Ormeau – The First People’s Park
Ormeau Park in the South East of Belfast was the city’s first public park. It was bought by the Corporation as ‘a healthful resort’ for the use of the residents of the town. The opening day, Saturday 15th April 1871, was greeted with much fanfare and ceremony.
“Saturday last deserves to be noted as a red-letter day in the calendar of important events associated with the history of Belfast. Upon that day the first People’s Park connected with this town was opened under the most agreeable circumstances. Whether the large numbers of the population that took part in the inaugural ceremony be taken account, or the excellence of the arrangements, or – what is a most important element in the success of proceedings such as those of Saturday – the beautiful weather which favoured the ceremony, there was no drawback to mar the auspicious character of the proceedings”Belfast Newsletter 17th April 1871
The Opening Procession
There was a procession through the city streets to the gates of the park on the Ormeau Road.
The various groups and bands met at 4:00pm at Carlisle Circus. They paraded along Donegall Street, Bridge Street, High Street, Castle Place, Donegall Place, Chichester Street, Great Edward Street and Cromac Street to their destination.
Many different organisations and societies took part. They were organised in alphabetical order starting with Agnes Street Band followed by the Belfast Bakers Society. Carpenters, flaxdressers, house painters, stonemasons, bricklayers were all represented.
Each group dressed in full regalia and insignia carrying flags and banners. The Ancient Order of Foresters, Queens Island Shipbuilders, Belfast Coopers Society, Belfast Constitutional Brass Band and the Independent Order of Rechabites (a temperance society) and many, many more sent delegates to this celebratory parade.
The roads were crowded with spectators and hundreds more assembled around the park’s entrance gates.
“In the different streets through which the procession moved, large crowds had congregated, and every window and available spot where a good view could be obtained was occupied. Flags floated from the windows of several establishments. The respectable appearance and orderly demeanour of the processionists was the subject of remark and commendation. Police were present, but their services were not required”Northern Whig 17th April 1871
The Purchase of the Land
At the head of the procession were the Corporation members who had been involved in the purchase of the land in 1869. The park had been bought from the Marquis of Donegall “upon very advantageous terms”. After the speeches, the park was officially declared open by the Mayor of Belfast, Philip Johnston Esq.
The 2nd Marquis of Donegall, George Augustus Chichester, orchestrated the move to Ormeau in 1807. The family had been living in a house on the prestigious Donegall Place, on the opposite corner to the later Robinson & Cleaver building.
This property was initially retained as the family’s townhouse. In 1824 it was converted into the Royal Hotel by the Donegall’s ex-butler, Kerns.
Yet, how did the Belfast Corporation pick up the vast Ormeau Estate (stretching from the Lagan-side opposite Ann Street in the city centre to the location of the current park) at such “very advantageous terms”? The answer to that comes from it’s colourful history…
The History of the Ormeau Estate
Ormeau, on the far side of the Lagan, about a mile south of Belfast was all countryside. It was reached by crossing the ‘Long Bridge‘ at the end of Ann Street.
Originally on the site was a thatched villa known as Ormeau Cottage. This had been the home of the agent of Lord Dungannon of Newtownbreda.
This property however, did not meet the needs of the Chichester’s and their extended family and retainers. Between 1823 and 1830 a much grander building was constructed.
Ormeau House was designed by the architect William Vitruvius Morrison. William Vitruvius Morrison was born in 1794 in Clonmel, County Tipperary. His father Sir Richard Morrison was a successful architect in Dublin. He gave William his unusual second name after a first century B C Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.
William’s extensive European travels are often echoed in his designs. Some of his other notable buildings are Glenarm Castle in County Antrim and Mount Stewart in County Down.
Description of Ormeau House
Ormeau House was a massive building of some 20,000 square feet – probably the largest mansion in the Belfast area. It was constructed in the Tudor Revival style with a polygonal tower, turrets, chimneys, a cupola (a rooftop dome) and a pyramidal roof at the rear. The house stood near the centre of today’s park. It was certainly a striking building designed to reflect the status of the Donegall family.
