The Abbey at Whiteabbey – Another Lost Mansion?
Introduction – The White Abbey
This grand mansion known as “the Abbey”, was built in 1850. It is situated near the little coastal village of Whiteabbey in County Antrim just 5 miles north of Belfast.
Whiteabbey village was itself named after an ancient Cistercian monastery which stood on the site in 1215 AD
“The only ruin of importance, as an ecclesiastical edifice, in the immediate vicinity of Belfast parish, is called White Abbey. It is beautifully situated near the foot of Carnmoney mountain, and not far from the sea”George Benn, History of the Town of Belfast, 1823
Description of the ‘White Abbey’
The White Abbey was described as 38ft long and around 20ft wide. The walls were 4ft thick and contained lancet windows. Numerous antiquities including silver coins, a font, a quern and carved stones have been uncovered here, as well as a large number of human bones.
“Little is known of the monastery which once stood in the grounds of the Abbey lands. It is thought to have been founded about the year 1200 and it may have belonged to the Hospitallers or Knights of St John….From the fact that stone-lined graves have been found on the site it seems certain that the Normans built on the ruins of an early Keltic Church”Rev H J St J Clarke, Thirty Centuries in South-East Antrim, 1938
The Abbey of William Getty
Prior to the construction of the current Abbey Mansion, another smaller house, also named the Abbey, was situated on the estate. Described as a ‘gentleman’s cottage’, it was the home of William Getty Esq.
Mr Getty was said to have in his possession several bronze ornaments, including a crucifix, found on the site of the ancient monastic building. His residence although a ‘cottage’ sounds quite impressive.
“Abbey, is a spacious and handsome residence, possessing much taste in its style of construction and presenting a handsomely ornamental and stone-finished front. It sits in a handsome lawn of about 10 acres, which is well laid out and planted”Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1838-39
However, some 15 years after this observation, this property was gone and the current Abbey built.
Richard Davison’s 1850 AD Mansion
The current two-storey house was designed in Italianate stucco by the renowned architect Charles Lanyon. It was built for Richard Davison, the Conservative MP for Belfast. It was the fashion for the gentry and their families to reside away from the town itself and maintain country residences. These provided larger accommodation, fresh air and were generally an easy commute to town for business or pleasure.
“There are many beautiful villas in the vicinity. Indeed, almost the whole intermediate space between this (Whiteabbey) and Belfast is occupied by a succession of mansions, with their plantations, lawns and gardens”William McComb, A Guide to Belfast, 1861
The Abbey was an imposing block-shaped building. The main entrance was flanked with pillars and topped with a stone balustrade balcony. The upper windows were arched while those on the ground level were rectangular.
The home contained four large reception rooms and a dining room measuring 36ft by 22ft. There were two spacious halls and a billiards room. The upper floor consisted of 16 bedrooms plus dressing rooms. There was also a servants and butler’s pantry and accommodation.
Outside was a stable yard, 4 stables for horses, a harness room, coach house and the groom’s residence. There were also laundry facilities and two porters’ lodges. There were extensive well-manicured lawns with fruit, flower and vegetable gardens.
In 1862 when the Abbey was put up for sale, it was purchased by Charles Lanyon himself.
Charles had been born in Eastbourne, Sussex on 6th January 1813. His father John Jenkinson Lanyon was a purser in the Royal Navy and his mother was Catherine Anne Mortimer. However, in the early 1830’s Lanyon moved to Dublin to work as a civil engineer.
In 1835 he was appointed Surveyor of County Antrim and was in charge of supervising the construction of the Antrim Coast Road.
By the 1840’s Lanyon had achieved success and recognition as an architect. He opened business premises on Belfast’s prestigious Wellington Place. In 1854 he went into partnership with William Henry Lynn, his former apprentice and draughtsman. The business subsequently became Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon when Charles’s son John joined the firm. The company dissolved in 1872.
Among Lanyon’s most notable works are Queen’s University (1849), Ulster Institute for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind (1845), the Palm House, Botanic Gardens (1840), Crumlin Road Courthouse and Gaol [1848-50] and Belfast Customs House .
Lanyon was also an important figure in political and academic circles. In 1862 he was Lord Mayor of Belfast, and in 1866 and 1868 the Conservative MP for the city.
He served as Harbour Commissioner from 1862 till 1866 and town councillor till 1871. He was Deputy Lieutenant of Antrim and High Sheriff of Antrim in 1876. In recognition of his services, he was knighted in 1868.
Outside of politics Charles Lanyon served on the Select Committee on Scientific Instruction and was President of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (1867). He was also a director of the Blackstaff Flax Spinning Company and the Northern Counties Railway. He was an active and prominent Freemason.
