"The Sale of Belfast" 1846-1856
Donegall Estate. Thomas Verner Jr. His Papers.
A large archive of correspondence, including a small group of printed documents, totaling approximately 700 pieces, covering the period 1840-1861, all addressed to Thomas Verner Jr., of Belfast. The majority, some 400 items, pertain to Verner's role as receiver in the bankruptcy sale of portions of the landed property comprising the Donegall Estate in Northern Ireland, particularly Antrim County, wherein is situated the town of Belfast, destined to be broken up and sold, largely to resident lease holders.
The archive consists of some 700 documents, mostly manuscript, with a few printed items, covering the period 1840 to 1861, all addressed to Verner, the majority of which pertains to the sale of the Donegall estate. These range from single-page remittances and receipts, of which there are many, to substantial letters on contentious issues. Four such letters are from Lord Donegall who otherwise does not figure here among Verner’s numerous correspondents. It was especially during the period 1846 to 1856 that Verner, acting as receiver for the Donegall Estate (he was dismissed as receiver in 1855) and agent for Lord Donegall, played a key role in seeing through the sale of Belfast and portions of its environs. The documents pertaining to this period number approximately 400. This portion of the archive involves numerous players—the Encumbered Estates Court; solicitors for both Donegall and his creditors; the tenants themselves who used their leverage to good effect; and of course, Thomas Verner. Given its size and level of detail it well illustrates the interaction among these different parties that left Lord Donegall no choice but to settle for low offers and sell what was necessary to regain solvency. It likewise illustrates the fraught relationship between landlord and tenant; the complexity of the system of land tenure; the financial web involved in the discharge of debt; and, overall, nitty gritty of the daily business of settling the estate. The entire archive also provides a rich source of genealogical and topographical information for Belfast and its environs.
For the preceding period 1840 to 1845 there are 33 documents which appear to relate to Verner’s personal (mostly financial) affairs. For the period 1857 to 1861 there are 98 documents which pertain largely to Verner’s own interest in the Cave Hill Railway Works in Belfast, and in nearby limestone quarries. Given his ruptured relationship with Verner beginning in 1855, Donegall would have no reason to be involved. Earlier, in the period 1846-1849, Verner may or may not have had some equity in Donegall’s interests. It is not altogether clear from these documents. In 1855, when Verner’s role as solicitor terminated, Donegall pressed Verner for settlement of their accounts, which could mean funds for which Verner was merely caretaker, or funds which represented his share in particular enterprises, or both. The details of Verner’s own investments, his dismissal as receiver, and his conflict with Donegall that followed are detailed below. Here we give priority to the 400 documents that cover the crucial period 1846-1856, during which the sale of the estate was accomplished. This is organized under four categories, with some overlap:
1. First and foremost are those items that document the sale and dispersal of properties in Belfast and environs to existing tenants who are enabled by circumstance and the intervention of the Encumbered Estates Court to buy out their leases. It is clear that this is a buyer’s market. Critical to the progress of the sales is Lord Donegall’s solicitor, James Torrens, who, through Verner, frequently advises and persuades Donegall to accept offers. Included are:
Numerous proposals by prospective resident buyers to purchase their existing leases, transmitted by Torrens, along with remarks on desirability of sale, questionable leases, various legal conflicts, etc. Some representative examples: 3 March 1846; 7, 8 & 9 April 1846; 23 May 1846; 2 Dec. 1848; 16 Jan. 1849; 8 Aug. 1849; 30 Oct. 1849; 9 Nov. 1949; 9 Sept. 1850; 21 Feb 1851; 17 Feb. 1851; 24 & 26 April 1851; 28 Nov. 1851; 3 & 11 March 1852; 15 May 1852; 8 June 1852. There are others too numerous to cite.
Orders from the Encumbered Estates Court to accept offers, even at depressed prices, from individual small tenants. 12 Nov. 1852; 16 Dec. 1852. A court order for the sale of property needed for the new customs house: 3 Sept. 1852. Other court orders to submit information on deeds, leases, etc.
Sales of special properties such as mills (3 March 1852; 25 May 1852).
But this is not all about alienation of estate lands. The estate also continues to hold and lease lands that would contribute funds needed to liquidate the debt. There are, for example, documents pertaining to:
A lease given for a stream of water for driving a threshing machine, accompanied by a large folding manuscript color map of the property through which it runs, located in Coggrey and Ballyclare (9 Dec. 1853).
