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Time capsule contents offer glimpse of 19th century Derry

28 April 2015

The Mayor of Derry and Strabane yesterday revealed the contents of a 175 year old time capsule discovered in the foundation stone of the historic Gwyn’s Institute in Brooke Park.

The small lead capsule, which was placed in the footings of the former orphanage building in 1839, was opened by Donegal conservator Stefanie White yesterday at the Tower Museum.

The capsule contained a selection of coins from the era, one dating back to 1817, and some rolled up parchment. Due to the damp conditions the parchment will now be dried before opening and further examination. But according to an article in the Derry Journal of the time it is thought to contain a list of signatures made by local dignitaries, a copy of the Act of Parliament and a copy of the Will left by Institute founder John Gwyn. The businessman bequeathed a fortune of over £40,000 to the people of the city for the building of a facility to care for young male orphans.

Also inside the vessel were coins dating back to the time and some handwritten documents detailing the placing of the time capsule.
Speaking after the opening, Mayor of Derry and Strabane, Councillor Elisha McCallion said the time capsule would be a valuable piece in the Council’s archive collection: “It was fascinating to finally see the capsule yield up its contents, and to see the conservation process first hand. The documents enclosed give an intriguing insight into life in Derry back in the early 1800s, and the institution’s benefactor John Gwyn.

“The capsule is a valuable artefact in itself and I am sure the public can’t wait to see it on display. Thanks to the work carried out by Stefanie and the Parks Management & Development and Museums Teams, we hope to see the capsule and its contents on display over the coming weeks.”

The capsule was uncovered during a planned excavation of the site on the 2nd April, which is currently undergoing a major renovation as part of a multi-million pound regeneration project of Brooke Park.
The Institute building itself was fire bombed during the Troubles, and demolished in 1986, but the plans will see a new building constructed on the site – Gwyn’s Pavilion - as a feature of the newly restored Victorian Park.
The regeneration project is part-funded by Derry City and Strabane District Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund through their Parks for People Programme and the Department for Social Development, and will see a major upgrade of facilities at the park as well as the enhancement of the historic parkland character.
 Paul Mullan, Head of HLF Northern Ireland, said: “It is fantastic to see how this time capsule and its contents have sparked the  imagination of the local community as well as those from further afield. It highlights a real interest in past generations and our rich heritage, and I hope people will enjoy viewing and learning more about these artefacts once they are displayed.”
Minister for Social Development, Mervyn Storey MLA said: “The unearthing of the time capsule is exciting news and a significant historic find for the city of Londonderry. During a recent visit to Brooke Park I got a chance to hear about the renovation project and the intention to search for the capsule.  
“It is excellent news that, almost two hundred years later, the capsule will be reopened to give an insight into the city during the early Victorian era. I look forward to hearing about its contents and getting the opportunity to view them first hand.”

The building was originally built in 1839 on the request of Donegal businessman John Gwyn who left over £40,000 to support ‘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 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 was designed by Samuel Jackson and built by John Lynn, the building opened its doors to its first pupils in 1840.