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Fernhill House

The“Fernhill location has history long into the past for it is believed to have been the site of a fort during the Stone Age. To mark this there is what is known as a “Circle of truth’ in the garden outside where remains have been found on the location where Stone Age men buried their dead.”

For many years the house was in excellent and beautiful condition with shrub borders and a rock garden around the house, which had a tall backdrop of conifers and Divis Mountain to the rear and a very distinct and ornate white wooden railing separated it from the sloping grass valley to the front. It sat in grandeur and included, to the rear of Glendivis, orchards, tennis courts and a row of cottages. Members of the various households may well have walked alongside the Glencairn River, on a path edged with ornamental metal fencing, and crossed over using one of several bridges. Near a hollow in the ground, known locally as the ‘inkpot’, there was a small cottage from which the occupant sold ice creams and refreshments to passers-by.

Fernhill House was finished in 1864 by John Smith, the first resident and the house has little changed since then.

Fernhill House is traditional in its Irish mid-Victorian appearance; it is a mixture of the Classical and Italian Renaissance architectural styles.

In 1898 it was sold to Samuel Cunningham and the long association of the Cunningham family with Fernhill House began. Since 1996 Fernhill House was opened to the public as a Community Museum telling the story of the local area.

The following is an extract from a document about Fernhill House.

Welcome to Fernhill The People´s Museum is a community museum which tells the history of the social, economic and military history of the Shankill area, from the early 19th century to the present day. The Museum is located in Fernhill House.

Facade of Fernhill House, Belfast

A local terraced house from the 1930s is recreated within this museum, and you get a real sense of the way people lived in working-class Belfast at the time of the great Depression. It has exhibitions looking at the Shankill Road and the considerable role played by Ulster soldiers in both the First and Second World Wars.

Project Details:

As outlined above we have set up a community museum in the Glencairn area of Belfast. Fernhill House, the People´s Museum, explores the history of the Shankill and Greater Shankill areas of Belfast, telling the story of the lives of people of that area from the 19th Century through to the present day. The main areas the museum explores are the social, industrial and labour history of the greater Shankill, the tradition of military service and aspects of cultural identity.

Parks and gardens

Glencairn was the former home and estate of the Cunningham family. At one time it covered over one hundred acres, more extensive than the present seventy-acre park. Two houses, Glencairn and Fernhill, were positioned on hilltops either side of a sloping valley, whilst a third house, Glendivis, stood between the Ballygomartin River and Glencairn Road, just beyond the present entrance to the park. A smaller house, called Four Winds, was sited further up Glencairn Road and modest mid-nineteenth century gate lodges served Fernhill and Glencairn Houses.
The Cunningham family came from Scotland to Ireland during the plantation and settled at Killead, about ten miles north-west of Belfast. The Cunninghams were involved in the West Indian trade; one descendant, Barber Cunningham, established himself in business in Belfast as a tobacco manufacturer and importer. Barber’s son, Josias, founded a stockbroking and insurance company at 41 Waring Street in 1843. He acquired the estate lands at Glencairn in 1855, and is listed in the Belfast Street Directory of 1858/59 as the occupant of Glencairn House.
On his death in 1895, Josias Cunningham left three sons - James, Josias and Samuel - and five daughters. In 1899 the youngest son Samuel was able to move into a new house called Fernhill, built across the valley from Glencairn. From his home some three hundred feet above sea level Samuel would have had views of Belfast, the Mourne Mountains and, weather permitting, the family’s home country of Scotland.
The Cunninghams continued to live on the Glencairn Estate for the greater part of the twentieth century, with both houses (and from 1935, Glendivis) being inhabited. Glencairn was the main house and was, by 1906, surrounded by extensive lawns and gravel pathways, mature trees including conifers, formal gardens, vegetable plots and a croquet lawn. Just behind the house was an ancient rath or fort, some 120 feet in diameter with ramparts and surrounding trench. During the Cunninghams’ time the trench was filled in and the site used as a ring for training horses.
The Original Ulster Volunteer Force stored guns and ammunition in the stable yard beside Fernhill prior to the First World War. On one occasion the coachman set a car that was being used for transporting the arms alight, which resulted in fire damage to the yard. The UVF paraded in the grounds in 1914. Both houses were damaged during the Second World War and when Colonel Cunningham returned home after the war he found Glencairn House empty and abandoned and his family living in part of Fernhill House.


Fernhill House is located on the outskirts of the Shankill district, in the north of Belfast nestling in the beautiful Glencairn Park. Exquisite for those in tune with natural beauty will enjoy wandering around the parkland and along tree-lined avenues.

View from Fernhill House

The Cunninghams

The Cunningham Family

The Fernhill estate was originally owned by the Cunningham family, who were Belfast stockbrokers and owned the Northern Whig. They were heabily involved in the rise of Unionism and Orange culture. Local historian Joe Baker was able to shed more light on the former inhabitats of Fernhill House.

“It was the home of Samuel Cunningham, the youngest of three sons of Josias Cunningham, who lived in Glencairn House on the same state, “said Joe.

“A fore bearer of Samuel was killed in a fight with a French privateer in 1796, when involved in ‘West India trade’, which is slavery to you and me. As far I can make out, he was the only one directly associated with Fernhill House who did not die of natural causes,” said Joe.

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