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From a tiny acorn our city has grown into modern giant

Belfast celebrates its 400th birthday this week. But there is so much more to its history than Titanic, says Prof Sean Connolly

Sean Connolly

Published 23/04/2013

Belfast City Hall. Donegall Square. As it looked in 1930
Belfast City Hall. Donegall Square. As it looked in 1930 BELFAST TELEGRAPH ARCHIVE
Belfast City Hall. Donegall Square. In 1912
Belfast City Hall. Donegall Square. Under construction in 1906
The interior of Belfast City Hall.
The interior of Belfast City Hall. 18/8/1939
The interior of Belfast City Hall.
Spectators gather to view the Albert Bridge after the collapse of the central arches in 1886
The interior of Belfast City Hall.
The interior of Belfast City Hall.
Belfast City Hall. Donegall Square. Under construction in 1906. The statue of Queen Victoria already in place. BELFAST TELEGRAPH ARCHIVE
The Albert Bridge. 15/1/1932
The interior of Belfast City Hall. 1951
Smithfield market, Belfast.Young boy in a shop selling household furniture lamps and bric a brac. 26/11/1941
The stitching room of the Belfast Collar Company
Albion limited Group. Machine Department Albion Ltd Belfast 1919
Yardmen busy themselves bottling gas. 30/6/1934
On a tour of the gasworks our photographer is shown the Interior Gaosmeter. 27/4/1934
Linen Industry:Plain Weaving Shop, Brookfield Factory. 3/3/1939
Linen/ Warping, York Street Factory.
Linen/ winding weft yarn. York St. Factory.
Linen, Damask weaving shot. Brookfield factory. York St factory.
Linen Industry:View of Weaving Room, York Street Factory.
Linen Industry:Wet Spinning, York Street Mill.
Albion limited Group. The visit of H.R.H. the Duke Of Gloucester to Albion Ltd Clothing maufacturers Belfast,29th May 1934
Manhattan Beauty Salon, Corn Market. Female customers having their hair styled. 7/5/1940
On a visit to the Gasworks an employee demonstrates the Coal Gripper (The feed system of a coal getting combine, which works with a face conveyor, comprises: a traction device located on the combine and having a cylinder-shaped sprocket on the side surface of which a circular spherical-shaped recess is provided, slots being made on both inner sides of the spherical recess, said slots having an involute-spherical surface) 20/1/1938
Saw repair shop, McMasters, Church Lane. 19/11/1945
Weaving and winding training school at Ewart's factory. Pupils at work in the classroom. 29/1/1948
The Countess Granville, wife of the Ulster Governor and sister of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, cutting ribbon to open childrens play centre at Bessbrook. 15/9/1945
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, visit to Northern Ireland 1945. Arriving in Belfast, being recieved by Lord Londonderry at Assembly Hall for degree ceremony at Queens. 14.9.1945
James Magennis:Ulsterman awarded The Victoria Cross (VC). Belfastman decorated for his heroic actions onboard the X.E.11 Midget Submarine returning from the attack on a japanese cruiser. James Magennis with Lord Mayor Sir Crawford McCullagh at a civic reception in Belfast in 1945.
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, visit to Northern Ireland 1945. Arriving in Belfast and being greeted at the City Hall by Sir Crawford McCullagh. 14/9/1945.
BBC's Radio entertainer, Mr Gillie Potter, pictured here in Belfast. 17/2/1948
Hon. Edward Carson, son of late Lord Carson of Duncairn, and his wife arriving for the Unionist Council meeting. 19/2/1948
Lady Carson, widow of Lord Carson of Duncairn, and Lady Brooke, at Stormont House. 17/2/1948
Sir Malcolm Sargent, Conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, with his hosts, the P.M., Lord Brookeborough, and Lady Brooke, at Stormont. 24/6/1947
Sir Arnold McNair, Judge of the Court of International Justice at the Hague, with Lady McNair and Professor J. L. Montrose. 22/10/1947
The stitching room of the Belfast Collar Company
Rabbi Jacob Shachter, Rabbi Belfast, Rabbi Dr I. Herzog, Chief Rabbi elect of the Holy Land, and Mr J Hurwitz at Belfast railway station. 15/3/1937
James Johnston. Belfast Tenor. 'The Belfast Butcher.' 21/2/1945
Craftsmen finish work on the Royal Courts of Justice, Oxford Street, Belfast, under the watchful of Lord Craigavon. 14/4/1933
The opening of the Royal Courts of Justice, Oxford Street, Belfast. 31/5/1933
Stonemasons finish work on the outside of the Royal Courts of Justice, Oxford Street, Belfast. April 1933
Aerial of Belfast Harbour, Thompson Wharf. 12/8/1937
Belfast Custom House, Custom House Square, Belfast. 28/1/1930
Belfast Custom House, Custom House Square, Belfast. 14/4/1928
Belfast Harbour, The Quay's at the turn of the twentieth century.
The construction of the Albert Memorial, dating back yo 1867.
The interior of Belfast City Hall.
The interior of Belfast City Hall. The vault and storeroom at City Hall. 5/1/1934
Belfast City Hall. Donegall Square. Under construction in 1903. The Earl of Glasgow unveiling the statue of Sir Edward J Harland in the grounds of the new City Hall.
The collapse of the central arches of the Albert Bridge. 15/9/1886

Four hundred years ago this week, on April 27, 1613, a charter in the name of James I created the modern town of Belfast.

