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The Dunville Family of Northern Ireland and Dunville's Whisky

John Dunville, the Founder of Dunville & Co.
William Dunville, the second Chairman
Robert Grimshaw Dunville and Redburn House
The Royal Irish Distilleries
Robert Grimshaw Dunville becomes the third Chairman
John Dunville Dunville
Una Dunville
John Dunville Dunville becomes the fourth Chairman
The First World War
Robert Lambart Dunville
William Gustavus Dunville: Australia
Robert Lambart Dunville becomes the fifth Chairman
William Gustavus Dunville: Canada
The Liquidation of Dunville & Co.
After the Liquidation

The founder of Dunville & Co., John Dunville (1785-1851), came from a humble background and started his working life as an apprentice. Dunville & Co. flourished as the chairmanship of the firm was passed from father to son or uncle to nephew through five generations of the Dunville family, for whom it funded a lavish lifestyle. The fifth generation suffered the tragedies of two early deaths and the company was liquidated in 1936 when it was still a going concern.

On the family tree kept in the Belfast Linen Hall Library, John's surname is spelt 'Dumvill'. John Dumvill's half-brother Richard Dumvill (c1765-1836) emigrated to the USA. Richard was a son from their father William Dumvill's (c1740-1793) first marriage. After their father remarried in 1773, Richard joined their uncle Robert Dumvill (c1735-1819), William's older brother, in South Carolina. There are hundreds of descendants of Richard and Robert living in the USA. Robert had three daughters but Richard had sons as well as daughters, and so many of his descendants have the Dunville surname. One of Richard's sons, Richard Dunville Junior (1798-1871) was a wealthy farmer, with six thousand acres of land along the Green River near Slaughters, Kentucky. His family’s name was changed to Dunville by his fifth wife Sarah Ellen Morris.

John Dunville, the Founder of Dunville & Co.

Richmond Lodge
Richmond Lodge
© Con Auld and published
with his kind permission

John Dumvill joined the whisky blenders and tea importers Napier & Co. of Bank Lane, Belfast in 1801 at the age of sixteen. Six years later he became a partner of the firm with William Napier, and the name of the firm was changed to Napier and Dunville. The spelling of John's surname had been changed from 'Dumvill' to 'Dunville'. William Napier's son Joseph became Lord Chancellor of Ireland. In 1825 the name of the firm was changed to Dunville and Company, and the business moved from Bank Lane to Calender Street.

John Dunville had married Ann Douglas in 1811. They had four children: William, John, Sarah and Margaret. With their increasing prosperity, they moved to 12 Donegall Square East which was then in a fashionable middle-class area. John Dunville became a town alderman and a manager of the Academical Institution. In 1837 John Dunville Junior (1814-1841) married Mary Grimshaw, daughter of Robert Grimshaw, Deputy Lieutenant, of Longwood, County Antrim. The Grimshaw family were the cotton barons of the nineteenth century in Belfast and were partly responsible for bringing the cotton industry to Belfast. John Dunville Junior died in 1841, soon after the birth of his two children Robert Grimshaw Dunville and Annie Dunville.

Dunville & Co. launched their best-known brand of whisky, V.R., in 1837 after Queen Victoria (Victoria Regina) ascended the throne. In 1845 John and Ann Dunville moved to the stately Richmond Lodge, which had been built on the Holywood Road in County Down at the beginning of the century.

William Dunville, the second Chairman

When John Dunville died in 1851, Dunville & Co. had been a large, thriving business for many years and his surviving son William Dunville (1812-1874) succeeded him as Chairman. In 1864 William Dunville married Anne Georgina Knox, daughter of the Venerable Edmond Dalrymple Hesketh Knox, Archdeacon of Killaloe, and granddaughter of the Honourable Right Reverend Edmund Knox, Bishop of Limerick. They had one son. As well as being Chairman of Dunville & Co., William Dunville was an active member of the Liberal Party and a Justice of the Peace.

In about 1860 William Dunville took in as partners his nephew, Robert Grimshaw Dunville (1838-1910), and James Bruce and James Craig. These energetic and ambitious young men spurred the development of Dunville & Co., and with William Dunville succeeded in building the Royal Irish Distilleries. Robert Grimshaw Dunville's father John Dunville Junior had died when Robert was two, and his mother had died when he was sixteen. James Craig's son, born in Belfast in 1871 and also named James Craig, became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. He was knighted and later created Viscount Craigavon of Stormont.

A charitable trust, the Sorella Trust, was founded by William Dunville in memory of his unmarried sister Sarah (1817-1863). Sorella is the Italian word for sister. The initial aim of the trust was to improve the houses of the working classes and this was achieved by building better houses in the Grosvenor Road area. Sorella Street was named after the trust. Further money from the trust, which had been supplemented by rent from the houses, was used to fund scholarships for primary and secondary education, and for exhibitions to Queen's College, which became Queen's University Belfast.

