top of page
  • Writer's pictureReiltín Murphy

Isabella's Story

Updated: Jul 18, 2020


If you think we might be related please make contact.

Isabella Girvan
Isabella Girvan

Isabella was born in 1842 into a farm at Ballyduff, Belfast. She was the second youngest daughter of Presbyterians William Girven and Ann McMullan. The Famine was about to savage Ireland but Belfast was relatively safe as it offered many employments; the population was not relying solely on the potato.

William Girvan rented 16 acres and a house from Alexander H. Halliday who seems to have owned a lot of land in the area. It is likely that some or all of the land was given over to the growing of flax. Isabella would have been familiar with all aspects of this rather strange crop from its close sowing in March to ensure tall straight stalks, to its golden ripening at the end of June, its brief one-day flowering of violet, blue and white, the hand pulling to preserve the stems, drying and combing to remove the linseed, then steeping in ponds and streams for several weeks, to its removal in carts green with its slime to the market and ultimately to the mill. The farm work was hard but varied and in the fresh air. Records suggest that Isabella’s sisters Janet and Margaret lived at the farm with their parents but Isabella took work at a Flax Mill. Mossley Flax Mill was not far away.

In contrast to the farm work and her sisters’ lives Isabella’s mill work was repetitive, indoors, and in conditions guaranteed to cause coughs at best and, commonly, death from phthisis or bronchitis. At her marriage Isabella was 34 years old and according to contemporary reports and research would probably have come near to the end of her life expectance if working in some areas of flax milling.Days were of twelve long hours Monday to Friday and five hours on Saturday. Isabella’s wage was half that of any man doing the same work. Mill work also brought friendships, singing and stories, jokes, camaraderie and a pride in a skilled job well carried out as is vividly brought to life in Betty Messenger’s 1978 book “Picking Up The Linen Threads”.

Peter Dowd


Peter was baptised a Catholic on 8th July 1836, son of Michael Dowd and Judith Downey in Drogheda. He had two brothers Robert (1838) and Richard (c1845) - though, curiously, Richard’s 1908 death certificate in USA gives the parents as Christopher Dowd and Judith Downey.

By the age of 24 Peter was a Preparing Master in a Flax Spinning Mill in Drogheda.

Records suggest that the Dowd family may have been involved with flour milling as a Richard Dowd is noted in the 1840s Griffith Valuation as owning substantial mills in Co. Offaly and by 1851 they belong to a Robert Dowd. There is no proof that these men were related to Michael/Christopher but their names are suggestive.


Peter Dowd married Eliza Walsh on 13th January 1860 in Drogheda. Their first two children, Michael (1863) and Robert (1864), were born in Drogheda but sadly Robert died aged 3.

Peter and Eliza’s daughter Mary was born on October 27th 1865 and baptised at Doagh only a walk from Mossley Mill but records do not yet prove that Peter was at Mossley and he may have moved from mill to mill, he was noted on Mary’s birth certificate as a flax preparing master.

Over the next nine years Peter and Eliza completed their total of eight children. Judith Amelia (1867), Peter Anselm (1869), Elizabeth Frances (1870), Theresa Juana (1871). The youngest John Mastai Ferreti, born on March 15th 1874 was named after the then Pope Pious IX’s own name Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti. Eliza died shortly after baby John’s birth.


Margaret McLoskey was a sponsor at Isabella Girven’s baptism as a Catholic just the day before

Isabella married the widowed Peter Dowd. The marriage on 26th February 1876 in Whitehouse

Roman Catholic chapel took place barely two years after Eliza’s death. Witnesses were Patrick

McLoskey and his sister-in-law Margaret McLoskey. Peter Dowd gave his address as Mosley,

Isabella’s address was Ballyduff. Isabella was about 34 years old and Peter was several years older.

Patrick McLoskey’s brother George was a Preparing Master and Margaret is described as a Rover on their marriage certificate. Perhaps Isabella was also a Rover. The Roving Room was also known as the Preparing Room and it was there that reels of the roughly spun linen was prepared for the Spinners to finish. Both Peter Dowd and George McLoskey were Preparing Masters so all four may have worked in the same room. The connection with the McLoskeys strongly suggests that Peter was by now working at Mossley Mill and had met Isabella through her work there.

