Raise a glass to a hole new look at Belfast's forgotten past
It looks like a desolate site on the banks of the River Lagan in the heart of Belfast, but this was once one of the most important glass factories in Britain and Ireland.
And after glass manufacturing ceased, the famous Sirocco Works were built here, going on to produce the world’s first air conditioning system which was installed in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital — and continues to function to this day.
We may think of 18th century Belfast as a hotbed of linen manufacturing and shipbuilding, but the recent excavation of the Sirocco site reveals the many industrial innovations that the city produced in its heyday.
The land you can see from the top deck of buses along Bridge End and the Short Strand now lies quiet as it waits for a development by the Carvill Group which remains on hold. But an archaeological dig of the site funded by the Carvill Group and carried out by Martin Keery of Gahan and Long Ltd has revealed a fascinating industrial history, with iron foundries, potteries, vitriol works, rope works and glassworks built along the river's edge in the late 18th century.
Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) is inviting the public to discover more about the Sirocco Works at a free talk on Friday May 6 at 1pm in Waterman House in Belfast.
The first glasshouse at the site was put up in 1776 by Benjamin Edwards, who concentrated on producing fine glassware including enamelled, cut and plain glasses, decanters and tablewares.
As his tenure coincided with a downturn in the Irish glass industry, the business battled closure for decades. He is also credited with being the first clay pipe maker in Belfast in the 18th century and the remains of his kiln have been uncovered at the south-east of the site.
Meanwhile, a second glassworks was also uncovered in the excavation, built by John Smylie & Co on the shore of the Lagan.
NIEA archaeologist Paul Logue explains: “In 1784 John Smylie began to construct his glasshouse on the site. The production of glass bottles began in 1786 and by 1788 had expanded into manufacturing window glass.
“At the time it was built, Smylie’s glasshouse was the largest in Great Britain and Ireland, standing over 36 metres high and 22 metres wide at its base.
“Smylie and Co ceased glass production in 1800 and in 1881 the Sirocco Works was established on the site, producing most of the world’s tea drying machinery and later ventilation systems and ship propellers,” Mr Logue said.
The Smylie glasshouse was destroyed in October 1937 during a storm.
Mr Logue said: “The excavation revealed a site of national importance. None of the conical glasshouses that once existed in Ireland have survived and given that this was one of the largest examples of its kind and its wares were exported around the world, it is essentially tied into the history and development of Belfast.”
To find out more about this and other upcoming talks visit www.wonderfulni.info or call 028 9054 3159.
The £600m Sirocco Quay project was to include 5,000 apartments on the 15-acre site beside the River Lagan, along with a convention centre, four hotels, childcare facilities and a supermarket.
However, it’s thought the work will now be on a less-ambitious scale. It is currently on hold following a slump in the construction industry.