© Richard Graham
William Frederick Coates was born at his parents’ home, Clonallon, Strandtown, on 1 March 1866.
The first member of the Coates family to settle in Ireland from Scotland was Israel Coates (d 1764) who settled in the Falls area of Co Antrim in the early 18th century.
Israel’s son Victor (1760-1822) soon established himself in business at the Lagan Village, an industrial enclave on the Co Down side of the river close to the Ballymacarrett glassworks, trading as a potter making “red ware and a course kind of delph” from 1791 onwards.
Victor soon diversified into starch manufacture and by 1798, in partnership with John Young, a muslin manufacturer of the town; he established one of Belfast’s first foundries, trading as Victor Coates, Son and Young at the Lagan Foundry. Victor’s eldest son, also Victor, died at the early age of 21 in 1812, but his second son William (1796-1878) proved more than capable in expanding the business and soon the company had a second foundry at Princes Dock, off Corporation Street.
The company, as brass and iron founders, specialised in building steam engines for the rapidly expanding linen industry in Ireland. The engine for the first steamboat in Ireland (a wooden vessel) was built at the Lagan Foundry in 1820, and Coates built the first iron steamship in Ireland in 1838, Coates engines were to be found in numerous mills in Ulster
William Coates served as a member of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce; became a magistrate for Co Down and was elected to serve as Deputy Lieutenant for the town of Belfast, before becoming High Sheriff in 1869.
He lived at “Glentoran” a large house at Lagan Village, not far from the foundry, and married Mary Ann Lindsay of the linen family who operated as manufacturers at the Mulhouse Works and wholesalers and retailers at Donegall Place. Although it was his father who had started the foundry, it was William who developed not only the business but also the family’s social standing in the town of Belfast.
William had four sons, two of whom, Victor (1826-1910) and David Lindsay (1840-1894), joined him in the business, whilst the eldest Maurice Lindsay, established himself as a cotton spinner on the Springfield Road. Cotton spinning however was to die out in Belfast, after the advent of the American Civil War which prevented raw cotton being exported from America and hence the industrialists of Belfast turned to the spinning of flax instead which could be grown in Ireland or imported from Belgium.
Both brothers, trading as Victor & David Coates Ltd were not only extremely successful businessmen but amassed incredible wealth as the demand for their products grew. Victor purchased 170 acres at Dunmurry where he built Rathmore House as his residence in 1865.
David chose Strandtown in East Belfast to reside where he bought a large villa named “Clonallon”.
Victor also married into the linen aristocracy, taking for his wife Margaret Airth Richardson, eldest daughter of Jonathan Richardson of Lambeg House and head of the enormously successful Richardson family business. He served as a magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant for the Borough of Belfast.
David in addition to being a partner in the Lagan and Prince’s Dock foundries, was a director and stockholder of The Belfast and County Down Railway (incorporated 1846) which had its terminus at Queens Quay.
The success of their business interests facilitated both brothers to educate their family at the finest educational establishments and William Frederick, David’s Eldest son, was no exception. He was sent to RBAI in Belfast and then St Marks School, Windsor. On his return to Belfast, he entered the established linen firm of Richardson Brothers, which had a warehouse at Donegall Place (now M&S). By 1892 however, David Coates had assisted in setting his son up as a partner in the stock broking firm of R C Grubb & Coates at 1 Lombard Street. The Grubb family, like the Richardsons with whom they were closely associated were Quakers and lived at Killeaton House in Lisburn.
David Lindsay Coates died in 1895, and it was at this stage that with the money he was left that William branched out on his own as W F Coates & Co at 3 Lombard Street. William was later joined by his younger brother (by eight years), Harold, who inherited Clonallon. The concept of limited liability had become popular in the 1880s and W F Coates would have acted as the registered office for many of Belfast’s burgeoning companies. The insurance market was also extensive, demand having grown enormously with the development of the port and the requirement for marine insurance for vessels and their cargoes.