Robert Grimshaw Dunville and Redburn House

Redburn House
Redburn House
© Con Auld and published
with his kind permission

The Distillery
The Royal Irish Distilleries

William's nephew, John Dunville Junior's son, Robert Grimshaw Dunville married in 1865 Jeannie Chaine, daughter of William Chaine of Moylena. In 1866 Robert built the magnificent Redburn House, two miles along the Holywood Road from Richmond Lodge, where his uncle William was living. Redburn House was designed by the architects Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon. It had seventy rooms, the most grand of which were the entrance hall and the ballroom, and it was set in one hundred and seventy acres of land, with views of Belfast Lough and the hills of Antrim. Robert and Jeannie's son, John Dunville Dunville (1866-1929), was the first member of the family to be born in Redburn House.

The Royal Irish Distilleries

Like its predecessor Napier & Co., Dunville & Co. had continued to import tea, and they were one of the leading tea merchants in Ireland. However in the 1860s this side of the business was given up to make room for the expanding whisky business. In 1869 the Royal Irish Distilleries were built next to the railway marshalling yard outside the Great Victoria Street Station. Coal and grain were brought by railway to the distillery's own sidings, and the railway carried the whisky away.

The Royal Irish Distilleries were described in detail by Alfred Barnard in his book ‘Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom’, published in 1887. The entrance was an impressive gateway and the red brick buildings, most of which were four storeys high, covered seven acres. Near the middle a one hundred and sixty feet high chimney dominated the whole area. Four hundred and fifty men worked in the distillery. In addition to the warehouses at the distillery, the company also had bonded warehouses covering thirteen acres in Adelaide Street, Alfred Street and Clarence Street, and duty-paid warehouses in Alfred Street and Franklin Street. Fifty clerks worked in the main offices in Calender Street, which also housed the Board Room and the luxurious apartments for the use of the Directors.

Barley delivered by train and horse-drawn carts to the distillery was examined on the receiving floor of the Granaries before it was hoisted by elevators to the other floors for storage. The Granaries could hold two hundred and fifty thousand bushels of grain and when Alfred Barnard visited the distillery, two hundred thousand bushels were being stored there. The other major ingredient of whisky is water, whose mineral and chemical properties influence the flavour. The water was supplied from Lough Mourne, twelve miles away, and in the distillery there were two wells one hundred and sixty feet deep.

The barley was delivered to the Malting Building for the first stage of the manufacturing process, to convert the barley into malt. As the barley was delivered, dust was blown out of it by a steam fan, to clean it before the malting process. It was put into large drums and heated to a temperature of about one hundred degrees Fahrenheit (38°C) to dry. There were three malting floors, one hundred and eighty feet long by ninety feet wide, on which lay the stone steeps. Here the barley was steeped, or soaked, in warm water which was changed once or twice. The soft and swollen grain was carried pneumatically to more large drums, where the germination or sprouting took place. The germination converted the starch of the grain into sugar and the sugar nourished the sprout or rootlet. After about ten days, when the sugar was most abundant, the germination was stopped by drying the sprouting barley in the two malt kilns, each of which was forty feet square. The grain was now called malt.

When the malt was dry, it was conveyed by large spirals to the top floor of the Mill. Here it was ground by five pairs of stones to form grist, which was then conveyed by more large spirals to the Grist Lofts. These could hold one hundred thousand bushels of grist.

The second main stage of the process was the mashing, during which warm water was added to the grist in a cylindrical vessel known as a masher, to dissolve the sugars, starches and other chemicals. The warm water was supplied from two huge heating tanks, each of thirty thousand gallons capacity and heated by steam. The grist and water were conveyed to the mash-tuns where the grist continued to be mashed. The three mash-tuns were cylindrical vessels with perforated false bottoms and revolving arms, and each had a capacity of thirty thousand gallons. Also used in this stage of the process were two metal underbacks of about thirty thousand gallons capacity each, sixteen washbacks of thirty-six thousand gallons capacity each, and an intermediate charger of similar capacity. The sweet liquid called wort was run off through the perforated false bottoms of the mash-tuns into the underbacks and cooled. The remnants of the grist were sold to farmers as a cattle and pig feed known as draff.

Fermentation was the third main stage of the process. Yeast was added to the cooled liquid wort to convert the sugar into alcohol. The fermented wort, called wash, contained alcohol, unfermentable grain extract and water. It was ready for the fourth main stage of the manufacturing process, distillation, to isolate the spirit as effectively as possible.

The Still House
The Still House

The Still House contained three pot stills which could hold eleven thousand two hundred and forty gallons, six thousand five hundred and fifty-one gallons, and five thousand two hundred and fifty-five gallons respectively. These were heated by fire, and there were two more stills which were heated by steam. The shape and size of the stills were further influences on the character of the whisky. Also in the still house were eight receivers, two large safes, and some sampling safes.

Alcohol boils at a lower temperature (173°F/78°C) than water (212°F/100°C) and therefore sooner, leaving much of the water and most of the impurities behind. The wash was passed to the first still to be boiled. The alcohol vapour was condensed by cooling, passed into a receiver and became known as low wines. These were passed to the second still and then to the third still. The condensation from the second still was known as feints and the condensation from the third still was the whisky.

The whisky was decanted into wooden casks for the fifth main stage, the long, slow process of maturation. After the years of aging came the sixth, skilful stage of blending the whiskies. As it was not permitted for a firm to run distilling and blending premises within two miles of each other, William Dunville & Co. operated the distillery while Dunville & Co. carried out the blending and merchanting.

