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The Dunvilles’ Redburn Estate
and Mr. “Tommy” Thompson

By The Right Rev. Dr. Aaron R. Orr
Presiding Bishop for Canada
of the International Free Protestant Episcopal Church
The Big House on the Brae Face
photograph: the Front of Redburn House

Fifty-nine summers have come upon me since I, while out walking with my mother in the hills about my childhood home, first came upon the house and grounds at Redburn. Ever since then I have been curious about the vast, grey edifice that lay to the south west of the woods where I played as a child.

As I stood at the foot of those woods or in the green fields of Holywood hills, the house seemed to call to me. I could sense a company of people who had tasted joy and sorrow and who had lost all, even life itself in the process. An awesome feeling came and remained with me that I must walk around the place and see its secrets. It seemed to call my curious young heart to satiate itself in its flowers and ponds and curious outbuildings.

Redburn House grew on me like a mystery. Sometimes I would stand on the height above Redburn and gaze down at its many windows and muse on who might have lived there. I felt that once upon a time something beautiful had happened there, and then, inexplicably, it fell like a splitting pillar bringing every hope and every dream crashing down into inconsequential moribundity. This was the spirit of the place an intricate combination of youthful dreams, early deaths and an uncanny sense of expectation that something almost Micawberish still lurked there and bade us “Reflect on your present blessings, of which every man has many; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some”.

Overall it was a rather eerie place, this vast house with its 75 rooms and its various facilities for maintaining what even to my young eye appeared to have been a life of richness and even fame. It was always silent. No animals roved its abundant fields. No children’s laughter ever resounded from its vast court. Thus soundless, colossal, and imposing, the mansion stood; a mute expression of a world so far removed from mine that it could never be anything more than a living illustration of Victorian and Edwardian magnificence. Reminiscing later I thought on the words of John Keats,

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.¹

Mr. Thomas (Tommy) Thompson as I Remember Him

In 1948 when I was about eight years old I was strictly warned by some in our neighborhood who knew of my wanderings in the woods to “stay away from Redburn House or Old Tom Thompson will get you.” Even at that tender age I was apprised often of his reputation as a difficult person with little tolerance for intruders anywhere on the grounds of Redburn. He was portrayed as one who had in the past, with a 12 bore shotgun loaded with rock salt, permeated the backside of a trespasser.

They said also that old Tommy felt he was everlastingly commissioned to protect Redburn for the Dunvilles. It mattered not that they were dead and that their whisky business was now a memory and their worldly possessions were apparently dissipated.

St. Paul once wrote in 1Co 4:2 “Moreover it is required in stewards that a man is found faithful.” Tommy Thompson was faithful to a trust to which he had given his word of honour to a Dunville who was to die by accident just about two months thereafter. All that mattered to this old and faithful servant was that he had been asked by the last of the Dunville men to “take care of the house till I get back.” If it be true that God regards our faithfulness to one another for good, then Tommy Thompson must now be entered into the joy of the Lord.

I Meet Tommy Thompson
photograph: Tommy Thompson, 1952

The above picture, though pitifully small, is nevertheless a good likeness of Mr. Tommy Thompson, the Game warden at Redburn House. He was in his early sixties when I met him, his mid-brown hair was beginning to reveal some white, his face was mildly rubicund and his figure and bearing was that of a man who loved exercise and physical activity. Over a few years of seeing him off and on I never saw him unkempt at any time. He wore Men’s Knickerbockers or Plus Fours as they became known, a sparkling clean shirt, tie, a Tweed Jacket and a smart tweed cap to match the lower ensemble. His ubiquitous shot gun was a part of is overall character. It is seen resting across his knees in the picture here. He also had two or three fairly large dogs that adored him, scouting the parkland ahead of him and warning of anything problematic in advance. I recall that he commanded them by whistles and was ever ready to praise or reprimand them.

It was on one of those matchless June days that Ulster is famous for that I eventually ventured into the Redburn realm. I had crossed the back of Tom Hayes’ farm and fought my way through paths that went through large stands of bracken fern and down into the garden area of the house. I wanted to look into the big conservatory and particularly to see the massive water lily pond. In this regard I was standing gazing at the huge glass house on the right of the house below when a voice demanded, “Who are you young man and what are you doing here? You come over here right now! Do you know that you are trespassing?”

I spun around to see who my interrogator was and there before me stood a man who looked tall to me at the time but whom in retrospect was of average height and impeccably dressed. He carried a single barrel 12 gauge break action shotgun broken in his left arm. Two large dogs, a brownish brindled one and a black one, sat close near his highly polished high leather boots. His no nonsense expression was petrifying.

