Norman Weatherall gave the opening talk of Bangor Historical Society’s 2018-2019 season. A large crowd enjoyed an excellent illustrated presentation on Where we used to shop. A trip down memory lane, and beyond. This focused on the great department stores of Belfast.

Mr Weatherall began his talk by explaining that in the High street of the mid-nineteenth century most people lived above their businesses. One of these businesses was the outfitter John Magee where a popular purchase would have been the Ulster coat, a long tweed coat. By the end of the century people would no longer have lived above the shop. Among the premises there was Sawyer’s butcher, Francis Curley, the clerical outfitter and Foster Green’s Tea House.

By the end of the century High Street was no longer the main shopping street. Nearby Hercules Street had been a narrow street with businesses such as butchers. In the 1870s the council bought up the leases and demolished the buildings. A new, wider street was created called Royal Avenue. The building now housing the Tesco Metro is the only reminder of the old Hercules Street. The most important building in Royal Avenue was the Grand Central Hotel.

Royal Avenue and Donegall Place now formed a North/South shopping axis to replace the old West/East one. The houses of Donegall Place were replaced by shops. Queen’s Arcade with its small shops, was created in the 1880s. Robinson and Cleaver moved from Castle Place to the end of Donegall Place. 500 fir tree logs were punched into the ground to support the building in the soft ground. The business had a worldwide reputation and parcels were sent all over the world. Its London Branch was even mentioned in Agatha Christie’s novel Bertram’s Hotel. The Belfast shop was famous for its marble staircase which led to the ladies’ parlour. This was moved to Ballyedmond Castle after the shop closed in 1984.

Another famous Belfast shop was Anderson and McAuley’s. Like Robinson and Cleaver’s the building was designed by the architects Young and Mackenzie. It specialised in locally produced goods and boasted the first escalator in a Belfast store in 1956. A photograph of about 1900 shows the staff on the staircase. This reflects the increasing employment of women in these shops. The Bank Buildings was built across the River Farset which flows under High Street. The last bank on the site closed in 1852 and was replaced by a department store. The building was redeveloped about 1900 when it was increased in height.

John Robb set up his shop in Castle Place. It closed in 1973. The building was demolished and replaced by Donegall Arcade. The Belfast Co-op began as a small shop on the Falls Road. Eventually its new premises became the largest shop in Ireland, selling everything the ordinary person would need. Other shops included Brands and Norman’s, Lipton’s and Newell’s.

Smithfield gave a very different shopping experience, with its large number of small shops. Among the most famous were Hugh Greer’s book shop and Joseph Kavanagh’s business where he claimed ‘I buy anything’. Smithfield was destroyed by terrorists in 1974.

Today’s shopping experience is very different with the emphasis on self-service and big shopping malls such as Victoria Square.