Exiles Forum

Lisburn, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland

“A Short History of Railway Street Presbyterian Church, Lisburn up to 1930.”

by Robert Victor (Robin) Hamilton

The late Very Rev. Dr. Robert Wilson Hamilton

The late Very Rev. Dr. Robert Wilson Hamilton pictured in his Moderatorial Robes as Moderator of the General Assembly 1924 to 1925. 

The late Very Rev. Dr. Robert Wilson Hamilton

The late Very Rev. Dr. Robert Wilson Hamilton pictured in his Moderatorial Robes as Moderator of the General Assembly 1924 to 1925. 

 The late Very Rev. Dr. Robert Wilson Hamilton, third minister of Railway Street Presbyterian Church, 1885 to 1935, and Moderator of the General Assembly 1924 to 1925.  Dr. Hamilton wrote a book entitled “A Short Family and Personal History” which includes a few notes written by his grandson James Victor Hamilton, who arranged the publication of the book.  His book can be seen on this web site by clicking on: A short family and personal history  1851 - 1935.

The late Robert Victor (Robin) Hamilton

The late Robert Victor (Robin) HamiltonThe late Robert Victor (Robin) Hamilton was the second son of the Very Rev. Dr. Robert Wilson Hamilton.  Robin, a solicitor, lived at Belvedere, 40 North Circular Road, Lisburn.  He was a lifelong member of Railway Street congregation and for many years was advisor to the Church Committee.  He produced this typewritten document entitled “A Short History of Railway Street Church, Lisburn up to 1930” detailing the formation of the congregation and the planning and building of the church.  However, although it was written with meticulous accuracy and expertise, the document was never officially published.  The research contained in this document was largely used to compile several historical articles and it will for many years to come, continue to be a very important part of the history of Railway Street Presbyterian Church, Lisburn.

James Victor Hamilton

James Victor Hamilton James Victor Hamilton is the grandson of the Very Rev. Dr. Robert Wilson Hamilton, and son of Robert Victor (Robin) Hamilton who lived at Belvedere, 40 North Circular Road, Lisburn.  Victor, like his father Robin, was also a solicitor.  Now retired and living in Holywood, Victor is currently providing invaluable assistance in researching the history of Railway Street Presbyterian Church for a book being produced to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the formation of the congregation on 13th November 1860.  Also, as mentioned above, Victor was responsible for the publication of his grandfather’s book entitled “A Short Family and Personal History” and the book includes a few notes added by Victor.

The Hamilton family grave at Lisburn cemetery.

The Hamilton family grave at Lisburn cemetery.

The Hamilton family grave at Lisburn cemetery.

James Victor Hamilton pictured at the Hamilton family grave at Lisburn cemetery in 2005.


Window in memory of the Very Rev. Dr. Robert Wilson Hamilton

A stained glass church window erected by the congregation in remembrance of the Very Reverend Dr. Robert Wilson Hamilton, M.A., D.D., who died on 12th October 1935, was unveiled on Sunday 19th June 1938 by Dr. Hamilton’s older son, Dr. Burt Hamilton from Manchester.

The window depicts Jesus saying to Peter “Feed my Sheep.”

The inscription on the window is:

To the Glory of God and in affectionate remembrance
of the Very Reverend R. W. Hamilton M.A., D.D.,
died 12th October 1935, for 50 years the faithful and beloved
minister of this congregation.

Erected by the members, 1938.

Window in memory of Dr. R. W. Hamilton’s wife Martha Lilian

A stained glass church window erected by the congregation in remembrance of the Very Reverend Dr. Robert Wilson Hamilton’s wife Martha Lilian, who died on 7th February 1928, was unveiled on Sunday 1st March 1931 by Dr. Hamilton’s older son, Dr. Burt Hamilton from Manchester.

The window depicts Jesus holding a child and saying,
“Suffer the little children to come unto me”.