Robert Grimshaw Dunville becomes the third Chairman

Robert Grimshaw Dunville (1838-1910)
Robert Grimshaw Dunville

Dunville Fountain
Dunville Fountain

Head Offices, Arthur Street
Head Offices
Arthur Street

When William Dunville died in 1874, his nephew Robert Grimshaw Dunville succeeded him as Chairman. Robert Grimshaw Dunville was a Justice of the Peace, a Deputy Lieutenant of County Down, a High Sheriff of County Meath, a founder member of the Reform Club and a member of the Liberal Party, until William Gladstone advocated Home Rule for Ireland. He then became a Liberal Unionist.

Dunville & Co. was incorporated in 1879, becoming Dunville & Co. Ltd. In the same year Robert Grimshaw Dunville added a walled courtyard and stables block to Redburn House. The stables block was complete with a clock tower and grooms' quarters. As well as Redburn House in Holywood, County Down, he also owned Sion House in Navan, County Meath.

The V.R. Distillery Cricket Club was formed in 1879, and to enable the members of the cricket club to remain active during the winter months, the Distillery Football Club was formed in 1880. The Directors of Dunville & Co., especially James Barr, gave the Football Club their support and filled in a waste pond at the back of the Distillery to create the club’s first football ground.

Under the chairmanship of Robert Grimshaw Dunville, the annual output of whisky from the Distillery increased from one and a half million gallons in 1887 to two and a half million gallons in 1890. The four acres of Dunville Park were opened as a gift to the City of Belfast in 1891, its first public park, and in it the Dunville Fountain was erected. 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.'

Robert Grimshaw Dunville tried his hand at poetry and art. Criticism of his first published volume led him to print and circulate his subsequent works privately. One of these, 'North Sea Bubbles', which is illustrated by his sketches, relates the story of a voyage in about 1891 of a steam yacht, the 'Black Pearl', which belonged to a friend and was moored at Cultra on Belfast Lough. The size of the 'Black Pearl' was three hundred and forty-three tons and it had a crew of twenty-five. The guests on the voyage included Robert Grimshaw Dunville, his wife Jeannie and their son John.

John Dunville Dunville

The Liberal MP the Duke of Devonshire, also known as the Marquis of Hartington, and founder of the Liberal Unionist party, was one of the many distinguished guests of Robert Grimshaw Dunville at Redburn House. In 1890 Robert's son John Dunville Dunville was appointed Private Secretary to the Duke of Devonshire. John Dunville had previously gained an M.A. at Trinity College, Cambridge and had served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 5th Battalion of the Leinster Regiment (The Royal Meath Militia). As a young man he had been an enthusiastic cross-country rider and a skilful polo player. While he was at Cambridge he was Master of the Cambridge Staghounds for two seasons, 1886 and 1887.

John Dunville married in 1892 Violet Anne Blanche Lambart, the fifth daughter of Gustavus William Lambart, Deputy Lieutenant, of Beau Parc, County Meath. They had four children: Robert Lambart Dunville, John Spencer Dunville, William Gustavus Dunville and Una Dunville. The family lived at 46 Portland Place, London with twelve servants: a butler, two footmen, a lady's maid, a cook, two nurses, two house maids, two kitchen maids and a hall boy.

The summer months and the Christmases were spent at Redburn House, the head of which was John's father, Robert Grimshaw Dunville. Redburn House was looked after by sixteen house staff and ten groundstaff. The stables housed sixty horses for hunting and four horses for drawing carriages, all tended by sixteen grooms.

Una Dunville

The fourth child of John and Violet Dunville, Una, was born in 1903. She had Down's Syndrome, although the condition was not called this at the time. At the age of four her parents took her to Normansfield Hospital in Teddington, Middlesex, where she lived for the rest of her life. Normansfield Hospital had been founded by Dr. John Haydon Langdon Down (1828-1896) in 1868 as a private home for the 'care, education and treatment of those of good social position who present any degree of mental deficiency'. John Langdon Down was the first physician to recognise Down's Syndrome as a condition. The genetic cause of the condition, an extra chromosome, was identified in 1959 and it was after John Langdon Down that the condition was subsequently named.

John and Violet Dunville corresponded with the doctors at Normansfield Hospital and from time to time Violet Dunville visited her daughter. Una Dunville died at Normansfield Hospital in 1958, having outlived her parents and her three brothers. The informant on Una Dunville's death certificate was Dr. Norman Langdon Down, the Physician Superintendent of Normansfield Hospital and the grandson of Dr. John Haydon Langdon Down. Una Dunville is the subject of one of the chapters in the book 'Tales of Normansfield', written by Andy Merriman.

In 1906 Dunville & Co. extended its offices from Calender Street through to Arthur Street and this is the only major building once used by Dunville's which still exists. The equally impressive offices in London were in Shaftesbury Avenue.


The sport of ballooning was popular among the wealthy from the turn of the century until the outbreak of the First World War. The Aero Club, which was founded in 1901 and renamed the Royal Aero Club in 1910, organised competitions from the polo grounds at Hurlingham in Fulham and Ranelagh in Barnes.

John Dunville's first flight in a balloon was in 1906 or 1907. Flights were being offered in a War Office balloon at Aldershot for the cost of five pounds. John Dunville's flight there, with an officer of the Army Balloon Corps, ended in a tree. The balloon was badly torn and the aeronauts climbed down from the tree with great difficulty. This did not deter John Dunville from taking up ballooning and entering competitions, several of which he won. His first balloon, jointly owned with Mr. Vere Ker-Seymer, was 'La Mascotte', named after John Dunville's pet name for his wife Violet.

