Enchanting insight into how Belfast put itself on tourist map 90 years ago
A stunning arrival on a steamship on Belfast Lough, an electric tramway to transport visitors round a vibrant city centre teeming with fashion stores, noteworthy buildings and picture houses, excursions to Downpatrick with the Belfast Omnibus Company and luxury 'nest for rest' at the Grand Central Hotel...
Ninety years ago the 1928/1929 booklet, Belfast, the Official Guide was published, a valiant marketing puff-piece designed to wax lyrical on everything positive about the city that had been trying hard to recover from the First World War and more localised troubles. In terms of timing, and who would have known, it preceded the London Stock Exchange and the Wall Street crashes of 1929. But whatever state the world was in or was heading towards, the business of enthusing visitor interest in Belfast and exploring ways to boost the economy had to carry on. Many attractions and activities are still available today, of course, but it is interesting to reflect on how the city was defined back then. The advertisements are fascinating and I will get to them shortly.
Potential tourists were informed that Wednesdays were early closing days for the shops and Fridays were market days. There is much information on how to travel to Northern Ireland by steam ship from Heysham on The Duke of Argyll, The Duke of Lancaster or The Duke of Rothesay, each ship providing sleeping accommodation for over 300 passengers in single, double or 4-berth rooms or, for the well-to-do, cabines de luxe.
Other starting points included Stranraer, Liverpool - on Belfast Steamship Company vessels called Patriotic, Heroic and Graphic - Holyhead, Ardrossan, Glasgow and the Isle of Man. Visitors were encouraged to sail into Belfast Harbour, 'one of the finest in the United Kingdom. As the vessel approaches the mouth of Belfast Lough, after passing near Donaghadee, Copeland Island, Mew Island Lighthouse and Orlock Point, one has Groomsport and the thriving resort of Bangor on the left opposite Whitehead at the corner of the opposite shore'. And that's just for starters. 'On approaching Belfast Lough, the eye of the visitor is attracted by three outstanding monuments. The first of these is the tower on the hill at Scrabo, erected in memory of Lord Castlereagh. The second is Helen's Tower, erected at Clandeboye by the Marquis of Dufferin. The third monument is the County Antrim War Memorial obelisk on Knockagh Hill, near Carrickfergus'.
Once safely ashore and settled, visitors were urged to familiarise themselves with the Electric Tramway System, the timetables and routes - 'from Castle Junction, close to Donegall Place, lines radiate in all directions and speedy and frequent services are arranged to such places as Bellevue, Carr's Glen, Cavehill, Castlereagh Hills, Lagan Valley, Divis Mountain and many other interesting and beautiful districts'. Fares ranged between 2d and 5d return.
Noteworthy buildings were highlighted, including the City Hall, the Municipal College of Technology, the Kelvin Picture Palace, the Ulster Hall, 'the scene of many an exciting political meeting', St Anne's Cathedral (the guide felt it necessary to include the word Protestant in brackets), Queen's University, the Albert Memorial, and many more. Parks also get a mention - 'open daily until sunset, free' - including Bellevue, Botanic, Ormeau, Alexandra, Dunville, Falls, Woodvale and Victoria.
Places of 'indoor amusement' included the Grand Opera House, the Royal Hippodrome, the Empire Theatre of Varieties, the Alhambra and the Alexandra Theatre. There was the option of going to the pictures at the Royal Avenue, the Royal Cinema, the Imperial Picture House, The Classic, the Lyceum and the Panopticon. As a matter of interest, films on release at the time would have featured Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Lon Chaney, William Powell, Charlie Chaplin and maybe a few very early John Wayne flicks.
There were options to go bathing in Corporation swimming baths and boating on Belfast Lough or at various sailing clubs. The guide notes: 'The River Lagan is not to be despised either by the boating man who prefers a quiet hour with the sculls to more strenuous exertions'. Fishing was encouraged in various loughs, lakes, rivers and streams and, depending on location and luck, fisher-folks could bag cod, conger, ling, skate, gurnard, bream, mackerel, trout and salmon.