The inscription on the window is:

Erected by the congregation to the Glory of God,
and in loving memory of
Martha Lilian Hamilton who died 7th February 1928.

“Suffer The Little Children To Come Unto Me.”

First Lisburn, one of the earliest Presbyterian Congregations in Ireland started in the 17th Century, found their Church at the time of the 1859 Revival quite inadequate to hold all its people.  So a substantial body of the members decided to go out and found a second Church.  The first reference in the Minutes of the Dromore Presbytery under date 7th December 1859 records that a Memorial was read from a number of Presbyterians residing in Lisburn and its vicinity asking the Presbytery to erect them into a congregation and supply them with the preaching of the Gospel.

The Presbytery appointed a Commission to deal with the matter and also asked the Belfast Presbytery to co-operate.  It has to be remembered that 1st Lisburn at this time and for many years after belonged to the Belfast Presbytery.

On 3rd January 1860 the Commission reports that the Belfast Presbytery would not co-operate but that “they are of the unanimous opinion that a Second Presbyterian congregation in that place is imperatively called for”.  At this meeting a Memorial from upwards of 120 people who promised to pay about £40 per annum being read the Presbytery resolved:  “That the Memorialists be supplied with the preaching of the Gospel …… at half past 4 each Sabbath”.  Suppliers were to be paid 15/-.  The Commission of the Presbytery included the Rev. Moorhead of Loughaghery, grandfather of Mrs. T.H. McDonald.

The difficulty of finding temporary premises in which to hold Services and a site on which to build a Church proved considerable.  With undue optimism they thought that Dean Stannus, Rector of the Cathedral and Agent for the Marquis of Hertford, might assist.  A deputation requested him to permit Services in the Court House.  This latter request was refused and as to a site the fiat was believed to be:  “From Dunmurry to Ballinderry not one foot of ground shall be granted for such a purpose”.  However Mr Jonathan Richardson of Killeaton, to whose memory all honour, came to the rescue and permitted the new Congregation to worship in a hall or loft in Castle Street where they remained for upwards of three years.

At this early juncture there was one of the very rare controversies that split the congregation into two parties.  One desired to call the Rev. John Powell, a minister without charge from the South of Ireland, who conducted services in Lisburn and at times supplied 2nd Lisburn for the Presbytery.  The other favoured Mr. David John Clarke, a licentiate of the Down Presbytery.  On the latter being called in 1861 Mr. Powell applied to the Secession Synod and founded what is now known as Sloan Street Congregation.  Mr. John Sloan of Plantation House, an elder in Railway Street and father of James E. Sloan, who later on presented the site of the Fort Manse, gave some ground in Sloan Street and the building now used as a Primary School was erected.  Mr. Powell was followed by the Rev. J. W. Gamble and in 1887 they joined the General Assembly.

David John Clarke.
On the new Minister there thus fell a heavy burden.  He had to provide a Church and a Manse and he had to seek to weld together a congregation which had already shown some sign of disintegrating.  Mr. Clarke was a son of the Manse.  His father, the Rev. Thomas Clarke, was the Minister of Magherahamlet, near Ballynahinch.  When he received the call to Lisburn he was only twenty-six.  He had been educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, the old Queens’s College and the Assembly’s College.  He was clearly a man of very considerable ability and faced up to his various difficulties bravely.

The first committee elected in November 1860 consisted of:  W.J. Harvey, Treasurer; John Anderson, Francis Smith, Secretary; David Graham, Chairman, Andrew Todd, Henry Colvin, James Meneilly, Hugh Brownlee, William Beggs, William Innis, John McClung, Jas.Chambers and Robert Edmunston.  No session appears to have been appointed till 1868.

Having failed to get any of the undeveloped land, of which there was plenty, from the Dean, our forbears were fortunate when the present site came on the market.  It cost about £350.  Building the Church cost about £2000.  Subsequently the Schools at the back about 1869 and the Manse, with small house adjoining, lying to the north of the Church, were erected.  Mr Clarke lived in the small house and the larger house intended as a Manse was let.