“I am Robin Orr, Sir. I live in Loughview Cottage on Moss Road and I just came here to see your water lilies if I may, please Sir,” I replied.

“Well you are a smart young man! Polite, and no mistake,” the man said. “But you should have come over to the keeper’s lodge and asked me first. Come on and I’ll show you the water lilies on the pond.” He led me around past the rear of the huge conservatory on the right of the picture below and over to a big pond covered in white and purplish-red and blue and yellow, water lilies. The bees droned from flower to flower and dragonflies, like little helicopters hovered above. Damselflies skittered about the top of the water.

Suddenly, the two very big hounds appeared! The black stayed well back from me, but the grey approached and seemed quite friendly. I offered my shut fist to him and he sniffed it, licked my hand and then sat at my feet.

“My goodness, I think he’s taken to you!” the man exclaimed. “I’ve never seen him do that so quickly before. You must be alright if that one likes you so soon. Oh, I’m sorry for shouting at you a minute ago but I’m always afraid that a wee lad like you could get very badly hurt if he fell into some of the places around here.”

“Did you say your name is ‘Orr’?” he asked quietly.

“Yes Sir,” I replied.

“I knew an Andy Orr that lived on Church Street opposite Sullivan Street … he had a wee shop … sold groceries … I used to buy from him …,” he was speaking slowly, almost as much to himself as to me, as though pulling at the roots of his recollections. “He had a son I mind … I think he was called Andy too.”

“That’s my Grand-dad and Daddy you’re talking about now, Sir” I said, “I am young Andy Orr’s son!”

“You mean ‘Wee Andy’s son’ don’t you?” He asked with a far away look in his eyes. “I heard he died … O six or seven years ago.”

“Aye, he did Sir, and I’m the last of the Orr men now,” I asserted.

“Is your Mammy or your Granny still alive then?” The question had become kindly and even at my young age I sensed that I had maybe found a new friend.

“O yes Sir, they are and they live up over those hills with me,” I replied, indicating the hills with a liberal sweep of my arm.

Mr. Thompson then sat with me on the wall by the lily pond and told me how Master Robert L. Dunville on his deathbed, sent for him in 1930 and told him that he was going away for a holiday and if anything happened to him there wasn't another Dunville to take over the Family Business. Robert implored him to “take care of the house and its various out-buildings and every physical part of the property until I return.”

Tommy Thompson sat there and told me of the death of his old employer while on holiday. For thirty years he had been faithful to that assignment and I recall as he spoke about Robert Lambart Dunville it was in a tone that implied present responsibility to a man that had provided for him personally. “Aye son, there used to be fourteen or fifteen people employed in the house there, and nearly as many in the grounds as well, under a Head Gardener. Now, there’s just me still here and trying to look after things!”

Gradually his reverie drifted away like clouds on a soft Irish summer day. Slapping his thigh with his hand, he exclaimed as loud as he could, “Well, I’m blessed! Wee Andy Orr’s son and you’re the very spit of your Daddy!” I hadn’t the heart to tell him that “wee” Andy Orr was six feet one inch tall before he died! He sat there marvelling at the wonder of discovering and seeing me for the first time.

Looking back on that scene now, after more than half a century has flown, I think I caught a kind of childlikeness in this elderly man, whose stern countenance could reduce a trespasser to a shuddering heap of bones, yet in those moments, (talking with a boy who is now as old as he was then) was gentle, and his expression almost saintly.

“Sir, can I please know your name so I can tell Granny and Mammy whom I met today?” I enquired.

“Surely Son, my name is Thomas Thompson. I’m known as ‘Tommy’ or ‘Tom,’ and …,” he paused as though seeking a way to state something that he didn’t quite know how to express. “I have a reputation for being rough and tough, and I can be if I have to, too!” he continued, giving me a look that implied that he made few exceptions. And then he winked!

“Well, I’m not going to call you ‘Tommy’ or ‘Tom’” I said. “To me you’ll always be ‘Mr. Thompson.’ Is that alright with you?” I asked.

“Aye,” said he, “that’ll be fine.”

Pulling a large pocket watch from his jacket, he exclaimed, “My, my, its half past two already! Time’s flying and your Granny or your Mother might be looking for you. Let me get you a bunch of Gladiolas to take home to the ladies. Wait here!” he good naturedly commanded.

