Miss Eliza Johnston was born in the vicinity of Lisburn around the time of the beginning of the reign of King George IV. If the age of 85 on her death certificate is correct she was born in 1820 or 1821 and if the age of 87 given in her obituary in the Belfast Evening Telegraph of 14th August 1906 is correct she was born in 1818 or 1819 while King George III still reigned.
She spent the whole of her working life in the hospitality industry starting in Jury’s Hotel in Dublin. She later moved to an hotel in London and then came to Belfast in 1866.
She ran various hospitality establishments in Belfast and Bangor for the next 40 years right up until her death on 11th August 1906 in Bangor. In December 1866 E. Johnston announced her new Luncheon Bar at the Abercorn Arms, 28 Castle Lane, Belfast, in the Northern Whig. Steaks and chops on the shortest notice, fresh from the “grid”, soups, fish, joints, and entrees available at all hours. An Ordinary Daily was served at 2 o’clock. Wines, Spirits, Ales etc of the finest quality were available. By 4th November 1867 Miss E Johnston advertised in the Northern Whig that the Ulster Gridiron ‘was in course of erection at her establishment and would be completed in a few days time. Gentlemen would then be able to see their chops etc being cooked in four minutes. The new cooking apparatus was especially manufactured for the Abercorn and was second to none in the kingdom. Miss Johnston had obtained the services of a first class Man Cook who could supply an unlimited number daily. By October 1869 the establishment’s name had Hotel added to its name. The News Letter of 11th October 1869 announced that a Saloon had been added to the Luncheon Bar where Red Bank Oysters were served, by a practical man from 10am to 12pm. According to Marcus Patton the building that became the Abercorn Arms was built in the 1840s as an hotel. It was certainly there from 1843 and was called the Shakespeare Hotel. Mr Edward P Grey, the proprietor of the hotel for many years died on 13th June 1866, at his residence, the Shakespeare Hotel. He was buried in Friar’s Bush Cemetery. James Hamilton, 2nd Marquess Of Abercorn, was appointed Viceroy of Ireland on the 6th July 1866 and perhaps that accounts for the name of Miss E Johnston’s new concern. Marcus Patton gave a description of Miss E Johnston in his Historical Gazetteer of Central Belfast. She was a giantess who sported a red bandana and long gold chain, with a bunch of keys jangling at her waist. She had enormous hands which ‘never went direct to their aim when they grasped anything, but minced about, feeling for it.’
On 10th May 1870 E Johnston announced in the Northern Whig that she was also in possession of the Royal Hotel in Bangor which had been previously run by Mr Henry McFall. Gentleman desirous of making arrangements as Boarders were required to make early application as only a limited number could be accommodated. Boarders at the Royal Hotel could arrange to dine at the Abercorn in Belfast as both establishments were now the property of E Johnston. In an advert in the Belfast Weekly News of 16th May 1874, E Johnston took the opportunity to acquaint the Nobility and Gentry visiting Bangor that the Royal Hotel was ready for their reception. A Grand Table d’Hote was served at 4pm every Sunday during the season. The Posting Department was well supplied with good horses, private cars and other stylish vehicles.
On 1st September 1876 Miss Johnston’s interest in the Royal Hotel Bangor was auctioned as she wanted to exclusively devote herself to the Abercorn Hotel, Belfast. She later sold her interest in the Abercorn Hotel, Belfast in 1878 and opened the Royal Exchange Restaurant, Rosemary Street by November 1878. An advert place in the Newtownards Chronicle of 30th November 1878 announced that the Royal Exchange Restaurant had opened under E Johnston’s own immediate management. Dinners in great variety were available from 12.30pm to 6pm, steaks, chops, kidneys etc, as usual in 5 minutes, from the original Silver Grid. The Cuisine Department was under the superintendence of a most experienced and efficient man.