On 29th March 1863 the foundation stone of the new Church was laid by John Lyttle, Mayor of Belfast and on 6th March 1864 the Reverend Doctors Henry Cooke and James Morgan came from Belfast to preach the opening sermons.  Dr. Cooke was then of May Street and his Statue commonly known as ‘the Black Man’ stands in front of Inst.  Dr. Morgan had been in 1st Lisburn but was now in the old Fisherwick Church on the site of the Church House, Fisherwick Place.

The Presbytery meeting for the first time in the new Church on 5th April 1864 passed a vote of thanks to Mr. Jonathan Richardson for providing the temporary premises in Castle Street, and congratulated the members on the “taste and beauty” of their “most elegant Church”.

During these early years William Barbour, J.P., the founder of the Hilden firm of Linen Thread Manufacturers and grandfather of the late Sir. J. Milne Barbour, Bart., was a tower of strength to the young congregation.  The tablet erected after his death in 1875, close to the seat he occupied describes him as “one of the first members and the most munificent contributor to the funds of the Church”.  At one point he offered pound for pound for pound in connection with a special effort and wrote a cheque for £436 to meet the liability.

So in 1866 Mr. Clarke was able to report this to the Presbytery and that the Congregation was almost free from debt.  The Presbytery recorded this in their Minutes and appointed a deputation to wait on Mr. Barbour and convey to him a resolution acknowledging his “princely liberality”.

The first elders, elected in September 1868, were:  David Graham, Henry Colvin, John Ellison, Fredric Duncan and Robert Henry.  In 1871 John Sloan, John Neill and Alexander Davison were added.

In 1878 Mr. Clarke died.  He was only forty-five and apparently had been in poor health for some time.  By this time there were about 220 families and about 200 Stipend payers.

When one considers the comparatively small numbers one has to realise that Mr. Clarke in building a Church of this size was courageously looking ahead.

He was keenly interested in education and was for a while Manager of four National Schools:  The Boys and Girls Schools behind the Church, The Hilden School and the School at Largymore.  This last finally involved him in a lawsuit in which he was evicted from the School at the instigation of the Lisburn Estate office of the Marquis of Hertford.  It is clear that he never managed to be ‘persona grata’ with the potentates.

Largymore School had been erected by Captain Bolton, R.N., a public-spirited gentleman, who had obtained a lease from the Marquis.  It was generally known as ‘Bolton’s School’.  The Captain furnished the School, paid the teachers, and defrayed all expenses; no doubt it filled a very useful place in that end of the town.  On his death the Estate Office took over its management and later on it was handed over to the Cathedral.

For several years Mr. Clarke acted as one of the honorary Secretaries of the Bible & Colportage Society and in his earlier days had worked for a time with the Belfast Town Mission.  He was a member of the Relief Committee and took a very active part in the work in connection with the Cotton Famine (1862-3), due to the American Civil War, which caused great hardship in Lisburn.

Mrs. Clarke (formerly Mrs. McKinstry) survived her husband for many years and will be remembered as a regular attender at the Church Services.

James Lyle Bigger
Mr. Clarke’s successor was a man of rather a different stamp.  He was a most distinguished Scholar and had achieved countless successes in the Schools and Universities he attended.  He was a son of William Finlay Bigger, J.P., a member of the well-known family in Londonderry who are still leaders in the Pork Curing trade in Ulster.

In 1870 he entered the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.  From there he proceeded to the old Queen’s College, Belfast where he obtained 1st Class Honours in the B.A. and M.A. examinations.  From Queen’s he went to Edinburgh University where he was awarded a B.D.  He also attended Magee University College, Londonderry, where he was afterwards a Professor.  The Bigger Memorial Prize in Hebrew is called after him and is still annually awarded at Magee.