The interior of Ormeau House was very ornate. There was a huge entrance hall, a long gallery and a spacious banqueting hall. There were at least a dozen main bedrooms.
The gardens of the house comprised 180acres. These boasted wooded areas, extensive lawns and a riverside location.
“…the grounds are naturally of considerable pastoral beauty, commanding the most charming views of Belfast Lough and adjacent mountains, and have received all the improvements that could be effected by art”Illustrated Dublin Journal 1861
Home Farm and Hay Park
The estate contained a Home Farm to provide fresh fruit and vegetables. It was situated outside today’s park grounds, opposite today’s main gates. It was named Hay Park. Livestock were kept on the farm and game in the grounds.
“ Whilst the Donegall family lived at Ormeau, a very extensive and expensive establishment was maintained there. Game, such as hares and pheasants, frequented the plains from the preserves at Ormeau, and the gamekeepers – Adams and Sims had to look sharply after them….”Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast 50 Years Ago, 1875
The Ormeau Grounds
The Marquis was also interested in equestrian sport and had large stables on his property.
“A racing stud was kept at Ormeau, producing an occasional winner at the annual meeting at the Maze course” Thomas Gaffikin
The grounds also contained greenhouses, two summerhouses, a pheasantry, an ice house and a walled garden. A fake battery with cannons and flags overlooked the River Lagan.
The Gate Lodges
There were two gate lodges, one at Ormeau Bridge and the other at the Long Bridge.
The entrance pillars were decorated with gilt crowns and a heron crane with a wriggling eel in its beak. The crane features on the Donegall crest. It is said that these birds were protected and encouraged to nest in the Ormeau demesne, especially where it bordered the River Lagan.
In order to facilitate his journey into town from his country seat at Ormeau, the Marquis had a number of roads or ‘passes’ cut through the surrounding woodland. He permitted the public to use these routes through the woodland also. The only pass that remains today is Donegall Pass.
“When the Marquis rode his white or bay pony into town his attendant rode a thoroughbred, and her ladyship’s carriage and four was attended by two outriders”Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast 50 Years Ago, 1875
It is thought the name Ormeau comes from the French meaning ‘elm trees by the water’ – orme being the French word for elm and eau for water. So perhaps there were numerous trees of this species existing in the district along with other varieties.
Downfall of the Donegall Family
Unfortunately for the Donegall family, George Chichester, the 2nd Marquis, does not seem to have been an efficient businessman. This, coupled with a lifelong gambling obsession, dissipated the family’s fortunes.
“George Augustus – a nobleman of expensive habits in early life, and who had incurred heavy personal debts with designing persons for trivial inducements… He felt himself under heavy pecuniary engagements”George Benn, A History he Town of Belfast 1889
Indeed the 2nd Marquis seemed to live his life on credit and avoiding his debts.
“Lord Donegall’s final escape from his creditors quickly revealed the full extent of his extravagance. The enormous debts that he had left unpaid, after spending the money raised to pay them… Somehow or other the second marquis had managed to postpone that reckoning and – often at other people’s expense – to live like a lord all his life”W A Maguire Living Like a Lord: The Second Marquis of Donegall 2002
George Augustus Chichester died in 1844 in his grand Ormeau House. He left a massive debt of £40,000 – around £40 million in today’s money. He is buried at the family vault at St Nicholas’s Church, Carrickfergus.
The Loss of Ormeau House
George Hamilton Chichester succeeded his father as the 3rd Marquis of Donegall.
In order to pay off some of his debt in 1857 he auctioned off the contents of the mansion and he sold Ormeau estate to Belfast Corporation in 1869. The grand Ormeau House, by thern an empty shell, was demolished.
In the 1860’s he went to live in his newly built Belfast Castle to the north of the town on the Cave Hill overlooking Belfast Lough.
Layout of the People’s Park
When the Corporation purchased these extensive grounds, they designated 80 acres to be set aside for building – now North Parade, South Parade and Park Road. The remaining 100 acres were used for the People’s Park.
Ormeau Park Design – Timothy Hevey
A competition was organised for the best design for the land. This was won by 24-year-old Timothy Hevey. He received prize money of £100.
