Lost Mansions: The Grove, Belfast
For lots of us growing up in Belfast we take the names of districts and areas for granted yet many of these streets, parks, schools etc were named after the grand houses that once stood in these areas.
Belfast, as a thriving industrial and commercial centre, was once surrounded by stately dwellings, as successful merchants and businessmen removed their families from the pollution and noise of the town, to more peaceful, rural locations. The impressive buildings became a symbol of money and success.
“The wealth and importance of the gentry of this parish may very justly be inferred from the number of handsome country seats which it contains”George Benn History of the Town of Belfast 1823
The fact that these mansions (mostly long gone) were often in what we now regard as inner-city sites, is testimony to the rapid growth of Belfast in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, it is interesting to discover the history of these buildings and of the families who resided in them.
The Grove Mansion
The Grove was an impressive mansion situated on the outskirts of north Belfast. Its demesne stretched from the Antrim Road all the way to the Carrickfergus Road, now known as the Shore Road. At that time this thoroughfare was dotted with large homes on one side and the sea on the other side of the road.
“…the road descended to the shore of the lough….the sea washing the road on the right all the way”.Robert Armstrong Through the Ages to Newtownabbey
In the early 19th century, the property was owned by James Carson. He passed away in 1807 and is buried in the old graveyard at the Church of the Holy Evangelists, in Glengormley (See related posts below).
Background and Commercial Success
Later The Grove was the residence of William Simms and his wife Elizabeth, with whom he had 3 daughters and one son. William was one of 7 children of Robert Simms and Elizabeth Stevenson. Robert was a merchant and tanner in Belfast. The family were long-time members of the 3rd Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street.
With his older brother Robert, William owned a share in a flour mill in Crumlin and a paper mill at Ballyclare. Later they became Commission Agents at the Chichester Quay in the town and owned a number of small sailing ships.
“By 1830 the successful growth of the firm of William Simms & Son reflected the phenomenal growth which was taking place in the town and port of Belfast. In 1785 the ballast Board had been established to improve the facilities of the port and in 1839 the Lagan was straightened by William Dargan, creating a new channel which greatly benefitted the shipowners of the time”.Richard Graham, Families of the Great Houses of the Shore Road, North Irish Roots Vol 6 1995
Involvement with the United Irishmen
The Simms brothers had espoused the radical views of the day and were among the founder members of the Belfast Society of United Irishmen formed in 1791. This mainly Presbyterian, organisation wished to see political reform in Ireland, including Catholic emancipation. They were with Wolfe Tone, McCracken, Neilson and Russell at McArts Fort to swear undying allegiance to the cause.
William and Robert were two of the twelve shareholders of the newspaper the Northern Star. The paper, first issued on 4th January 1792, voiced the views of the United Irishmen. It was twice prosecuted for seditious libel, before its premises and presses were destroyed by government forces, the Monaghan militia, in 1797.
Together the brothers continued their involvement with the United Irishmen and were friends with Samuel Neilson, Thomas Russell, William Tennant and other leaders of the group. William, among others, lent Theobald Wolfe Tone £200 to go to France to garner support for the cause.
“Tone has been paid the greatest compliments here and a subscription of £1,500 raised for him; Sam Neilson, Rob and Will Simms, Coun(sellor) Sampson, Dr Randall MacDonnell, John and William McCracken and many others have private meetings with him and have often gone with him to visit different parts of the coast and taking plans of it….”From a letter by Rowland J O’Connor to William Sackville Hamilton, under-secretary in Dublin Castle, 7th June 1795
In 1797 both brothers were arrested and held in Newgate Jail in south Dublin from 3rd February to 21st July.
Belfast Academical Institution
After this Robert and William seemed to have toned down their political activities, concentrating on their business interests. They were both involved in the establishment and running of the Presbyterian college – the Belfast Academical Institution, which opened in 1814.
William died on 2nd August 1843, just a few weeks after his brother. Robert had passed away on 23rd June 1845 and is buried in the New Burying Ground at Clifton Street (See related posts below). William was interred in the family plot at Knockbreda Graveyard. He was predeceased by his wife Elizabeth (d 1837), his two infant daughters both named Eliza (d 1792 and 1795) and daughter Anne Jane who died in 1811 aged 10.
William was succeeded by his only son Robert. Unfortunately, Robert did not long outlive his father. He passed away on 6th September 1847, aged 47. The Grove was inherited by Robert’s son William who sold the property to John Sinclair.
John was the son of a very prosperous Belfast merchant William Sinclair and Elizabeth Montgomery. Also of the Presbyterian faith, John attended the Belfast Academical Institution.
In 1825 he had established a provisions business in Tomb Street. He was later joined by his younger brother Thomas, forming the partnership of J&T Sinclair. The business specialised in processing and exporting pork, ham and bacon. The firm thrived and at this time John moved from the town to the countryside and the spacious Grove.
He and his brother Thomas generously supported Presbyterian charities and in particular the Duncairn Presbyterian Church. The family also founded the Sinclair Seamans Church in the docks district (See related posts below).
The Grove Rebuilt
John Sinclair had the original house demolished and built a new one on the site. This imposing building featured an arched doorway with massive pillars on either side and surmounted with a stone balcony. The ground floor windows were also arched and pedimented. The roof was surrounded by a stone balustrade with ornamental urns. The house was reached by a long driveway from the Shore Road.
