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Why Belfast's Ravenhill area has some great Best stories to tell

As a new book reveals, some of Northern Ireland's most famous people from George Best to former Belfast Telegraph sports editor Malcolm Brodie called the locality home

Aidan Campbell at the launch of his new book
Aidan Campbell at the launch of his new book
The Halfpenny Bridge collapse in 1886
Nurse Esther Emerson and Rowel Friers at the RVH in 1953
Ormeau House
Ronnie Carroll
Roy Walker
Malcolm Brodie
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Let's kick off with a question. What do George Best, Billy Bingham, Dr Ian Paisley, comic Roy Walker, singer Ronnie Carroll, Ulster Rugby, Glentoran and Malcolm Brodie all have in common?

Probably not even the most clued-in phone-a-friend could tell you the answer - but the illustrious line-up all have links to Belfast's now bustling Ravenhill area.

All is revealed in a fascinating new book about the district, the 17th in a series of publications mainly about east Belfast by north Belfast man Aidan Campbell, who has raised tens of thousands of pounds for charity through sales of his work.

Aidan traces the history of Ravenhill to its rural beginnings and a village - Lagan Village, because of its proximity to the River Lagan.

Aidan Campbell at the launch of his new book

And his book examines how the Ravenhill Road developed from top to bottom.

Or rather the other way round.

Aidan recounts how the dimly remembered Halfpenny toll bridge, a predecessor to the Albert Bridge, collapsed in 1886 with one casualty, the night watchman. But there could have been more fatalities.

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"Reports from the time said if the collapse had happened a few hours earlier the bridge would have been packed with workers on their way home," says Aidan, whose meticulous research has established that Lagan Village was once a hub for a raft of industries including potteries and a foundry run by the Coates family, who were among the owners of a number of long since disappeared big houses in the area, which was also dominated by streets of smaller terraced houses built by the owners of the big houses.

The Halfpenny Bridge collapse in 1886

Aidan also writes about breweries and distilleries in the area, like the one operated by the McConnell family whose daughter Mabel was the mother of the late Taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald, a signatory to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 along with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Regarding other luminaries associated with the area, there's none better than Best.

George's second home was in Donard Street off the Ravenhill Road, where his maternal grandparents had a house and where the football genius lived for a year before the Best family moved to the Cregagh estate.

It was outside the house in Donard Street that the now famous picture of a very young George playing football was taken.

Nurse Esther Emerson and Rowel Friers at the RVH in 1953

George's grandparents attended Ravenhill Presbyterian Church and their grandchildren attended the local Sunday school.

George was also a pupil at Nettlefield Primary School in the Ravenhill area.

Not far away in Moore Street there's another football connection because Billy Bingham, who guided Northern Ireland to two World Cup Finals in 1982 and 1986, spent some of his formative years there.

But after what Aidan called "a moonlight flit", the Binghams moved to the Bloomfield area.

Bingham wrote in his autobiography about sitting on a cart pulled by a pony as the family travelled to their new home, which he said was like "paradise" compared to their old one.

Ormeau House

It was also in the lower Ravenhill Road, on the corner of Glentoran Street, that Ian Paisley established his first Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast before moving to a bigger Martyrs Memorial church further on up the road at the corner of Ardenlee Avenue.

Some of the pictures in the book are remarkable, probably none more so than a photograph of a royal visit which, for some inexplicable reason, included a journey along My Lady's Road off the Ravenhill Road. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were in Belfast on July 27, 1937, and the picture shows the royal couple in a limousine with its roof folded back to give people a better view of the visitors.

The picture was taken by a resident of My Lady's Road from his upstairs window.

Ronnie Carroll

Another photograph from 1929 shows an Orange Lodge in the Ravenhill area preparing for a Twelfth demonstration with a banner behind them depicting the former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who was an English Orangeman.

One picture in the book that also brings back memories of small shops which used to be on almost every street corner in the area underlines just how much times have changed in the modern world.

The photograph is of singer Ronnie Carroll, who attended Boyd Endowment Primary School on the Ravenhill Road and who represented the UK in the Eurovision Song contest twice in the 1960s.

In the picture Carroll has a blacked-up face, something that would be frowned upon today.

