The Dunville Family

The heirs of Belfast's whisky business

The Origins of Dunville and Company: John Dumvill
John Dumvill joined the whisky blenders and tea importers Napier and Company, Belfast, in 1801, aged 16. He quickly became a partner in the firm and the name was changed to Dunville and Company in 1825.

John Dunville married Ann Douglas in 1811. In 1845 they moved to the stately Richmond Lodge on the Holywood Road.

William Dunville
When John Dunville died in 1851, his surviving son William succeeded him as chairman of the now large and thriving business. William Dunville was an active member of the Liberal Party and a justice of the peace.

Robert Grimshaw Dunville and Redburn House
William’s nephew Robert Grimshaw Dunville built the magnificent Redburn House, close to Richmond Lodge. Designed by the architectural firm Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon, Redburn had 70 rooms, including a grand entrance hall and ballroom, and was set in 69 hectares of land overlooking Belfast Lough and the Antrim hills.

Robert Grimshaw Dunville became chairman in 1874. He was also a justice of the peace, a deputy lieutenant of Co Down, a high sheriff of Co Meath, a founder member of the Reform Club, and a member of the Liberal Party until William Gladstone advocated Home Rule for Ireland.

Under the chairmanship of Robert Grimshaw Dunville, the annual output of whiskey from Dunville’s Distillery increased from 1.5m gallons in 1887 to 2.5m gallons in 1890.

John Dunville Dunville
When Robert Grimshaw Dunville died in 1910 after 36 years as chairman, he was succeeded by his son John. However John Dunville Dunville’s commitment to ballooning and hunting and to the first world war required him to leave most of the running of the company to the directors and managers.

The First World War
John Dunville joined the Royal Naval Air Service as a flight lieutenant during the first world war. In 1917, he was promoted to wing commander of the No 1 Balloon Training Wing, with over 2000 men under his command. He transferred to the Royal Air Force in 1918, was demobilised in 1919, and then awarded the Commander of the British Empire for his services during the war.

John Dunville’s eldest son Robert Lambart Dunville joined the Grenadier Guards, but was captured at Castle Bellingham, Co Louth, in 1916 by republicans who thought he was a spy. They placed him against a wall and shot him, leaving him for dead, and although he survived, he never fully recovered.

John Dunville’s second son John Spencer died at Epehy in France in 1917. John Spencer Dunville was protecting an NCO who was cutting wire laid by the enemy. Although wounded by enemy fire, he continued to direct his men until the operation was successfully completed. He died from his wounds the next day. John Spencer was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, and a stained glass window in the entrance hall to Redburn House was one of several memorials dedicated to him.

Robert Lambart Dunville
Robert Lambart Dunville collected wild animals from all over the world and kept them in a private zoo in the grounds of Redburn House.

When John Dunville died in 1929, Robert Lambart Dunville succeeded him as chairman of Dunville and Company, although he continued to suffer poor health. In 1930 Robert and his wife embarked on a voyage to South Africa and Australia, but while in Johannesburg in January 1931, he developed an illness and died at the age of 38. The animals from his private zoo passed into the care of Belfast Zoological Gardens, which opened to the public in 1934.

After the death of Robert Lambart Dunville, no one from the family could succeed as chairman and Dunville and Company appeared to lose its driving force. Although the company continued to operate and make a profit, it was liquidated in 1936 and the stock of whiskey sold.

John Dunville’s widow Violet continued to live at Redburn House until her death in 1940.

© Miles Holroyd