In second childhood old folks tend to relive their first, and as I had lived for many years at Glenmore House, Lambeg, the site of the Linen Industry Research Association, it was the site of my recollections. I wondered how it had changed with time and thought that perhaps someone there now might possibly tell me something of the changes in the last 80 years — but my letter to the Institute came back as "No such address." The Web advised me that the Institute had been closed and also that there was now a Linen Museum in Lisburn. Of course, what I wanted to know about were childish things — the trees I had climbed, the river and the pools that defined my life. Now, instead of asking questions, I am trying to recapture something of life there as seen in the mind's eye. It seems a pretty good bet that no one will find interest in my recollections, but here they come anyway.
Quentin H. Gibson with his father, W.H. Gibson, Director of LIRA, at Glenmore House, Lambeg c. 1931
In 1926, when my father was appointed Director we were living in Bangor, quite a formidable commute to Lambeg. In any case, at that time the Director was required to live at the Institute and an early order of business was to decide where in the 42-room pile we would actually live. As a temporary solution to the travel problem, Father was driven up by a Newtownards man, Sam Mulholland, in our rather antique Calcott car, and one day Mother and I came too so that she could see the rooms and the furniture that the departing Director ( J. Vargas Eyre) offered to sell us. It was a fresh clay with occasional sun — probably in the autumn. Eyre had used several of the public rooms in the newer part of the house but Mother did not want this grandeur, and the little piles of sawdust beneath the furniture advised against its purchase.
Father wanted to use the large building for research anyway, so the original house (at a guess about 120 to 150 years old at the time) was rearranged for us with a new staircase and front door. It was a single row of rooms on two floors, along two corridors each 23 yards long — the length of a cricket pitch, Father said. It was a very solid construction with walls at least 2 feet thick and windows equipped with thick wooden shutters closed by iron bars about 2 inches wide running right across them — perhaps originally meant to defend against the local citizenry. They worked well, allowing me to do photography in my bedroom. There was a system for summoning domestic help with wires used to ring small bells. These were operated by rotating a handle that agitated the bells hanging in a row in the kitchen. A parallel system with push buttons operated electromagnets that rang a bell and oscillated a small card, identifying the room for which the service was called.
Besides our family, Dr Nodder, his wife and family lived in one of two smaller houses facing on to the Lambeg Road. C. Nodder was in charge of chemistry which operated in a large room looking out on the lawn in front of the old part of the house. At least two or three single staff members lived in houses opening on to the main yard. In addition, there were two traditional gate lodges with gardeners, and another gate with a small house on two floors occupied by Dr Adelaide Davin, Chief of Botany. Presumably, in more spacious days, all of this accommodation was needed for workers on the estate. Everyone else lived in Belfast and commuted on the GNR, about 25 minutes for the 7 miles — with Adelaide, Balmoral, Finaghy, Dunmurry, Derriaghy preceding Lambeg, followed by Hilden and Lisburn. There were no cooking facilities, so people brown-bagged it. Then after eating their sandwiches they could walk round the grounds. At one time there had been a formal walk around the perimeter — down the main drive with its fine double row of trees, left along the foot of the railway embankment, over to the edge of the Lagan, and then back to the Institute — avoiding the steep slope used for dumping domestic rubbish down to the river. This was only useful on fine days in summer, of course. An alternative was a 9-hole putting course. This was quite challenging as several of the holes were laid out on a steep slope punctuated by a tall monkey puzzle tree and a larch, so as to call for an 5-shaped trajectory. There was also a grass tennis court at the back of the house, with the original nets around as well as across the court. The marking machine was still there and operational and on summer Saturdays a fair number of staff would stay on and play until the evening. The court lay east and west and although a line of trees had been planted across the west end they were not dense enough to cope with the setting sun. In the 1940s the court was used for sheds for spinning machinery. This must have darkened the rooms on the ground floor that used to look out on the court.
It was a wonderful place for a small child. There was always something going on, with thirteen acres of estate and two acres of kitchen garden. In the early years oats were grown to feed the donkey that pulled a small cart. These were harvested by men with scythes, and at least one shotgun for the rabbits expected to be trapped in the diminishing island of oats. After threshing, they were dried in a special building behind the yard with a perforated iron floor to allow warm air from a stove to percolate through them. In summer, corncrakes lived among the crops and their harsh calls competed with drummers trying out their Lambegs for the Glorious Twelfth. Later, agriculture was given up except for plots of Dr Davin's flax plants, and in one year, an acre or two of hemp — another bast fibre of course.
|W.H. Gibson, Director of LIRA, with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, outside Glenmore House, 1933.|
The garden had 15-foot high brick walls with pear trees trained up their south face. Unfortunately, the pears were small and never seemed to ripen. A plum tree bore abundant fruit dusted with a bright bloom — but far too sour for my taste. All three kinds of currants were well represented, along with excellent gooseberries. There were also raspberries but the nets for them did not protect them sufficiently from the birds. There was a line of glasshouses, potting sheds and yet another little house built right up against the railway embankment. Its second floor was only a few feet lower than the track, and later allowed me to photograph the trains.
