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Digging up the past to reveal Sailortown's bustling heyday

By Rebecca Black

Published 02/06/2015

Dr Liz Thomas with some of the finds
Dr Liz Thomas with some of the finds
The archaeological dig at Sailortown in Belfast
A medicine bottle and a pig’s bone found at the site
The archaeological dig at Sailortown in Belfast

Meet the Queen's University academic who is helping to uncover the secrets of our capital city's first waterfront village.

Today Sailortown is quiet and mostly abandoned, but 150 years ago it was a busy hub of industry and visiting businessmen.

Dr Liz Thomas has uncovered shards of pottery, animal bones and beer bottle tops painting a picture of what day-to-day life was like.

This is just one small part of her three-year British Academy-funded research project in the area.

Her team is digging on a site beside the Dockers Club where houses once stood, and also an old bar which was known as the Inside Inn.

"From archival research, we knew houses were first recorded here from the 1860s and we have maps of the houses," she told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Then, from around the 1940s, the houses were demolished, and (we) knew that kids used to play on the site where we are digging.

"It was a grassy mound 57 years ago. We knew there was a good chance of finding the remains of the houses."

At one stage, Sailortown had a population of 5,000 people living cheek by jowl in tiny terraced houses. It was devastated in the 1941 Belfast Blitz and mostly abandoned by the 1960s.

The dig, led by Queen's University and the Sailortown Regeneration Group, and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is the first such project in the area.

"Sailortown Regeneration Group obviously want regeneration of the area, but they see the past as a very important part of their future," Dr Thomas said.

"The houses we are digging up would have been the earliest houses in Sailortown.

"Some other areas of Belfast had houses dating back to the 1840s, but these were the first in this area.

"All sorts of people would trade from the docklands.

"It was absolutely a hub of people and business in a very vibrant area."

So far, the team of archaeologists has uncovered a number of finds, but some old beer bottle tops have caused the most excitement among locals. "We have found lots of creamware pottery (dated to the 19th and 20th centuries), glass, red brick, animal bones and something that really got people excited here among the more modern finds - Red Heart bottle tops and Cullies bottle tops. Both were bottlers for Guinness.

"This has sparked debate about which one people preferred. We are digging on the site of a pub - the Inside Inn - as well as the site of houses, so not surprisingly we have found lots of these bottle tops."

The finds will be taken back to Queen's for analysis. As part of her research project, Dr Thomas is also interviewing local people about Sailortown, as well as delving into the archives.

The Sailortown dig started last Monday and is set to finish this Friday.

Members of the public can visit the excavation at the ground beside the Dockers Club on Pilot Street every day from 10am until 4.30pm. Tonight the site will stay open until 7pm.


Sailortown was one of the first areas of Belfast to be inhabited, with people flocking to the docks for the work available. At one time, 5,000 people lived in the small enclave which became cosmopolitan due to visiting sailors from across the world. The area suffered badly during the 1941 Belfast Blitz, and was cleared in the 1960s during urban redevelopment.

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