Lisburn benefactor Sir Richard Wallace was a man of international standing

Sir Richard Wallace paid for many significant improvements in Lisburn during his time as MP for the town
Sir Richard Wallace paid for many significant improvements in Lisburn during his time as MP for the town

On the 200th anniversary of his birth, historian Gordon Lucy recalls the life of a 19th century philanthropist whose name precedes a famous NI park and high school

Richard Wallace is a significant figure in the history of Lisburn but he also had a national and even international profile as a philanthropist and art collector.

Wallace was born on June 21, 1818 and was the illegitimate son of Richard Seymour Conway, Viscount Beauchamp, subsequently the 4th Marquess of Hertford, and a Mrs Agnes Jackson.

He spent the first six years of his life in London, after which his mother left him in Paris with his father and grandmother Maria Seymour Conway, the dowager Marchioness of Hertford.

In April 1842, shortly after his father became the 4th Marquess of Hertford, Richard had himself baptised into the Anglican Church (in Paris) and took the surname Wallace, his mother’s maiden name. Until his father’s death he acted as the 4th Marquess’ sale-room assistant and advisor.

On his father’s death in 1870 Wallace inherited his father’s art collection, an apartment in the rue Laffitte in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, the chateau of Bagatelle – an exquisite neo-classical structure set in 59 acres of landscaped gardens in the Bois de Boulogne – and his Irish estate of the townlands of Ballymullan, Blaris, Broughmore, Lissue and Lurganure, but not the title. He soon afterwards bought the lease of Hertford House in London from the 5th Marquess of Hertford.

Wallace’s international reputation stems from his philanthropy when Paris was besieged from September 1870 to January 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War. By December 1870 Parisians were starving and reduced to eating their horses and pets. They then turned to the animals in the zoo. One of Paris’ most prestigious restaurants offered a Christmas Day menu of ‘stuffed donkey’s head, elephant consommé, roast camel, kangaroo stew, antelope terrine, bear ribs, cats with rats, and wolf haunch in deer sauce’.

At his own expense, Wallace organised two full-scale ambulances – field hospitals rather than what we understand by the term today – to operate during the siege: one to serve French wounded, and the second for the benefit of sick and destitute Britons.

By the end of the siege, Wallace may have privately contributed as much as 2.5 million francs to the needy of Paris – the equivalent of £4.58 million today. Wallace became the most popular British resident of Paris. A Paris boulevard in the 16th arrondissement was named after him, he was awarded the Legion d’ Honneur and received a baronetcy from Queen Victoria.

Both the 3rd and 4th Marquesses of Hertford had neglected their Irish estates. The 4th Marquess visited Lisburn only once – briefly in 1845 – but the same cannot be said of Wallace.

Between 1873 and 1885 he was a conscientious Conservative MP for the borough of Lisburn.

In his first election address, issued on January 31, 1873, he assured electors: “My personal interests are identical with your own, and my political principles are strictly Conservative.” With respect to public expenditure, he favoured economy and promised to faithfully discharge his public duties.

The Belfast News Letter of February 18, 1873 was effusive in its support, referring to ‘his princely munificence, self-sacrificing philanthropy, and large-hearted benevolence’ and contending that ‘his attachment to Conservative principles especially commends him to that large class of electors through whose fidelity and zeal in the cause of Conservatism has secured so many triumphs in the borough’. Even the Liberal Northern Whig reluctantly conceded that Wallace was very different from the normal run of Conservative candidates and acknowledged that he was a noble benefactor of his country.

Conservatives were strongly entrenched in Lisburn because there were the comparatively few Presbyterian electors in the borough. Political allegiance in this era was still largely determined by religious affiliation. Presbyterians tended to vote Liberal whereas Church of Ireland members tended to support Conservative candidates. In 1880 Wallace was returned to Parliament without a contest.

Under the terms of the Redistribution Act of 1885 Lisburn ceased to exist as a separate parliamentary constituency. Wallace declined to contest the newly created South Antrim seat because of ill-health and the rigours that he feared that an election campaign would now entail because of the expansion of the electorate as a result of the Representation of the People Act of 1884.

As Lisburn’s MP, Wallace had become Lisburn’s principal benefactor. He paid for the improvement of the town’s water supply, the building of the Assembly Rooms, a court house – since demolished – and a school. In 1880 he paid for the strengthening of the Union Bridge in the town.

In 1884 Wallace gave the town a 26-acre public park and recreation ground. Originally known as ‘The People’s Park’, it was renamed Wallace Park by the Town Commissioners after Sir Richard’s death in 1890.

He built Castle House as his Lisburn residence but stayed there infrequently, if at all. It became the home of the Municipal Technical Institute in 1914.

Wallace’s cultural interests found expression in his appointment as a commissioner for the Paris Exhibition of 1878 and as a trustee of both the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery.

Wallace High School is an important component of Wallace’s legacy to Lisburn. Founded in 1880 as Lisburn Intermediate and University School in 1880, a board of trustees took charge in 1900 to oversee the development of the growing institution.

In 1942 the school was renamed in memory of its founder and the word ‘Esperance’ – from the Wallace coat of arms – was adopted as the school’s motto.

Sir Richard Wallace died on July 20 1890. He is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

His estate was left to Lady Wallace. On her death in 1897 she bequeathed the art collection to the nation as the Wallace Collection. An extensive collection of fine and decorative arts, it includes important holdings of 18th-century French paintings, furniture, arms and armour, porcelain and Old Masters. The collection opened to permanent public view in 1900 in Hertford House, the Wallaces’ London home, and remains there to this day.