Wednesday, September 2, 2015

European Heritage Open Days 2014 | Belfast | Part IV: Belmont Tower

After depositing my all-cultured-out father-in-law back to the house, I again looked through the EHOD brochure and my eye was drawn to Belmont Tower. Like St Marks, I frequently pass by on my assorted perambulations through east Belfast, but I’ve never been inside. It was time to put the camera and tripod back in the car and make the short trip to see this place! Of all the places I visited on the 2014 EHOD weekend, this was the only one where I was the sole visitor. Admittedly, it was getting late in the evening and they were cleaning up and putting everything away for the night. Even still, I was given a warm welcome and offered all the information and assistance I could wish for.

The story of this place started in the 1860s, when Sir Thomas McClure, a wealthy tobacco merchant (and eventual MP for Belfast) donated land and £1600 in cash to build Belmont Presbyterian Church, manse, and school. Both church and school opened in January 1862. Initially, the numbers of students were sufficient low that all could be taught together in one room. However, somebody’s sensibilities must have been ruffled, as from late the following year, on foot of requests from parents, the girls were taught separately in the upstairs room. Investigation of the school’s record books provides an interesting insight into the social history of east Belfast. In 1863 the majority of the students here were from farming backgrounds. It seems at odds with the location of this building in a picturesque Belfast suburb, but at this time the area was largely rural and the suburbs had yet to enfold it and continue further out to the east. However, the process of urbanisation was already underway as the area first became one of the preferred locations for the villas of Belfast’s industrialist and entrepreneurial elites. While the children of such wealthy parents were often sent away to school, by the late 19th century Belmont school was catering to the offspring of the servant classes, with children of butlers, housekeepers, and coachmen all being represented there. Throughout this period the school grew in popularity, eventually becoming quite overcrowded – the male school alone had an enrolled population of 189, with an average attendance of 150, all shoehorned into a 30ft by 21ft classroom.

The answer to this overcrowding was the construction of the Belmont Tower building. The works were sponsored by Robert Ferguson of Robertson, Ledlie, Ferguson & Co., the Department Store. The school, named Ferguson Memorial Hall in memory of his wife, was opened in August 1890. By 1893 there were 391 pupils on the register, with an average attendance of 313. The children remained segregated throughout this period, with the girls being educated upstairs and the boys downstairs. The school remained in the hands of Belmont Presbyterian Church until 1926, when management responsibilities were transferred to Belfast Corporation. At this time the school was renamed to Belfast Public Elementary School. The premises was first leased and, in 1975, eventually sold to the Belfast Education & Library Board. By the 1990s building was deemed economically unviable to refurbish and, with the construction of a new school next door, was sold off as being ‘surplus to requirements’. Rather than seeing this striking gothic-inspired piece of Victoriana go to ruin, the Old Belmont School Preservation Trust, in partnership with the National Trust have worked hard to restore, refurbish, and give this building a new lease of life. The downstairs room is beautifully bright and airy and is frequently hired out for everything from yoga classes to children’s parties, while upstairs has been transferred into a very pleasant café. The uppermost portion of the building houses a small C.S. Lewis themed exhibition with some early editions of his key works. This area also provides, at least when I was there, a quiet space to appreciate the beautiful paneled ceiling and roof trusses.

As I always say with these posts – I hope you enjoy the photos, but more than that I hope they inspire you to go and visit the buildings themselves!

Downstairs room with cast iron roof supports

Stained glass window on the landing
Sensitively remodeled upper room 
The C.S. Lewis exhibit
View from the café up to the balcony 
View of the ceiling and roof supports from the balcony

For anyone interested in the other EHOD properties I’ve seen and written about my find the following of interest:

I am indebted to Belmont Tower’s rather excellent information panels for much of the historical background to this wonderful building. Thank you!

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