Fortwilliam Park and its Rich History
Introduction to Fortwilliam Park
Fortwilliam Park today is a prestigious tree-lined throughfare in north Belfast. Flanked by ornate pillars, it runs from the Antrim Road to the Shore Road. It is the location of some very impressive homes but this was once one grand estate, the residence of some of Belfast’s most notable families.
This area of County Antrim, on the lower slopes of the Cave Hill, has a long history of habitation. Numerous examples of Celtic remains, forts, raths, burial cairns and souterrains (man-made underground chambers), prove pre-Christian settlements in the region.
“…these areas of high land attracted human interest early. On the northern side of the River Lagan, which flowed in the broad valley between the high land, the flint deposits underlying the basalts on the Antrim plateau proved to be a magnet for Neolithic people seeking raw material for the manufacture of tools and weapons…Neolithic pottery and hearths have been found, together with a large quantity of flint debris and some Bronze Age pottery”Raymond Gillespie Early Belfast 2007
Origin of the ‘Fortwilliam’ Name
The name Fortwilliam however, comes from a much later date.
During William 3rd’s travels through Ireland, it is believed he stopped here in 1690 and a fort was built. It was 60ft square and surrounded by a deep fosse or ditch. At each corner were defensive bastions which projected from the curtain wall.
“It is situated near the shore, one mile and a half from Belfast, and, according to tradition, was an intrenchment thrown up by King William in his progress through this kingdom”George Benn History of the Town of Belfast 1823
The Homes of the Belfast Merchants
By the early 19th century Belfast had a large and growing class of prosperous merchants. Following the example of the gentry, many sought to escape the increasingly industrialised town and reside in more rural areas.
These well-off families relocated to country retreats on the outskirts of Belfast offering an easy commute into town for business but grander houses surrounded by large gardens and pure air.
The original Fortwilliam House was the home of William Sinclaire. Sinclaire had a large bleaching works on the Falls Road.
According to the antiquarian George Benn, Mr Sinclaire used Fortwilliam House as a summer residence. He also had a town house on fashionable Donegall Place, where he was famous for keeping his hunting dogs.
“Mr Sinclair’s hounds were kept for some time at the rere of his house on Donegall place, where he also kept his hawks and falcons. When the hounds were taken out for exercise in the morning, they made themselves heard in the streets through which they passed, and these throughfares were soon cleared of all other animals of the same species”Thomas Gaffikin Belfast Fifty Years Ago 1875
The Langtrys of Fortwilliam
In 1810 the property was sold to Mr George Langtry from Lurgan. He was described as “a general merchant and shipowner”.
Born in 1764, he moved to Belfast and opened a shop around 1786. He became involved in shipping and was the first to pioneer the cross-Channel route between Belfast and Liverpool. At the outset sailing ships were used but these were subsequently replaced by steam-powered ships for both cargo and passengers.
“The cross-channel steamer service between Belfast and Liverpool began in 1819, when at noon on 21st July, George Langtry’s Waterloo set off for Liverpool”D B McNeill Irish Passenger Steamship Services Vol 1 1969
The first steamship to be built in Ireland was commissioned by George Langtry & Co. It was called ‘Belfast’. In 1828 Langtry went into partnership with W. Herdman and the company became ‘Langtry’s and Herdman’.
George’s first wife Rose Robinson died at an early age. On Friday 1st August 1794.
George married for the second time to Frances (Fanny) Callwell of Bridge Street in the town. The couple had 11 offspring, 6 boys – Robert (1799), George (1803), Edward (1806), William (1808), Richard (1810) and Charles (1813). The 5 girls were Catherine (1795), Jane (1797), Isabella (1801), Frances (1805) and another Frances in 1812. Two of their daughters Jane and the first Frances died young, Jane at age 13 and Frances at one year old.
“Fort-William of G Langtry Esq.” is listed by Samuel Lewis as one of the “gentlemen’s seats in the parish the most conspicuous for elegance” (Topographical Dictionary of Ireland)
Fanny died on 8th November 1825. George passed away in Fortwilliam House on 17th June 1846.
