Painting The Town (Red): Socialising In Belmont Circa.1900
At The Start Of The Twentieth Century, The Residents Of Belmont And Knock....
At the start of the twentieth century, the residents of Belmont and Knock, as did all communities, had to provide their own leisure and entertainment - and could well afford to do so. Despite the distances involved, many of them travelled regularly to the continent. Richard Grimshaw Dunville and his sister, Annie (who for a number of years lived close to the Villa Borghese in Rome), occupants of Redburn, on the back of considerable sales of family company whisky, travelled regularly in the 1860s to Pau in the south of France where, if you had to ask the price of something, you could not afford it. Perhaps out of gratitude, in 1891 the Dunvilles provided a public park for the leisure and entertainment of the poorer, working class elements of Belfast.
Sir Otto Jaffé of Kin-Edar on Sydenham Avenue (father of William, OC 98), who publicly admitted that his commercial profits enabled him to give his time to public service, travelled annually with his wife to visit their families in Hamburg, Munich, Braunschweig and elsewhere. In 1914 he managed to return from the continent on the day war was being declared; two years later, when he had become a pariah and felt obliged to leave Belfast, he may have wished he had not succeeded.
Jaffé lived next door to Revd Dr John MacDermott (father of OCs 615, 616 and 976), long-serving minister at Belmont Presbyterian Church, who entertained Campbellian boarders weekly with hour long sermons. Lacking the resources of his affluent parishioners, the clergyman - along with a multitude others - relaxed with visits to the seaside. Once taking a swim in the harbour at Ballycastle, MacDermott - an ardent and vociferous anti-Home Ruler – got into difficulties, and had to be rescued by a local figure on the quayside. This was (later Sir) Roger Casement, executed in 1916 for anti-imperial activities which would have appalled MacDermott, but the latter’s son (Clarke, OC 976) later recorded that his father seemed to retain a soft spot for the traitor. The coast presented fewer moral dilemmas to most other families, who simply paid visits their seaside cottages, such as the Moores (OCs 879 and 978) at Donaghadee.
Across the road from MacDermott and Jaffé at Penrhyn (now the Strathearn junior school) lived James Armstrong Thompson (father of OC 503), who made a very decent living from handkerchief sales, which brought much social cachet and facilitated invitations to all important occasions, inevitably covered by an obsequious press. A daughter of the Thompsons, Muriel, married at her local church, St Mark’s on the Holywood Road, in July 1915. Because she was the grand-daughter of the much-respected MP and businessman, Robert Thompson, and the guest list included the Lord Mayor, the occasion attracted large crowds, despite the fact that the family had endeavoured to keep it low-key out of respect for wartime circumstances. Nevertheless, weddings were important social events, and the dresses of the bride and others were described in the usual fawning detail by an unctuous press which noted that ‘In the foreground was the white gleaming figure of the bride, round which the light falling softly through the stained-glass window seemed to radiate’.
Social recognition was de rigueur in Belmont – even if it were imagined! One of the most well-known characters in the district was Campbell’s long-serving doctor, Richard Whytock Leslie, who lived at St Helier on the Belmont Road. Being very friendly with solicitor Albert Lewis at Little Lea on the Circular Road, he and his wife proved a source of amusement to Albert’s sons, Warren and CS ‘Jack’ Lewis (OC 1141). Their letters reveal a degree of contempt for the doctor, and ridicule for his wife. The Leslies produced five daughters, one of whom committed suicide by hanging in the family home in October 1914, but - although one of her daughters did marry into the family of Baron Rodney - after her final daughter had made a fairly ordinary local marriage, Mrs Leslie announced her satisfaction in many local drawing rooms that ‘All her girls were launched in Society’.
CS Lewis is the source of much information about the social life of the district, once regretting that he had to miss James Thompson’s banjo parties at Penrhyn. Between the latter and Little Lea lived Jack Calwell (OC 959, post-war guardian of Field Marshal Kesselring and later Black Rod at Stormont), whom the future creator of Narnia described as ‘the best diabolo player’ in the area as a child. Lewis’s correspondence also reveals playing bridge with Jane McNeill (daughter of the first headmaster of Campbell) and others on the Belmont Road, and at Schomberg with the Ewarts (including OCs 250 and 251, Robert and Charles), and taking part in charade parties at Glenmachan, the home of the senior Ewarts. In later years Lewis conceded that, whilst in Oxford, he missed the Belmont social circle, but when visited by Kelso, the Ewart daughter, she had bored him witless in a High Street restaurant!
Other local girls, however, offered more charisma. The Greeves family lived across the road from Little Lea at Bernagh. The linen industry made them a very wealthy family, but it brought them little familial cheer. The father, Joseph Greeves, was a strict member of the Plymouth Brethren, and pasted his severe and charmless ideology on to his wife and children. When he died in February 1925, the locality conventionally turned out for the funeral – although, it would appear, primarily to make sure he had actually passed away! Around 1907, Lewis recorded, when Greeves’s eldest son Thomas (OC 366) was on the cusp of an Irish international rugby career, all the children ‘were baptised in bathing suits by immersion in the Bernagh bathroom - in the presence of a gathering of the faithful Plymouth Brethren’.
William Greeves (OC 519) took comfort in chocolate when, in February 1918, he married heiress Marion Cadbury. Lewis was particularly scathing of another brother, John (OC 762), who was to run the Greeves’ business: ‘He is as perverted in heart as he is feeble in head. He has no natural goodness of feeling to supply his lack of any kind of principles, and no inherited tradition of decent behaviour to act as a curb on his selfishness’.
