turrets with onion-shaped pinnacles and decorative parapets, accentuated the western and northern faces of the building, that on the north end taking the form of a canted bay”

Terence Reeves-Smyth and Philip Smith, NI Heritage Gardens Trust 2015

The Gardens

At this time the gardens were also revised. A stone summer house was added, complete with Gothic style windows, built to resemble a mediaeval tower-house.

New gates and lodges were erected with more naturalistic planting.

Three miniature lakes were constructed as well as Tudoresque-style houses for estate workers at the southern edge of the demesne.

In the late 1830’s the formal garden was modified to incorporate a long pond in the centre with seats facing the water.

“A lovely demesne, with bosky glens, in the depth of which grow great laurels and rhododendrons, and from the sides of which rise patriarchal trees, in the tops of which rooks have cawed, and around the roots of which the wood-anemones have bloomed for a couple of hundred years. A place whose wild charm is partly due to bounteous nature, partly to the labours of many generations of gardeners, partly due to the gentle undulations of bonny County Down”

Northern Whig, 9th May 1906
Purdys Burn House
Purdys Burn House

The Batt Family

Narcissus married Margaret Gregg in 1793. Her father Thomas Gregg, was also an ambitious and prosperous Belfast entrepreneur. The pair had four children, two boys Robert (1795-1864) and Thomas Gregg (1805-1861) and two daughters Elizabeth (born c 1802-1854) and Mary.

The Batt family were among the elite of Belfast’s mercantile class. They had intermarried into the town’s ‘bourgeoisie’ including the Greggs and the Waddell Cunningham families.

They were also the mainstays of the cultural and social life of ‘high society’. Narcissus was a member of the Belfast Harp Society. He was considered a moderate liberal in politics, favouring Catholic emancipation but on a gradual basis. He was one of the original committee members formed in 1813 for the establishment of St George’s Church in High Street.


 In his later years Narcissus was renowned for his philanthropy, giving generously to charitable causes.

He paid for a primary school to be built at Clontifleece near Warrenpoint in County Down.

In 1823 Narcissus established a small school in the village of Purdysburn, situated in the townland of Ballycowan. The village consisted of 120 Protestants and 5 Catholics. Mrs Batt, in the same year, set up a girl’s school on the road from Belfast to Lisburn. This was attended by 71 Protestant females each paying 2d ha’penny per week.

The Death of Narcissus Batt

Purdysburn House at this time was the scene of many lavish social gatherings.

It was at one of these events that Batt fell over a banister on 27th January 1840.

He died from his injuries on 1st February 1840 aged 73. Narcissus Batt is buried in the family mausoleum in Drumbo Parish churchyard.

Batt’s Children

The eldest son Robert Batt inherited all. He married Charlotte Woods of Upton, Cheshire, in 1841 and had a family of four girls and one boy Robert Narcissus. 

We know that at least two of his daughters married military men. Emily Charlotte married John Lewis Way (or Day?) on 23rd November 1876. He was a Commander in the Royal Navy. While Margaret Sarah Batt wed Thomas Simpson, a Major in the 88th Regiment, on 4th September 1879. The other daughters were Mary Jane and Geraldine Elizabeth.

Robert was High Sheriff in 1846 and Deputy Lieutenant of County Down in 1852. He also served as a magistrate in 1852 and again in 1862. He continued the family tradition of philanthropy and in 1850 donated land for the building of Ballymaghery Catholic Church.

Robert passed away on 27th July 1864 leaving the estate to his only son.

At the Races

Robert Narcissus the new incumbent of Purdysburn was a keen sportsman. He set up a stud for racehorses in the parkland and a club for greyhound racing. Two of his most famous horses were Thorn and Bersaglier.

“The last who resides there [Robert] Narcissus, was much given to sport and racing, his horse Thorn being rather celebrated”

Belfast Telegraph 31st December 1919

At this time Purdysburn estate was the location of racing and hare coursing events with folk travelling for miles to attend the meets.

“Many a jolly noisy crowd have I seen in the demesne, many a good ‘buckle’ have I watched up the hill, when long Tom Robertson let go a pair of flyers to a racing hare. A few years ago it was the scene of the best meeting in Ulster. Great men in the English and Scottish coursing world used to come here”

Northern Whig 9th May 1906
Purdysburn Meet - Northern Whig 19 November 1890
Purdysburn Meet – Northern Whig 19 November 1890

The Batt Ownership Ends

Robert married Marion Emily Walker, a daughter of Sir Edward Walker of Berry Hill, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, and two daughters were born – Eveleen May known as Eva on 3rd May 1867 and Nella Lilian known as Lilian on 8th December 1872.

Robert Narcissus Batt died at the age of 47 from a cerebral haemorrhage, on 20th November 1891. His brother-in-law Frederick Adam Walker was present at his passing. 