Mr. Bigger was licensed to preach on 6th May and on 16th October 1879 was ordained as successor to Mr. Clarke.  Although lacking in parochial experience Mr. Bigger, during his short stay, proved a worthy successor to Mr. Clarke.  In those days Bible Classes were not as common as they became later and Mr. Bigger was a born teacher.  The result was that even members of the Church of Ireland and Methodists were in the habit of attending his classes.

Another matter that exercised him was the raising of money to clear off the building debt.  During his stay something like £1400 was raised towards meeting the old debt and for Church extension.  It was during his ministry that the wall round the Church property was erected.

It was hardly likely that a man of his scholarly tastes would spend his life in Parish work and so there was little surprise when in 1885 he accepted the Chair of Oriental Literature and Hermeneutics at Magee.  Here he remained till his early death in 1890.

He was a member of the Royal Asiatic Society and it is to him that the early interest of the congregation in Foreign Missions may be attributed.  Among his published works, were ‘The Revised Pentateuch’ and ‘The Battle Address of Abijah.’

Mr. Bigger resided at ‘Elmwood’ on the Belsize Road and his first advice to his successor was never to live in the Manse in Railway Street.  In fact it was always well let and none of the Ministers ever lived in it.  Mrs. Bigger, who like her husband, was extremely popular was a daughter of Professor Watts of Belfast and like Mrs. Clarke survived her husband for many years.

Robert Wilson Hamilton
While the first two Ministers had but short reigns, the next one remained in Lisburn for 50 years from his arrival in 1885.  He was the son of Henry Stewart Hamilton of Trentagh House, St. Johnston, County Donegal, and at the time of his Call to Railway Street was placed in Burt, a few miles from Londonderry.  Obviously he was well known to Mr. Bigger.  So although the ‘Call’, which is still extant, is signed by all and sundry, there is little doubt that Mr. Bigger chose his successor.

In so far as Mr. Hamilton was known at all to members of the Congregation it was due to his taking part in a series of Evalangelistic Services in Belfast the previous winter and to having preached once in Railway Street.  At an early age he had gone to America and there coming under the influence of the well known Rev. Dr. John Hall, had thrown up a promising business career and entered Princeton University.  Here he obtained an M.A. degree.  Later on, in 1924, when he became Moderator of the General Assembly, Princeton awarded him an honorary D.D.

His health, in America, not being too good, he came back to the old country and took his Theological Course at Magee and Edinburgh University.

In 1880 he was called to Burt, County Donegal, where he was of course among his ‘ain folk’.  His interest in the land, in horses and in flowers remained with him even after a lifetime in Lisburn.

Although the name of the Congregation was not officially changed from ‘2nd Lisburn’ to ‘Railway Street’ till the year 1894 the Menu at the Ordination on 8th October 1885 is headed ‘Railway Street Presbyterian Church’.

 Hand written addition here:

The Rev. W. Moorhead of Loughaghery, son of the member of the original Commission mentioned above, once remarked that his chief recollection of the services in Castle Street was the new congregation did not want to be called “2nd Lisburn”.

By 1885 the Church was showing every sign of prosperity and it is unlikely that any new arrival will be offered such an array of viands.  After toying with Oxtail or Oyster Soup, one had a choice of 5 joints followed by Roast Turkey or Roast Chicken.  Six sweets came next and the speeches which followed seemed to be on the same generous scale.

There were about 272 families and the new Minister found himself in a very different atmosphere from Donegal.  He was a scholar like Mr. Bigger.  But he was young, enthusiastic and evangelistic.  On the whole, the part of his work he liked best was the going out and in among the people he came to love so much.

He was appointed, almost at once, Chaplain to the Workhouse, now the Lagan Valley Hospital, but then, especially in winter, crammed with ‘Casuals’.  There was a Service for the inmates every Sunday afternoon and in those days many a hard body ended his or her days in ‘The Big House’.

