Woburn House

Woburn House

Woburn House is a B2 listed grand mansion located on the grounds of Lisnevin Training School. It is on the Ards peninsula, with sweeping views across the North Chanel. The mansion is separated from the sea only by the main road, the A2.

It is an 1800 Italianate property that was once used as a private summer mansion for John Gilmore Dunbar, a wealthy industrialist and Belfast mill owner. The grand mansion was fronted by the sea, and surrounded in woodland, making it the perfect retreat.

In 1846, Woburn House was inherited by George Orr Dunbar, twice Minister of Parliament for Belfast. Dunbar and his wife, Isabella, made numerous improvements to the mansion, including the addition of the south wing which included the tower.

Woburn House was then passed down to Georgiana Dunbar-Buller, and her husband. Upon their death, Woburn House was passed to a distant cousin, Reynell James Pack-Beresford. Pack-Beresford and his wife were keen gardeners, and they transformed the garden, thinning out the trees and introducing a variety of plants and shrubs.

On 10 February, 1929, the local coroner, Dr. Wallace, was called to the home upon the gruesome discovery of a deceased baby. Dorothy Verner, the housemaid, said that earlier that day, the dairymaid, Sarah Cameron, had asked her for a hot jar. Several hours later, staff found the body of a newborn baby boy stuffed in a suitcase underneath Cameron’s bed. His throat had been slashed and there were two perforated wounds to the abdomen. There was a pair of bloody scissors found on the dressing table.

Mary Maguire, a parlourmaid, made Mrs. Pack Beresford aware of the discovery. It was discovered that Sarah Cameron was the baby’s mother, and she was charged with the baby’s murder. She pleaded guilty to infanticide shortly thereafter. Her employer, Pack-Beresford asked the court to be “as lenient as possible.” He said that she was the best dairymaid  he had ever hired. The judge said that he had sympathy with Cameron and that he was not going to hold her responsible for the murder. “She had been punished enough.” Sarah Cameron was subsequently released.

During WWII, Woburn House was used as a convalescent home for injured soldiers. At the same time, the family were still residing in the mansion, but in another part of the estate. In 1949, Pack-Beresford passed away and in 1952, Woburn House was acquired by the state. It was decided that Woburn House would be used as an open borstal for boys and young men, which is a more lenient youth detention centre, due to the fact the buildings were sufficient to house the juveniles. There were 56 acres of ground surrounding the home, mostly woodland, but there was more than enough space for sports facilities.

An open borstal is in many ways similar to a training school, but it differed with characteristics associated with prison life.  As part of the juveniles’ training, much of the adaptions at Woburn House were carried out by the juveniles who were to be sent to the borstal. Each morning, around 20 boys were taken to Woburn House. They were under the direction of the Ministry of Finance Works Division, and were directed by trades staff. Three boys on work duty ran away, but they were all quickly caught.

By 1956, the developments were complete and the first juveniles and young men moved in. It housed males between the ages of 16 to 21.

Originally, there was no fencing around Woburn House, and the front door was managed by somebody who had a key. The main house had a grand façade which had been painted white. The ground floor of Woburn House was used for the reception, administrative offices, a small rest room for the staff, two common rooms for the juveniles, the dining room, the kitchen and the laundry room.

The first floor of Woburn House was used for dormitories. There were typically around four or five boys in each room as well as a medical room which was located in between two of the dormitories. Woburn House also had an attic, and it was used for the seamstress. The juveniles and young men at Woburn House were divided into two housing units, Montgomery and Alexander. According to the juveniles and men sent here, there were two separate wings: “A green wing for country people and a blue one for Belfast people.” It was said that this separation reflected a social divide in the wider community; Belfast boys considered themselves far more streetwise than the county boys.

Behind Woburn House, there was several outbuildings. These outbuildings housed the workshops and cells, which would be used if a juvenile ever needed to be isolated. Beyond the buildings, there was a walled garden as well as greenhouses that were used for horticultural training. Nearby, there was a stand-alone room, which was made available for “special grade” juveniles to use for a little bit of freedom.

To the right of Woburn House, there was another building which housed the gymnasium, classrooms, and further workshops. Even further right, there was the Governor’s house. To the left, adjacent to the main road and beach, there were 26 units of staff housing. They were predominantly semi-detached homes.

Years later, Lisnevin Training School, which was a closed borstal, would be opened just behind these homes. It differed from Woburn House due to the fact that it was closed, and therefore more secure. It was more like a prison than Woburn House. The two borstals varied substantially, and the goal was for juveniles at the closed Lisnevin Training School to be moved to the open Woburn House.

Some measures were taken to prevent absconding, such as bars on some windows, but the juveniles were mostly given a level of trust. They were allowed freedom of the grounds, and a number escaped over the years.

To escape, boys would typically smash windows in the middle of the night. In one instance, boys escaped through a window and then jumped onto the roof of an employee’s car, which just so happened to be underneath. 

One boy absconded after ten weeks at the borstal and was at large for eight months before he was apprehended. This escape had come during the height of the Troubles, and police did not have safe access to his home in west Belfast, and the Army was patrolling the area.

Under Rule 84 of the 1954 Prison Rules, the Governor at Woburn House was authorised to deal with breaches of discipline, such as: “idleness, carelessness, abuse of privilege, non-conformity to parole decisions, irreverent behaviour during prayers, disrespect towards officers/visitors, repeated/groundless complaints etc.”

He could hand down penalties to trainees who breached discipline with: “administration of a caution, removal from activities other than work, award of extra work, forfeiture of right to additional letters/visits, stoppage of gratuities or earnings, reduction in grade, delay in promotion to a higher grade, [and] confinement to room for 3 days.”