In September 1907 he won the Northcliffe Cup, which had been presented by Lord Northcliffe to the Aero Club in 1906. It was awarded to the Briton who had made the longest flight during the year. John Dunville won the cup by flying 'La Mascotte' nearly two hundred miles from London to Wales. In June 1908 he won a Hare and Hounds race from Hurlingham. In this type of race the winner was the balloon which landed closest to the quarry balloon.

In July 1908 John Dunville and his wife took their fifteen-year-old son Robert Lambart Dunville on his first flight, together with Lieutenant Pöe of the Royal Navy, for whom it was also his first flight. This flight in 'La Mascotte' was launched in Chelsea and landed at Rudgwick Station, seven miles from Horsham.

John Dunville first competed for the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett in October 1908, when it started from Schmargendorf near Berlin. This annual balloon competition is hosted by the country of the previous competition's winner and its goal is to fly the furthest distance from the launch site. The co-pilot in John Dunville's balloon 'Banshee' was Charles Pollock. They were placed second out of twenty-three balloons, covering a distance of two hundred and sixty-eight miles. Initially it was reported that 'Banshee' was the winner of the competition, but the winner was ultimately judged to be the Swiss balloon 'Helvetia'.

Towards the end of their flight, the crew of 'Helvetia' found that they were parallelling a coastline. They descended the balloon towards the sea and asked the crew of the trawler 'Cimra' to accompany them. The crew of the trawler did not appear to understand the calls, even though they were made in several languages. The crew took the trail-rope aboard the trawler, attached it, and towed the still airborne balloon for two hours, twenty-two kilometres to Bergset on the coast of Norway. At one time, when water sprayed into the basket, the pilot of the balloon jumped over to the ship.

The decision by the organisers of the race in Berlin was controversial. The nine competing nations had submitted their entries for the race in February 1908. At a meeting of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in London in May 1908, with all the representatives present, it had been unanimously agreed that 'In case a balloon comes down on the sea and is recovered by a ship, the balloon will be taken out of the competition, but without any penalizing for the pilot.' The jury of the race said that the decisions of the meeting in London did not affect this year's race, because they were made after the closing date for the entries. The Aero Club of the United Kingdom filed a protest, which was discussed by an extraordinary conference of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in London in January 1909. The decision of the jury was upheld by the conference by a majority vote.

An attempt by John Dunville to win the Northcliffe Cup in November 1908 became the first crossing of the English Channel by a balloon carrying four people: himself, his wife Violet, Charles Pollock and Philip Gardner. This flight of his balloon 'Banshee' from London to Baelen, in the north of Belgium, covered a distance of two hundred and sixty miles in eleven hours and five minutes. John Dunville won the cup in December 1908 by flying from Chelsea Gas Works to Crailsheim near Stuttgart in Germany, once again accompanied by Charles Pollock and Philip Gardner, in thirteen hours. One of the rules of the Northcliffe Cup was that if it was won by the same person in two consecutive years it became the property of the holder, and thus it became the property of John Dunville.

In May 1909 John Dunville in 'Banshee' won an international point-to-point race from Hurlingham. 'Banshee' was not the balloon which landed closest to the specified destination, but the balloon which did, 'Ziegler' flown by Dr. F. Chowald of Frankfurt, was disqualified by the committee of the Aero Club. The committee upheld a protest made by competitors, concerning a breach of International Federation rules with regard to ballast.

Robert Lambart Dunville made his second flight in July 1909. Like his first flight, it was in 'La Mascotte' and launched from Chelsea, but on this occasion the aeronauts accompanying him and his father John Dunville were the Honourable Charles Rolls and Philip Gardner.

John Dunville and Charles Pollock crossed the Irish Sea in the balloon 'St. Louis' in February 1910. Mr. Short, of Short & Co. of Battersea, assisted with the launch from the Gas Works in Dublin. Violet Dunville had hoped to travel in the balloon, but the weight of the balloon had to be reduced before the launch. She said afterwards, 'I knew I displaced three bags of ballast, which they would require to throw out, and you know they could not throw me out.' The five-hour flight reached an altitude of ten thousand feet and covered one hundred and sixty miles. They landed in Birtles, near Macclesfield in Cheshire.

The Irish Sea had been crossed in a balloon only twice before, forty years previously and earlier by Windham Sadler in 1817. Windham Sadler's father, James Sadler, had attempted to cross the Irish Sea in 1812 but had landed in the water. The balloon 'St. Louis' had been flown by Americans in the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett of 1907 and 1908. In the latter it was one of three balloons which landed in the North Sea. The occupants were rescued and after drifting for several days, the balloon was retrieved by Hull fishermen. It was renovated by Short & Co. of Battersea and later purchased by John Dunville.

John Dunville Dunville becomes the fourth Chairman

Dunville's Whisky Mirror

The Duke of Devonshire had died in 1908, ending John Dunville's appointment as his Private Secretary. Robert Grimshaw Dunville died in August 1910 after thirty-six years as Chairman of Dunville & Co. and his son John Dunville succeeded him. John Dunville continued hunting, as Master of the Meath Hounds from 1911 to 1915, but he made fewer balloon flights.