There are also leases relating to mines (13 June 1853 10 Jan. 1854); to fisheries and water rights (30 March 1846; 22 Dec. 1847; 11 Nov. 1848; 2 Dec. 1848; 2 Feb. 1849*; 29 & 30 June 1849; 6 Feb. 1851; 3, 4, & 7 Dec. 1852). And Railroads—leases, etc. to the Belfast & Ballymena Railway (20 May 1846; 28 March 1853). Leases, etc. to the Cave Hill Railway (28 July 1847; 11 Aug. 1847; 25 June 1849). Verner would later (1857-1861) have a serious interest of his own in these lines; whether he shared the income from these earlier leases is, as noted above, unclear.
2. Closely related to the above are documents that pertain to the payment of interest and principle to creditors. First among the latter is an encumbrancer named John Turner to whom was owed interest on mortgage debt charged to the estate. “Lord Donegall’s estate came into the hands of the [Encumbered Estate Court] commissioners as the result of a petition (dated 29 Dec. 1849) [by Turner] who had been trying since 1844 to obtain settlement of two mortgage debts totaling L 34,000.” (Maguire 574). It is this action, Turner v. Donegall, that precipitated the wider sale of Belfast and some of its environs. Turner’s solicitor, John Wallace, figures heavily in the correspondence. He serves in effect as an adjunct to the Encumbrance court, doing all he can to facilitate or force the realization of sales so that his client can be repaid. In doing so he also often represents the interests of the tenant wishing to purchase his present lease.
Here is correspondence from Wallace requesting surveys; maps; valuations; court orders; information on leases and interest payments—whatever is necessary to finalize sales. We cite several representative examples: 10 Feb. 1850; 21 Aug. 1853; 16 Dec. 1850; 1 Jan 1853; also 14, 16 & 19 July 1853, at which time Verner is threatened with loss of receivership if he fails to comply. And 3 Dec. 1852—a folio manuscript copy of an order by the Encumbered Estates Court to furnish leases on water rights. There are numerous others.
Wallace initiates actions against tenants. But he and Torrens also represent tenants who contest the valuation of their leases, asking for reductions by excluding certain features (leets: 19 Jan. 1851; springs: 4 Dec. 1852; coal, etc.). He also represents an owner who insists that Donegall rebuild two houses on his property damaged by work at quarries belonging to Donegall (2 Sept. 1851).
There are many statements acknowledging payments to multiple creditors, the largest by far always made to Turner. (13 Nov. 1848; 1 June 1849; 24 April 1850; 10 May 1851; 14 Nov. 1851, and many more). And many letters from Torrens pressuring Verner to take care of past due obligations.
There are also printed items, especially two folio orders dated 2 & 11 Feb. 1850, from the Encumbered Estates Court, on behalf of Wallace acting for Turner, demanding that information on tenants and leases be turned over. One of these contains an extensive listing, filling a full folio page, of every one of Donegall’s almost countless holdings in Belfast and beyond.
These two documents mark one of the earliest principal actions under the new court that would expedite the sale of the Donegall estate over the remaining decade. Also partly printed forms for payment of tithes, excise taxes, quit- and crown rents, and poor rate taxes, all owed by the estate.
3. A great many items pertaining to the collection of rents from tenants. These range from simple remittances to disputes of many sorts, both with tenants and with landlords whose actions affect Donegall’s tenants. In addition to the rents received from individual tenants, there are those received from public bodies, such as:
A document concerning rent paid on behalf of “Portna & Toome Eel Fishery” by the Dept of Public Works (26 March 1851). And rent owed by the Town of Belfast for land used by the House of Correction (22 Oct. 1850).
There are various difficulties with tenants:
A tenant who is denied access to a “Deer Park” by an abutting owner who also locates a slaughter house there, appeals to Donegall for help (5 June 1854).
A land owner demands that tenants divert rent payments to him, not to Donegall, with a threat to drive off cattle (1 Aug. 1853; 5 Nov. 1853).
A sub-tenant balks at payment, disputing Lord Donegall’s title
Threat by a tenant to bring his offer before the commissioner which will result in a lower sale price.
Tenants appeal to Donegall to withdraw a distress (14 Jan. 1851).
Seizure of a tenant’s property and other similar actions: 25 June 1851—"an aged and respectable widow.” Also, 15 Jan.; 10 March; 21 April; 29 July; 15, 24 & 30 Sept.; and 30 Oct. 1851. Another series of letters concerning Charles H. O’Niel, a tenant, his situation, and its adverse effect on subtenants (11 Jan.; 5 March; 5, 23 & 31 May; 8 June; 1, 4 & 20 Aug.; 5 Nov. 1853). Also, O’Neil’s claim to the islands in Lough Neagh: 21 Oct. 1850.