But Aidan says the make-up was for a talent competition called Hollywood Doubles in which Carroll - real name Ronnie Cleghorn - sang a Nat King Cole song.

Roy Walker

"As luck would have it there was a talent scout in the audience and he offered Ronnie a recording contract, though he insisted that he should change his name," adds Aidan.

Others who attended the Boyd school, which had its playground on the roof, included comedian and Catchphrase TV show host Roy Walker; the retired Bishop of Down and Dromore Gordon McMullan; the late Belfast Telegraph sports editor Malcolm Brodie, and the newspaper's cartoonist Rowel Friers, who's seen in a photo in Aidan's book during a spell in the Royal Victoria Hospital. Alongside Friers is a student nurse Esther Emerson, who attended the launch of Aidan's book, which includes a drawing of her by the artist.

Another guest was former Ulster rugby player Joe Miles, photographed playing on the wing against the All Blacks in November 1972 when the visitors won 19-6 at Ravenhill, now the Kingspan Stadium. One newspaper picture of the game doesn't quite tell the whole story, for it shows the All Blacks running out for the match with armed soldiers watching them.

Malcolm Brodie

But says Aidan: "It appears that an Army landrover was passing by and the soldiers decided to stop to investigate why people were gathering. But the photograph makes it look like they were there to guard the players, which they weren't."

Aidan says that the Irish Rugby Football Union had paid £2,300 for the land at Ravenhill to develop a new home ground in 1923 and the first full Ireland international was played the following year when the men in green lost 14-3.

Joe Miles, the son of a Linfield footballer, writes in the book that Ravenhill in the Seventies was a "rather soulless stadium".

"It was a basic, stark, cold, dank and foreboding place and not very welcoming at all. The venue was not used very often and as a result it had a very healthy population of foxes. There was no central heating in the buildings, though there were (just about) hot showers," he recalls.

Incidentally, Aidan reveals that there's no hidden depths or surprises about the derivation of the name Ravenhill.

For it means just what it says, because Ravenhill was indeed the 'hill of the ravens'.

His book also charts the history of the nearby Ormeau Park and Ormeau House, which was the home of the second Marquis of Donegall, George Augustus Chichester, before it was bought and demolished by Belfast Corporation in 1869 to turn the land into the city's first public park, opened two years later in front of 13,000 people.

Glentoran Football Club, who were formed in 1882 with the amalgamation of two teams called Oakfield and Nettlefield, used Ormeau Park as their first home for four years until 1886 before several moves took them to their current ground at The Oval off Mersey Street in 1893.

Their founding father Victor Coates had lived in Glentoran House, which used to stand opposite My Lady's Road, and his family's coat of arms bore the image of a cockerel that's still on the crest of the east Belfast club today.

Aidan's book also has photographs of Pirrie Park in the Ravenhill area. The park was owned by Harland & Wolff before it was acquired by Methodist College, which turned the pavilion into Downey House, a preparatory school.

Aidan also charts the history of Cherryvale House near the top of the Ravenhill Road.

The house was demolished to make way for Cherryvale Playing Fields, which opened in 1978.

The land had previously been used by the Queen's University Recreation Club. The main claim to fame there had been that former QUB student Thelma Hopkins, who won gold and silver medals at the Commonwealth and Olympic Games, broke the women's world high jump record at Cherryvale in 1956.

A brass plaque on the wall of the current pavilion at Cherryvale commemorates the world record.

At the top of the Ravenhill, near the Rosetta roundabout, a row of cottages built in the early 1800s have recently been refurbished.

They're now known as Rosetta Cottages, but Aidan says they were originally named Saddler's Row because a number of blacksmiths and saddlers were based there.

Farmers used to visit the row as they stopped at a nearby toll house on their way into Belfast. But the book also tells the tale of a "cranky old lady" who also used to live on the row.

After Belfast Corporation erected a tramway stop directly outside her house, the angry resident took action over the unwanted invasion of her space.

Says Aidan: "Every morning as people were waiting for their tram she emptied the contents of her chamber pot onto the street."

The tram stop was moved.

Ravenhill: Lagan Village To Rosetta, by Aidan Campbell, is available from the Hillmount Garden Centre and EastSide Visitor Centre, Connswater.

Belfast Telegraph


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