On 2nd February 1835 Charles married Elizabeth Helen Owen from Portsmouth. She was the daughter of his tutor Jacob Owen. The couple had a large family of 10 children (unfortunately we have only been able to find details on 8 children). Catherine Anne (1837), John Mortimer (1839), Charles (1840), William Owen (1842), Louis Mortimer (1846), Mary Owen (1849), Herbert Owen (1850) and Florence Louisa (1858).
Lanyon’s wife, Elizabeth Lanyon, died on 8th July 1858. Sir Charles Lanyon died at his Abbey home aged 76 on 31st May 1889. He had been suffering from heart disease. He is buried at Knockbreda cemetery. In his will he left the enormous sum of £53,785 1s and 3d.
The Abbey after Lanyon’s Death
Following Lanyon’s death, the house was sold at auction by Messrs R & J McConnell and Co. of 37 Royal Ave. The Abbey itself was Lot 6, but Lanyon also owned several residential and commercial properties in Belfast and land at Carnmoney. The sale began at noon and everything had been sold within 2 hours.
Plans for a Pleasure Resort
However, the grand house lay empty and neglected until 1897. It was then bought by the Granville Hotel Company. This firm planned to convert the Abbey into an exclusive hotel and private sanitorium for people suffering from respiratory illnesses in particular tuberculosis. However, the plans for a ‘hydropathic institution and pleasure resort’ were never realised.
The Abbey – Workhouse Hospital / Sanitorium
In 1904 the Abbey was purchased by the Belfast Union as an auxiliary Workhouse hospital. The site amounted to 30 acres and cost £5,000.
The Workhouse was cramped and over-crowded but it was felt the pure sea air would be beneficial to tuberculosis patients. This was Ireland’s first Sanitorium for the poor.
The Impact of Tuberculosis
In the 19th and early 20th centuries tuberculosis was a major health concern in Ireland. This air-borne, highly infectious bacteria attacked the lungs and spread quickly and easily in overcrowded, unsanitary city conditions.
Statistics show that, from 1861 to 1870, 220 females and 217 males died from pulmonary TB for every 100,000 people. This was a much higher rate than England, Scotland and Wales.
“The growth of urbanisation most marked in the industrialising north-east, this is where the rise in TB first took place. Rates of death from the disease were higher in Belfast and the north-east than anywhere else in Ireland in the last part of the nineteenth century.Greta Jones Tuberculosis in 19th and 20th Century Belfast Ulster University
Working conditions, especially in the mills, were a breeding ground for tuberculosis. There was no known cure for the illness and the best treatment was believed to be fresh clean air and hygienic surroundings. Very few of Belfast’s working-class inhabitants enjoyed such luxuries.
It was not until the late 1940’s that TB was seen as anything but a death sentence.
Conversion of the Abbey
The main house, the Abbey, was converted into an administration block with accommodation for medical staff.
A two-storey hospital building was constructed designed by Young and Mackenzie. It was named McCaughey House. In addition, there were 4 single-storey pavilions built for patients. Each pavilion had a central living room measuring 31ft by 22ft, with 2 adjoining wards. A glass veranda ran the length of the buildings. The total cost for the hospital, furnishings and equipment came to £30,000.
Belfast Union Sanitorium
On 19th September 1907 the hospital, known as the Belfast Union Sanitorium was opened. In that year it cared for 311 patients. The first doctor in charge was Robert Hall, who had for years been advocating for a specialised tuberculosis unit.
“The Guardians are to be congratulated on their choice of a site, and a visitor to the sanatorium is at once impressed not only with the splendid position it occupies but also with its surroundings. The grounds are beautifully laid out, and everything possible has been done to brighten the lives of those who have contracted a terrible malady and who are unable to help themselves”Belfast Newsletter 20th September 1907
In 1911 Belfast-born, Robert Morgan is recorded as physician with Elizabeth Woods aged 37 as Superintendent Nurse. There were 25 nurses employed who came from all over Ireland including Counties Sligo, Tyrone, Roscommon and Mayo. Sarah Jane Johnstone and Martha Parker were the cooks.
Sanitorium records reveal that patients were only identified by their initials as their names were viewed as sensitive information. Their age, sex, place of birth and literacy are listed with previous occupations. Occupations were mainly manual jobs such a labourer, weavers, shoemakers, platers, iron workers and cabinet makers. There was also a small number of children in the hospital. As this was a Workhouse hospital, patients are recorded as paupers.
Over the years the hospital was extended as was its range of services and treatments. In 1947 it was renamed Whiteabbey Hospital.
The Abbey Today
The Whiteabbey hospital continues to function but unfortunately, the Abbey itself has been left empty and has fallen into serious disrepair.
The Fate of the Abbey
It is a sad sight to see this grand building unused and uncared for. Many of the ornamental garden features can still be discerned within the grounds.
The history contained within these walls should surely not be forgotten. The Abbey has undergone several major transformations in its existence, surely now another purpose should be considered for this grand mansion?
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