The Story of Belfast City Cemetery
Background to Belfast City Cemetery
With the accelerating population growth of Belfast, combined with the huge increase in deaths in Ireland in the 1840’s, land for graveyards was desperately needed. Up to this time most burial grounds were owned by particular church denominations. However, as these were now almost completely filled, Belfast Corporation was under pressure to provide a municipal cemetery for the inhabitants of the city. As a result, at a special meeting of the Belfast Corporation Improvements Committee on 2nd October 1865, 101 acres of land on the Falls Road was purchased from Mr Thomas Sinclair. The price was £12,000.
Cemetery Design and Opening
It was decided the following year that 45 acres of the land would be laid out as a cemetery. It was to be bounded by the Falls Road, Whiterock Road and ‘Henry’s Bleach Green at the pond’. The rest of the land was to be used for the Falls Park and subsequently for the building of St Patrick’s Industrial School.
William Gay of Bradford, England was awarded the contract to design the new cemetery. Cliff & Co, also of Bradford were to provide the iron gates and Monk & Co the boundary walls. Gay designed the new graveyard in the shape of a bell. The site was divided into a number of sections with an alphabetical reference. Within each section the grave plots were laid out in numerical sequence. The Belfast City Cemetery opened on 1st August 1869.
There were two types of grave in the cemetery. Proprietary graves could be bought by individuals or societies. These were in the more attractive areas of the site. The prime locations along the network of avenues and roads cost more than those four or five rows back. The cost of a Proprietary grave ranged from £9 to £1. The position of the plot and the more ornate the headstone was an indication of the money and status of the family in Victorian Belfast society.
“The cost and location of a grave was a mark of an individual’s rank in a class-ridden society… Here their wealth could be reflected in lavish headstones and monuments”Tom Hartley Belfast City Cemetery 2014
Paupers’ graves were owned by Belfast Corporation. These were located in the Poor Ground, also known as the Public Ground in this cemetery. This area was placed in the less scenic part of the cemetery, away from view. These were for people who could not afford to buy a grave. There are no headstones or markers here and families were not buried together. There was a separate gate on the Whiterock Road for the poor to use. The first to be buried in the Poor Ground was Annie Collins, age 3 from Brown’s Row and Isabella McDowell, age 10 from Mary’s Place. Both little girls were buried on 4th August 1869. There are 80,208 souls in the Poor Ground here.
The Vaults and Steps
A small number of vaults were built within the cemetery. They were designed in the Gothic style and built in sandstone. They were reached by a flight of stone steps named the Central Steps. At the entrance to the Vaults the staircase divides and continues up on either side due to the steepness of the hillside. The Steps are commonly known as the Gallagher Steps, as Thomas Gallagher, a Belfast tobacco manufacturer, is interred within. On 5th October 1869 ownership of these prestigious burying places were put up for public auction. In the 1870’s the Vaults were enclosed with High Victorian wrought iron railings. The impressive Vaults and Steps are currently undergoing restoration thanks to a Heritage Lottery Grant. (See City Cemetery Heritage)
Initially this municipal graveyard was to be non-denominational. 15 acres were set aside for Catholic burials. This area was to have its own Mortuary Chapel and an allocated entrance at the southern end of the cemetery. However, a dispute arose between the Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Patrick Dorrian and Belfast Corporation and this land was never used for its designated purpose. Milltown became Belfast’s Catholic graveyard.
Towards the end of the twentieth century, with Milltown reaching capacity, an area in the extended City Cemetery was provided by the Council [previously Corporation] for Catholic burials. As pressure on the City cemetery grew, the old reserve paths in the lower graveyard were now being used for burials of all denominations.
The Underground Wall
The original proposed Catholic section of the graveyard was separated from the rest of the graveyard by an underground wall. This is sunk 9ft deep and runs in a west-east line. Separated even after death.
The Jewish Cemetery
On 16th January 1871, after an application by Mr Daniel Jaffe the Cemetery Committee gave permission for a section of land to be allocated for Jewish burials. This was a narrow piece of ground next to the Whiterock Road. The site was extended in 1898 and again in 1916. The Jewish burying ground was surrounded by an 8ft high stone wall.The entrance on the Whiterock Road was inscribed Bethayim, Hebrew for ‘the house of life’. There was also a small Tahara or synagogue, since demolished.
Within the Jewish graveyard is a Poor Ground. A memorial erected on 22nd February 1931 marks this area. The first burial in the Jewish cemetery was baby Herschmann [stillborn] from 57 Divis Street, who was interred on 31st January 1873. Daniel Jaffe, father of Otto Jaffe – Belfast’s First Lord Mayor, is buried here. A successful businessman, he funded in 1864, the building of the first synagogue in Belfast at 71 Great Victoria Street. Nearly 300 people of the Jewish faith are buried in this cemetery. The last internment was that of Abraham Herbert on 10th June 1964.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Belfast City Cemetery was nearly full. On 6th June 1912, Belfast Corporation bought 2 fields divided by the Ballymurphy River, from Mr Henry Patterson. This adjoining land, called Gleann an Leana (the glen of the two water-meadows) totalled 54 acres and cost £5,250. The land had previously been used for linen beetling and a bleach mill.
