Robert and Ellen Peter


1803 – 1881 and 1807 – 1890

St Columba’s Church stands at the end of Park Terrace, next to the Black Boy gardens. Its original name was the Peter Memorial Church, and it was built with funds from the estate of Ellen Peter, widow of Robert Peter, a former cabinet-maker. Mr Peter died in 1881, his widow 10 years later.

In her will, Ellen specified that her estate was to be used to build a church ‘in or near the King’s Park or Southfield’ to be used as a place of worship for the Free Church. The reason for such a specific site was that the Free North Church, in Murray Place, of which Robert and Ellen Peter had been members since 1851, was felt by Ellen to be inconveniently situated and that the access to the church, by means of a steep flight of stairs, was difficult for the elderly and infirm.

The new church did not open until September 1902 and although the newspaper report of the event is scathing in its comments on the quality of the inaugural sermon, it makes no reference to either Robert or Ellen, whose generosity caused the church to be there. The sermon the following Sunday made veiled remarks which suggest there had been some misgivings over the bequest.

Jeems, whose obituary appeared in the same edition of the local newspaper as the report on the opening, offered his view, written some years previously:

The Peter Bequest

O what a fecht ower a wee pickle siller,
They say has been made by gill stoup and filler.
It’s strange hoo when siller is got by some quirk,
It’s maistlins aye left for the guid o’ the Kirk.
For guid o’ the Kirk! It’s ill I am thinkin’,
A kirk ne’er will stand when made frae the drinkin’.
The Kirk has a penchan, no easy tae fill,
And no’ very particular, though made frae a gill,
.                                     The siller, the siller.

“Take warning in time, and decline the bequest,
And the souls o’ the dead will then be at rest;
The friends o’ auld Peter will then get their shares;
All heaven will rejoice and answer your prayers:
For is it not said in God’s most holy Word,
‘Who gives to the poor he but lends to the Lord’?”
The chairman near fainted, the clerk he looked blae,
The pro re nata meeting was adjourned sine die.
The siller, the siller.

His hint that Robert Peter had made his money via the Licensed Trade i.e. public houses was fairly near the truth as a hotel owned by Robert in Belfast was renowned for its liberal interpretation of the local licensing laws. Problems associated with alcohol abuse had resulted in the forming of the Temperance Movement and the misuse of alcohol was frowned upon by the Church of Scotland. Nevertheless the Church’s disapproval did not hinder it from accepting the bequest.