In 1911 Dunville & Co. purchased T. & A. McLelland Ltd., which owned the Bladnoch Distillery in Scotland, so that they could sell Scotch whisky as well as Irish. The Bladnoch Distillery had been in the hands of the McLelland family since 1818 but had not been worked for about six years. Its restoration required considerable investment and the attention it required was not possible during the First World War. The Distillery was still not fully restored after the war and it never became a successful investment for Dunville & Co.

John Dunville's wife Violet continued flying balloons. In 'Banshee II' she won the Hedges Butler Challenge Cup three years running, in 1912, 1913 and 1914. The cup was awarded for the longest distance flight by any type of flying machine, starting from London on a specified day. If it was won by the same person three times in succession it became the property of the holder, and so this cup became the property of Violet Dunville.

John Dunville took part in the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett in October 1913, when it started from the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. His balloon was 'Banshee' and his co-pilot was Captain Corbet. They were placed seventeenth out of twenty-one balloons, covering a distance of two hundred and twenty-six miles.

The First World War

The demands of the First World War required John Dunville to leave more of the running of Dunville & Co. to the Directors and the Managers. He joined the Royal Naval Air Service as a Flight Lieutenant in March 1915. He was promoted to Flight Commander in January 1916 and Squadron Commander in June 1917. He was also a Commandant of the Special Constabulary Force during the Sinn Fein troubles in Belfast.

John and Violet Dunville's sons were all educated at Eton. When their eldest son, Robert Lambart Dunville (1893-1931), left Eton, he was commissioned into the 1st Life Guards as a Second Lieutenant. At the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914, he joined the Royal Bucks Hussars, still as a Second Lieutenant. This regiment suffered heavy casualties during the Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey, between April 1915 and January 1916. In that respect it was fortunate that Robert Dunville had just suffered an attack of acute appendicitis; in April 1915 a Medical Board at the Military Hospital in Cottonera, Malta recommended that, in view of the probability of a further attack, he should return to England for an appendicectomy. By September 1915 he had fully recovered and in November he transferred as a Second Lieutenant to the 5th (Reserve) Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. This battalion was used to carry out ceremonial duties in London and Windsor during the war. Later he served in the 3rd Battalion.

It was during the Irish Rising of April 1916 that Robert Lambart Dunville was travelling by road from Belfast to Kingstown, now called Dun Laoghaire, to catch the ferry from there to England, to return to his regiment. In Castlebellingham he encountered a group of County Louth Volunteers, led by Seán MacEntee. The Volunteers had been moving towards Dublin, armed with guns, and hijacking cars and their drivers to speed up their progress. They had stopped in Castlebellingham to seize supplies from the shops.

Robert Dunville and his chauffeur were ordered to leave their car and stand in front of some railings, next to four policemen (Sergeant M. Wymes, Acting Sergeant Patrick Kiernan, Constable Patrick Donovan and Constable Charles McGee) who had been taken prisoner. At the sound of a whistle, the Volunteers prepared to leave. Seán MacEntee told Paddy McHugh, who was armed with a .303 Lee Enfield rifle, to cover the prisoners. McHugh said subsequently that he thought Dunville looked as if he was intending to draw a gun. He said he called twice to Dunville to put up his hands, but Dunville did not obey. A shot was fired. Robert Dunville was shot in the chest and fell against the railings; Charlie McGee was also shot and fell.

Robert Dunville and Charlie McGee were both twenty-three years old. Robert Dunville was carried back to his car and taken to a military hospital, where he was found to have two wounds on his chest. Charlie McGee had two wounds on his left arm and two wounds on his chest. It seems that a single .303 bullet passed through Dunville and then through McGee's left arm and chest. Charlie McGee died within a few hours of being shot. Although Robert Dunville survived, he never fully recovered from his wounds and died fifteen years later at the age of thirty-eight.

John Dunville's second son, Second Lieutenant John Spencer Dunville VC (1896-1917), had been educated at Ludgrove School and Eton, where he was a member of Mr Williams' House and then Mr Robeson's House, and a member of the Officer Training Corps from May 1912 to July 1914. He passed matriculation for Trinity College, Cambridge, but joined the army instead, initially serving as a Second Lieutenant in the 5th Cavalry Reserve Regiment. In April 1915 he applied to join the Royal Flying Corps and was accepted, but his course of instruction in aviation was cancelled a few days before he was due to start. He transferred to the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons and went to France in June 1915. There he took part in the Battle of Loos in September 1915, and transferred to the 1st (Royal) Dragoons in January 1916. In April he contracted trench fever and was invalided to England. He returned to France in December 1916.

In June 1917, while he was serving in the 1st (Royal) Dragoons, he died from wounds he received at Épehy in France. He had been protecting an N.C.O. of the Royal Engineers who was repairing and assembling a Bangalore torpedo, to clear a gap in the barbed wire that had been laid by the enemy. It was after the gap was successfully cleared that he was wounded, his left arm badly shattered by a bomb. He remained conscious but died from his wounds the next day. The Victoria Cross which he was posthumously awarded was received by his father John Dunville from King George V at Buckingham Palace in August 1917. He was also awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal 1914-20 and the Victory Medal 1914-19.

