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We can all learn from Victorians in tackling Covid, claims author


Queen Victoria (PA)

Queen Victoria (PA)


Queen Victoria (PA)

A historian from Co Antrim has written a book on the middle classes of Victorian Belfast, and says we can learn from their example as the city tackles the economic impact of Covid-19.

Dr Alice Johnson, who lives in Randalstown, said her book is the first to consider in-depth the "civic elite" of Victorian Belfast. It also profiles Belfast campaigners for women's rights and education including Isabella Tod.

Middle Class Life in Victoria Belfast was launched yesterday in a virtual event.

Alice said the city's prowess in linen manufacture helped it thrive. She explained: "By the mid-19th century, it was an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse and the largest port in Ireland. By the end of the century, Belfast was Ireland's biggest city and the world's largest linen producer.

"Its shipyard rivalled the great shipyards of the world, and it had a huge engineering sector. Queen Victoria called Victorian Belfast the 'Irish Manchester and Liverpool'."

As part of a PhD at Queen's University, Alice compiled a database of the 'civic elite' of Belfast at the time - 800 people who held office and membership of bodies such as the Belfast Council, the Harbour Commissioners, and the Chamber of Commerce.

"These were the people who controlled the affairs of Belfast and who shaped its growth. I examined this group forensically, looking at their origins, family background, where they came from, where they were educated, their wealth, religious denomination, what parties they voted for," she added.


Author: Dr Alice Johnson has written a book on the classes of Victorian Belfast

Author: Dr Alice Johnson has written a book on the classes of Victorian Belfast

Author: Dr Alice Johnson has written a book on the classes of Victorian Belfast

She has used personal diaries, letters and memoirs to depict the lives of wealthy families like the Corrys and Workmans.

Alice said her book, published by Liverpool University Press, was redressing a historical imbalance which had overlooked the city's economic importance in Victorian times.

She added: "Until fairly recently, Irish historians have focused mainly on national questions of politics and - when attention has been turned to the north of Ireland - religious, sectarian and political divisions.

"This approach has ultimately obscured the 'other Belfast': the successful, commercial, industrial town which formed an integral part of the British and imperial economy and which traded on a global scale."

She said civic leaders and business people could learn from the example of the Victorians as they navigate their way through Covid-19 restrictions and the economic hit on the city.

"The current lockdowns are a huge challenge, and will test the city to its limits. We will have to channel the resilience and 'can-do' attitude of our forefathers and mothers to revive Belfast and fulfil its potential in the years to come."

Alice lectures in history at Belfast Metropolitan College and is a Visiting Scholar in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's.

Belfast Telegraph