Botanic Gardens is a popular garden park located on the Stranmillis Road in South Belfast in close proximity to Queens University Belfast, The Ulster Museum, and the historic Friar’s Bush Graveyard. A beautiful place to spend time on a sunny day, Botanic Gardens occupies 28 acres (110,000 m2) and is a public park with an eventful history.
The late Georgian and Victorian eras saw a huge increase in interest in horticulture, the study of botany and in gardening itself. Dedicated travellers had improved the means for transporting specimen plants from abroad and greenhouses and hothouses were designed to propagate these rarities. Intricate gardens were laid out for the rich and parks were constructed to allow the over-crowded poor a breath of fresh air.
1828 Botanical Gardens Opens
In 1827 the Belfast Botanic and Horticultural Society was founded. The following year the Botanical Gardens, funded by public subscription, were opened. This was a private park for shareholders; the public were only allowed admittance on Sundays.
Opposition to Sunday Opening
Some religious leaders deplored the frivolity of visiting a park on the Sabbath, declaring it to be ‘The Sunday Trap’. In 1844 the Banner of Ulster, a newspaper with strong Presbyterian views, published “.…we regard those who amuse themselves on the Sabbath in the Botanic Gardens as indulging in an unwarrantable species of sensual enjoyment”. However, the public continued to flock to the park, Sunday being for most, the only day of leisure in the week.
Thomas Drummond was the first botanist to be employed as curator by the Society in August 1828. However, he returned to floral exploration after only two years. He headed to the Americas and died in Havana in 1835.
The Palm House
Palm House design
The Committee had been planning on building a ‘conservatory’ in the gardens for some time. Sir Charles Lanyon, Belfast’s leading architect of the day was hired to design the glasshouse. His original plans were somewhat modified and what was constructed was a large central rectangular domed building with symmetrical wings on either side.
Palm House Construction
Richard Turner, of Hammersmith Works in Dublin was employed to construct this glass and iron hothouse. Each wing was 64ft long and cost £1,400. The west wing had a cooler temperature while the east wing hotter for tropical plants. When Turner left the project to build the Great Palm House at Kew Gardens, the firm of Young took over the construction of the main dome. This rose to a height of 37.5ft and was completed in 1852. It is one of the oldest examples of curvilinear iron and glass structures still surviving in the world.
In 1840 the Society gained the title the Royal Belfast Botanical and Horticultural Society. A decade later the Society became a Limited Company. The then current curator Daniel Ferguson was greatly responsible for the growing reputation and prestige of the botanical gardens. As well as improving the Palm House by updating the heating by using a hot water system he published a book in 1851 detailing the plant collections.
Returning from London with the seeds of the giant water lily – Victoria Amazonia, he had a special area erected to house these 6ft wide plants. He was one of the first gardeners in Ireland to get these magnificent flowers to bloom.
“The surface is gently undulating and is most agreeably diversified with wood and water, shady vistas, floral parterres and tracts of smooth shaven greensward. The conservatories are magnificent, extensive and richly stocked; and in them are many of the rarest specimens to be found in any similar collection in the United Kingdom. The laying out and the keeping of the grounds, and the arrangement of the greenhouses, etc., reflect the highest credit upon the taste and judgement of the curator, Ferguson, who has a handsome residence in the gardens”C.R. McComb Guide to Belfast 1861
Botanic Gardens Belfast Features
At this time the Botanic Gardens had a large upper pond and two lower ponds. These displayed a range of aquatic plants as well as being a home for swans and wildfowl. In 1886, arising from a decorative rockery, a small tower was built, to provide views of the park layout and beyond. There was also a pinetum (a collection of unusual and foreign conifers), an orchid house and a tree-lined avenue leading to the River Lagan.
Original Gate Lodge
In 1878 a new gate lodge was built at the main entrance on the Stranmilis Road. It was constructed in the Venetian-Gothic style by Belfast architect William Batt. It was composed of red brick with Staffordshire bands. The gate-lodge contained a public room as well as a ladies cloakroom. In 1880 a clock tower was added to the building. Unfortunately the lodge was demolished in 1965 and only the stone gates and poppy finials survive.
The Tropical Ravine
In 1877 Charles McKimm was appointed head gardener at the Botanic Gardens. He had been born in 1848 in Donaghadee in County Down and had first come to the park in 1874. McKimm had many ideas for improving and renewing the stock and grounds, including the installation of gas lighting in the Palm House. However, his dream was to build a Fernery.
“The design was such that the plants grew in a sunken glen with a galleried walkway around the perimeter, giving a wonderful view over the ravine jungle planted with cycads, ferns, palms, bamboo and tree ferns. Grottoes, pools and cascades operated by a chain pulley further enhanced the surroundings”Patrick Devlin, Dictionary of Ulster Biography
Construction of the Tropical Ravine
The work on the new attraction began in 1887, mostly done by Charles McKimm himself and his team of gardeners. The jungle plants, ferns and orchids were highlighted with hundreds of candles and mirrors and the walls landscaped with rocks and caves.