An advert in the Belfast Evening Telegraph of 9th June 1879 announced that E Johnston was taking the advantage of acquainting ladies and gentlemen visiting the fashionable Watering-place of Bangor that she had opened the Dufferin Restaurant in Ballymagee Street. According to Marcus Patton it was situated at 5 Ballymagee Street (Now High Street) and was first opened as the Dufferin Hotel, Dining and Billard Rooms. It was a first class luncheon bar and restaurant. A Grand Table D’Hote was available at 4pm on Sundays. Ladies and Gentlemen could be accommodated at the Dufferin or Tower Buildings, where they had an uninterrupted view of the bay. The posting department was well supplied by good horses, private cars and other vehicles. She added that she intended having an entirely new concern in Bangor for the next season, the above being only an accommodation for the present. The new premises was the present day Rabbit Rooms. Miss Johnston named it the Abercorn Hotel after her former hotel in Belfast. The previous proprietor Abram Jordan, who at one time had 10 places of business, was in court in Dublin in September 1880 for bankruptcy. An advert was placed in the Belfast Evening Telegraph of 26th July 1880 advertising E Johnston’s Abercorn Hotel and Dufferin Restaurant, Bangor. Ladies and gentlemen visiting this popular watering place could be supplied with hot or cold luncheons, dinners, teas etc on the shortest notice at moderate charges at either of her establishments. A few boarders could be taken by the week. The bedrooms were large, airy and nicely furnished. The Northern Whig of 29th June 1880 advertised the sale by auction on 7th July of the ground with the buildings situated at numbers 10 and 12 Donegall Street, Belfast along with the goodwill, licence, fixtures, trade and business of the Alexandra Hotel and restaurant. By December 1880 E Johnston had opened the Alexandra Hotel and Restaurant in Belfast.
On 15th December 1886 the licence of the Abercorn Hotel, Bangor was transferred from Miss E Johnston, Bangor to Robert McKendry, Ballymoney. On 25th July 1888 Miss Johnston’s business, the Dufferin Bar, Ballymagee Street was being auctioned as she was concentrating on her business, the Prince George Hotel, situated at the corner of Chichester Street and Donegall Square East, Belfast. She had been the proprietor of this hotel from at least September 1885 as she had placed an advert in the Newtownards Chronicle of 19th September announcing that the Prince George Hotel and restaurant had been re-furbished and was open for visitors. The large public dining room had the ORIGINAL SILVER GRIDIRON which was in full working order. It was open from 12.30pm to 7pm with the cuisine under the supervision of a first class chef. The Dufferin Restaurant didn’t sell in 1888 as it was up for auction again on 26th April 1889.
It was announced in the Belfast News Letter of 28th January 1898 that Miss Eliza Johnston, of the Prince George Hotel, Chichester Street, was made the recipient of a beautiful silver tea and coffee service, presented by a number of her friends, with their best wishes for her continued success. This was the 13th presentation she had received since she started business in Belfast 31 years before. In June 1899 the case Ulster Bank v Johnston was listed for hearing in court for non payment of rent. This was disputed by Miss Johnston and a settlement was reached whereby the defendant agreed to deliver possession of the premises and the plaintiffs agreed to pay her a sum as compensation. The building along with the rest of the terrace of houses was shortly afterwards demolished and the present building on the site, designed by Young & Mackenzie, was built 1899 - 1902 for Ocean Insurance Company.
Miss Johnston was not the kind of person to let the grass grow under her feet. She opened The Criterion, 4 and 6 Crown Entry, Belfast on Tuesday, 18th July 1899. According to Marcus Patton 6, Crown Entry had been the location of the office of the Morning News and Ulster Weekly News, the first penny newspaper in Ireland, which appeared as a tri-weekly newspaper in 1855. It later merged with the Irish News in 1892. An article was published in the Belfast News Letter, of 21st July 1899 announcing that Miss E Johnston had opened The Criterion. The luncheon bar was handsomely fitted up, accommodated fully 200 people, while the grill room was a well appointed and spacious room. In addition there were a number of first class private rooms for parties who wished to dine alone. As Miss Johnston had secured the services of two competent chefs, patrons could rely upon excellent cooking and prompt attention. In addition there was a billiard room on the first floor fitted with two first class tables.