Two things seem to have impressed one coming from the country.  First, it is not easy to bring up a family on 12/= a week if you live in a town.  14/= or 15/= per week was an exceptionally good wage.  Second, the drunkenness in Lisburn on a Saturday night had to be seen to be believed.  Liquor was cheap – Stout at 1½ d and Whiskey at 2/6 or less a bottle.  “Look at me for 4d” was something more than a joke.  Nor was it much fun to the Mill owner to find that after a pleasant Sunday as bona fide travellers his key workers were not in their best form on Monday morning.

The ladies of the Congregation formed a Dorcas Society, visited the poorer members, especially those with young children and at Christmas parcels and money were distributed.

In 1890 the Temperance Institute was built to a great extent with money provided by members of the Society of Friends and the Owners of the principal Mills.

The congregation came to take an increased interest in Foreign Missions and when the first World Wide Missionary Conference was held in Exeter Hall in 1888 Mr. Hamilton represented the Irish Presbyterian Church.

As the years went on there was a good deal of building.  The Lecture Hall, with its furnishings, cost about £500 in 1887.  The Upper Room was formerly approached by a stairway from outside.  This was reconstructed and Side Galleries put into the Church at a cost of about £1400.  Mrs. Robert Barbour of New Jersey, a daughter in law of William Barbour, who always worshipped here when in Ireland, lent the Fort House and a most successful Bazaar was held in 1896.

At an early date the Committee desired to build a new Manse and had gone the length of getting the Presbytery’s consent to sell the original Manse and small house near by in 1886.  They picked what is now Fort Hill as a suitable site.  Sir Richard Wallace, however, objected as he feared building there would interfere with the view from the Castle (now the Technical School) and its gardens which ran down to the Railway.

By 1899 Sir Richard and Lady Wallace were dead and the estate had, for the most part, been sold.  Mr. James Edgar Sloan, U.D.C. of Plantation House, a son of the John Sloan mentioned above, now the purchaser of the Fort Hill and a staunch member of the Congregation, offered the present site as a free gift.  So the Fort Manse was built in 1900 at a cost of about £1100.

Under the will of Miss. Isabella Brownlee whose family had been connected with the Congregation pretty well from the start, the Church benefited considerably.

In particular it made possible, with the assistance of the National Board of  Education the erection and equipment in 1913 of the Brownlee Memorial Schools and Teachers Residence at a cost of about £7000.

These were subsequently transferred to the Regional Education Committee, but the congregation is still represented on the Management Committee.

1910 was Jubilee Year.  The congregation had been formed for 50 years. And Mr. Hamilton had been Minister for twenty-five.  So there was a great Congregation Meeting on 16th November.  Mr. James Carson, whose ‘Letters of a Banker’ in the ‘Lisburn Standard’ are still remembered, gave a short history of the congregation and presentations were made to Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton.

John McClung was the one survivor present of the foundation office bearers 50 years before.

The Members of Session in 1910 were:  William J. Fraser, J.P. (Clerk of Session), David Kilpatrick, Hugh G. Larmor, J.P., (Treasurer) David McCluggage, John McClung, John McKittrick and J. Laurence Rentoul, M.B., J.P.  The Secretary was George Duncan and the Assistant Treasures Hugh Maybin, B.A.

On the death of Mrs. Elise Milne Barbour it was found that she had left £250 to the Congregation.  Her husband (afterwards the Rt. Hon. Sir Milne Barbour Bart P.C., M.P.) enquired how it was proposed to use this.  As there had been, back to the days of William Barbour, an afternoon Sunday School, run by the Church, in the Mill Dining Room, it was felt that this might be used as the nucleus of a Hall in Hilden where the Sunday Schools and other meetings could be held.  In the end Sir Milne built the E.M.B. Hall and generously added to the endowment.

Naturally some changes took place over the years.  Fermented wine ceased to be used at Communion in 1889; Hymns and ultimately in 1908 an organ were introduced.  The present instrument and the clock in the gallery being a gift from the late James Crossin, J.P.