John Spencer Dunville was buried at Villers-Faucon in France, but there is a memorial stone in Holywood Priory Cemetery to commemorate him. The inscription on the memorial stone reads 'To commemorate John Spencer Dunville, V.C., 2nd Lieut. Royal Dragoons, second son of John and Violet Dunville; he gave his life for his country in the Great War and died of his wounds in France on 27th June 1917 aged 21 years, buried at Villers Faucon, was awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery. Let those who come after see to it that his memory is not forgotten.' (The date should be 26th June 1917.) Part of a ligustrum (privet) bush from his grave in France was planted next to the memorial stone. A magnificent stained glass window in the grand entrance hall of Redburn House was another of the memorials dedicated to him. There is more information about John Spencer Dunville at

In the same year his father John Dunville was promoted to Wing Commander, with four hundred and fifty officers and two thousand men under his command at the No. 1 Balloon Training Wing, Roehampton. He transferred as a Temporary Lieutenant-Colonel, Kite Balloon Officer, to the Royal Air Force in April 1918 and was demobilised in 1919. He was awarded the Commander of the British Empire for his services during the war. He used the title 'Colonel' from his earlier service in the Leinster Regiment.

Robert Lambart Dunville

Robert Lambart Dunville (1893-1931)
Robert Lambart Dunville

In April 1918 in the Guards' Chapel in London, John Dunville's son Robert Lambart Dunville married Winifred Phyllis Combe, daughter of Captain Christian Combe, of the Combes Brewers family, and Lady Jane Seymour Combe née Conyngham. Robert and Phyllis had a daughter, Maureen Anne Dunville, who was born in September 1919.

Robert was also the father of another daughter, Patricia Iona Violet Dunville, who was born in February 1920 to Evelyn Redfern (formerly Buckley), who lived in Northumberland Street, St. Marylebone.

In September 1920 Robert was charged at Marylebone Police Court with being drunk while in charge of a motor car and assaulting the police sergeant who had stopped him. It was alleged that at 1.45 in the morning, Robert had driven zigzag down the wrong side of Marylebone High Street, at a fast speed and with a tail light that was not working. Robert was acquitted of both charges.

Robert and Phyllis divorced in 1921. Phyllis remarried in April 1922, to the Hon. Francis Nathaniel Curzon. Robert remarried in June 1927, to Kathleen Kirkpatrick Shaw née Morice, daughter of Mr. Justice Morice, K.C. (King's Counsel).

Robert's special interest was zoology. He collected wild animals from all over the world and kept them in a private zoo in the grounds of Redburn House. A high wall was built in 1920 to protect the circular area of the zoo. The best known of the animals was Bruno the tame bear. He learnt to sit on some of the chain by which he was tethered, so that it looked shorter than it was. If he was teased by anyone, he would leap out to the full length of the chain to seek his revenge. Robert's father John Dunville sometimes took Bruno to the family house in Portland Place, London and let it loose in the house, much to the protests of his wife Violet.

In the 1920s the Depression, and Prohibition in the USA, reduced the demand for whisky, but the closure of some of Dunville & Co.'s competitors cushioned the impact on their sales.

William Gustavus Dunville: Australia

The Dunville family acquired a fleet of luxury chauffeur-driven motor cars, which were particularly enjoyed by John Dunville's third son, William Gustavus Dunville (1900-1956). Like his older brother Robert, William served in the Grenadier Guards, but he was probably too young to see active service. He was eighteen years old when the First World War ended.

On 23 March 1922 William married Ruth Glover in Trinity Church, Marylebone, London. Ruth was born in Belfast in about January 1901, when her father Samuel Glover was working as an iron turner. William and Ruth were both twenty-one years old when they married and both gave their address as 46 Portland Place, which was the Dunville family's home in London. Ruth's father's occupation was recorded on the marriage certificate as engineer, but he had died before the marriage. William's father John Dunville was one of the witnesses to the marriage.

Patrick Moffett provides some information about William Gustavus Dunville in his helpful but not completely reliable document "The Dunville Family of Redburn House Holywood 1759-1940". He says that William was remembered as a young man with the most charming manners; that he displeased his mother by marrying a girl from Newtownwards Road, Belfast; that they were packed off to Australia and set up a sheep station of their own: Barry Station, Nundle, New South Wales; that after raising three daughters they returned to Ireland, divorced, and William emigrated to Winnipeg, Canada with one daughter, where, it was said, they were reduced to living in a shack.

But some of Patrick Moffett's information is known to be incorrect: William and his first wife divorced before they returned to Ireland, and William was not reduced to living in a shack in Canada. There is no other record of any daughters born to William and Ruth. However William and Ruth were sent to Australia to run the sheep station, Barry Station in Nundle, New South Wales. Were William's parents disappointed that he had not married into the aristocracy, as his father John Dunville Dunville and his oldest brother Robert Lambart Dunville had done?

Barry Station was described in 2009 as 8,489 hectares (20,967 acres) of grazing country in the upper catchment areas of the Barnard and Hunter rivers. William's wife was listed in the 1925 Electoral Roll for the Division of Robertson, Subdivision of Gloucester, New South Wales: Ruth Dunville, Barry Station, Nundle, Home Duties. There is no record of any children born to William and Ruth, other than Patrick Moffett's document. In 1926 Ruth Dunville petitioned for a divorce on the ground of desertion, and a decree absolute was pronounced in 1927, meaning that the divorce was granted.