Initially, the new settlement was only one of several created to build up an urban network in Ulster and to provide reliable MPs for a forthcoming meeting of the Irish parliament.

In 1640, Belfast was a town of 400-500 people, as compared to 1,500 in Derry and 1,000 in nearby Bangor. Within a few decades, however, its exceptional potential had begun to be recognised.

Situated at the head of the natural corridor created by the River Lagan and at a natural crossing-point from Co Down into Co Antrim, it was the ideal outlet for the growing volume of agricultural produce and linen cloth being produced in its increasingly prosperous hinterland. By the 1720s, it was already Ireland's third-largest port.

The second half of the 18th century brought a new era of growth and prosperity. Trade across the Atlantic with the West Indies and North America continued to grow.

The construction, in 1785, of a large, new White Linen Hall (on the site of the present City Hall) confirmed that Belfast was now the undisputed capital of Ulster's expanding linen industry.

The first marquis of Donegall, who inherited the estate on which the town was built in 1761, sponsored a major programme of rebuilding and improvement.

New streets – Donegall Street, North Street, Castle Place and Donegall Place – substantially expanded the town centre. Almost all of the elegant town houses erected on these new showpiece streets are long gone, torn down by the Victorians in their restless urge to build newer and better.

But the Poor House on Clifton Street, erected by the voluntary subscription in 1774, is a reminder of the elegance and self-assurance of the lost Georgian town that once stood here.

At the same time that it grew in prosperity, Belfast became a social and cultural centre. It already had in the Belfast News Letter (1737), the first newspaper in Ulster. The Belfast Reading Society (1788) laid the foundations for the Linen Hall Library. Belfast Academy (1786) offered a grammar school education.

Economic growth and a lively overseas trade also meant that this was a town where the new ideas of the American and French Revolutions were debated and acted on.

It is now a surprise that Belfast was the original home of the United Irishmen, founded in 1791 to demand representative government and constitutional autonomy for Ireland.

Up to this point, Belfast was mainly a port and commercial centre. The first factories, using water or steam power for spinning, were established as early as the 1770s. What they produced, however, was cotton, an industry where Irish producers faced fierce competition from England and Scotland. Belfast's industrial future was secure only after 1826, when the technology became available to use the same machinery to spin the finer flax fibres used in linen.

By the 1840s, visitors to Belfast, seeing the forest of tall chimneys that ringed its outskirts, had begun to speak of it as Ireland's Manchester.

Its reputation as a dynamic industrial centre attracted talented immigrants. The Jaffe family, for example, moved from Hamburg in 1852 and later provided Belfast with its first Jewish lord mayor and one of its leading philanthropists, Sir Otto Jaffe (1846-1929).

Immigrants were also largely responsible for the rise of Belfast's other major industry. The Yorkshire-born Edward Harland and the German-born Gustav Wolff established their shipyard in 1858. From small beginnings, Harland and Wolff and the so-called 'wee yard', Workman Clark and Company, established in 1877, rose to worldwide prominence by the early-20th century.

What did industrialisation mean for the people of Belfast? Accounts from the 1830s and 1840s present a grim picture of long hours of work, cramped and unsanitary living conditions and a population repeatedly ravaged by epidemic disease.

Fifty years later much had changed. The construction of Royal Avenue in 1881, driven through what had been a crowded neighbourhood of narrow residential streets, completed the creation of the modern city.

Belfast was still a centre of world-class industry. But it was now also a place of consumption and sociability, where trains and trams carried people from the new residential suburbs to the department stores, music halls, restaurants and public houses of a brightly lit and bustling city-centre. This new Belfast of the late-19th and early-20th century, the town that built the Titanic, is the one that is remembered today.

By contrast, King James's charter seems very far away. To remember that longer history, however, is to recognise that the triumphs of the Victorian and Edwardian city rested on much older foundations. It is offers a new perspective on the future.

When we recall the very different Belfasts that have existed – from the small Plantation settlement of the 1630s to the emerging port that constructed the Long Bridge and the elegant Georgian social centre in which people toasted the successes of American and French radicalism – we are reminded that this is not a place in which history is condemned endlessly to repeat itself.

On the contrary, it is a place that has repeatedly changed in response to new circumstances. In thinking about where Belfast has come from, we are also encouraged to think about where it might be able to go.

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