Thursday, 15 January 2015

Reminiscences of Belfast No2 (1857)

Some apology is perhaps due to the readers of this Journal, for introducing into its pages matters not strictly archaeological. Neither can the observations, such as they are, be properly called reminiscences, inasmuch as they are not exclusively personal, but drawn, to some extent, from information derived from other, but still generally living sources. The writer, however, certainly does not pretend to produce in them, either from his own recollection or that of others, anything on which could be bestowed the smallest amount of that research and learning expected in archaeological works; but being aware that even in such publications great interest has sometimes been attached, at least by certain readers, to the occasional papers of contributors on subjects purely local, or having reference to manners, customs, places, or occupations, that have passed away for ever in our own day or in the generation immediately preceding, and knowing how soon matters even quite recent are forgotten amidst the exciting events of rapidly-expanding towns, he is induced to contribute the few following slight and unconnected notes to the sum of local knowledge, in continuation of his former paper (vol. 3 [1855], p. 260). If much research and ability be required to bring to the open day, – to put in their true light, – objects or deeds which the rust of antiquity has shrouded for ages, some credit, though certainly far less in degree, may be conceded to those who endeavour to preserve things that are passing away, before that rust has concealed them from the public gaze.

Some observations were made in the former paper on the great changes that have taken place in the course of years on the public roads and entrances into Belfast. This naturally leads, as a sort of associating link, to remark on the mode of travel in those days as compared with the present. Beginning with that which was always, and which is still, one of our chief outlets, namely, the road to Carrickfergus, the writer has been informed that about the year 1811 the Academy boys, who were accustomed to assemble before school hours at the Church gate in Donegall Street, were rather disappointed if the ten o'clock bell rang before the "Royal Oak" came forward, that they might see the unusual spectacle, and give it a passing cheer. This it appears was the name of the sole conveyance at that time between Belfast and Carrickfergus; at least exclusively, for it is probable the mail-coach to Larne was running at this period. The vehicle named the Royal Oak or Carrickfergus coach, however, is described as having been originally, to all appearance, a private carriage; but it had fallen from its high estate to public uses, and was just sufficient to accommodate three or four inside passengers. Some person will remember whether it was a daily conveyance or confined to a tri-weekly journey; most probably the latter was sufficient for the travelling wants of the time. It rumbled down Donegall Street with its three or four "insides," the driver apparently quite proud of having accomplished in two or three hours his toilsome journey; and in truth the way, however beautiful and populous now, was in many places both bare and lonely. "Who that sees the unceasing movement of private and public conveyances now on that noble line of road – almost a continued suburb of the town – the crowds of passengers carried several times each day to Carrickfergus and the different stations on the railway, would think it credible that so great a change should have occurred in a space of time so comparatively short? Yet a nearly similar statement might be made of the increase of travelling on every great outlet from the town. Indeed travelling at the period now alluded to was a very serious affair, but about fifteen or twenty years earlier more serious still; and a journey to Dublin, for instance, at the era last referred to, was not to be lightly undertaken. The writer has often heard from relatives the usual method of accomplishing the latter exploit, sixty or seventy years since; for it is not possible to be precisely accurate in inquiries of this kind. A journey to Dubbin was then generally got over in about two days and a half in a post-chaise, at the small charge of nineteen-pence half-penny per mile. Two or three persons would commonly unite in this venture, reaching Newry on the first night, where, of course, they remained till the following morning; and in this way, if no accident occurred, arrived in the metropolis in the time mentioned. Glancing for a moment again to a period beyond those post-chaise days, it may be mentioned, as a statement worth noting, that a very old inhabitant of Belfast, lately deceased, was accustomed to relate, as one of the most curious things that had come to his knowledge in his time, that the ancestress of two or three of our leading families, (whose descendants, perhaps in the