John De Vere Loder
Eliza Riddel (1831 - 1924):
Eliza Riddel, along with her younger sister Isabella, in 1913 founded and endowed the eponymous hall of residence for female students at Queen’s University, Belfast. The establishment of Riddel Hall was according to its historians, one stage in the long development of full gender equality in higher education.
The Riddel family was one of the wealthier in Belfast at a time when Belfast was one of the wealthier cities anywhere and one of the wealthiest in the United Kingdom (which then included the entire island of Ireland), thanks to the family hardware business founded by Eliza’s father John Riddel in 1803 at 38 Chichester Quay, Belfast. The Riddels were firm Unitarians, and displayed the strong philanthropic inclinations and commitments of that tradition. Unusually for the time, most of the children of John Riddel never married – two of ten only – so that Eliza and her younger sister Isabella received a bequest from their brother Samuel totalling £432,310, 12s, 6d, a considerable sum which in 2013 would run well into the millions.
Eliza and her sister decided to provide £35,000 for a residence for “female Protestant students and teachers of Queen’s University, Belfast”. The denominational restriction was not at all unusual at a time when charitable bequests to or within specified denominations were normal practice. What was more unusual was the interest on the part of Eliza and her sister in female higher education. They themselves had led apparently j lives showing no particular interest in intellectual or academic pursuits. They left no personal record of their motives, and the extensive diary or “Chronicle” maintained for many years by Miss Ruth Duffin, a distant relative who was the first Warden of Riddel Hall, does not record any information of this kind. There are however possible clues. They (no doubt with strong Unitarian attitudes) were contributors to a number of charitable bodies concerned specifically with women’s issues; a niece, Margaret had been involved with the Belfast Ladies’ Institute; the Riddel family had some connections with the Senate of Queen’s University. A further notable feature of the bequest was its size at a time when ladies hostels of various kinds including for students were financed in what has been called a “piecemeal” fashion and with considerably smaller amounts.
Riddel Hall was registered as a Limited Company on 3 June 1913, with a cousin, Henry Musgrave, a member of the Senate of Queen’s University, as Chairman (he was also very wealthy and would later provide £40,000 for a residence for male students at Queen’s). The first Vice-Chairman was Sir William Crawford, another Queen’s Senator and Honorary Treasurer of the University. Another member of the Permanent Committee of Riddel Hall was Sir Samuel Dill, the Classical Scholar, Educationalist and Writer. Other members were selected for their personal distinction including both Eliza and Isabella; there were also governors, some ex officio (the Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University and certain clerics, the Chairman of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, the Lord Mayor of Belfast), and five elected “lady graduate governors” (graduates, that is, of Queen’s).
The firm of Henry Lavery and Sons were contracted to build the new Hall. A site was found in the Stranmillis area of Belfast, abutting to the south the grounds of the home of Sir William Whitla, Professor of Materia Medica at Queen’s (he later bequeathed his house to Queen’s). The chief architect was to be William Lynn. Lavery and Lynn had already executed buildings on the main site at Queen’s, and the Hall would bear strong architectural likenesses to those buildings. Riddel Hall took two years to build and opened in 1915.
The significance of Riddel Hall, apart from the simple fact of providing student accommodation, has been described, by an historian of the Hall, thus: “The story of Riddel Hall begins in the mid-nineteenth century with the pioneers who struggled for women to be educated, then to be admitted to university.” In fact Queen’s had in 1882 been the first university college in Ireland to admit women, thanks largely to repeated representations from the same Belfast Ladies’ Institute to which the Riddels were connected and whose members included the pioneering Margaret Byers and Isabella Tod.
Eliza and Isabella provided further money for an endowment fund to subsidise accommodation for students; a further £15,000 to this fund in 1918; and a bequest of £20,000 to the Hall. She was made a member of the Senate of Queen’s University. A resplendent frieze in bronze honouring the Riddel sisters still (June 2013) adorns the foyer of their eponymous Hall.
Gillian McClelland with Diana Hadden: Pioneering Women: Riddel Hall and Queen’s University Belfast (Ulster Historical Foundation, 2005; quotation p.xv); Brian Walker and Alf McCreary: Degrees of Excellence: The Story of Queen’s Belfast 1845-1995 (Institute of Irish Studies, 1994); private information; personal knowledge
© 2023 Ulster History Circle