Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Belgravia’s treasured pearls

Oaklee Belgravia supported housing scheme

On the site of the old Belgravia Hotel on Ulsterville Avenue, now stands Oaklee Belgravia, a supported housing scheme, that yesterday, Wednesday, May 19, celebrated it 25th anniversary.

One of its residents, however, knows only too well, the deeper history belonging to the Belgravia — the one that extends well beyond the 25 year commemoration and depicts the human spirit competing against fierce bureaucratic systems, raging fires, political saga, and death.

Pearl Richardson, whose heart and soul is interconnected with the Belgravia, old and new, is most humble in explaining her role in the building’s history.

Miss Richardson begins: “The Belgravia hotel had been in my family for about 100 years. My whole working life was here, it was a brilliant job, I absolutely loved it. I was very lucky.

“A lot of my family members have said ‘I married the Belgravia’ – but I would honestly like it if you wrote your article about the building, not me!”

Miss Richardson managed the hotel that saw many guests from all over the world, and was always a popular place to stay for those visiting the Balmoral show from abroad.

However, during the troubles, trade died down and a lot of older people came to reside in the Belgravia.

Many of them were very elderly and frail, few had any relatives and none would be able to cope with life in independent housing.

The hotel was made up of rabbit warren type passages and changing floor levels, however Pearl and her sister Kathleen managed superbly well in ensuring their guests were impeccably looked after.

In 1978, her family wished to retire and so needed to sell the hotel in order to so. However, it was intrinsic to them, that the well being and future security of the residents was protected in the transfer of ownership. Obtaining the approval to transfer a caring scheme was hitherto unknown in Northern Ireland.

Add to that, all the difficulties associated with adapting a listed building.

Reverend Robert Bradford, the south Belfast UUP MP at the time, had to even argue the case and loosen the bureaucratic hold up at Westminster.

In the Hansard account, Rev Bradford highlighted the problem facing older people in the south Belfast area: “ The Housing Executive cannot deal with these elderly people, and they find themselves in accommodation which is literally deteriorating around their ears.”

Attention of this kind set the wheels in motion, and the contract to purchase the Belgravia was completed in May 1979 by Northern Ireland Housing, which later became Oaklee Housing Association.

Only six weeks later, in July 1979 the residents faced a much more serious threat, this time not just to their homes, but to their lives as well . Six members of the provisional IRA walked into the building, five carrying bombs.

One member held Pearl and some of her colleagues at gunpoint in the office and told the staff they had half an hour to evacuate the building. Meanwhile, the other five men placed bombs around the building. One bomb was left under the chair of a sleeping resident in the lounge.

Miss Richardson said: “It was so frightening, we only just managed to get the feet of the last resident off the front door step before the first bomb went off. None of us had time to take a single thing, the building just went up in flames so quickly.”

Despite it being hugely traumatic for Pearl to see her family home disappear, how she managed to get every resident out of the old building safely and into temporary accomodation that night —will never be forgotten. Pearl Richardson's bravery and iniative was rewarded with the eventual recognition of an MBE.

Most of the building was deemed structurally unsafe and had to be demolished.

With the rise in older people needing supported housing, Oaklee Housing Association saw an opportunity to build flats suitable for older people and expand on the caring ethos Belgravia hotel had become reknowned for. The new building was completed in 1984 but was officially opened in 1985.

Sadly, Kathleen Richardson died suddenly not long after the opening and is commemorated in a little memorial garden within the complex.

Meanwhile Pearl continues her life in the new Belgravia, and maintains her life long caring role by befriending older people in her local area. She is also extremely active in raising a lot of money for Northern Ireland Hospice Care.

Although Miss Richardson does not like to be recognised and refused to be photographed, the CT felt her commitment to south Belfast deserved to be aired.

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