John Dunville continued to compete for the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett. In September 1923 the balloons were inflated in bright sunshine at Solbosch near Brussels but soon afterwards a thunderstorm darkened the sky, resulting in the deaths of five competitors. John Dunville's co-pilot was his son Robert and they were placed seventh out of seventeen balloons, covering a distance of eighty-seven miles. The June 1925 competition also started at Solbosch. John Dunville and his co-pilot Squadron Leader Baldwin, in 'Banshee III', were placed eighth out of eighteen balloons, covering a distance of two hundred and ninety-one miles. Robert Dunville received a medal for taking part in the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett of 1925, and so he too probably flew in 'Banshee III' in this competition.

Robert Dunville also took part in the Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett competition which started from Wilryck near Antwerp in May 1926. He was the co-pilot for Squadron Leader Baldwin and in 'Banshee III' they were placed ninth out of eighteen balloons, covering a distance of fifty-eight miles. Robert shared the family's pleasure of hunting and was Master of the County Down Staghounds in 1926 and 1927.

John and Violet Dunville also took part in big game fishing, as members of a party of anglers who spent several weeks in New Zealand in 1927.

Robert Lambart Dunville becomes the fifth Chairman

Dunville's Whisky Plaque

When John Dunville died in June 1929, Robert Lambart Dunville succeeded him as Chairman of Dunville & Co., although he continued to suffer poor health from the wounds he had received in 1916. Robert's wife was the daughter of a retired judge of the South African High Court, and at the end of 1930 Robert and his wife embarked on a voyage to South Africa and Australia. They had been planning to visit Robert’s younger brother William in Australia. While they were in Johannesburg in January 1931, visiting Robert's father-in-law, Robert developed an illness and died, at the age of thirty-eight. He had been Chairman of Dunville & Co. for just nineteen months.

Appropriately for Robert's love of animals, the memorial built for him near the gates of Redburn House by his mother Violet was a horse trough, complete with a drinking fountain and a drinking basin for dogs. The animals from Robert's private zoo became the start of the collection of the Belfast Zoological Gardens, which were opened in 1934.

William Gustavus Dunville: Canada

William Gustavus Dunville was known to be in Australia in January 1931, when his brother Robert had died in Johannesburg on his way to visit him. After his father and two brothers had died, William was the only male descendant of the Dunville family. Was one of the reasons he returned from Australia for him to become the head of the Dunville family and the sixth Chairman of Dunville and Company? After he returned to Northern Ireland, he was sent, presumably by his mother, to live in Canada. This was despite the deaths of her husband and her other two sons, and sending her daughter many years earlier to Normansfield Hospital in Teddington, Middlesex. William was known to drink heavily later in his life. Had this already become a problem?

William's second wife, Ivy Evelyn Combes, said that she met William in Portsmouth, England. They travelled to Canada and married on 8 December 1931 in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. Their first daughter, Shirley June Dunville, was born in June 1933 in Canada. William is listed with his second wife Ivy in the 1935, 1936 and 1940 City Directories for Sault Sainte Marie. In the 1936 City Directory his occupation is salesman. William and Ivy's second daughter, Avis Zoe Pamela Dunville, was born in April 1935.

William was known as a remittance man, who was a person living overseas on regular payments from his family in the UK, on the understanding that he would not return and be a source of embarrassment. According to Gordon Thompson, the son of Tommy Thompson, the gamekeeper at Redburn, William wrote to Tommy Thompson every Christmas, and this was the only contact William had with Redburn.

One cold winter, William fell asleep in the street, having succumbed to his heavy drinking. His right arm suffered frostbite. When the doctor told him that it was badly damaged, William said "Take it off, take it off!" It was probably very painful, and the doctor was going to have to amputate it anyway. This is why, in the photograph of him and Ivy, he is standing with his left arm towards the camera, so that you cannot see that his right arm is missing.

William died on 22 August 1956 in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. His widow Ivy lived for a further eleven years, in financial comfort. She dressed well and travelled to and from the nearest town by taxi, when most of the other people travelled by bus.

The Liquidation of Dunville & Co.

After the death of Robert there was no suitable member of the Dunville family available to succeed him as the Chairman of Dunville & Co. The company appeared to lose its driving force. Prohibition was repealed by President Roosevelt in 1932, but Dunville & Co. did not regain its share of the American market. The Directors asked William Ross (1862-1944), Chairman of the Distillers Company Limited (DCL) from 1925 to 1935, to take over Dunville & Co. as a going concern. DCL had been founded in 1877 by combining Scotland's leading grain whisky distillers, and it had expanded by acquiring other distilleries. It subsequently rationalised the distilling industry by acquiring more distilleries and closing them within two years of their acquisition. William Ross was probably the wrong person for the Directors of Dunville & Co. to consult. He had little confidence in the future of Irish whisky and declined to buy Dunville & Co.