As a member of the Episcopalian Church, William worshipped at St Marks, Dundela, where he served as Churchwarden in 1902, as did several members of the Ewart, Valentine and Heyn families, leading merchants and ship-owners of Belfast. His brother Harold fulfilled the role of Hon. Secretary of the Vestry.
In 1907, William married Elsie Millicent Gregory, the daughter of Colonel Fred Gregory of Cromwell Road in Hove, Sussex, and soon afterwards began looking for a residence which would be in keeping with his position in Ulster Society. He found this on the shores of County Antrim at Carrickfergus, where he leased the extensive estate of Glynn Park, which had been built in 1800 by James Craig (1771-1833), Burgess and Member of Parliament for Carrick at the end of the 18th century.
As early as 1902, William had become a member of Belfast Corporation, becoming a councillor for the Ormeau Ward. The Council was still meeting in the old Town Hall building as City Hall was still being constructed on the site of the White Linen Hall.
In 1906, he served as High Sheriff for Belfast, a chiefly ceremonial role but none the less one with great prestige.
William and Elsie’s first son Frederick Gregory Lindsay Coates was born on 19 May, 1916 at Glynn Park. A second child, a daughter named Jean Ann Dorothy Coates, was born 3 years later – she later emigrated to Virginia following her marriage to Roland Sinclair, son of Sir Kenneth Sinclair of Windsor Park, and her descendants still live in the United States today.
At Lombard Street, W F Coates entered into partnership with Ainsworth Barr of the old stock broking firm of Osborne & Barr. This to a certain extent allowed him to actively pursue his political career and devote more time to his civic duties, even though he remained as senior partner at the firm which retained his name. His financial acumen allowed Coates to excel in the Finance Department of Belfast Corporation so much so that he became Chairman in 1917. The whole structure of the city’s finances required re-structuring after the First World War.
William Coates was elected to serve as Lord Mayor of the City for 3 consecutive terms from 1920-1923. It was customary at that time for a set of ceremonial lamps to be placed outside the entrance to the private residence of the Lord Mayor, and the picture above shows them positioned at the gate lodge to Glynn Park at that period.
1920s Belfast was a particularly troubled city. There was much sectarian strife and a new PR system permitted both Labour and Sinn Fein councillors to be elected to the City Council. Both parties protested at Coates appointment, so he had his hands full in the council chamber when the old order was challenged.
On 22 June 1921, Coates, during his tenure as Lord Mayor of Belfast, was called upon to act as host to King George V and Queen Mary when they made a state visit to the City Hall upon the official opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament. The new Parliament remained at City Hall for only a short time before moving to the Presbyterian Church’s Assembly’s College (below) where it remained until 1932, when the Stormont estate had been purchased and Parliament Buildings as we know them today had been constructed.
Both William Coates children officiated at the ceremony: Miss Jean Coates and Master Frederick Coates, along with Miss Aileen Craig (daughter of James Craig) presented a bouquet to the Queen
Only a month after the visit of the King and Queen, his services to the city were recognised when he was created 1st Baronet Coates, of Haypark, in the City of Belfast [U.K.] on 15 July 1921. Haypark was an area close to the Lagan Village at Ormeau, where his great-grandfather had established the first Coates Foundry and where Glentoran House stood.
As a sitting Lord Mayor, Sir W F Coates was also entitled to take his seat in the Northern Ireland Senate (the upper house) in an ex-offficio capacity from 1923 to 1926. The House of Senate was originally intended to be a cross border body, but due to disagreement it became part of the new Northern Ireland Administration. Because the composition of the Upper House was the same as that of the House of Commons, (i.e. Unionist) it was, and remained until its abolition in 1973, an ineffective body. It did however serve as a body which fostered the interests of those elected to its ranks
William F Coates held the position of First Senator in 1921, having served his first term as Lord Mayor in that year. He also performed the duty of Deputy Speaker 1921-1922. He sat in the house as an elected representative between 1924 and 1929 and again as an ex-officio from 1929 to 1931.