In less than five minutes he was back with a huge bunch of fresh cut flowers, of variegated colours and tied to perfection for a ten year old to carry home. He had fixed the ties so that two loops were placed in such a way that I could put my arms through them and carry the flowers like a school bag or a back pack.

“You come back again son, and when you do I’ll show you some wonderful things here,” he said kindly. “When you come onto the house area … wait, I’ll show you where I live … (He pointed to a sturdy little house, saying) “This is where I live and if you come and knock the door I’ll take you about the place. If you come here and I’m not about just wait under the front porch of the Keeper’s Lodge and I’ll see you when I’m back here.”

Tommy saw me off up the brae face and shouted after me, “Come back soon young Orr and I’ll show you the Zoo and the Stables and the Dairy.”

“OK, Sir”, I called back and turned to wave goodbye but he was gone into the enveloping silence that was then Redburn House.

When I got home you can imagine the interrogation I got. Where had I been? Where on earth did I get such a bunch of flowers? Did you steal them? What on earth was I doing down at Redburn House anyway? What! You spoke to Tommy Thompson? He tied the flowers together so you could carry them home? He was asking about us? Says he knew your Grand-dad and your Daddy?

I began to relate what Mr. Thompson had said about Andy senior, then my father Andy and then myself. As I did the questions stopped and the tears came as each remembered the men now gone.

Granny looked at me with that solemn kindliness that I had often seen and said, “Ye see, Son, what your Daddy was like and if ye grow up and turn out even half as good as him, ye’ll be a good man! Well, let’s get these flowers in water before they give up the ghost!”

Half an hour later, the wee cottage was liberally blessed with all the colours of the flowers that were Tommy Thompson’s salute to two women whose decency and courage in the face of bereavement he admired much, and called them his friends. Friends, I may say who felt that maybe he was not as bad as the people had made him out to be.

A Word about Redburn Country Park Today

Redburn was an exciting place to be allowed to access as a growing child. A child, with even the most mediocre imagination, could soon dream that Nature’s beauties as they ranged before him were sources of make believe fit to keep a fellow playing all day.

The area where Redburn house once stood is now occupied by Holywood Private Nursing Home in Redburn Country Park. Local authorities describe Redburn Country Park as being set on an escarpment overlooking Belfast Lough. It includes the mature beech woods and the scrub and grasslands at the top of the hill. Redburn provides pleasant walks in all seasons but spring is the best time to see the spectacular woodland carpet of bluebells, wood sorrel and anemones. The dense canopy of beech wood provides good shelter for many of our more common birds such as tits and finches, while in summer, willow warbler and blackcaps may be found in the scrub and gorse at the top of the hill. Mammals too are plentiful with rabbits grazing in the open glades; and you may be lucky to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Park's shyest resident, the Red Squirrel. Once at the top of the escarpment, the climb is rewarded by breathtaking views of Belfast and the south Antrim hills. From this description I see it has not changed much.

My Second Visit to Mr. Thompson

The next time I managed to get to Redburn House was in the third week of July. I went down my usual way through the beeches and the bracken to the house. Finding no one at home in the Gamekeeper’s Lodge, I commenced to walk down one of those very solid and stable narrow roads that went eastward through the Redburn Property.

After I walked about a mile or more, I reached the “Holywood” Gate Lodge where I soon discovered Mr. Thompson and his dogs who greeted me with evident pleasure.

“Well, young Orr, did you take that stuff I gave you home to your mother and grandmother?” Mr. Thompson asked.

“I did that, and Granny and Mammy are very grateful to you, Sir,” I replied. “Granny thinks she remembers you coming into the wee shop in the past.”

“I’m sure she would,” Tommy responded. “Now are ye on for a bit of an adventure today? What about me showing you a few things up at Redburn?”

“That would be great,” I said, my excited anticipation was evident in my words. “O and I had better tell you that I’m here today with permission of Mammy and Granny.”

“Well, you’ll have to stick by me and I’ll make sure you don’t get hurt,” said Tommy. We chatted without a care in the world as we meandered along the narrow road towards the Big House on the Hill.

“Did you ever hear of Bruno the bear?” Tommy asked.

“No Sir,” I said.

“Well come on and I’ll show you where Bruno lived at Redburn,” he said and led the way around a very high circular wall to a spot where there was the remains of what, even to me, looked like the remains of a huge round iron cage.

Looking at the wrecked form he said, “That is where Bruno lived at night but in the day time he was chained in the yard.”

“Where did Bruno come from, Mr. Thompson?” I asked.