Timothy Hevey was born in Belfast in 1846. His father, also Timothy, was a builder and his mother was Martha Alexandra McNeice.
As a boy he attended St Malachy’s College. Subsequently he worked for Boyd and Batt at Donegall Square Belfast and Pugin and Ashlin in Dublin.
In 1869 he set up his own architectural firm at 4 Alfred Street in his home town. He soon achieved success as a builder and architect, especially in the field of ecclesiastical design. His works include St Patrick’s Church (Belfast), the Angel Hotel (Dublin), St Colman’s Church (Dromore) and the entrance gates to Milltown Cemetery.
On 7th March 1868 Hevey married Florence Eugenie Seret at St Peter’s Church in Dublin. The couple had one son. Timothy Hevey died on 29th December 1878 after catching a severe cold while on a business trip to Newry. He was only 32.
Verdicts on the Original Ormeau Park Design
The Ormeau Park was designed with walks to lead the visitor around lawns and flowerbeds and through wooded areas.
“The park will certainly prove to be one of the finest resorts of the kind. It is remarkably well wooded, is of dry sandy soil, and discloses from many points exceedingly pleasing and varied prospects. Throughout its entire length on one side is skirted by the Lagan and upon the other is overlooked by a chain of the County Down hills”Belfast Newsletter, 17th April 1871
(Unfortunately, the river frontage was cut off by the construction of the embankment in the 1920’s).
“No more suitable selection could have been made, and in the hands of the officers of the Corporation it now forms one of the most delightful pleasure grounds that could be wished for. The ground is undulating, and portions have been laid out in magnificent parterres, variegated with the choicest flowers and shrubs, and as the Lagan meanders along its northern boundary, the scene in the park could scarcely be surpassed for sylvan beauty”.Belfast Street Directory, 1877
Development of the Ormeau Park
An attractive red-brick house was built within the grounds in 1878 for the Park Superintendent.
It cost £645 to construct. In 1901 the house is recorded as having 8 rooms and was occupied by Thomas Dickson and his family.
The dwelling has recently been restored by Hearth, the Historic Buildings Trust and leased from Belfast City Council.
Over the next years the Park benefitted from the generosity of various Belfast citizens. Twenty-five garden seats were donated by Richard Patterson and Councillor Ewart gifted a drinking fountain. Egyptian geese, swans and goldfish were presented for the pond as well as deer and three Australian emu.
In 1893 a 9-hole golf course was laid out within the park grounds. This makes it one of the oldest courses in Ireland. In 1901 the Park’s current entrance gates were erected on the Ormeau Road. These were made by the firm of Thomas Brown & Co at a cost of £1,000.
During World War2 Ormeau Park was used as a camp for American troops and a depot for military vehicles, in preparation for the Normandy Landings.
Ormeau Park Today
Ormeau Park is still the largest public park in Belfast. The grounds layout today do not differ very much from Timothy Hevey’s original plans although the separation of the park from the Lagan by the embankment has been unfortunate.
The park still boasts extensive lawns and beautiful seasonal flower displays. The mature trees and shrubs add to the surroundings. There is also a bandstand, a pavilion and a children’s playground. Sporting activities include basketball, netball, tennis courts, a football pitch, a BMX track and a bowling green.
The once-rural park is now situated in the middle of Greater Belfast, surrounded by busy roads, streets, housing and shops. More than ever the fresh air and greenery it provides is a bonus for inhabitants of this urban district.
Gallery of Images
In 1862 Marquis of Donegall decided to build Belfast Castle within his deer park on the slopes of the Cave Hill overlooking Belfast Lough.
St Nicholas Church has a fascinating history dating back to 1182AD with great architecture & design, beautiful windows and historic artefacts
Opening originally in 1815 and rebuilt in 1877, Saint Patrick’s Church in Donegall Street Belfast remains one of Belfast’s landmark buildings
Barney Hughes – The baker “beloved by the working classes”
Barney Hughes is remembered for his desire for social justice, his unstinting generosity and humanitarian reform, but also for the Belfast Bap
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