However, Miss E Johnston decide to return to Bangor three years later. An advert in the Belfast Telegraph of 18th July 1902 announced that E Johnston, late of the Criterion Restaurant, Belfast was the proprietress of the Criterion Refreshment Bar, Bangor Esplanade, opposite the band stand. It was situated at the corner of Bridge Street and Ballymagee Street. This premises had previously been called The Stag’s Head. The leasehold and fully licensed premises were to be auctioned on 21st March 1902, by John Ward & Son under the instruction of Mr John Reid, Newcastle-on-Tyne, following the death of Mrs Sharpe. The sale by auction was withdrawn at the last minute as the premises had been sold by private treaty. The bar was large and fitted with the latest improvements, including Incandescent Lights, Circular Counter, Electro-plated Pumps and Oak Spirit Casks. There were also two public sitting rooms off the bar, with mahogany tables and cushioned seating all round. There was also a private sitting room and kitchen with close range, good scullery etc. The upper part comprised 6 rooms, large bathroom, lavatory and WC. There were 3 stock and bottling stores, stabling for 4 horses at the rear, with gateway entrance. The entire premises was held on Lease for 999 years from 1st November 1900 at a rent of £40 per annum. The vendor had spent £850 in alterations and modern improvements and with the original purchase money stood at £2,050. Miss Johnston died four years later on 11th August 1906 after suffering from bronchitis for a month. She was buried in Bangor New Cemetery in section 4N. The Rev J I Peacocke BD, Rector of St Comgall’s Parish Church, conducted the burial service. No headstone was ever put on her grave.
Miss Eliza Johnston’s obituary was published in the Belfast Evening Telegraph on 14th August 1906. She was described as a lady distinguished by many eccentricities apparent to the stranger and by many acts of kindness gratefully appreciated by her friends. She was, in the expressive phrase of Ulstermen, ‘a character’. Her dress was unconventional. She always wore a costume of brown, a sort of Spanish mantilla drawing attention to a strongly-marked face and she carried a lot of jingling keys. She had strong views, no doubt absorbed from her environment, on religious and political questions. An enthusiastic Loyalist, she never hesitated to express candid opinions, caring little as to their acceptance by a casual customer. She took a keen interest in sport and made no secret of the fact that she paid some little interest to racing affairs. She kept more than one fast trotter, and until a short time before her death, was frequently seen in a vehicle speedily and skilfully driven by Mr ‘Paddy’ Murphy of Bangor. Furthermore she was an expert judge of fox terriers, and kept several which were the envy of Bangor and district. A farm at Dundonald was another of her hobbies. With all her eccentricities - and most of them were amiable - and combining shrewd business aptitude with a love of sport, Miss Eliza Johnston read her Bible regularly and rarely missed one or other of the Sunday services.
Miss Eliza Johnston died intestate. Her niece Miss Amelia Eleanor Johnston, of Gaigue, Richmond Avenue, Palmerston Park, Co Dublin was Administratrix of her aunt’s personal estate. On 27th April 1907, at Newtownards Equity Sessions, the plaintiff, Annie Gallagher, brought a suit for administration of the estate of Miss Eliza Johnston. Annie Gallagher was a barmaid who had been in the service of the late Miss Johnston up until the date of her death and she claimed to be a creditor of the estate for £14 16s 8d, wages. The defendant, a niece of the deceased, had been granted administration of her estate on 1st October 1906. Annie Gallagher averred that a large number of claims amounting to almost one thousand pounds had been sent in by alleged creditors, many of which were believed to be bogus, that the personal estate of deceased consisted of stock and furniture (which sold and realised £75), and £55 cash in house at time of deceased’s death and that the estate was wholly insolvent. In the defendant’s replying affidavit, she stated that at the time of her death deceased had no relative or other person residing with her who could take charge of the estate. The deceased’s licensed premises in Bangor had been sold by the mortgagee, whose solicitor, after the deceased’s death, had attended at the premises and took over the cash found therein. Defendant also alleged that after the deceased’s death some of the employees on the premises helped themselves liberally to articles of value, as a considerable number of articles in the house prior to deceased’s death could not after her death be accounted for.
The licence of the premises was transferred to Mrs Isabella Smith in January 1907. She changed the name of the premises back to The Stag’s Head Hotel. Mrs Smith was also the proprietress of the Alexandra Hotel, 6-8, Ballymagee Street.