The men behind Brooke Park

View from the top of the park with the new play park and Gwyn's Pavillion cafe below.
View from the top of the park with the new play park and Gwyn's Pavillion cafe below.

The legacy of John Gwyn and James Hood Brooke can be witnessed in what today is Brooke Park.

In fact the park owes its very existence to these two philanthropic benefactors, although each had very different aims in mind when they decided to use their influence and wealth for the good of the local community.

The site was originally laid out in the Victorian era as part of the establishment of a boys’ orphanage - the first to be established in the city.

John Gwyn was a local businessman, who was born at Drumskellan near Muff in County Donegal in 1754.

He moved to Derry with his mother and began a grocery business in Bishop Street.

They prospered and John later became a linen merchant and gradually accumulated wealth.

When John died in 1829, the bachelor had left the bulk of his wealth amounting to over £40,000 for the feeding, clothing and housing orphans from among the lower classes.

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

Although the orphanage, Gwyn’s Institute was demolished in 1986, the grounds of the orphanage survive as the lower part of the park retains much of the original path layout and the location of the pond remains.

James Hood Brooke, the Presbyterian philanthropist who gave his name to Brooke Park, died on August 2, 1865.

His will and testament revealed that he left the residue of his estate to be used to acquire an area of land, that forever after would be a place of outdoor recreation for the citizens of the city.

The money from the estate (£9,100) was used to buy Gwyn’s grounds, with financial assistance from The Honourable The Irish Society, as the site of the new people’s park.

In August 1901, Brooke Park was handed over to the Londonderry Corporation and has been maintained by the local authority as a public park for the last 113 years.

Famous visitors included King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1903, while King George VI visited in 1945.

The Princess Royal came in 1952 and planted trees with the same silver trowel used by King Edward. Queen Elizabeth II visited the Park in 1953, soon after her accession to the throne.