What is Beetling? The unique process of Beetling involves linen fabric being dampened and wound around an iron cylinder. The linen is then passed through a machine and pounded with heavy wooden blocks. This technique produces a hard, flat surface with high lustre and makes the linen fabric less porouswww.wmclark.co.uk October 14th, 2015
For use as a cemetery, the dams had to be drained and infilled with clay and the mill and outbuildings demolished. The extension was laid out on a grid pattern. The first burial in Glenalina was that of Lizzie Young, aged 13, on 11th November 1915.
There are many war graves in Belfast City Cemetery. In 1927 the Imperial War Graves Commission were permitted to erect a memorial in the form of a low stone wall in memory of all the soldiers, sailors and military personnel buried in the graveyard, many in unnamed plots. The wall is inscribed with names. In about the middle of the cemetery is the Cross of Sacrifice erected to commemorate all those who lost their lives in both World Wars. It is to the design by Sir Reginald Blomfield [1856-1942] and is made of Carlow limestone.
While most of Belfast’s 1,000 Blitz fatalities are buried in family plots throughout the city, those unidentified were interred in either the City Cemetery or Milltown. On 21st April 1941 the funerals of these ‘unknowns’ left the temporary mortuary at St George’s Market to journey to their final resting place. A simple stone memorial honours the spot where these victims are buried.
Buildings, Fountains and Memorials
At the main entrance to the graveyard, at the junction of the Falls and Whiterock Roads, stands the Superintendant’s House. This is thought to have been designed by John Lanyon. On 1st September 1869 Mr J Moran was appointed the first Superintendent of the cemetery. This attractive two storey house has a side entrance with the coat of arms of Belfast Corporation inscribed over the door. The east and west facade of the house are adorned with gargoyles.
This house, built beside the Whiterock Road entrance, was to provide accommodation for the cemetery foreman. The Corporation employed a number of gravediggers, gardeners and maintenance men. The last resident of Fox Lodge was Larry Ferguson, a sythes man. The little house fell into disrepair but is now in the process of restoration.
In 1874 at the cost of £1,040 a Mortuary Chapel was built by local contractor Samuel Carson. Sadly this Chapel fell victim to vandals and all that remains today is the tower.
A key feature of the graveyard design was a Victorian drinking fountain. This was installed by George Smith & Co of the Sun Foundry, Glasgow. This is a highly decorated and ornate, circular, three tiered construction made of cast-iron. (The fountain is currently undergoing renovation off-site)
The Bell Yard
A few yards from the Cross of Sacrifice is the Bell Yard. This bell sounded daily to warn visitors that the cemetery was about to close. It is believed that the bell originally hung in the tower of the White Linen Hall [now the site of Belfast City Hall]. When this building was demolished in 1895, the clock was erected over the new Fish Market in Oxford Street and the bell came to the graveyard. However, the bell disappeared in the early 1970’s and was only recovered 30 years later.
Belfast City Cemetery Today
A walk through the City Cemetery is a reminder of Victorian pomp and grandeur. You cannot help but be impressed by the splendour and craftsmanship of some of these familial memorials. Urns, obelisks, angels, wreaths, clasped hands are all represented. Some of the more intriguing are the Herdman Memorial [L-153] in the Egyptian Revivalist style or the Gothic Philips Memorial Cross [Q-660/1]. The Carson grave [Q-723] is in the Art Noveau fashion while the Hamilton headstone [K-11] is shaped like an anchor and harks back to early Christian symbolism. The Inglis memorial [C2-248] features a plaque by Irish sculptress Rosamund Praeger.
A cemetery full of memories and teeming with life
The Belfast City Cemetery is full of interest and history and sombre beauty. It is a fascinating place to visit, especially on a quiet afternoon when birds and squirrels and rabbits abound. Around 225,153 people are buried here. Rich man and pauper rest in peace in this enclave of tranquillity.
Availability of Grave Records
The grave records from 1869 for Belfast City Cemetery are online and free to search. It is possible to buy the image of a burial record, if the death is over 75 years old. (See Belfast City Council Burial Search).
Belfast City Cemetery Image Gallery
Click an image for full size view
Location: Belfast City Cemetery, 511 Falls Road, Belfast BT12 6DE
Telephone: 028 90323112
For more information on the Cemetery and its history you can consult the definitive work on the subject –
Written in Stone: The History of Belfast City Cemetery by Tom Hartley 2006, updated 2014
Born rich with a lifetime of luxury ahead, Vere Foster instead died alone in Belfast in poverty after giving it all away to help the poorest in Ireland. A story crying out to be heard.
Built in 1890, the Victorian St George’s Market remains a thriving market and with over 300 traders. In 2019 it was named the UK’s Best Large Indoor Market.
The story of Belfast’s First Lord Mayor and leading Linen Merchant, Otto Jaffe.
Anyone who reads George Benn’s History of Belfast will definitely agree with his appellation ‘the first great historian of Belfast’.
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