4. Also of interest are documents relating to sales or rents pertaining to specific properties in Belfast, notably:
Smithfield Market. The Town Council seeks to purchase it and offers Donegall 15,000 pounds. Verner says not less the 20,000. It appears they may settle at 19,000 (1 July 1846).
Several pieces of correspondence deal with negotiations and various conflicts over the sale (14 Jan. 1846; 18 June 1846; 1 & 21 Aug. 1846: 12 Jan. 1848; 17 & 18 May, 1848; 3 Dec. 1855). At one point, on 12 January 1848, the Town Council delivers an ultimatum on possession of Smithfield Market.
[Four letters from Lord Donegall to Verner (the only letters in this archive from Lord Donegall) indicate that Verner may have had a share in the sale of Smithfield Market, the amount of which became a bone of contention, with Lord Donegall threatening court action against Verner (27 & 29 Jan. 1856; 9 Feb. 1856; 21 May 1956).]
Lord Donegall also owned the Weightmaker’s Office, not a building but an administrative fiefdom that netted a considerable emolument from vendors. This was to be sold to the Town Council, Torrens thinks, at a price of L 19,000 and he advises its sale (14 July 1846).
The lease of the toll house at Lilliput, to the Trustees of the turnpike road from Belfast to Antrim which was owned by the Cavehill Railway Co. “and has now become the property of the Marquis of Donegall.” (11 Aug. 1847.)
Purchase by the Northern Bank of its premises on Castle Street (12 Dec. 1850).
Thomas Verner’s personal affairs:
Part of the archive concerns Thomas Verner’s own business affairs apart from his role as receiver and agent for Lord Donegall. Verner appears to have been a serious investor in the Cave Hill Railway Works in Belfast, and in the nearby limestone quarries. Also in the Belfast & Ballymena Railway. These interests appear sporadically in the documents before 1850 (Verner’s? Donegall’s? or shared?). On the other hand, they predominate in the documents from 1857 to 1861, which are numerous, substantive, and filled with detailed financial accounts. Verner’s regular correspondent in this latter period is one James Turner (not to be confused with John Turner, Lord Donegall’s nemesis). James Turner becomes the manager of the Cave Hill Railway Works in 1855 (8 May 1855). Whether Verner was partnered with Lord Donegall in such dealings in the earlier period, or whether he was merely acting as Donegall’s agent is unclear. It does, however, seem that he had equity in the Smithfield Market sale. The railway interests of that early period are more ambiguous.
On the other hand, given the rift between Donegall and Verner that developed in 1855, it is clear that Verner’s interests in the latter period (1857-1861) are strictly his own. In 1859 Verner is approached by a friend, writing from Paris, who urges him to turn his capital to a promising mining venture in France.
In 1855, when Verner was dismissed as receiver (12 Feb. 1855), there was a barrage of correspondence from Torrens on behalf of Donegall, demanding that Verner settle their joint accounts (12 Feb.; 26 March; 12, 19, 24 & 30 April; 7, 15, 19 & 31 May; 20 & 24 Aug.; 3 & 20 Nov; 3 & 5 Dec. 1855; 17 Jan.; 17 April; 12 May 1856). There was also a writ of execution against Verner. And the four unfriendly letters that Donegall wrote to directly Verner in Jan., Feb. and May 1856 (see above, under 4.)—the only correspondence from Donegall in the archive—demanding that Verner settle their joint account(s) and immediately pay him his due. “I am aware of the painful position in which you are placed but it is all your own fault.” (21 May 1856). He is to vacate Ormeau House by the end of 1855, and he is charged by Donegall with misusing rents in his possession as receiver.
Lastly, there are 100 documents pertaining to personal expenses of Verner and to a lesser extent those of the second Marquis of Donegall and the Marchioness of Donegall. In the latter category are some 20 invoices from carriage and coach makers, notable for their engraved illustrated letterheads, many made out directly to the Donegalls. For Verner, there are expenditures for horses and horse racing; for wine, silver, dinnerware, porcelain, luxury clothing from France, expensive stays at hotels in France. Also, for rifles and military clothing—Verner was a captain in the militia. Some of the purchases made before 1844 may have been for the second Marquis of Donegall who died in 1844. There is also a miscellany of 53 items addressed to Verner, unrelated to the Donegall estate. Much of this has to do with family matters and personal finance, as well as his militia duty.
3 archive boxes of letters, legal documents, invoices, amongst other items. Please note that this collection is not yet catalogued.