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Belfast goes bananas for man who was first to cultivate fruit in British Isles

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Gardener William Henry Richardson grew bananas in
Belfast more than 100 years ago

Gardener William Henry Richardson grew bananas in Belfast more than 100 years ago

Gardener William Henry Richardson grew bananas in Belfast more than 100 years ago

Loughgall is sweet on its apples, Comber digs its potatoes and Ardglass is hooked on its fishing, but east Belfast doesn't normally go bananas over its bananas - until now.

For Ballymacarrett is sowing the seeds for a memorial to a gardener, William Henry Richardson, who broke new ground by cultivating bananas in Belmont over 100 years ago.

But while bananas were not exactly a growth industry in east Belfast and were more usually associated with Latin America and the Caribbean, they were successfully nurtured in 1911 by Mr Richardson in Sydenham Avenue, the first time they had flourished in the British Isles.

Now the East Belfast Partnership is preparing to honour Mr Richardson, who ironically worked for a man called Jaffe.

Officials have held discussions with the owner of a building on the Albertbridge Road about erecting a permanent tribute to Mr Richardson, who went on to open a fruit and flower shop there.

"I have already said that I will be only too happy to co-operate with them. I think it's a great idea," said Alvin Patterson, who owns the Crown Decorating Centre and adjoining properties which house a Chinese restaurant.

The horticulturist was born in Co Tipperary in 1870 and his love of gardening was planted at an early age by his father who worked on some of Ireland's biggest estates.

And when he died the Richardson family moved north.

Mr Richardson, who trained extensively in growing flowers, fruit and vegetables, eventually became head gardener at the home of Sir Otto Jaffe, a German-born linen merchant and former Lord Mayor of Belfast.

Sir Otto's house, Kinedar, and its gardens which are both long since gone, stood on seven acres of land at Sydenham Avenue beside Belmont Presbyterian Church and Mr Richardson grew exotic flowers, oranges, pineapples and breadfruit in glasshouses. Sir Otto and his gardener were frequent prize winners at local horticultural shows with cut flower displays and baskets of fruit.

But historians say Mr Richardson's proudest achievement came in 1911 when he became the first person to grow and ripen bananas here or in Britain.

A small banana plant had been sent to him by Sir Otto from a foreign trip that he made, and Mr Richardson cultivated the fruit at a temperature of 104 degrees in a greenhouse.

The record books show that while several gardeners had produced bananas before, none of them had been able to ripen them enough to eat.

The story of Mr Richardson's banana advances made headlines in newspapers at the time.

The Belfast Evening Telegraph published an article with an illustration of one of the five large bunches of bananas that a tree had produced at Kinedar. It said one of the bunches had nearly 200 bananas on it.

During the First World War, there was anti-German feeling directed at Sir Otto and his wife, who moved away.

Their son William Jaffe stayed behind to run the family business with Mr Richardson keeping his job as head gardener until the house was sold a few years later.

The green-fingered Mr Richardson then worked for Sir Gustav Wolff, from Harland & Wolff, who lived in the Holywood Road area.

But in 1926 he opened his own fruit and florist's shop at 339 Albertbridge Road. He and his family lived above it and his son, also called William Henry, bred budgerigars in the back yard.

Richardson Snr grew his own flowers near the junction of the Knock Road and Upper Newtownards Road and he later concentrated solely on being a florist.

In 1936 there was a split in the banana growing world when a Liverpool man claimed he was the first person to grow the fruit in the UK.

The old cutting from the Belfast Evening Telegraph was produced to settle the argument that Mr Richardson had beaten him by a quarter of a century.

Mr Richardson died in 1943 and he is buried in Dundonald cemetery.

His daughter Jessie continued to run the business on the Albertbridge Road until it closed in the 1980s.

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