The Directors of Dunville & Co. may have been influenced by the views of William Ross. Grain spirit distilling was stopped in 1935 because of overstocking and although the company was still operating and making a profit, it was liquidated in 1936. The stock of whisky and other assets were sold over a period of twelve years, the employees received redundancy payments, and shareholders received three pounds forty pence for every one pound share. The loss of Dunville & Co. did not appear to have been necessary.

After the Liquidation

John Dunville's widow Violet continued to live at Redburn House until her death in 1940. In her Will she left money to relatives, friends and charities, including five hundred pounds for a fund to be known as the John Spencer Dunville, V.C., Trust. This sum was to be invested and the income used to make a gift on each Armistice Day to ex-Servicemen, their dependants or the poor of the Parish of Holywood. As part of the bequest, she requested the Rector and Churchwardens of Holywood Parish Church to place a wreath on each Armistice Day in the form of a Victoria Cross upon the War Memorial in memory of her son, John Spencer Dunville, V.C.

When Violet Dunville died, the Second World War was being fought and Redburn House was commandeered by the Air Ministry to accommodate members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. After the war Redburn House became derelict and vandalised, and it was later demolished. It was replaced first by a hotel, which was converted to a staff members' club for British Petroleum, and then by Holywood Nursing Home. The land was used for a cemetery, a school, a housing estate and Redburn Country Park, which is open to the public.

On the site of Richmond Lodge, which had been the home of the first John Dunville and then his son William Dunville, stands the Knocknagoney housing estate. In the 1950s the buildings of the Royal Irish Distilleries were taken over by a tobacco firm, which eventually abandoned them during the Troubles of the 1970s. In the 1980s they were demolished to make way for the M1 motorway. The Distillery Football Club changed its name in 1999 to Lisburn Distillery, named after the location of its present home ground.

In 1985 there was a major review of the Sorella Trust, which had been founded by William Dunville in memory of his sister Sarah. The review restored the original prestige of the Dunville Studentships. The three-year Studentships are awarded to holders of first class honours degrees in science or engineering, for post-graduate research at Queen's University Belfast. The awards are alternated each year between the field of engineering, physical and applied sciences, and the field of biological sciences.

The chairmanship of Dunville & Co. had passed from father to son or nephew through five generations of Dunvilles. However the fifth chairman, Robert Lambart Dunville, died just nineteen months after his father, the fourth chairman, John Dunville Dunville, and there was no suitable member of the family available to succeed him. Robert's early death in 1931, at the age of thirty-eight, was attributed to the wounds he received when he was shot during the Irish Rising of April 1916. Robert's younger brother John Spencer Dunville had died in 1917, on active service during the First World War. The youngest brother William Gustavus Dunville, the black sheep of the family, was sent first to Australia and then to Canada, where he died in 1956. However the reasons why the Directors were not able to continue the business of Dunville & Co. remain a mystery.

Miles Holroyd


Henry Power Ballagh (edited by Robert Ballagh): Holywood Memories - Growing Up in the Old Town, 2000
Alfred Barnard: Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, 1887
Rosemary Bradley: Redburn Country Park, The Dunville Family
Gordon Bruce: John D Dunville (1866-1929) – Aeronaut
Reverend McConnell Auld M.A.: Forgotten Houses of Holywood, 2003
Reverend McConnell Auld M.A.: Holywood Then and Now, 2002
Gerald Gliddon: VCs of the First World War: Arras & Messines 1917, 1998
Andy Merriman: Tales of Normansfield, 2007
Patrick Moffett: The Dunville Family of Redburn House Holywood 1759-1940
Randal Scott, Ulster Archaeological Society: Redburn Garden Survey Report, 2019
Brian Townsend: The Lost Distilleries of Ireland, 1997


I am also very grateful for the assistance, information and photographs provided by the following people:

John Baker, Chairman, British Balloon Museum and Library
Arlene Bell, Head of Education, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum
Sam Christie, Holywood Explorer and Historian
Christopher Dunville, great-grandson of Robert Lambart Dunville (1893-1931)
Martin Dunville (1922-1992), Dumville and Dunville Family Genealogist
Peter Elliott, Senior Keeper, Department of Research and Information Services, Royal Air Force Museum
Sonja Johnson, who grew up on the Redburn Estate
The Right Reverend Aaron R. Orr, whose father was Provisioner in Holywood
Gordon Thompson (Senior) (1918-2019), son of Tommy Thompson, the Gamekeeper of Redburn
Gordon Thompson (Junior), grandson of Tommy Thompson, the Gamekeeper of Redburn
Terry Thompson, Director of Lisburn Distillery Football Club, previously known as the Distillery Football Club, and Dunville's Whisky Historian
Kirsten Young, granddaughter of William Gustavus Dunville (1900-1956)

The essay also includes original non-internet research by the author.

See also:

The Distillery Line of the Dunvilles

Family Tree

Stories of John Dunville Dunville, CBE, DL (1866-1929)

Robert Lambart Dunville (1893-1931)

Photograph of Robert Grimshaw Dunville (1838-1910)

Photographs of John Dunville Dunville, CBE, DL (1866-1929)

Photograph of Violet Anne Blanche Dunville née Lambart (1861-1940)

Photographs of Robert Lambart Dunville (1893-1931)

Photographs of John Spencer Dunville, VC (1896-1917)

Photographs of Redburn House, Holywood, County Down

Pictures of Dunville & Co. Ltd. Buildings

The Distillery Football Club