In 1966, the provision at Woburn House was enhanced with the addition of a new vocational training workshop as well as two new classrooms. Two years later, more residential staff accommodation was added, followed by a gymnasium in the 1970s. These were all funded by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Woburn House could accommodate around 75 juveniles and young men. Most weekdays were spent trade training in the workshops. The purpose was to develop skills to enable employment upon release. Such workshops included mechanical engineering, joinery, metal work, painting and decorating as well as bricklaying and horticulture. There was also a team of three full-time teachers and a full library.

Some juveniles and young men were allocated tasks which were necessary to the running of the borstal. They worked in the laundry room, and made sure windows were cleaned. Some others cleaned up after meals while others worked in the kitchen, preparing meals for staff and other trainees.

Sporting activities at Woburn House were encouraged. Weekends were spent playing football, cricket and swimming. In 1970, a new gymnasium was opened. On Sunday, the juveniles and young men were allowed to attend church in the local community. Those who had special privileges were allowed to go on supervised walks in the neighbourhood.

When the Troubles hit, considerable pressure was put on Woburn House due to the need to accommodate boys who had been involved in various crimes. Woburn House got away with only one incident. In 1972, there was a 35-juvenile strong riot at Woburn. They smashed windows and furniture and scaled the roof. Once up on the roof, the juveniles hurled slate from the roof at police and staff and conducted a 90 minute standoff before they were finally “talked down” by staff. They were all transferred to a secure unit in Magilligan Prison and were forced to fix the damage they had created.

In 1975, Duncan McLaughlan took over as Governor. Woburn House continued to run as a borstal between the years of 1950 and 1980. On the last day, Governor Duncan McLaughlan noted: “We have shown that both trainees and staff can experience meaningful relationships. The heavy hand has not been needed.”

His comments were contrary to comments from juveniles and young men who were housed at Woburn House. Much like Lisnevin Training School, Woburn House was marred by allegations of abuse and violence. One officer, Demond James Skillen, worked in the laundry. At any one time, he had one or more trainees who worked with him. He treated these trainees well, but he abused other trainees. He would order his liked trainees to hold the unliked trainees down while he physically assaulted them.

One juvenile recollected that when he arrived at the laundry to get his uniform, Officer Skillen was “looking me up and down. He was so close to me that I could smell his breath. He suddenly grabbed my testicles and head-butted me at the same time. I was so shocked that I just stood there and did not react. Another officer and prisoner were present and they laughed as well. There was a large clothes dryer in the laundry, and Mr Skillen and two other members of staff bundled me into the machine and shut the door. One of them turned the machine on for a second and scared me to death. It was a terrifying experience and one which I will never forget.”

Another juvenile recalled that Officer Skillen “played a ‘game’ where he would chase you and if he caught you he would pretend to touch you up. …Periodically you would be sent to the laundry to get something, which was dangerous as he would throw a hammer or a spanner at you as soon as you appeared at the door. He hit a boy with a hammer and split his head open. It was part of his ‘games’ and everyone was afraid of being sent to the laundry… .”

There were other instances of allegations of physical abuse in Woburn House. In February 1962, allegations were made by a trainee’s sister, who said that her brother had been badly beaten by his housemaster. In January 1963, a number of allegations were made by several trainees against an officer. In January 1963, a trainee made allegations that he was beaten by staff after being removed from the classroom. In October 1971, trainees refused to go to their dormitories on the grounds of “brutality of the staff.” In 1975, a mother of a trainee complained her son had been assaulted.

There was also allegations against one of the nightwatchmen. According to one juvenile, the nightwatchman befriended him and provided him with cough sweets. On several occasions, the nightwatchman put his hands underneath his bedding and “started to feel his private area.” His bed was in the corner of the dormitory and could not be seen by the other trainees.

Some juveniles at Woburn House recalled how some trainees sexually abused other trainees, with one commenting: “Millisle was rife with sexual predators at night.” This same juvenile commented that he was “aware of people being raped when the lights were out” and that he heard “another inmate being forced to give oral sex to older inmates.”

Upon its close, much like Lisnevin Training School, Woburn House was taken over by the Northern Ireland Prison Service, which converted the building into training rooms, which also included a dog training section. It provided induction training for officer recruits.

According to paranormal hunters, Woburn House is one of the most haunted buildings in Northern Ireland. It’s said to be the home to the ghost of a maid that was killed while pregnant and her killer. According to legend, the maid and her killer wander the corridors. Legend says that the maid was killed by Robert Barkley after he found out that she was pregnant. She was allegedly killed at a stretch of beach now known as Barkley Rocks. He supposedly then took his own life by hanging himself in one of the upstairs bedrooms. In 2009,  Woburn House was selected by a team of psychics for the BBC Show: NI’s Greatest Haunts.

It should be noted that we could find no evidence of this alleged murder.

For a while, Woburn House became a prison museum. It housed a number of items that had been collected from various prisons, including the closed Maze Prison. It provided a fascinating insight into almost 200 years of prison history on the island. The items on show included ropes woven from bed linen, grappling hooks made from chairs, ladders made from bed frames, a knife made from a metal dinner tray and a replica Army issued rifle.

In 2018, Woburn House and the surrounding buildings were sold for £1.75m. The former staff houses were completely refurbished and put on the market. Both Lisnevin Training School and Woburn House still stand, albeit in a derelict state.

Woburn Developments Ltd launched a site seeking feedback on the redevelopment of Woburn House. They hope to restore and convert Woburn House into 8 “high quality apartments”, create a walled garden along with a courtyard and parking facilities. The full information pack can be found here.


Newtownards, Northern Ireland, BT22 2HS, United Kingdom.

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-5.5180131, 54.5943805

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