When first built it was the largest and most sophisticated barracks on the island of Ireland. But now after more than a century the oldest operational police station in Europe is to be demolished.
A new police station is due to be opened beside the old Musgrave Street Station in Belfast in January, and the existing barracks will be demolished to make way for a multi-storey car park.
Since 1893 officers attached to Musgrave Street have policed most of the major events in the city, from the dockers’ strike of 1907 to the Suffragette movement, the Troubles and even President Bill Clinton’s Northern Ireland visit.
Yesterday, past and present police officers said a final farewell to the iconic Belfast station.
Old uniforms and memorabilia were on show at the event which was attended by Chief Constable Matt Baggott.
Musgrave Street Police Station was built after rioting in Belfast in 1886.
Constable Paul Wilson, who has been stationed at Musgrave Street for 17 years, said: “There was serious sectarian rioting in Belfast in that year.
As a result of a Government inquiry into the rioting they decided to build extensive central headquarter barracks around Belfast in four districts and that’s how Musgrave Street came about.”
Police officers and their families lived on-site so the yard would have been populated by children, cats, dogs and washing lines right up until the 1930s.
“Your rank and the size of your family dictated how many rooms you got, so a head constable – who would now be an inspector – would have got more rooms than a sergeant,” said Constable Wilson.
The barracks also included stables which held 20 horses for the mounted troop until 1917.
Constable Wilson has researched the history of the barracks.
He said the station had been involved in some interesting and important events.
In 1907 the Belfast dockers’ strike ended with the policemen themselves in revolt, and a top officer punched.
Musgrave Street policemen played a big part in the strikes and union meetings were held at the barracks.
“In July of 1907 there were two big meetings,” Constable Wilson explained.
“At one of them there was a county inspector — who would now be the equivalent to a police superintendent — who was punched and knocked to the ground by a constable, which was mega news at the time.”
In 1922 the station was taken over by the IRA after they were let in by a sympathiser.
“They came in to steal arms, ammunition and vehicles but once they were in here it went wrong and they killed an RIC man, Constable John Collins. Constable Thomas McKeown was injured and the place was surrounded by gunfire,” Constable Wilson said.
The city centre barracks did not escape the turmoil of the Troubles. Four Musgrave Street officers were killed while on duty and the barracks was attacked a number of times.
A lorry bomb exploded at the front security barrier in 1974, a 500lb bomb partially detonated in 1976, and in 1989 a bomb exploded inside the rear fence.
As the date of the closure nears Chief inspector Robert Murdie said there were mixed feelings about leaving as the barracks has an atmosphere unlike any other station.
“This was built as a barracks, police were not just stationed here but would have lived here,” he said.
“But the new station is very much public facing, it’s going to have a much softer image to it, there will be conference rooms so that members of the community can be brought in and it will be a lot more open.
“It refects the style of 21st century policing rather than the barracked style of the 20th century,” he added.