Report by Sandra Millsopp
High Street in Belfast was the subject of the talk at Bangor Historical Society on 13 January 2011. The speaker was Norman Weatherall. High Street is the second oldest street in Belfast and was originally called Front Street, while Ann Street was named Back Street.
We were shown a picture of a map of Belfast in 1685 made by Thomas Phillips. High Street appears on the map with the River Farset flowing down the centre of it. This river determined the shape and width of the street. It did, however, create the problem of how to get across the street from one side to the other and so people were encouraged to build bridges. This explains the origin of the name Bridge Street for one of the streets leading off High Street. Unfortunately the river became polluted with domestic refuse, the worst offenders being the local butchers. The town authorities tried to tackle the problem. In 1687 residents were reminded to clean the river between May and midsummer or pay 5 shillings.
In 1761 people were ordered not to throw anything into the river as it had been cleared. The material removed was used as manure. During the eighteenth century the section from St. George’s Church to the town dock was culverted. This in turn created the problem of how to obtain water for fighting fires. In 1740 twelve round holes covered with flags were created to give access to the river in an emergency. Many merchants and mariners lived in the area. Skipper Street gained its name because sea captains lived there.
Belfast’s original charter of 1613 had conferred the authority to establish quays. In the eighteenth century several were built, including Merchant, George and Hanover Quays. When Lord Donegall’s wife produced a son in 1769 after four daughters, Thomas Gregg built Chichester Quay to celebrate the event.
Sir Arthur Chichester had been granted lands at Belfast by James I at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In 1611 the Plantation Commissioners reported on the town and recorded that families from England, Scotland and the Isle of Man had settled there. Some had built timber houses and there was one inn. The mediaeval fortifications, including a castle, were in a decayed state. The castle was taken down and replaced by a brick structure shown on Phillips’ map of 1685 close to High Street. Over 1 million bricks were used in its construction. It had towers and a central courtyard. It thus combined a residential and military character. One important role was to defend the crossing of the Lagan between Antrim and Down, but it was also a centre of administration.
The castle had extensive gardens with fishponds, a bowling green and groves of trees. They extended to 30 acres and covered the modern Donegall Place and City Hall. In the early hours of 25th April 1708 the castle was burnt down. The blame was put on a servant who had washed a room and then lit a fire to dry it out. Five lives were lost, including those of three sisters of Lord Donegall, Jane, Frances and Henrietta Chichester. The castle was never rebuilt and the Donegalls moved to England. It is believed that the only surviving fragment of the building is in the Ulster Museum.
Mr. Weatherall then turned to St. George’s Church which the society had visited last autumn. The earliest building on the site was the Chapel of the Ford, a chapel of ease of Shankill parish. People would stop there to say a prayer before crossing the ford on the Lagan. Early in the seventeenth century it became the Corporation Church. In 1649, during the Civil War, it was occupied by a parliamentary army under Colonel Venables. At the end of the century William III is supposed to have attended a service there while on his way to the Battle of the Boyne.
In 1752 Richard Pococke visited Belfast and called the church fabric very mean and the congregation small and of the meaner sort. The richer citizens were mostly Presbyterians. By the 1770s the church was in a dangerous condition and the congregation moved to the new St. Anne’s Church in Donegall Street. The graveyard was still in use until 1800, although subject to flooding. As the population of the town grew in the early nineteenth century, it was decided to build a new church on the High Street site. Its portico came from Ballyscullion House, which had been demolished. It was loaded onto barges and brought by canal and river to Belfast. The church has been altered at various times and a new pulpit, organ and murals have been added. The most interesting memorial in the church is that to Sir Henry Pottinger, who was ambassador to China. He negotiated the Treaty of Nanking which ended the first Opium War. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain by this treaty. He expected to get a peerage but says he lost it because of the hostility of others. He returned to Malta where he died. The church suffered in the troubles, but has been restored.
Another building shown on High Street on the Phillips map of 1685 was the Market House. It stood on the corner of High Street on the site of the building more recently occupied by Woolworths and Burtons. From the 1660s it had an upper room used for concerts, plays etc. until the new assembly rooms were opened at the Four Corners. The Market House was demolished about 1811. John Wesley preached at the site on one of his visits to Ireland in the mid eighteenth century. The building was also the scene of the execution of convicted United Irishmen in 1798. The society had been founded in 1791 in nearby Crown Entry. The war with revolutionary France which began in 1793 provided the opportunity for a rising, but it failed. The most famous of the northern rebels was Henry Joy McCracken who was born in the Joy’s Entry area. He was descended from two of Belfast’s most prominent Presbyterian families. He joined the Society in 1795 and took part in the rising in Antrim.
It failed and he was captured near Carrickfergus after hiding out in the Antrim Hills. He was put on trial in the assembly rooms, but the only members of his family to support him were his father and his sister Mary Anne. She had brought him supplies while he was in hiding. He was offered clemency if he named fellow rebels, but he refused to do so and was sentenced to hang. The execution took place at the Market House. His sister had to be led away after he begged her to go. He died of suffocation. His sister went to the funeral, but not his two brothers who would have risked arrest because of their connection with the United Irishmen. It was discovered that Henry Joy had a three-year old illegitimate daughter whom the McCracken family knew nothing about. Mary Anne insisted on taking care of her. In 1902 bones were dug up in the old cemetery which were believed to be his and they were put in Mary Anne’s grave in Clifton Street Cemetery.
In 1849 Queen Victoria made the first royal visit to the town since 1690. There were doubts about the visit because the famine was not yet over, but it was decided to go ahead. The visit caused great excitement in the town: the mayor was knighted, ships were decked out and a special pavilion was built. We were shown a drawing of the royal procession in High Street with mounted guards, flags etc. The Queen travelled in a landau belonging to the Marquis of Londonderry. She toured the town, visiting places such as the Botanic Gardens, Queen’s College and the White Linen Hall. Members of the Harbour Commissioners wore a new uniform which is still worn today in a modified form. To commemorate the visit the new cut on the Lagan was named the Victoria Channel and Dargan’s Island became Queen’s Island.
By the mid-eighteenth century Belfast was experiencing problems with leases and the town was becoming run down. In 1757 the 5th Earl of Donegall was anxious to improve the town and granted new leases which laid down minimum standards for buildings. By 1800 improvements were being made to the paving and lighting of the town. By the mid-nineteenth century High Street was described as airy, wide and imposing. People lived in Georgian buildings which were also their places of business. By about 1870 the street was no longer so residential as people moved to homes elsewhere. Familiar business names began to appear: Liptons, Spackmans, Foster Green and Francis Curley.
The Albert Clock was built as a memorial to Prince Albert. A competition was held for the design which is in a German Gothic style. There was controversy about the result and a compromise was reached: the clock was designed by W.J.Barre and the statue of Prince Albert by S.F.Lynn. The Duke of Connaught inaugurated it. The clock was built on ground which was a reclaimed dock. This resulted in the famous tilt or lean. Major restoration work was undertaken and completed in 2007.
During the Blitz in 1941 High Street suffered considerable damage and we were shown pictures of the area. Some important buildings were lost. A Victorian bank did survive as it had an iron frame and concrete was used in its construction.
This was a very interesting talk and gave us many insights into the history of a very familiar area of Belfast.