Mossley Flax Mill

Patrick McLoskey’s father Michael had died in 1864 when Patrick was 17 years old. Michael McLoskey had been a Flax Buyer and, as such, was one of the highest earners connected with Mossley Mill. His Will shows that he had investments and that he left everything to John Campbell and James Campbell Junior in order that they would look after his wife and his children until they

became 21 years old.

It is interesting to note that Patrick McLoskey’s job in Mossley Mill was that of Factory Clerk in 1887 (the word Factory implying weaving rather than spinning) and he described himself as a Pay Clerk in a Spinning Mill in 1911. Clerk was surely the healthiest job that the Mill could offer, suggesting that the Campbells were carrying out their promise to his father extremely well.

The cousins Henry and John Campbell had taken over Mossley Mill in 1859 and were enlightened

owners making their Mill as good a place to work as was compatible with profit. When they bought it there were two Mills on the property along with 22 workers houses and a manager’s house with gardens. Another James Campbell had written a report in 1859 on the Limerick Mill belonging to J A Russell & Sons and was very well aware of all the health issues associated with the warm, damp, dusty atmosphere of the preparing and spinning of linen: this report is available on the internet.

The Campbells provided a school at Mossley Mill where children could work in the Mill provided they attended school half time - probably on alternate days. The school was also available for night classes for mill workers and the surrounding farmers.

Campbell College, Belfast (left) was built in 1894 with a legacy left in Henry Campbell’s Will.


By marrying Peter Dowd Isabella was not only taking on his remaining seven children ranging in age from fourteen to almost two years old but was also making a radical change in her religious practice. It would be hard to find two aspects of Christianity more different in 1870’s Belfast than Presbyterianism and Catholicism. At the time there was a religious divide, mistrust and bigotry on the part of both religions.

It is very sad that Isabella was remembered a hundred years later by her grand-daughter only as “Peter Dowd’s Presbyterian second wife”. It took research to find her name. Peter and Isabella had three children: Isabella 1878, Richard Gregory 1881 and Etheldreda Macrina 1883.


The story has come down to us that Eliza’s children were so horrified by their father’s remarriage that they all went to Uncle Richard Dowd in America.

We can never know the true story. The children may have resented any stepmother so it may not be personal to Isabella. Perhaps Peter and Isabella fell in love or perhaps he needed a housekeeper and she needed to be rescued. From the outside it might seem that Peter’s life hardly changed at all while Isabella changed her religion, took on seven children, and added three of her own.

Records show that their Uncle Richard Dowd went to America and married Mary Smith in Manhattan on November 24th 1870; perhaps they met on the voyage.

Richard and Mary had ten children. The photograph shows the eldest, Francis Christopher. They had the wisdom to set up a stove shop in Somerville, Massachusetts while that town was expanding daily. Everyone needed a stove. The family story is that Richard became a millionaire: by the time of his death in 1908 he owned a lot of property but his niece Elizabeth Dowd who lived nearby worked as a laundress. It might have been Richard’s money which brought Eliza’s children to America.


One of the improvements the Campbell cousins had made to Mossley Flax Mill was the building of more houses on the property. Number 8 The Crescent is no longer standing but it was home to Peter, Isabella and up to ten children.

Did the children work at the mill? It would seem that they did as Peter Anselm and Judith Amelia both died of respiratory problems with Judith’s “hip bone disease” adding to her problems. Judith Amelia died in the newly built Throne Hospital for children, Greencastle, Belfast in 1879 aged 11. Her death notice was in The Belfast Morning News.

It is impossible to find out what happened to Michael Dowd. He did not seem to have died as a child in Ireland. There was one Michael in Somerville which might be him.

