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Red Panda smile
Red Panda smile

From Bellevue to Belfast Zoo

In 1911 Belfast Corporation incorporated the Cavehill and Whitewell Tramway Company into the city transport system. The General Manager of the new Belfast City Tramways, the entrepreneurial Andrew Nance, was faced with the challenge of getting more people to use the recently acquired line.

Steam Tram at the gates of Chichester Park, Antrim Road, Belfast c1897
Steam Tram at the gates of Chichester Park, Antrim Road, Belfast c1897
French, Robert, 1841-1917 photographer National Library of Ireland on The Commons, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Committee decided to enlarge and improve the old Glengormley Gardens at the terminus together with the existing depot and surrounding land into a Pleasure Garden for the people of Belfast. The Gardens are a journey of five and a half miles from the city centre. This would not only add much needed recreational facilities but increase the number of passengers using the trams.

Bellevue Pleasure Gardens

The Bellevue Pleasure Gardens, complete with a children’s playground, were built on the slopes of the Cavehill. The park has beautiful views over Belfast Lough and the Antrim coast, hence the name Bellevue. Entrance to Bellevue was via a flight of stone steps called the Grand Floral Staircase (now closed). The great staircase was adorned with pillars and stone urns filled with flowers.

Bellevue steps B&W
Bellevue steps B&W, Bing Public Domain

Messrs Cheal & Sons were employed to tame the rough land with paths and shrubbery. This resulted in graceful landscaped areas, rustic paths and donkey rides for children. In addition there were summerhouses and a wooden constructed Tea Room. Another feature was an early type of roller-coaster called the Switchback Railway. It was described in advertising:

“Going downhill has a marvellous effect, completely taking your breath away, but as you ascend your breath returns with renewed vigour, this produces the most lovely blushes on ladies’ faces, and makes them so attractive, no gentleman could help proposing…”

Bellevue Please Gardens Advertisement

A Ticket for Drink

Another group to benefit from the extension of the tramway from the city centre was the publicans of Glengormley. Under the law, intoxicating drink could only be sold on Sundays to those who had travelled over 3 miles. The doorman at the pub had to ask how far you had travelled, where you had slept the previous night and be shown your tram ticket. This proved you were a bona fide traveller and were entitled to alcohol. Needless to say the criteria wasn’t always strictly applied and there was a brisk trade in used tram tickets!

Bellevue Growth

Bellevue continued to expand and add more attractions with amusements and rides. There were firework displays, children’s entertainment and band concerts and promenades. A cast-iron octagonal bandstand with a revolving glass screen was built at the cost of £1,080. There was also open-air dancing with the music provided by a Stentorphone housed in a wooden hut. The gardens even had a miniature steam railway with a little locomotive called Jean.

The Town Clerk, Sir Robert Meyer in 1922 described the gardens “Beside its scenery and ozone-laden air, Bellevue has a variety of charms which make it a never-ending source of enjoyment…” During the 1920’s and 30’s Bellevue was a popular day trip for families and young people from the city.

The Original Zoo

In 1933 the Corporation agreed to add a small zoo on the Bellevue site. The original zoo animals were kindly donated by the Dunville Family on the death of Robert Lambart Dunville. (See The Dunville Family– Whiskey, charity, football and a Belfast Park)

Belfast Zoological Gardens was officially opened on 28th March 1934 by the Lord Mayor, Sir Crawford McCullagh.

“No effort has been spared by the Belfast Tramways Commission, who have spent £10,000 on the new zoo, to ensure that the enclosures for the animals shall approach as nearly as possible their natural habitats; and the dens, paddocks and enclosures, the construction of which has kept 150 men busy for several months, are regarded by experts as the most admirable of their kind”

Northern Whig 3rd April 1934

The entry price was 6d for adults and 3d for children. Over a quarter of a million people (284,713) visited the zoo in 1934.

Sheila and the ‘Elephant Angel’

During World War 2 north Belfast was a prime target for Luftwaffe bombings, due to its proximity to the harbour. After the Blitz of 1941, the hard decision was taken to have some of the zoo’s animals put down. This was to prevent dangerous animals escaping if the zoo ever suffered bomb damage. However, one zoo keeper, Denise Weston Austin, came to the rescue of a young elephant called Sheila.

Every night Denise managed to sneak Sheila out of her enclosure and walk her the short distance to her home on the Whitewell Road. The baby elephant then passed the night in the high-walled paved yard behind the house before journeying back to the zoo every morning. This escapade was successful for some time until a barking dog ‘spooked’ Sheila and she ran through the neighbours gardens – that must have been a surprise for them! After that Sheila had to remain in the zoo, where she lived till 1966.

Sheila the Belfast Zoo elephant
Sheila the Belfast Zoo elephant

This true story has now been made into a film called Zoo directed by Colin McIvor. Michael Morpurgo, former Children’s Laureate, also used Sheila’s adventures as the basis for his book An Elephant in the Garden, published in 2011.

The Floral Hall

Located within the grounds of the Park is the Floral Hall. Built in 1935-36 the Hall was officially opened in May 1936 by Sir Crawford McCullagh

“The Lord Mayor further stressed that the hall, which is on a commanding site, is the answer to a long-felt desire to complete the city’s playground and to provide an entertainment hall similar in beauty and usefulness to those pleasure resorts across the channel”

Northern Whig 5th May 1936
Floral Hall B&W
Floral Hall B&W, Bing Public Domain Image

The Floral Hall is a white two-storied art-deco style building. It was constructed by Messrs J and R Taggart of Hopefield Ave at a cost of £14,520. The front is circular in shape with a domed roof. The semi-circular portico has 5 pillars and is reached by curving stone steps. The interior was painted blue, gold and tangerine. It has a spacious stage and can accommodate 1,000 people.

Floral Hall and Bellevue Pleasure Gardens
Floral Hall and Bellevue Pleasure Gardens, Bing Public Domain Image

The Floral Hall remained a popular concert and dance hall during the post-war years. In the 1950’s and 60’s it was a regular venue for the touring showbands. In April 1967 Pink Floyd played here. Other famous faces to have graced the Floral Hall stage are Gene Vincent, the Small Faces and Bill Haley and his Comets. However, from the 1970’s onwards the audiences declined and the Floral Hall fell into disrepair.

Floral Hall today
Floral Hall today

It is hoped, that as it is a listed building, a new plan of restoration can be agreed with the possibility of the Hall gaining a new lease of life as a conference and wedding venue.

The Modern Belfast Zoo

Belfast Zoo Entrance
Belfast Zoo Entrance

Today Belfast Zoo comprises some 55acres on the north-eastern slope of the Cavehill. It is home to more than 1,200 animals. Popular animal attractions include the Asian elephants, Barbary lions, Rothschild giraffes and Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos. My own personal favourite is the Red Panda. You can walk through the Lemur forest and get a close-up view of these friendly and lively creatures. It also has a farm yard and reptile house and a large children’s playground. The zoo is a café near the entrance and a coffee shop selling snacks and sandwiches right at the top of the park, though it is a steep walk! There are also numerous benches and tables dotted around the zoo for those who want to bring picnics. A gift shop is also on site.

The majority of the animals in Belfast Zoo are from endangered species and those whose natural habitat is rapidly disappearing. The Zoo is involved in vital conservation work, including over 90 international breeding programmes to ensure the survival of threatened species.

Map of Belfast Zoo
Map of Belfast Zoo

Contact Belfast Zoo

Belfast Zoo, Antrim Road, Belfast BT36 7PN

Tel: 028 90776277

http://www.belfastzoo.co.uk/


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