Patterson, Sir Robert Lloyd (1836–1906), amateur naturalist, art collector, and linen manufacturer, was born 28 December 1836 at 3 College Square North, Belfast, second son among five sons and six daughters of Robert Patterson (qv) (1802–72), naturalist and mill furnisher, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, poet, and daughter of Belfast magistrate William Hugh Ferrar, and granddaughter of printer and historian John Ferrar (qv) of Limerick. He attended a school kept by a Miss Mason, at College St. South (later Grosvenor St.), before moving to the Rev. John Scott Porter's school in College St. East. After its closure (1847) he changed to the RBAI, which his father had also attended. In 1851 he was sent to school in Stuttgart, where he remained for a year, becoming fluent in German and French. On his return (1852) he became apprenticed to the linen firm of Praeger & Co., Belfast. Through his connection with the Praeger family, his sister Maria Patterson later married (1862) Willem Emilius Praeger. Their son was the eminent naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger (qv).
After six years apprenticeship, he went into partnership (1858) with George McIntyre and founded the business of R. L. Patterson & Co., flax, tow, and yarn merchants, at the age of 21. His keen business sense brought him success, and after almost thirty years he retired (1886) a wealthy man. Though public-spirited by nature, he ran his business with profit a priority. ‘I think we have had too much restrictive factory legislation of late years . . . Much more of this paternal legislation will have the tendency to legislate the trade out of the country’ (quoted in Armstrong, ‘Social and economic conditions’, 243). Such statements reflected the pressure of foreign competition; but even without competition, Patterson and his fellow linen manufacturers were opposed to any state regulation that would diminish the profitability of their business. An active member of the Belfast chamber of commerce, he joined the council (1872) and was elected vice-president (1879), president (1880, 1894, 1895), and honorary secretary (1889–97). After his retirement (1886) he was presented by the chamber (1897) with his portrait (painted by J. Haynes Williams) and a large silver bowl. He was knighted for civic service in 1902.
Continuing the family tradition and enthusiasm for natural history and culture, he was an active member of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society (president 1881–3, 1894–6), which his father had helped establish (1821). Though never reaching the same level of achievement in this area as his father, he had a particular interest in seabirds and fishes, and published a number of papers in Ibis, the Zoologist, the Field, and the Irish Naturalist. This led to his book The birds, fishes and cetacea of Belfast Lough (1880). Enjoying the pursuits of a man of wealth, he was a keen fisherman, hunter, and sailor. In the latter part of his life he was involved in the establishment of the Ulster Fisheries and Biology Association, of which he was vice-president.
He married (12 November 1861) Frances Sarah Caughy, in Rosemary St. chapel; the celebrant was Henry Montgomery (qv), the liberal unitarian. They lived at Dundela, Strandtown, Holywood, Co. Down, and after his retirement moved (1888) to a large residence, Croft House, Holywood, where he lived until his death on 29 January 1906, aged 69. Although they had no children, Robert took an interest in those of his sister Maria, particularly after the early death (1868) of his brother-in-law, Willem Praeger. He acted as informal guardian to his nephews and nieces and helped pay for their education. His public spirit and generosity extended to supporting the development of the natural history or Patterson Museum, named after his father, which formed part of the Belfast ‘People's Palace’ (1904). This Belfast institution, with its two quadrangles of halls and rooms situated in a working-class area, aimed to provide a location for lectures and concerts for the people of the city. He donated up to fifty mounted birds and mammals, as did his nephew Robert Patterson, who published Ulster nature notes (1908), and was made first curator of the museum. The natural history collection at the ‘Palace’ was eventually incorporated into the Ulster Museum (1926), which also holds his valuable collection of Victorian paintings and artifacts, which he bequeathed to Belfast city along with £6,000 to provide for their housing and exhibition.
His elder brother William Hugh Patterson (1835–1918), was born 1 August 1835, also at 3 College Square North, Belfast, and attended the same schools, as well as QCB. As the eldest brother he entered his father's ironmongery (mill furnishing) business in High St. at the age of 16, and remained in connection with it for the remainder of his life.
From an early age he accompanied his father on geological rambles around Belfast, gathering fossils, flints and stones. Like his brother, he was a keen member of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society (secretary 1884–5, president 1885–6), and was a founding member of the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club (1863). His love of nature strongly influenced his young nephew Robert Lloyd Praeger, who remembers him ‘as his first tutor in natural science’ (A populous solitude, 43). However, his deeper interests were in archaeological, literary, and cultural endeavours. He was elected MRIA (1873), and was a member of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland and the Belfast Arts Society (his etchings were regularly accepted for its annual exhibition). He published several papers in the societies’ proceedings on ancient tombstones and other antiquities. He had a particular interest in spoken dialects in Ulster, and as a member of the English Dialect Society contributed ‘A bibliography of Anglo-Irish dialects’ to their ‘List’ (1877). He later published A glossary of words and phrases used in Antrim and Down (1880). He had an interest in traditional children's games and rhymes and corresponded with the folklorist Mrs Alice Bertha Gomme (1853–1938) of the Folklore Society in London. With encouragement from Alfred C. Haddon, an ethnographical committee of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society was set up, with William as secretary (1893). Visiting lecturers on folklore included W. B. Yeats (qv) and Douglas Hyde (qv). William's niece Clara Maud Patterson, daughter of his brother Richard Patterson, took up this interest in traditional games and wrote a paper for the society and compiled a sequence of photographs of local children playing (1893).
An enthusiastic collector of engravings of coins and of art objects of all kinds, including shell cameos, William also contributed some of his finds to the Patterson Museum. A kind and courteous man, he took an interest in local charities and was a stalwart supporter of the Royal Victoria Hospital, and one of the original members (and joint honorary secretary, 1856–1918) of the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. William Hugh Patterson died 5 February 1918.
He married (4 June 1858) Helen, daughter of John Crossley Anderson, proprietor and editor of the Belfast Commercial Chronicle (1805–55). They had seven children and lived at Garranard, Strandtown, Holywood, outside Belfast, close to other members of his family. His niece Rosamond Praeger (qv) modelled a bust of him. His son William Hugh Ferrar Patterson, MRIA, continued as director of the firm Robert Patterson & Sons, and was honorary treasurer (1899–1904) of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, as well as a keen writer of verse, including Songs of a poet (1920).