1884 brought trouble to Isabella. Her 79 year old father, William ,died in March. He was still a farmer in Ballyduff. Mary Dowd left for America in 1884 aged 19 and seemed to have taken the 14 year old Elizabeth with her. In August of the same year Peter Anselm died aged 15. Patrick McLoskey was present at and registered young Peter’s death. The family story is that on his death the room filled with light - Peter Gregory had Anselm as a third name, perhaps it was his Confirmation name. Did Mary and Elizabeth leave before or after Peter Anselm’s death?

Mary kept Elizabeth nearby for the rest of her sister’s short life. In the 1900 census Elizabeth F Dowd is living with Mary and Robert Miller. Elizabeth died of a heart attack on February 6th 1908 in Somerville, Massachusetts, Mary (Mrs Miller) registered the death. Just a couple of weeks later was Uncle Richard’s death of kidney problems and heart failure in the same town on February 20th 1908. A few days earlier Uncle Richard had attended a Town Council meeting during which he protested about the proposed storage of crude petroleum near properties which he owned: if the meeting got rough a punch could have caused his kidney problem. John Mastai Feratti married Katherine McMahon in 1911 in Revere, Massachusetts.

Peter Dowd died on February 14th 1892 of chronic bronchitis certified for three years. Peter was 56 years old. Patrick McLoskey was present when he died and also registered the death. In his Will Peter left only their clothes and personal belongings to his children and everything else to Isabella. Patrick McLoskey witnessed the Will.

Theresa Juana, aged 22, took two pieces of baggage and emigrated to America within six months of her father’s death. This photograph is thought to be Theresa.

When Peter died it must be assumed that the rented No. 8 The Crescent had to be given up. Isabella was left alone with her own three children, Isabella, Richard and Etheldreda.


In the 1901 census the widowed Isabella, Richard, and Ethel were living together on Marvue Street in a Presbyterian part of town and are all recorded as Presbyterian. Richard, aged 19, was a clerk in a plumber establishment and Ethel, aged 17, was a wareroom machinist - finishing linen items at the mill such as hemming sheets etc. Isabella’s age is given as 54 and she has no employment noted. Isabella junior had married Presbyterian Robert Pattison (a Scottish joiner) the previous year and would soon have a baby Isabella of her own. In 1901 they too were living on Marvue Street only a few doors from the Dowds. Sadly Isabella Pattison died in 1909, aged 31, of cardiac disease which had been four years certified.

On census day March 31st 1901 Isabella’s sisters Margaret Ann aged 70 and Janet Girvan aged 58 were mourning the death of their mother Ann nee McMullan who had died of ‘senile gangrene’ just before Christmas. Ann’s grandson Arthur J Boyd aged 28 registered the death and is living with his aunts in March, perhaps assisting with the farm though all three are described as ‘retired farmers’. The house is owned by a William Harper who owns a lot of property in the area; the Girvan’s grandmother was a Harper so perhaps there is a connection. The house has three windows on the frontage.

When the 1911 census was taken the widowed Robert was living with his mother-in-law, three daughters (Isabella, Elizabeth and Etheldrida Macrina), Richard, and Ethel. Richard was described as Catholic. According to the census he was the only Catholic on the street in Ballyduff. Richard was a Clerk in a boot shop, Ethel, a Ware Room Machinist, and Robert a Joiner. Their house was rented from a Joe Boyd (possibly related to Isabella Dowds through her sister) who owned many houses on the street. The Dowds lived beside Joe Boyd’s own home with its 9 windowed frontage - Isabella’s house front had 3 windows. Next door to Joe Boyd was a Lecture Hall followed by the Presbyterian church.

Isabella’s sisters Margaret Anne aged 80 and Janet aged 72 lived on the same street; not surprisingly no occupation was recorded for either of them. The sisters had only two windows on their frontage and their house too was rented from Joe Boyd. Robert Pattison’s brother John, a Joiner, also lived on that street with his wife Jane and four children. They lived in one of the smaller two windowed frontage houses.