There were, of course, a few breezes as it would hardly be expected that all the older members would welcome such innovations.  But there was never a real storm.

Numerous Series of Evangelistic Services took place and there will be some who remembered:- John Anderson of Paisley, the Rev. Andrew Boyd, the Rev. Gordon Clements, John Quincey Adams Henry, William Nicholson and La Marechale.

By 1898/9 it was found desirable to have an Assistant.  The first one was the Rev. Steele H. Rentoul, a son of the Rev. James Rentoul of Dromore.  His successors are dotted all over the province and some like himself and the Very. Rev. A.W. Neill, who died in his Moderatorial year, have passed on.

In 1924 Mr. Hamilton was made Moderator and in 1928 Mrs. Hamilton, who had taken an immense interest in the work of the congregation and for many years conducted a Bible Class for Young women died.

In 1930 Dr. Hamilton (as he had then become) retired and on 12th October 1935 he died.


Apart from work in connection with the General Assembly in which he remained interested to the last, he was on numerous public boards.  He was Governor of the Co. Antrim Infirmary (now the Lisburn Hospital), of the Intermediate School (now the Wallace High School), and of Princess Gardens School in Belfast.  He was a member of the Committees of the Assembly’s College in Belfast, of the Temperance Institute and of the Thompson Memorial Home.

There are tablets in the Vestibule giving the names of those who served in the 1914 –18 war and those who fell in the 1939 to 1945 war and there is a stained glass window in the Church to the Memory of the fallen in the first of these wars.

Other tablets are to the memory of:

The Rev. D.J. Clarke.

The Rev. J.L. Bigger, M.A., B.D.

William Barbour, J.P. who died 6th September 1875

Miss Isabella Brownlee who died 8th January 1909.

Frederic Duncan, for 37 years an elder, who died 28th June 1905.

James Edgar Sloan, U.D.C. who died 20th September 1910.

Hugh Graham Larmor, J.P., who for 40 years filled different offices in the Church and died 18th May 1925.

Other stained glass windows are in Memory of:

Frederic Duncan (mentioned above) and his wife Margaretta.

Johnston Hunter Thompson, Sergeant 1st Batt. Irish Guards who died from the effects of War Service 9th March 1921.

Mrs. Martha Lillian Hamilton who died 7th February 1928.

The Very. Rev. Robert Wilson Hamilton, M.A., D.D.

Thomas George McNally, for many years an active member of Committee, who died 26th May 1925.





(a) 618

Mrs. Archibald McAfee

Poor of Church

(b) 105

Archibald McAfee

Church upkeep

(c) 200

Sir Richard Wallace Bart & Sir John Murray Scott Bart.


(d) 250

Mrs. Elise Milne Barbour 

E.M.B. Hall

(d) 1590

The Rt. Hon. Sir John Milne Barbour Bart

     ""       ""

(e) 550

Miss Isabella Brownlee

Church upkeep, Stipend. Sustentation, School Prizes.

(f) 200

Hugh Graham Larmor, J.P.

Dependents of breadwinners undergoing operation.

(g) circ162  per annum

Miss Isabella Brownlee

Assistant, Presbytery Prizes, annum. Belfast ground rents Poor, Institute Library, Church and Irish charities, Blaris graves

(h) 300

Miss Jessie Sloan

Stipend, Poor, Blaris Graves.

(i) 100

James Crossin, J.P.

Sabbath Schools.

(j) 750 

Proceeds sale old Manse

Church Funds.

(k) 200

Reps. William Barbour, J.P.

Stipend and Church Funds.

(L) 280

Miss Jane Lillie Brownlee

School, Church Repairs and Stipend.

(m) 300

Mrs. J.D. Hamilton

Poor, Brownlee School and E.M.B. Hall.

(n) 50

William J. Heron

Church Repairs.

(o) 50

James Archer


(p) 500

 Miss Annie Anderson

Grave Funds, Blaris grave 2½% Consols and Wreaths