second or third generations, have risen to the highest commercial eminence, and who was herself in business,) was in the habit of going from this town to Dublin to purchase goods, mounted on horseback on a pillion behind her servant. This is no doubt an old story, and probably happened about the same time that linen was carried from Armagh to Dublin for sale on horses' backs, which is, I believe a recognised fact; yet it may not be so long ago either, as I have been informed by a very old person that, in her youth, she had seen pillion-riding practised by ladies of station, – one of title among the number. Leaving these remote days, however, and coming nearer our own time, it may be mentioned that, down to a comparatively recent period, travelling on horseback was quite the usual system tor business people; the state of the roads, and the want of public conveyances, rendering it indeed almost the only mode practicable. There are persons living still in towns twenty or thirty miles distant from Belfast, and many of them able to do a good day's work yet, who never thought of any other way of coming to town for business purposes but on horseback. The method of transacting the affair, so far as the travelling part of it was concerned, was after this fashion. A number of the shopkeepers, for instance, or other inhabitants of a town at some distance, would arrange among themselves when it might be convenient to go together, mounted, to their provincial capital, to purchase or sell goods, or transact other business. Their going united in this way was for the sake of company, or at least it was a very common practice; and if all were not ready at the same time, those who were unprepared would be waited for by the others for a day or two; the "go ahead" principle not being in so much vigour then as it is now, nor was time of so much value. It was but seldom that these travellers returned home on the same day, if the distance were considerable, on account of the fatigue of the journey, as well as the time it occupied; and to inquire whether, on some occasions, like the fragments of a routed army, they found their way to head-quarters again in smaller parties, how and when they best could, might, in Shakespearian phrase, be "to consider the matter too curiously." All this will seem very strange to the present travelling generation, accustomed to the speed, the punctuality, and economy of the railway. Very strange, no doubt, to them it will appear, to be told that there are persons still living who, when occasion obliged them to visit Antrim, found the most easy and convenient way of reaching that town was to go on horseback by the old Shankhill Road, right up North Street, and over the mountain above Wolf-hill. By such mode and by such way (the road by the shore, past the Whitewell, not being much better), was Antrim, as well as the important localities beyond it now accessible by railway, reached within a period of seventy years back, or less. Travelling on horseback for business purposes continued even after stage-coaches were introduced. Nor is this to be wondered at, as the roads, even quite near Belfast, in many instances continued down to a late period almost entirely unlit to be travelled with convenience by wheeled carriages. It is not much more than twenty years ago since the stage-coach between Belfast and Downpatrick required from four to five hours to complete its journey between these two places; – eight to nine weary hours of the day being taken up with the double journey. Old travellers on that road, very little previous to the time mentioned, will recollect when the coach stopped at the Beech hill above Belvoir, and several other hills on the road nearly as bad, where it was expected they would alight to enable the horses to drag the nearly empty vehicle up the steep ascents; and if any of them felt disposed to help the machine forward by a good push behind, the service was not thought altogether needless – at least it was the jest of the occasion. The road spoken of was shortly afterwards, no doubt, improved; and in a few months more I suppose the railway now in progress will be the means of reducing this journey to an hour or less, with the entire absence of all trouble and fatigue. Such will indeed be a contrast to what was stated to me once respecting the County Down roads and method of transport. A most respectable man told me, many years ago certainly, and when the informant himself was at a very advanced age, that in his younger days he had been accustomed to send oats to Belfast market in a sack slung across a horse's back, the distance being about sixteen miles, the roads being unfit for any lengthened journey with the wheeled cars of the day, the only vehicle known:– for there were no carts at the time, either for farmer or common carrier; and all this was in a part of the country distinguished now for its progress in everything tending to prosperity and material advancement.