Lewis will have met the Greeves brood on numerous social occasions, but the sibling who greatly attracted his 18-year-old attention, was the boys’ sister, Lily – ten years older than himself. He maintained a 50-year friendship and correspondence with the youngest brother, Arthur (OC 929), and in one teenage letter in February 1917 he asked could she not be punished with the whip ‘to the general enjoyment of the operator and the great good of her soul … you must agree with me’, he asked of Arthur, ‘is she not perfect from head to heel and moreover the necessary part of her body - one of the most beautiful parts anyway - shaped with an intolerable grace?’
This may not have appealed to Lily, especially as she had married Charles Ewart (OC 251, described by Lewis as ‘always delicate’) in December 1915, moving into Schomberg early the following year. The captivated adolescent occasionally visited the house, and her charms evidently stayed with him; in a letter to his brother in late 1931, when ensconced as a Fellow of Magdalen College, commenting on events in Belmont, Lewis recalled Lily: ‘Zounds! - I'd like a few minutes at the bottom of her. No “thought infirm” would there “stain my cheek” - a firm hand rather would stain both hers’!
Arthur himself was very occasionally employed by the family business, but found the concept of working for a living utterly uncongenial. Despite rarely contributing anything to the company or to society, the wealth generated by the family meant that he enjoyed an indolent lifestyle – dying in 1966 with a bank balance of over £25,000.
At ease at the easel
Reflecting the incestuous character of Belmont, Joseph’s mistreated wife was a Gribbon by birth, whose family also made a comfortable living from selling handkerchiefs. The family structure reflected that of the Greeves, as three sons (OCs 1268, 1591 and 1592) pursued the preferred commercial career, but the eldest, Charles Edward Gribbon (OC 1085) - regarded by CS Lewis as ‘enormously clever and knows all things’ - proved less commercially orientated and more bohemian, and pursued a (relatively successful) career as an artist, spent primarily in the ateliers of the south of France. That’s Nice (and other centres)!
In addition to the aspirational Gribbon, there were a number of artists all resident in the Knock area at the start of the twentieth century. One of the more intriguing, but probably least talented was Godfrey Evans, the original Art master at Campbell (1894-1915). Rather mysteriously, he had been Principal of the Government School of Art in Plymouth at the start of the 1890s, which apparently had to close and then was very briefly employed at a newly-formed grammar school in the town before taking up the Campbell position a few months later. He does not appear to have left an oeuvre and to have been reliant upon giving private classes.
As a married man he lived out of the College at Knock but left no impression upon the district. During the preparation of the celebrated court case in Dublin in 1897, when the Headmaster of Campbell, James Adams McNeill, was sued by some of his staff, one of Evans’s colleagues, Andrew Boyd, revealed that the Englishman often asked boys if they had grown-up sisters and was in the habit of retailing salacious tales. His departure in 1915 was also conducted under the cloud of litigation.
Wives were integral to the local social scene, but Evans does not feature amongst the district’s social circle, which may be explained Boyd’s observation about Mrs Evans that ‘she has the appearance of a barmaid and the brains of a Dutch doll’. At the other end of the scale was Barbara Carey, wife of the respected artist, Joseph William (JW) Carey, whose door in Knockdene Park was always welcoming and was ever popular, hosting a multitude of famous figures; an obituary described her as ‘endowed with a charm of manner which was well-nigh irresistible’. Not that she was devoid of idiosyncrasies, once addressing a public meeting attired in a petticoat doubling as a black satin evening dress and lace curtains as a shawl.
The Carey sons attended Campbell: Bruce (OC 1313) and Alan (OC 1547, who lived to the age of 99); and their daughter married Arthur McCabe (OC 1640). Carey senior, somewhat amnesiac by disposition, could also exhibit odd behaviour, once arrested in 1921 or 1922 for breaking into the grounds of Cabin Hill, then locked down as the newly-created Northern Ireland Cabinet Office, in order to remove dandelions from the lawn. He was, nevertheless, a well-known artist, whose prolific output may account for the fact that his canvases never attract prices one might expect.
His brother, John Carey, was also acknowledged as a talented artist, whose painting of Corfe Castle graces my walls. By coincidence - or perhaps not - a neighbour at Knock, Alfred Rawlings Baker (whose son Hugh was sent to Campbell, OC 1260) produced a contemporary railway poster featuring the castle, entitled Where Hampshire meets Dorset (once seen on The Antiques Roadshow). Baker’s wife was a friend of CS Lewis’s aunt, Lily Suffern, each of whom he claimed was ‘a violent suffragette’, although this does not seem to have excluded them from social invitations.
Warren Lewis regarded Baker as ‘a local artist of some repute’, and he was occasionally engaged for family portraits. He painted both CS Lewis’s grandfathers - Richard Lewis (1897) and Revd Thomas Hamilton (1903) – and in 1917 Albert Lewis posed for his own portrait. One of Baker’s close neighbours was Town Solicitor, John McCormick, who lived at Crag Royston (or Craigroyston) in Cherryvalley. In 1913 his daughter, Kathleen, married future surgeon and Professor of Chemistry, William Caldwell (OC 31), and Baker was commissioned for the portrait of the latter in 1918.
During the previous year he had also painted a portrait of McCormick’s only son, Ian Campbell McCormick (OC 1069), as a memorial to the latter, who had been killed on 24 January 1917 by a falling shell. He is buried at Hamel Military Cemetery, close to Auchonvillers Military Cemetery where they buried Robert William MacDermott, son of Revd Dr John MacDermott, the first officer of the Ulster (36th) Division to be killed - also by a falling shell - on 8 January 1916.
They lie barely a mile apart. Nowadays, that is effectively social distancing.