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Piece of Armagh history goes on the market for ‘commercial development’

Riverside House, Armagh

Part of Armagh’s Tower Hill Hospital complex – an important piece of the city’s history – has gone on the market.

And Riverside House, once the headquarters of the Southern Group Environmental Health Committee, is being advertised for potential commercial development opportunities, subject to planning approval.

It is being sold under ‘sealed public tender’, which means no asking price is being listed or disclosed publicly.

It is being marketed by the Belfast-based Osborne King and tenders will be accepted for one full month from today – closing at noon on Friday, June 24.

The two-storey building sits to the rear of the Tower Hill site, the Southern Health Committee – representing the interests of a number of local councils – now having relocated to the former City Hospital building at Abbey Street.

The Tower Hill site had been redeveloped as office space for that purpose.

But it has a much more interesting and, indeed, terribly sad and tragic history.

Riverside House, Armagh

Riverside House, Armagh

Riverside House was, in fact, the old infirmary which served the Armagh Workhouse.

As such, many paupers drew their last laboured breaths within its walls.

The old Armagh Workhouse fronted on to Tower Hill, the infirmary located to the rear of the site – Riverside House as it later became known. Nearby was built, in 1844, a fever hospital.

The Armagh Workhouse was the largest such institution in Ulster and opened in 1842 to accommodate up to 1,000 individuals – men, women, children and babies. They would be split apart from one another and even exercise facilities outside were separate – as too were the infirmary quarters.

The numbers far exceeded the accommodation during the Great Famine and more of the county’s poor were located in structures on the Cathedral Road.

Many died within the Workhouse and the infirmary, now Riverside House, which was bought by the former Armagh District Council.

The Tower Hill site has changed dramatically over the years. Most recently the minor injuries unit closed, but the former Community Hospital had also once provided in-patient beds.

The site had been developed and transformed over time, becoming the headquarters of the Southern Health and Social Services Board 20 years ago.

It had been the creation of the modern health and social services system which had led to the closure of the Workhouse in 1948. It ceased operating for the poor law system altogether in 1950.

It later became a special care hospital before considerable investment saw the development of the Southern Board HQ.

Many of those who died within the site’s confines – in both Workhouse and infirmary – are buried within an unmarked paupers’ graveyard at Tower Hill.

Their final resting place and sad end was finally recognised – 15 years ago on October 4, 2001 – with the laying and dedication of a special commemorative stone.

It was unveiled in the wooded area to the front of the Tower Hill site and the inscription reads: “To the memory of all those who found shelter within these walls. 1842-1948.”

And below that is added: “And of the men, women and children who died and were buried here including the victims of the Great Famine. 1845-1851.”

On the occasion of the unveiling, Mr Billy Peilow – who had joined the staff at the Armagh Workhouse in 1947 and later worked off the same site in the Ambulance Service – laid a wreath.

Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, meanwhile, has moved to offer some reassurances regarding the nature of the sale.

A spokesperson told Armagh I: “The council wish to clarify that while it has been agreed to dispose of Riverside House at Tower Hill it has been agreed to retain the Workhouse graveyard and car park.

“These will not form part of the disposal and will remain in the custodianship of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.”

With the sale of Riverside House a chapter of Armagh’s past will forever close.

The structure – a Grade B listed building – has much potential for future use and redevelopment; it is not, indeed, zoned within the last Armagh Area Plan for any particular or specific use.

Time will tell if the building is sold and what any new buyer’s intentions might be for the future use of this important piece of our local history.

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