Robert Langtry, the eldest son, had left Belfast with his family and moved to the island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides. Fortwilliam House became the residence of Richard Langtry. However, Richard died in October 1858 aged 48.
The mansion then passed to Charles, who put it up for sale. The advertisement in the local newspaper suggested the estate had great potential as a building project.
Edward ‘Ned’ Langtry and Lillie Langtry
One interesting aside about the Langtry family, was that Edward, known as Ned, George’s grandson married Emilie Charlotte Le Breton, better known as Lillie Langtry.
Edward, was fond of sports and outdoor country pursuits and was passionate about yachting. He first met Lillie (his second wife) on the Isle of Jersey when a storm forced his yacht into the harbour at St Heliers.
The pair were married within 5 months, Lillie was only 18. The ceremony was performed by Lillie’s father the Dean of Jersey on 9th March 1874.
Lillie was a famous beauty and socialite and infamously became the mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales. Langtry and Lillie finally divorced in 1897. Edward Langtry died the same year after suffering a brain injury when he fell overboard from a steamer crossing from Belfast to Liverpool!
Lillie Langtry went on to have a successful stage career and was noted as a close friend of Oscar Wilde.
James W Valentine
Fortwilliam House and gardens were purchased by James W Valentine. He was a wealthy commission agent of Lowry, Valentine and Kirk of 1 Wellington Place. Valentine obviously agreed with the proposed plan and developed a gated-community of luxurious houses within the grounds of the original estate.
A grand road was created from the Antrim Road towards the seafront at the Shore Road.
“Thus the single central avenue, having on its northern side a dozen stately houses – including the present Killeen, Walton and Fairbourne – came into being”Alfred S Moore 1949
The first record we could find for Fortwilliam Park in the street directory was in 1870, but work must have begun some time previously. In 1868 Henry Kirk is registered as living at Movern, Fortwilliam Park. He is listed as a ‘country resident’. Even in the 1870’s there were still houses in the “course of erection”.
At each end of the thoroughfare was the residence of the ‘Park Porter’. William Braithwaite at the Shore Road entrance and J Robinson at the Antrim Road. The Antrim Road end also featured a Post-Office Wall Box.
Residents of Fortwilliam Park
Over the years these prestigious detached residences were the home of some of Belfast’s wealthiest merchants, shipowners and businessmen. James Valentine himself owned one of the properties.
- Ardsallagh – John Rogers, wire manufacturer 
- Rosaville – Hugh White, wine and spirit merchant 
- Walton – Robert Thompson, linen merchant 
- Dunlambert – George S Clark, shipbuilder 
A number of military personnel also resided on Fortwilliam Park such as Colonel William McPherson at St Oran’s, Alexander Wilson Brigadier-general of the 15th Infantry, and in 1896 Colonel R O’Grady-Haly.
Other notables who called the Park home at one time or another, were noted historian George Benn
(see related post]s below) and John Lanyon architect.
In the 1890’s Fortwilliam House was the residence of R W Murray, Justice of the Peace. The Murray’s owned Murray’s Tobacco Factory at Boyne Bridge, founded in 1810.
“Up to about 1850 only ‘roll’ tobacco was made in Ireland, and at that time there were about 14 small firms engaged at it in Belfast. Now the industry is in the hands of two large companies, Messrs Gallagher Ltd, and Messrs Murray & Sons & co Ltd, who both produce all descriptions of the highest quality of tobacco mixtures and cigarettes, as well as snuff, which evidently is still continually used”D J Owen History of Belfast 1921
The Murray family later retired to Eniskeen House at Shimna Valley near Newcastle in County Down. The house is now a Country House Hotel.
The Fortwilliam Park Gateposts
In 1864 the grand gateposts with iron-work gates were designed by Newry-born architect William Joseph Barre. Barre was renowned for his Gothic style, and the gate pillars were certainly very dramatic.