The family story told of Richard being bullied for his religion on his way to school. The family story also said, getting it partly right perhaps, that Richard could not marry as he had his young sisters to support through school. For ‘sisters’ read ‘nieces’ but be aware that the family story had written out those little girls - Richard’s children knew of no cousins. Why was Richard’s income such a vital part of the household that he could not contemplate marriage?

Saturday 28th September 1912 was known as “Ulster Day”: Isabella (“Mrs Dowds”) joined her sister Janet Girvan, Ethel Dowds, Robert Pattison and nearly half a million other Irish Protestants in signing the Ulster Covenant across England, Scotland, Wales and Dublin. The Ulster Covenant stated that the undersigned “were convinced that Home Rule would be disastrous …”. Factories and the shipyard remained closed that day to allow their workers to attend church and then sign. Richard did not sign it.

On 23rd February 1915 Isabella died. The Informant was John Knox, her sister Agnes’s son. Isabella died of bronchitis and exhaustion aged 70 though in common with her marriage certificate Isabella was thought to be about three years younger.


Isabella and Peter Dowd’s daughter Ethelrida Macrina Dowd died aged 37, of general tuberculosis/lung problems diagnosed for two years, on 15th November 1921. She was a Machinist. Her brother Richard registered the death.


Isabella and Peter Dowd’s grand-daughter Elizabeth Pattison married James Geddis on 21st September 1934 in Ballyhenry Presbyterian Church, Newtownards. Witnesses were Henry K Comb and her sister Reda Pattison. James Geddis was a Yarn Examiner in Mossley.

To date no records have emerged to tell more about her sisters Isabella or Reda / Etheldrida Macrina other than the above. Nor can we follow Robert Pattison until the next census is released though there is a possibility that he died in 1941, in Belfast, aged 64.


Isabella and Peter Dowd’s son Richard Gregory Anselm Dowd was friendly with “Isabella” Millar and her mother Mary Ann née Laverty. He was eleven years older than “Isabella” and they married on July 1st 1917 in St Patrick’s church, Belfast. Their witnesses were “Isabella”’s siblings William and Ena Millar. Richard is a Manager, “Isabella” is a Dressmaker. This new “Isabella” was actually Annabella but answered to a variety of names:- Celie, Cecie, Celia, Bella and, finally, the one bestowed by her grand-daughter: Lalla.

Richard Dowd was named after his Uncle Richard in America. The 24th March 1924 record of immigration to New York Port showed Richard Gregory Dowd, aged 42, travelling with $50 to visit his sister Miss Theresa Dowd (aged 53) of 20 South St, [illegible], Massachusetts. He planned to return after a visit to of under six months. Richard was described on the form as 5’6” with fair hair and grey eyes. Richard’s trip was in order to “claim his inheritance from wealthy Uncle Richard”. The family story says that when he got news of his inheritance from Uncle Richard in America, Richard Dowd was in full employment and all was well for himself and his family. However times changed and he had need of the money. It must have been a substantial amount for it to be worth a lengthy trip across the Atlantic. When he got there Richard discovered that the money was all gone. Lost in the Wall Street Crash, his daughter thought: but no, that would occur five years later. Richard came home empty-handed. His daughter corresponded with her Aunt Theresa for a few years.

Richard and Bella lived in Belfast. Their three children (Marie Conleth 1918, Peter Joseph 1921, and Venanitus Rosaleen “Róisín” 1923) were born there. In 1941 the Belfast Blitz and continuing religious intolerance sent them south to spend the rest of their days in another crescent, 15 The Crescent, Monkstown, Co. Dublin. This was a quiet home full of love and happiness.


Mossley Mill, Belfast, was partly restored in 2000 by Newtownabbey Borough Council for use as the Council’s Civic Centre. Then in 2010 a Museum, Conference Centre, Theatre and Bistro were developed. Unfortunately the Mill was acquired empty and has no records of its earlier working population.

Please see Mossley Mill, Newtownabbey, BT36 5QA, Northern Ireland. Mossley Mill, A Short History by Newtownabbey Borough Council, Mossley Mill, Newtownabbey BT36, Northern Ireland.

70 views0 comments


bottom of page