The Grove estate was bounded on one side by Alexandra Park Avenue and on the other by Skegoneill Avenue. The name Skegoneill comes from another stately home built by William Magee – Skeig O’Neill. It was the residence of the Wolsey family and then James Steen, a wealthy provisions merchant from Belfast.
John married Eliza Pirrie, unfortunately their only child, William Pirrie Sinclair, died when only a baby. John passed away in 1856 but Eliza remained in their Grove home. Even in the 1860’s the house was regarded as a rural property, as Eliza is listed as a ‘Country Resident’ in the street directories. When Eliza died the Grove changed hands once more.
Dr William Ritchie
The grand house was purchased by Dr William Barry Ritchie. William was the son of successful businessman Francis Ritchie, who had founded Francis Ritchie & Sons, Chemical, Felt and Manure Manufacturers. The Ritchie’s established their factories in east Belfast and Ballymaccarrett. They were involved with the foundry of Ritchie Hart & Co and had a brickworks on the Woodstock Road.
“A high standard of merit in quality and finish distinguishes all the manufactures of Messrs Ritchie, Hart & Co Limited, in ironfounding, engineering, and millwrighting, and the entire business is in a flourishing and progressive condition”Industries of the North, 1888-91
Queen’s Bridge Construction & Other Interests
In 1840 the firm of Francis Ritchie & Son was awarded the contract for the new Queen’s Bridge over the River Lagan. They had tendered a quote of £27,000. This bridge in honour of the English Queen Victoria, was to replace the Long Bridge which was no longer fit for purpose. This challenging project was personally supervised by William Barry Ritchie.
Ritchie continued to be a leading light in Belfast business and commercial circles. He was elected a magistrate for the Borough of Belfast, a member of Belfast Harbour Board and was vice-president of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.
William’s great interest however, was in chemistry and mineralogy. He had a collection of mineral specimens and even had a laboratory built adjoining The Grove. He was elected a Fellow of the Chemical Society and for many years he was honorary secretary of the Chemic-Agricultural Society of Ulster.
Dr Ritchie died suddenly on 15th February 1887 while in Liverpool. He left a large estate of £116,290 6s 6d. To his wife Jane he bequeathed the “Residence of ‘The Grove’ with the lawn, pleasure grounds and gardens belonging thereto, together with about 6 acres of land”.
“The death of Dr Ritchie, who was about seventy years of age, was a leading topic of conversation in Belfast yesterday. And on all sides deep sorrow was expressed at the removal of one who for such a lengthened period has occupied a prominent position in the community, and was held in such high esteem by all sects and parties”Northern Whig 17th February 1887
Jane died on 8th February 1893. Her children William Barry Ritchie and Catherine Hay Ritchie continued to reside in The Grove. William (junior) was a military man of some prowess, reaching the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He died at sea on 8th April 1906.
The Ulster Club
An interesting insight into the lives of the local gentry can be gleaned from the 1901 census. On the day of the census-taking (1st April 1901) Lieutenant-Colonel Ritchie was not in his Grove home, but at his club.
The Ulster Club had been founded in 1857 and met regularly at the Donegall Arms (See related posts below).
It acquired purpose-built premises at 23 Castle Place in 1863. The club-house was designed by Charles Lanyon in a Regency style. The 3-storied building had a stucco front edifice with a cast iron balcony gracing the bow-fronted central bay. The interior was very elegant with a high-ceilinged drawing room overlooking the busy Castle Place. It featured a dining room, a reading room, a billiards room and other facilities suitable for ‘gentlemen’. The Club was frequented by local landowners and aristocracy such as the Marquess of Donegall, the Earl of Antrim, the Earl of Enniskillen and the Viscount of Bangor.
In 1901 the Ulster Club was under the stewardship of Lionel D’Aguilar and his Jersey-born wife Lilian (nee Ahier). There were 14 servants on the premises including James Pauley (the hall porter), Sarah Anderson (a maid) and 14 year-old John McComb a page boy. W.B. Ritchie was in the company of three friends, all military men as recorded in the Census.
The handsome building was demolished in 1981 and the Ulster Club merged with the Ulster Reform Club of Royal Avenue the following year.
Fate of The Grove Mansion
In 1910 The Grove was left vacant. Miss Catherine Hay Ritchie of ‘The Grove’ is recorded as passing away on 30th November 1931 in Tangier, Morocco.
In 1914 The Grove became a ‘babies’ home’ run by the Children’s Aid Society. We know that suffragette Dr Elizabeth Gould Bell was one of the medics who helped out here (See related posts below).
Subsequently, the house was used as the District Headquarters of the Ulster Special Constabulary from 1922-1926. The District Inspector was Mr J M Greeves and the Constable in Charge was Mr J Blackwood.
By the late 1920’s the building was falling into disrepair. In 1931 the site was purchased for £16,000 by the Belfast Corporation with the intention of transforming it into a public recreation space.
The Grove was no longer the rural idyll it had once been but had been absorbed into the growing city of Belfast. The land on the far side of the Shore Road had been reclaimed and new docks and industrial buildings erected. A series of streets were built to house the workers.
The first street was called Ritchie Street and was opposite the main gate to The Grove. It was named in honour of the Ritchie family and was in existence in 1890. Other streets of terraced houses, such as Fife Street, Ivan Street and Ayr Street were built in the later 1890’s.
In 1936 the Grove Park was opened to the public. It included a bowling green, a football field, pitch and putt and a cycling track. The park continues to provide leisure facilities and open green space today for the enjoyment of locals. It is hard to believe that this great expanse was once someone’s garden!
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