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Arnott's shuts shop: One of Ulster's most iconic department stores closed its doors after 137 years of trading

By Paul Carson

After 137 years in business, one of Belfast's oldest established department stores, closed its doors on a rainy Saturday in August 1974.

Hundreds of people queued in the pouring rain for the last bargain-hunt at Arnott's of High Street.

Among the bargain-hunters were a few not interseted in the sales , but made the journey to have a final look inside the building for purely sentimental reasons.

Indeed, few people would have noticed the sadness  on the faces of two of the people, Mrs Bertha Craig and Mrs Elizabeth Berryman, as they walked around the hugh store.

Their great-grandfather, Sir David Taylor, was not only a life-long friend of Sir John Arnott, founder of the store, he also bears credit for helping establish one of the most prosperous shops in the city.

Both men came from Scotland. Sir John was born in 1786 in the small town of Auchtermuchty. He worked in the linen trade but left his native land in his early twenties to set up a drapery business in Belfast.

Sir David who was born in 1815 in Perth also followed a similar route to that of Sir John when he decided to seek fame and fortune, also in Belfast, in 1842. Fate, however, brought the two men together both in business and in friendship.

Sir David married Jessie Arnott, Sir John's younger sister, cementing  the bond between the two Scotsmen, and as time went on the business partnership began to prosper.

The business was founded in 1837 by Sir John, who opened a small shop as silk merchant, draper and haberdasher in bridge Street. In 1858 in partnership with his brother-in-law, Sir David, the business expanded to the larger site with frontages in both High Street and Bridge Street.

It was made a limited company in the late 1860's, with Sir David staying on as it's chairman until his death. At the time of closure in 1974 ninety-nine per cent of the shares were owned by an English-based finance company, Estate and General investments.

In 1941 German bombers blitzed the store to the ground but it was re-built and officially re-opened in November 1958

In its final years the store had been losing money with the decision to close down due to a collection ot things: overheads, trading conditions and the general uncertainty of trade in the centre of Belfast.

Arnott's had also been tha target of the bombers, in its last week of trading there were two bombs, and while the store stayed open the first floor had to be closed due to damage.

A sad reflection of the time, President of the Belfast Chamber of Trade, Mr Alan Street:

" We very much regret the loss of a major store, particularly one that has been in existance for so many years. It re-emphasises the heavy price the business community is paying for the continued terrorist activity in the city."

It was just not the end of an era for the city, it lost what was the living memory to two Scotsmen who not only made this land their home but who worked for the benefit of all its people.

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