In the summer of 1889, the Tropical Ravine was opened, the first visitors being the Marquis and Marchioness of Dufferin. Over the years the Tropical Ravine, while still an interesting visit, was showing signs of ‘wear and tear’. A comprehensive restoration was carried out between 2013 and 2018 and the Tropical Ravine is once again an impressive feature within the Botanic Gardens. Killarney Fern, banana, cinnamon and some of the world’s oldest seed plants are grown in the Ravine.
Entertainment at Botanic Gardens
Throughout the Garden’s history, it was beset with financial concerns. To try to alleviate these, the Society held numerous galas, festivals, shows and firework displays to raise cash. Concerts, parades and military tournaments were held to attract the public into parting with their shillings. In 1840 the Society organised a Fete Champetre (a pastoral fair). A programme lists the following activities – dancing, a magician, a poetry competition, jousting on ponies for boys and electrical underwater explosions! There was also boating on the lakes and a photographic exhibition by F S Beatty, Belfast’s first photographer.
Blondin, Deerfoot, Dragoon Guards, Lopez the African Chief and more…
On 16th August 1861, the first man to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, Mr Blondin, preformed his act in the park. In 1862 a native American called Deerfoot, a famous ‘pedestrian’ (a Victorian term for foot races) was the main attraction and in 1887 the 5th Dragoon Guards re-enacted military feats. Lopez, the African Chief, was a major draw in 1870 for his ability to carry a man while crossing the lake on a tightrope. While in 1889 Captain Whelan wowed the crowd when he completed a parachute jump.
Hot Air Ballooning
Also in the 1880’s a hall was constructed intended for exhibits and flower shows but more regularly used as a dance hall. However, the most popular entertainment was balloon ascents. In July 1864 the largest balloon at the time, the Britannia at 100ft wide rose into the air over the park containing eleven passengers. These events were so crowd-pleasing that a permanent gas-pipe was installed in the main lawn!
Rallies and Public Meetings
The Botanic Gardens were utilised for other occasions too. As rallies and meetings were not allowed in public parks, various groups could hire the grounds for these purposes. The Belfast Total Abstinence Society and Queens University students held outdoor meetings here. Religious gatherings met in the Park during the 1859 revival and in 1869 there was a rally to oppose the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. Political causes were also featured. On 17th September a Grand Protestant demonstration was held here to denounce the English government’s decision regarding the Party Processions Act. In October 1883 to celebrate the opening of the Conservative Club in Belfast, 30,000 attended the Great Conservative and Orange convention. While in June 1892 it is said 300,000 anti-Home-Rulers demonstrated their feelings in Botanic Gardens and the surrounding area.
Botanic Gardens Clippings
The Public Park
However, in 1893 Belfast Corporation bought the Gardens for £10,500. It changed the name to Belfast Botanic Gardens Park and on New Year’s Day 1895 it was opened to the public! It became the city’s sixth public park.
During this year the Corporation spent £2,600 restoring the park buildings and adding flora and shrubbery to the grounds. The staff, including head gardener Charles McKimm, were retained and given a pay rise to bring them into line with other public park employees. McKimm was not only a great horticulturist but also a kind and popular figure, admired by both patrons and colleagues alike.
In addition the Corporation erected new greenhouses, repaired the bandstand and had a new sprung floor added to the dance hall. On 8th September 1897, the Duke and Duchess of York, later George V and Queen Mary, drove through the park in the royal carriage under an archway of holly boughs and fairy lights, decorated with the words ‘Cead Mile Failte’.
The War Years
During WW1 the exhibition hall in Botanic Gardens was used as a hospital for returning wounded soldiers. While in June 1918 a Grand Fete was held to raise funds for the Red Cross and the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. After the war the gardens were again a favourite visiting place for the people of Belfast.
In the 1920’s the last of the ponds were filled in. Botanic Gardens was famous for its fabulous displays of roses, chrysanthemums and dahlias. During WW2 the lower areas of the park were used as vegetable allotments. Demonstrations were given to show how to cook with basic and rationed ingredients. 75% of the greenhouse area was given over to food production and bananas grown in the Tropical Ravine were sent to the Red Cross.
Botanic Gardens Today
Botanic Gardens continues to provide a welcome respite from city centre noise and business. Situated beside Queen’s University it is popular with students, as well as families and people of all ages. It is still a venue for concerts, seasonal flower and vegetable shows, children’s events and craft displays. The annual Belfast Mela takes place here to celebrate global food and culture. Above all, Botanic Gardens is a wonderful free space to enjoy the sights and smells of nature from all around the world – thank you Victorians!
Botanic Gardens Gallery
Belfast weather was on full show today with a beautiful morning of blue skies overcome by storm clouds and heavy hail…
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Historical Records and Contact Details
Belfast Central Library
The Heritage Department of Belfast Central Library holds the List of Subscribers to the Belfast Botanic and Horticultural Society and visitor’s books 1824-1834. Also in the Collection are the Minute books of the Society from when it was a Limited Company up until its purchase by Belfast Corporation. These are available, with prior notification, for consultation in the library.
Contact: Heritage Department, Belfast Central Library, Royal Ave, Belfast BT1 1EA Tel 028 90509150
Botanic Gardens Belfast Contact Details
Botanic Gardens Belfast can be contacted as follows:
Contact Address & Telephone: College Park, Botanic Ave, Belfast BT7 1LP Tel 028 90314762
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