Robert’s wife Marion, was to die a few months later on 7th February 1892 aged 44. Frederick was present at his sister’s death also; he gave his address as the Carlton Club London.

Robert left an estate of £21,152 7s 10d. The “Mansion House and Demesne of Purdysburn, with the Offices, Gardens, Shrubberies and pleasure grounds” were left to his wife Marion for the duration of her natural life (so long as she did not remarry). Subsequently they were to be divided equally between his two daughters. If neither daughter had issue Purdysburn would pass to the eldest son of his sister Emily Way. If he also died without leaving descendants then Purdysburn was to be granted to the Trustees of the General Hospital of the City of Belfast.

 However, neither Eva nor Lilian wished to reside at Purdysburn and in 1894 Purdysburn House and its lands were sold to Belfast Corporation for the sum of £24,500. So ended the Batt family connections in County Down.

“It is the home (Purdysburn) of many generations of Batts, whose favourite patronymic was Narcissus, and who figured large in local history when Belfast was developing from the fishing village status into the potential centre of commercial enterprise and energy in Ulster”

Northern Whig 9th May 1906
Belfast and its Lunatics - Northern Whig 16 May 1906
Belfast and its Lunatics – Northern Whig 16 May 1906

Purdysburn – A Hospital for the “Lunatic Poor”

The site comprised 295 acres. It was decided that it should be converted into a hospital for the “lunatic poor” superseding the existing County Antrim Asylum on the Grosvenor Road (now the Royal Victoria Hospital). Its location isolated from ‘residential quarters’ seemed ideal.

The facility was planned to the most modern concepts of the day on the principles of a ‘Villa Colony’. The designs were the work of George T Hine, consulting architect to the English Lunacy Commissioners. The project was carried out by Belfast architectural firm Tulloch & Fitzsimmons of 77 Victoria Street at a cost of £100,000.

Each villa had its own cook and kitchen and the residents dined together to create a family atmosphere. Modern bathrooms and sanitary facilities were installed. The walls were painted in pastel hues with decorative stencils and the cork floors covered with cosy rugs. The furnishings were “emphatically non-institutional”. The patients were encouraged to partake in activities like music and reading and useful employment such as housework, gardening and helping in the laundry and dairy.

The pleasant surroundings and less harsh regime of earlier times was much lauded.

“What a contrast to the Grosvenor Road institution or the old lunatic wards of the Workhouse! What splendid light. Instead of the small gaol-like openings, we have here broad sashed windows on every side which impart quite a conservatory aspect to the building, and through which the sun strikes into the interior during the whole of his daily course, unimpeded by bar or grating”

Northern Whig 16th May 1906
Infectious Diseases Administration Block - 2 August 1906
Infectious Diseases Administration Block – 2 August 1906

The Infectious Diseases Hospital

Also, within the grounds nearest to the Lagan a new Infectious Diseases Hospital was erected, known as Purdysburn Fever Hospital. It was said that this land was once the site of an ancient fort.

(For those interested in tracing their family tree – sometimes, when a death cannot be found in Belfast, it is worthwhile checking under the Lisburn location, in case the person was one of the many who died in the Fever Hospital).

Purdysburn Death
Purdysburn Death

The Infectious Diseases medical facility was constructed to designs produced by the architects Young and Mackenzie. The hospital consisted of several separate buildings known as pavilions.

Purdysburn Fever Hospital from D.J. Owen, History of Belfast, 1921
Purdysburn Fever Hospital from D.J. Owen, History of Belfast, 1921

“The hospital pavilion-based design was at the leading edge of healthcare design at the time. Around the main block were pavilions arranged axially north and south: one for diphtheria and enteric cases (relating to intestinal illness caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites); two for scarlet fever; and one for observation”

Paul Harron, Young and Mackenzie, 2016
Infectious Diseases Hospital Plan - Belfast Telegraph 2 August 1906
Infectious Diseases Hospital Plan – Belfast Telegraph 2 August 1906

Each building had large windows and its own sanitary facilities. There was also an administration block, disinfecting house, laundry, engine and boiler house, stables and a mortuary.

The pavilions themselves were plain but the main building featured a Dutch gable with a cupola on the roof ridge. The building firm contracted for the work was Robert Corry Ltd while the decorative stonework was carried out by the firm of Winter and Thompson. 

The complex was completed for £75,000. It was officially opened in August 1906. This was Belfast’s first Municipal Hospital. The hospital was extended in 1911-1914 due to the recurrence of severe epidemics in the city. It was later renamed Belvoir Park Hospital.  The hospital operated for one hundred years, until 2006.

Purdysburn Demolition

In August 1965 Purdysburn House was demolished the site reused as a Young Offenders Centre. The gardens remained and if you click on Google Earth the layout can still be seen. Sometimes a name is just a name but most of the time the story behind it is fascinating!

Purdysburn Site on Google Earth
Purdysburn Site on Google Earth

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