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Golfers were well catered for. There was the nine-hole Royal Belfast for two bob a day, four on Saturdays, Royal Belfast Ladies, Balmoral, Knock, Malone and Ormeau, and further afield the Royal County Golf Club Links at Newcastle. In fact, most sports were available, cycling, motorcycling, athletics, football, croquet and tennis amongst them.
The guide has plenty of suggestions for car trips and Belfast Omnibus Company coach excursions from the city with tempting descriptions of days out to Belfast Castle, the northern and southern shores of Belfast Lough, Downpatrick, Newry, Warrenpoint to scratch the surface. There are hotel, restaurant and cafe recommendations, but unlike today, not a mention of a pub. Perish the thought. All in all, visitors to Belfast in the late 1920s were promised a menu of delights during their stay.
The advertisements have their own fascination. Here are random examples. The Shaftesbury Cafe, Donegall Place 'meets every requirement of the tourist'. It boasted 100 tables, excellent cooking, moderate prices, cakes, pastries, chocolates and toffees in endless variety. Tate's Medical Hall, Royal Avenue, offered 'sweet Irish scents known and loved the world over'. The range comprised Irish violet, shamrock bouquet, medosweet and ososweet, the last two being made up words. The scents could be packaged in plain bottles, cut glass bottles or tubes for the handbag. Interestingly, the advertisement includes this statement: 'Used and commended by Mrs Langtry, Madame Marie Rose, Miss Mary Anderson' (Madame de Navarro), names to add a touch of class, no doubt.
R. McDowell, jewellers in High Street, Royal Avenue and Ann Street would sell you an 18cg gold diamond ruby or sapphire ring for just over three pounds. Hoffman's hairdressers and hair specialists, High Street, carried the intriguing message: 'All the latest novelties always in stock'. The Co-op, York Street, called itself 'the biggest, brightest and busiest store in the city'. Lesley Porter, Great Victoria Street, would sell you Singer, Riley, Arrol, Aster and Galloway motor cars with 'unbiased advice'. Samuel Brown's general hardware merchants, Ann Street, 'everything for the house at the house for everything'. Eason, Donegall Street, advertised itself as 'agents for all leading English, Scotch (sic) and Irish Daily papers'.
At Eirco, Rosemary Street, you could buy 'everything wireless'. Thornton, Donegall Place, had a range of waterproof clothing and dubbed itself 'the home of rubber'. The Bank Buildings, Castle Junction, was Belfast's fashion centre ('all trams pass the door') and linen was the speciality of Anderson & McAuley. Gentleman's outfitting specialists A. Harper, Ann Street, had the tag-line for their sportswear: 'Everything for the Game'.
Queen's Hotel, Victoria Street, declared it was newly decorated and had 'bedrooms with bathrooms attached'. The Grand Central Hotel, Royal Avenue, advert said: 'The beds play a big part in the comfort of your stay at the G.C. They are nests for rest. Every bedroom has h & c and the light, telephone and bell are within easy arm's length. Many bedrooms have their own bathroom and there's an elevator to all five floors'. A single room would set guests back 7/6 and a double 14/-. The Union Hotel, Donegall Square South, 'family and commercial', let it be known that Miss Owens was the Proprietress. Robinson's Temperance Hotel, Donegall Street, informed: 'This up-to-date hotel has over forty rooms with electric light'. The Cafe Royal, Wellington Place, advertised 'tea and coffee served on the balcony from 10.30 a.m. daily'.
Hammam Turkish Baths, Donegall Street, was open for ladies on Tuesdays and gentlemen all other week days. 'Our attendants are experienced, obliging and attentive, and the heat is excellent'.
The Belfast Omnibus Company touted its many travel options with the line: 'Visit Green Isle and you will recall sweet memories throughout life'. They had a cute slogan: 'Hail, rain or shine, comfort all the time'.
Marketing language and methods of persuasion have evolved considerably over the decades but the primary aim is still the same. Devise an attractive list of reasons for people to visit, look after them well, encourage them to thoroughly enjoy themselves and not give a second thought about how much they are spending.
Belfast and its surroundings have always had a lot to offer tourists and locals, even in the dark days. Sometimes it is a useful exercise to collect good and positive attributes in one place. The 1928/29 publication has a number of upbeat messages about Belfast and it brims with enthusiasm and pride - as it should.