Belfast Zoo’s story begins with Belfast’s public transport system.
At the beginning of the 20th century, passengers from Belfast were transported to the villages of Whitewell and Glengormley by horse-drawn trams belonging to the Belfast Street Tramway company and steam tramways from Cave Hill and Whitewell.
In 1911, the tram line was taken over by Belfast Corporation, which is now known as Belfast City Council.
Developing the pleasure gardens
The corporation decided to build a playground and pleasure gardens at the end of the line to encourage customers to use the service.
The area was named Bellevue Gardens. Bellevue means good or pretty view. During the 1920s and 1930s, the gardens were a popular destination for day trips.
Building Belfast Zoo
In 1933, the corporation decided to install a zoological collection on the site. In 1934, 12 acres on either side of the grand floral staircase (a series of steps designed to reach the top of the hillside) were laid out as the zoo site. It took 150 men to build the site and the steps can still be seen from Antrim Road today.
The zoo was opened on 28 March 1934 by Sir Crawford McCullough, Lord Mayor of Belfast. The venture was supported by Councillor RJR Harcourt from Belfast Corporation and was partnered by George Chapman, an animal dealer and circus entrepreneur.
It cost £10,000 to build and a total of 284,713 people visited the zoo in its first year.
Floral Hall is a 1930s art deco ballroom located in the grounds of the zoo. It was a popular entertainment venue in the area hosting dances and concerts from a range of artists including Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and the Small Faces. It later became a roller-disco venue before closing its doors to the public in 1972.
Floral Hall is a listed building and is seen by many as an iconic attraction that holds lots of memories. Renovation of the building is dependent n available funding and resources, and Belfast City Council continues to consider the long-term options for the building.
Impact of World War II
In 1941, the Ministry of Public Security ordered the destruction of 33 animals after north Belfast came under aerial attack during World War II. Animals, including lions, wolves and polar bears were killed, and new animals did not arrive until 1947.
Several elephants survived the attacks, and one baby elephant was cared for by an elderly lady who lived on the nearby Whitewell Road.
The modern zoo
During the 1950s and 1960s, the zoo’s popularity started to decrease as public opinion focused more on conservation of animals and their habitats.
By the time the corporation's parks committee took control of the site in 1962, restoration was badly needed, and work began on the new zoo site in 1974. The new 40-acre site surrounding the Floral Hall was designed with improved animal welfare and freedom for current and new species.
Work was completed in 1985 at a cost of £250,000. During construction works, archaeological evidence found a crannog (a Bronze Age man-made island) in the zoo’s lake and a Neolithic dugout canoe which is displayed in the Ulster Museum.
The ‘old zoo’ closed to visitors in 1989 but it is still used by the zoo for operational requirements such as storage.
In recent years the zoo has welcomed many improvements such as a temperature-controlled Rainforest House in 2008, a new Treetop Tearoom in 2011, a large outdoor play park in 2015, a renovated and extended Reptile House in 2017 alongside a new Buzz Stop facility for black Irish honeybees, and a new Changing Places facility in 2021.
Belfast Zoo continues to be a leading conservation zoo which is respected globally for the work carried out.
If you have any questions about the history of Belfast Zoo or if you would like to receive a Belfast Zoo history pack, email firstname.lastname@example.org.