“In the same year, Barre designed the ornate gateways at either end of Fortwilliam park, a superior residential avenue….”C E B Brett, Buildings of Belfast, 1967
The splendid stone gateposts at the Shore Road entrance to the new gated community are the more ostentatious. The grand archways straddle each pavement and have rounded openings for pedestrians. Each structure is topped with imposing figures.
Originally there was a carved column in the centre of the road with a triple light fixture. The gates were composed of decorative ironwork railings.
Only the arches on the Shore Road and the pillars on the Antrim Road remain.
“The original gates and central pier (a strange column of pierced ironwork) have long since been removed and turned to warlike purposes; the four stone pillars, cusped and columned, survive rather pointlessly”C E B Brett, Buildings of Belfast, 1967
(We have been told that the centre Shore Road pillar is now located in Musgrave Park).
Despite dying at the early age of 37 from tuberculosis, W J Barre left behind a prodigious amount of architectural works including churches, private houses, warehouses and schools. Some of his most notable achievements are the Albert Clock (see related posts below), the Ulster Hall, Bryson House, the ceiling of St Malachy’s Church (see related posts below] and the Crozier Memorial in Banbridge (see related posts below).
One of the grandest houses on this luxury development was Walton. In 1877 this was the home of Robert Thompson a prosperous linen merchant.
Walton is constructed of buff-pink sandstone in an Italianate-style. It is a two-storey building, but the central tower is three-storey. Many of the original houses on Fortwilliam Park featured towers or turrets, so shipowners could watch their vessels leaving or entering Belfast Lough and harbour.
Both bay windows at Walton are topped by balustrades but one is semi-circular and the other rectangular. The main entrance is reached by a set of stone steps and an arched porchway. In 1911, Walton is described a private dwelling containing 30 rooms and with 17 front windows. Within the grounds were a stable, a coach house, a harness room, a fowl house and a shed.
Residents of Walton House
By 1896 it was occupied by William McCammond, a master builder from Carnmoney. He served as Lord Mayor of Belfast between 1894 and 1896. He was knighted in 1895.
Sir McCammond died in Walton on 2nd March 1898, he was 66 years old.
Humphry and Martha Barron
In 1901 Walton was occupied by Humphry and Martha Barron (nee also Barron) from County Antrim, together with various relatives and servants.
The couple had married in 1873 and had 9 children – 4 sons (Robert, Humphry, Frederick and James) and 5 daughters (Maude, Josephine, Margaret, Mary and Agnes).
Humphry was a chandler, that is, a soap and candle manufacturer.
The Barron’s are an example of ‘up-and-coming’ merchants ascending the property ladder. In the 1870’s the family lived at 82 Hercules Street (now Royal Ave – see post below), presumably near their business premises. They then had a series of house moves around the north Belfast area before settling in the opulent Walton. By 1912 Humphry Barron is listed as a Justice of the Peace.
Charles and Annie Morrow
Subsequently, Walton was owned by Charles and Annie Morrow. Charles had been born on 7th May 1872 at 250 Shankill Road, the son of Charles Morrow and Susanna Smyth. His father was a mill manager and Charles junior went on to be a merchant draper. Charles junior married Annie Kennedy Gibson, from Scotland, on 15th August 1900. They had three children – Eileen May, John Sinclair and Andrew.
The Convent of the Holy Rosary
In 1930 Walton was purchased from the Morrow family. It became the Convent of the Holy Rosary. The Dominican sisters founded a school for girls here.
The nuns acquired further nearby properties to extend the educational establishment. Dominican College, Fortwilliam is a respected and popular school to this day.
Fortwilliam Park Today
Sadly, most of the grand houses that graced Fortwilliam Park have been demolished and replaced with newer properties (though still prosperous/ upmarket for the most part) .
The area is still a quiet and desirable residential neighbourhood with many streets and avenues branching off from the central Fortwilliam Park. No longer gated, the iron railings have long since gone, but the ornate gateposts remain to remind us of its long and prestigious history.
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