“He was brought here by Master Robert. He came, I think from Canada as the Master made a habit of collecting wild animals from all over the world and kept them in his private zoo right here where we stand in the grounds of Redburn House.”

“What was the wall for?” I enquired.

“It was to protect the Zoo and see that it stayed untroubled by people,” my mentor said. “Anyway, the best known of all the animals was Bruno a tame bear. He had been with people almost from birth and was a harmless creature, really. He was full of tricks and one of them was that he when he was chained outside he would sit on some of the chain by which he was tethered, to make it appear shorter than it was. If he was teased by anyone, he would let on to be angry with them. He’d howl and roar, and leap out to the full length of the chain. You can be sure there were a lot of folk who ran like mad when he done that. He loved to rough house and me and Master Robert used to have some wild times wrestling with him two on one.”

“What other animals did Mr. Dunville have?” I asked.

Tommy began to move about in the enclosure and to show me where each animal group had been. That day he was in his glory and I recall that we had laughter and he took dear delight in showing me these things.

Then he invited me to the rear of the house away past the Conservatory to what he called the dairy. I think it either sat by itself or had been incorporated into the stables building. Tommy opened a huge door and said, “Come on in and see the only dairy of its kind in the world.”

I followed him into the place and stopped dead. My mouth was agape and I was staring up at the most wonderful place I had ever seen.

The walls of the room from the floor to about five feet up were covered in solid copper. Along one of the walls there were large sinks made of bronze each one placed with its top about two feet six inches from the ground and each one was bolted to the wall with huge brass nuts.

Where the copper ended, the walls were tiled to the ceiling with Blue Willow Pattern tiles each about 9” square. There was a battery of early pasteurization devices upon the upper wall above the sinks and Tommy told me that the milk from the cattle barn was carried in copper pails into a collector from whence it was then released over a pasteurizer and flowed from there down into the large sink to cool. Once cooled, a plug was pulled and the contents of the sinks flowed through copper pipes unto large vessels and taken to the creamery where it sat upon blocks of ice.

The heat for pasteurization was provided by water, heated to a great degree in a huge tank and then released through the pasteurization section of the dairy.

“This place hasn’t been used in twenty years,” Tommy said.

“It’s very clean,” I said.

“Well that’s how they wanted it kept,” Tommy said.

He next convoyed me to the green fields that he referred to as the Orchard. Actually it was a place where all kinds of soft fruit and apples and pears were beginning to show signs of the crops they each would bear. Tommy was very proud of the work done by a plant propagator that the Dunville’s had hired to cultivate the wild berries that were in the grounds along with the apples and pears.

“Yon fella done a good job,” he said, while his eyes got that far away look in them that told me he wished he was back among his friends again.

Reflecting on this scene many years after, I thought on the words of Thomas (Tom) Moore:

When I remember all
The friends, so linked together,
I've seen around me fall
Like leaves in wintry weather,
I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
Thus in the stilly night
Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.²

It was growing late in the afternoon and I felt it time to be moving on up the brae and over the hills to our humble cot in the Holywood Hills.

As I bade him ‘goodbye’ Tommy said quietly, “Ask your Mother to come with you next time. I’ll have some fruit I’d like to give to her. I’ve got specially cultivated pears and gooseberries and huge blackberries too. You can help her make jam!” He laughed, tipped his cap to me and disappeared into the trees as mysterious as Merlin in King Arthur’s Court.

As I made my way up the hills to home my 10 year old mind was filled with the words of an old song I heard on the Gramophone, and called “The Old House.” Count John McCormack sang it and it went like this:

Lonely I wander, through scenes of my childhood,
They bring back to memory those happy days of yore,
Gone are the old folk, the house stands deserted,
No light in the window, no welcome at the door.
Here’s where the children played games on the heather,
Here’s where they sailed wee boats on the burn.
Where are they now? Some are dead, some have wandered,
No more to their home shall those children return.
Lone stands the house now, and lonely the mooreland,
The children have scattered, the old folk are gone.
Why stand I here, like a ghost and a shadow.
‘Tis time I was moving,‘tis time I passed on.

1. Las Belle Dame sans Merci, John Keats. Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919. The Oxford Book of English Verse: 12501900.
2. Thomas Moore, Lalla Rookh, an oriental romance (London: Longman, 1817). 5th edn. PR 5054 L3 1817 Robarts Library, Canada.

See also:

Photographs of Redburn House, Holywood, County Down

More Photographs from Redburn House

Drawings of Redburn House and Dunville Park