W F Coates’ business continued to flourish at Lombard Street. Belfast had a thriving Stock Exchange that had been established by James Craig (1871-1940), the son of a Whiskey Millionaire (Dunvilles), but who later became bored with stock broking and entered the military, serving in the Boer War, and later becoming Lord Craigavon, Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister.
Along with many of his contemporaries, Coates was a member of several clubs both in Belfast and London. Membership of such institutions was almost obligatory and nurtured each member’s interests in the business and social life of Belfast. He was a member of the Ulster Club at Castle Place; the Union Club in Donegall Place as well as the Royal Automobile Club in London.
His interest in the RAC came about from the fact that he was one of the first private owners of a motor car in Northern Ireland, which he drove from Glynn Park to Lombard Street each day.
Perhaps a sign of the troubled times during which Coates was Lord Mayor in Belfast can be gauged by an incident which occurred in October 1922. A police guard at Glynn Park challenged two men found acting suspiciously at the entrance to the house during darkness and when they ran off, a bomb was found attached to the pillars of the entrance canopy with a 16” fuse attached. Several spent matches lay on the ground. The attack by republican extremists had been foiled by only a few minutes, and the Coates family were lucky not to be killed or injured. As a result, William Coates moved from Glynn Park to a house with more secure grounds named Thornfield, now the site of Carrickfergus Grammar School.
In 1928, at the age of 62, Coates was once again elected to serve as Lord Mayor of Belfast, which he did for two terms, after which his Unionist contemporary, Sir Crawford McCullagh, returned to hold the position for a further 9 terms. The following year he was called upon to serve as High Sheriff for County Antrim – a position he held until his death.
William Frederick Coates died at Thornfield, Carrickfergus, on 19 January 1932 at the age of 65 years. He had only recently been on holiday and before leaving he had called at “Lismara” the home of Sir Crawford McCullagh, where he was described as being the “picture of health”. On his return he had wanted to give his immediate retirement notice to McCullagh who succeeded him as Lord Mayor.
In December of 1931, prayers for his recovery were offered at his then place of worship, St Nicholas Church in Carrickfergus, but he did not recover from his illness
His son Frederick, aged 16, heir to the baronetcy, and his daughter Jane aged 12, were home from England where they were attending boarding school, when he died.
W F Coates had served on Belfast Corporation for 30 years, firstly as a councillor for the Ormeau Ward, then as an Alderman for the Windsor Ward. He had been Lord Mayor on five occasions, and there was outcry when he attempted to retire after his fourth term of office. He was most noted for his work with the finance committee which he carried out from 1917 to his death. He was responsible for the entire finances of the Corporation and was honoured for his work in 1921
Throughout his civic life, he and Lady Coates presided over some of the most prestigious events ever held at City Hall. The visit of George V and Queen Mary for the state opening of Parliament in 1921; the Freedom of the City conferred upon the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava and the Marquis of Londonderry in 1923, at which Princess Helena Victoria attended, to name but two.
His funeral took place on Saturday 23 January 1932, when Belfast City Centre came to a standstill.
He was succeeded by his son, Sir Frederick Gregory Lindsay Coates, 2nd Baronet. Educated at Eaton and Sandhurst, he fought in the Second World War in North Africa and North West Europe, where he was twice wounded. He gained the rank of Brigadier in the service of the Royal Tank Regiment.
His son, Sir David Frederick Charlton Coates (born 1948) is the current holder of 3rd Baronet inherited on 24 June 1994, upon the death of his father.
Elsie, Lady Coates, continued to live at Thornfield, but moved to “The Hut” Newcastle, Co Down, shortly before her sudden death on 26 June 1958. She had been intending to fly out of Nutts Corner Airport to visit her son and daughter who were in America at the time, when she collapsed and died in the terminal building. She had the Freedom of the City conferred upon her in 1935.
The present holder of the title (3rd Baronet) now lives in Dorset, whilst Sir William Coates daughter’s family, the Sinclairs, live in the State of Virginia, USA
W F Coates & Co was incorporated with the stock broking firm of Josias Cunningham & Co in 1991 and continues to trade today at Donegall Street under the name Cunningham, Coates Stockbrokers.
© Richard Graham