New chapter in Gwyn family legacy begins at Brooke Park

editorial image

This weekend, members of the Gwyn family from all over the world will gather in Londonderry for a very special visit to Brooke Park where their ancestor John Gwyn bequeathed a small fortune to establish the former Gwyn’s Institute and grounds.

The city’s first orphanage was constructed in 1839 using £40,000 left by Donegal businessman John Gwyn, who was himself orphaned at an early age. He remained a bachelor throughout his life enabling him to leave his fortune to disadvantaged children by providing the home as stipulated in his will.

Today, the park has undergone a major transformation with support from Derry City and Strabane District Council, The Heritage Lottery Fund and the Department for Communities NI.

A new chapter in the Gwyn legacy begins when the Gwyn’s Pavilion opens its doors on the site where the local philanthropist’s fortune created a home for local boys. The new facility is part of the wider regeneration of the Victorian parkland which will see the site restored to its former glory this Autumn.

Almost 30 of the 19th century business man’s descendants are now en route to Derry from as far as New Zealand, Norway, France, England, Ireland and Australia for a family gathering and preview of the new park, which will recreate the splendour of the Victorian era when the Gwyn’s Institute building dominated the site.

Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District, Alderman Hilary McClintock, will greet the family on Saturday, some of whom will be visiting the city for the first time to renew the connection with their benevolent ancestor.

“I’m really looking forward to welcoming the Gwyn family to share more about John Gwyn and his important role here in the city,” she explained.

“As we near completion of this major regeneration project it will be fantastic to let them see exactly where the Institute once stood. The Gwyn legacy will continue in the name of our new Gwyn’s Pavilion, which is an acknowledgement of John Gwyn’s contribution to the people of the city.

“The family will also have the opportunity to view the time capsule in the Tower Museum which was placed in the cornerstone of the building and excavated last year which included a parchment and coins of the realm. It’s a direct link to the past and I know it will be of great interest.”

New Zealand academic Robin Gwyn, who is a descendant of the philanthropist John Gwyn, will be among the group arriving in the city this week. He’s looking forward to seeing the transformation of the park which he first visited in 1985 when the building lay derelict after it was fire bombed during the Troubles and later in October 2015. Speaking ahead of the visit Robin Gwyn said that “he was delighted to return to Derry and to visit Brooke Park again, this time with his extended family, to reconnect their ancestry from Donegal.”

In his will John Gwyn outlined his final wish to help ‘as many male children of the poor or lowest class of society resident in and belonging to the city of Londonderry and the precincts around the same, as hereafter described, as the said funds will feed, clothe, and educate, orphans or such children as have lost one of their parents always to be preferred.’

The trustees of John Gwyn’s will originally purchased the site for the sum of £200 and on Monday, 9th September 1839, the foundation stone of Gwyn’s institute was laid by the Protestant Bishop of the day, Richard Ponsonby. The building was designed by Samuel Jackson and built by John Lynn, and first opened its doors to its first pupils in 1840.

The building has played a variety of roles since its construction, and fulfilled its purpose as an orphanage until 1901. Since then it has been a museum, library, workshop for the blind, pathological laboratory and education board offices. It also became the focus of IRA attacks when it was taken over by the British army in the 1970s and was eventually destroyed by fire in 1973.

The park’s colourful history down through the years has been documented through archive photos and displays which will be displayed in the restored Portico Lodge off Infirmary Road.

Work now concludes in the Autumn on the £5.6 million redevelopment at Brooke Park, which is being part-funded by Derry City and Strabane District Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund through their Parks for People Programme and the Department for Communities.

The major project includes the building of the Gwyn’s Pavilion Café, the restoration of the Brooke Park Portico Lodge and a former Victorian pond. The scheme will also include an innovative play garden, a walled garden and a Horticulture & Environment Training Centre and new Leisure Building set with a beautifully restored landscape.