I suppose having the main Belfast-Dublin line run across the foot of your grounds would be an estate-agent's nightmare but I loved watching the trains go by — especially after four new locomotives from the Baldwin works in Pennsylvania with bright blue boilers hauled the expresses to the South. Freight trains were mostly operated at night and were often held up at Hilden. The cars were loosely coupled with chains, and stopped with loud clanks as each overtook the one in front. This system allowed the locomotives to take the load up piecemeal.
Some of the systems were archaic. The water for the gate lodge on the main Lisburn Road came from a spring about a hundred yards along the embankment where there was a cemented basin to collect water for a bucket. Lizzie Reid, who lived with her family in the lodge, carried all her water from the spring to the house. The big house got its potable water from a well underneath it. This was furnished with a hand pump lifting it to a tank in the roof space. Two men had to pump it every clay and, if the level fell too far, priming was a serious problem.
The electrical arrangements had been well planned and executed when the big house was built. A large room and a smaller one at one corner of the yard housed a kerosene engine of maybe 10 hp. It was a compression ignition type and the head had to be heated with a large blowtorch so that it could be started. Power was taken off by belts with a shaft across the room to drive a large dynamo. To start, two (or better, three) men would take hold of the flywheel and the belts and spin the motor, which then stuttered away all clay and sometimes far into the night. In cold weather this could easily take half an hour, and there was always the excitement of wondering if it would start at all! The dynamo provided 115 V DC, charging up 50 or so storage cells in large glass tanks ringing the smaller battery room. There was power for lighting only, though my mother had an electric smoothing iron. It was well to alert old Bell, the man in charge of electrics, before using it. Fuel came in a truck loaded with 2-gallon cans. This system continued until the grid reached Lambeg sometime in the thirties. The engine was retired and replaced by a small electric motor mounted on the dynamo — a ridiculously small object compared with the machinery it had replaced. By stages the building was rewired, but the process was not complete by the beginning of World War II.
For me, there was a special attraction near the fence towards Richardson, Sons & Owden's bleachworks where linen was still spread out in the fields. There were two experimental retting tanks, long disused and taken over by a variety of water plants and insects. I used to watch the larvae of the water beetles — occasionally even the large Dytiscus marginalis, the frogs, and mosquito larvae. Later, Daphnia and Cyclops were common, viewed with a low power microscope. Only now do I realize these tanks were potential death traps - the water level was several feet below the edge, and once in there I could no more have got out than the frogs that had chosen the tanks as a place to hibernate. The river was an attraction too, and the flash of a kingfisher flying by a few feet away is still vivid in memory. There were swans on the river and on the canal, but I had been warned and I treated them with respect. Later, the open space provided for kites and flying model aeroplanes, and a reservoir built later served for sailing toy boats (another authentic death trap). All this water had a downside. Gnats were all pervasive, and at some times of the year danced in clouds dense enough to be easily seen near the building as bats swooped through them, seemingly without exhausting the supply.
Trees were another resource. There was a magnificent holly close to the end of the old part of the house. It was easy to climb and offered a seating place on a limb about 15 feet up where, with a cushion, I could sit and read. Near the low point of the front lawn there was a big horse chestnut with a small tombstone marking the grave of the owner's dog. When sent away to school I always hoped to use some of its nuts for conkers, but the calendar never allowed them to ripen sufficiently to be effective. I worked at knocking some down all the same. Altogether a wonderful place to grow up in!
Editor's note: The Linen Industry Research Association was set up in 1919 to establish government-backed scientific research into all branches of the linen industry. The headquarters and research laboratories were located at Glenmore House, Lambeg, near Lisburn, County Antrim. W H. Gibson, the father of the author, was awarded a MBE in 1918 and an OBE in 1920 for work on high explosives research during World War I. He served as Director of LIRA between 1926-40, when he rejoined Woolwich Arsenal
LIRA's activities at Glemore continued until it was closed down in the early 1990s. Glenmore House has been converted into residential apartments. LIRA's extensive research library was purchased by Lisburn City Council and is now housed in the Irish Linen Centre Lisburn Museum where it is open to the public.