Lady Dixon is perhaps most recognised in Northern Ireland as one half of the namesake Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park, yet few people are aware of the importance of the woman behind the name. Lady Edith Dixon should be recognised as an important philanthropist who capitalised on her life of wealth to benefit the less fortunate in Northern Ireland. In particular, she contributed to facilitating accessible healthcare across the country. A misconception is to group her legacy with her husband, Thomas Dixon. Whilst his privileged position in the country helped fund her philanthropic pursuits, Lady Dixon carved out an impressive contemporary reputation of her own based around her own interests in the medical field. Largely this legacy has been lost in the 21st century, as the physical monuments that serve as a testament to her contributions have crumbled into relative obscurity. Her inclusion in our #greatwomen series aims to celebrate Lady Dixon and her impressive, selfless contributions to Northern Irish healthcare, a particularly important feat in a pre-welfare state age.
Edith Stewart Clark was born in 1871 into a prominent textile industry and later political family in Paisley, Scotland. Her father, Mr Stewart Clark, was a ‘titan of industry’, who had developed his family business from a small sewing thread business at the Anchor Mills in Paisley, Scotland into one of the most profitable textile concerns in Britain. In 1906 Edith married into one of Belfast’s most wealthy contemporary families, the Dixons. The Dixon family acquired their wealth through their involvement with the lucrative shipbuilding industry in Belfast. This status allowed their influence to extend to the political sphere; Lady Dixon’s husband Thomas was the eldest child of Sir Daniel Dixon, the Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1893 and MP representing North Belfast. Capitalising on her status and subsequent wealth, Lady Dixon pursued her own philanthropic interests in Northern Ireland. Here she carved out a reputation of her own.
Philanthropy & Career:
Lady Dixon showed a keen interest in matters of public health, which consumed much of her philanthropic efforts. One such example was her and her husband’s financial patronising of the Benn Hospital’s Nursing Wing on Clifton Street, North Belfast in 1938. Lady Dixon remained keenly involved with the hospital after its opening, including her yearly Christmas visit in which she circulated gifts to inpatients, accordingly she became a key public figurehead of the Benn Hospital. Additionally, her role as president of the hospital proved invaluable in the long-term, from which she was greatly admired for example she was described as a ‘fairy godmother to the institution’. The site of the Benn Hospital fell victim to the 20th century development of the WestLink motorway, so no physical reminder of the building remains today but doubtless Lady Dixon’s patronising of the establishment was influential during its time.
Lady Dixon’s philanthropic legacy was most acutely felt in Larne, Co Antrim. The Clark family had long been influential summer residents of Larne, in the impressive Cairndhu House. Alongside her husband, Lady Dixon took permanent residence in her ancestral house from 1918. Later, as Mayor of Larne, between 1939 to 1941, Thomas Dixon authorized the house’s use as a war hospital upon the outbreak of the Second World War. This role foreshadowed the building’s donation to the Northern Ireland’s Hospitals Authority in 1947 and its subsequent full conversion into ‘The Sir Thomas and Lady Edith Hospital’ in 1950, three years later.The hospital remained in use until 1986, however the site has since fallen into disrepair and is now most notable for its paranormal stories (including ghostly nurses patrolling the grounds). Whilst residents in the house, the Dixon family utilized its grandeur to have fashionable galas that raised money for various charitable causes, for example the Cairncastle Prisoners of war fund in August 1918. Lady Dixon also presided over the Larne Nursing Society and Larne branch of the St John’s Ambulance brigade in 1939.As homage to these consistent local efforts, she was granted Freedom of the Borough of Larne in 1952. Upon the death of Lady Dixon in 1964 then Mayor of Larne, JW Sandford, described how ‘Larne has lost its greatest benefactor’ as she always ‘had the welfare of the town and district at heart’. This is testament to her contribution to the success of 20th century Larne.
However, Lady Dixon’s most enduring reputation is in the popular namesake Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park, in South Belfast. Lady Dixon bequeathed the family home, Wilmont House, and its surrounding grounds to the Belfast public in 1959, in her late husband’s memory (having died in 1950). The house was designed by architect Thomas Jackson, whose work was integral to shaping the vernacular of 19th century Belfast, iconic buildings of his design include St Malachy’s Church. Until 1992 Wilmont House served as a home for the elderly, fulfilling Dixon’s wish for the house to serve a medical purpose. The house’s use has since been confused, between 1992 and 2013 serving as the meeting point for various, unrelated events including the Belfast Marathon. 2013 plans for the building’s refurbishment were turned down and the building has since fallen into decline, prompting a petition that aims to save the abandoned house.
Lady Dixon’s lifetime of contribution to Northern Irish society has been recognized through official titles including Dame Commander of the British Empire (D.B.E) in 1921 and the Freedom of the Borough of Larne in 1952, however, the physical legacy of her medical philanthropy has unfortunately been largely neglected. Including the demolition of the Benn Hospital and dereliction of both Cairndhu House and Wilmont House. This undermines her generous contributions to facilitating access to public health in Northern Ireland, her true passion and largest influence. Additionally, the Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park skews her public memory, by suggesting that Edith and her husband operated in philanthropic unison. Whilst the prominence of the Dixon family locally financially facilitated her pursuits, it was Lady Dixon’s personal interests in public health that shaped her contributions. Likewise, her influence was not limited to financial input but rather she exercised genuine and continued political engagement in her chosen subject areas. Lady Dixon should, therefore, be remembered as a pioneer of liberal healthcare in a pre-welfare state age where access to healthcare was decidedly limited. Integral to keeping this important element of her memory alive is to preserve the buildings associated with her philanthropy, an important starting point is Wilmont house; access to the petition to save the building is linked below:
Cara Jones, MA Public History
 C.J. Woods, ‘Dixon, Sir Daniel’ in Dictionary of Irish Biography (October 2009), accessible at https://www.dib.ie/biography/dixon-sir-daniel-a2630.
 Belfast News-Letter 10th November 1938.
 Timothy Belmont, ‘Cairndhu House’ (8th May 2020), accessible at http://lordbelmontinnorthernireland.blogspot.com/2014/05/cairndhu-house.html.
 Welcome to Carnfunnock country Park: Park history and heritage features’, accessible at https://www.midandeastantrim.gov.uk/things-to-do/parks/carnfunnock-countrypark/welcome-to-carnfunnock-country-park/park-history-heritage-features.
 ‘Carnfunnock country park: The tale of two estates’, accessible at https://www.midandeastantrim.gov.uk/downloads/CCP_History_Guide.pdf, p12
 Darryl Armitage, ‘Mansion and estate offered to Belfast Corporation (April 1956)’ (24th April 2021) accessible at https://throughthearchives.wordpress.com/2021/04/24/mansionand-estate-offered-to-belfast-corporation-april-1956/.
 Timothy Belmont, ‘Edith Lady Dixon: A tribute’ (July 2010), accessible at http://lordbelmontinnorthernireland.blogspot.com/2013/03/edith-lady-dixon.html.
 Andrew Madden, ‘Hundreds back call to restore Belfast’s Wilmont House to former glory’ in Belfast Telegraph (18th January 2022), accessible at https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/hundreds-back-call-to-restorebelfasts-wilmont-house-to-former-glory-41253540.html.