But we must not lose sight of our town, our more special locality, in gossiping about these County Down roads and carriages. The old Corporation of Belfast was a sort of a myth – one of those unsubstantial things of which a good clear view could never be got. The members had, in a manner, no corporate identity; they were destitute of cloaks and cocked hats, without which, of course, no civic importance could be. Many of those dignitaries were non-resident; and the whole affair, though constituted under an ancient charter, had dwindled into the most perfect insignificance. There was certainly a chief magistrate called a Sovereign, who possessed some rights, and exercised magisterial authority. There was also very frequently to be seen, I remember, as a representative it may be supposed of the entire corporate body, an old man called a Sergeant-at-mace; but what the mace was like, and whether he possessed such a bauble at all, were subjects of frequent discussion among the juvenile population. These remarks are intended to be introductory to a circumstance rescued from forgetfulness, and which is of itself sufficient proof of the powerlessness or neglect of the old corporation, and of the very ineffective way in which things were done forty years ago. It is unnecessary to say that such a body as a day police was then unknown, but there actually was a time about that period when there was no night police. In consequence of the frequency of street robberies accompanied with violence, a number of the respectable inhabitants voluntarily enrolled themselves as watchmen to guard the town, and in parties of three or four individuals perambulated the streets during the night, holding their head-quarters in the old Exchange, now the Belfast Bank; and when those who had been out on duty, striking terror to evil doers, came in for rest, others proceeded to perform the same round. It has not been communicated to me how long this continued, whether it was the exclusive night force, or was auxiliary to a few hobbling old men with long grey coats and big wooden rattles, who either then or afterwards constituted the police. It is probable there were no other guardians of the night whatever than those respectable inhabitants who united for this necessary and useful purpose. Two of them, the writer is aware, (and there may be others) are still living; and the book containing the record of the proceedings of this volunteer force is yet in possession of an old and respected merchant of the town.

But if the Sovereign and the other members of the corporate body did not attract so much notice in those days as might have been expected, not so the town Bell-man. This functionary was in constant requisition, exercising his calling as if in a small country town full of petty cases and interests. Belfast then was in fact a small country town in comparison with its present greatness; and it is only among a community limited in point of numbers, and not spread over a very extended space, that the services of a bell-man could be suitable or effective. However, so it was – the bell-man was a reality. He wore a cocked hat and a long blue cloak with a yellow border. In this costume, which from some unaccountable cause soon lost its freshness, but with which he was perhaps furnished every year, he was accustomed to proclaim auctions; to announce that a boat of fresh herrings was on sale at Custom-House Quay; where cheap oaten meal was to be had; that a little girl had strayed away from home, giving, at the same time, a most minute account of the dress and appearance of the runaway; or that such an article had been lost, and offering a reward for its discovery; with the invariable addition "that no questions would be asked." These statements may all appear very trifling and unworthy of record, but really the change from such a state of society in an inconsiderable number of years, to the present civic importance of Belfast – so populous, and with so many great establishments, while the active and influential members of its community know generally nothing of the past history of the town which is the scene of their labours – should not be altogether unmarked. The particular instance brought forward is not mentioned on account of possessing anything remarkable in itself, but merely as one indicator of change and progress. Indeed the time was, and not very distant either, when all the people in the town seemed in a manner to know one another; when the few magnates among us created quite a sensation on their appearance in the streets; but now the magnates are so numerous that they are quite undistinguishable in the crowd. There would also seem to be an entirely changed state of feeling, both on matters on which it is forbidden here to make any comment, and likewise on social questions. As an instance of the latter I have just time to remark that it is little more than forty years ago since two men were publicly executed on a scaffold erected in Castle Place, in the most public part of the town, for attempting to destroy the inmates of a house in Peter's Hill with an infernal machine. Half a century earlier perhaps the heads of culprits would have been exposed, as matters of course, on spikes above the town or castle gates. The modern instance occurred, however, as related, and is only introduced here as a proof of the altered state of public feeling, as no such exhibition would now for a moment be thought of or tolerated; and I could mention many little pieces of domestic history pointing with equal distinctness to the changes which time produces. Thus, there was once a busy little mart of a book-shop in North Street, near the corner of Rosemary Street, which would now and then be closed up; on which occasions this notice would appear on the door, "Gone to Dublin, and will be back in a few days;" indicating both a very easy-going way of doing business, and that even in the book line the Irish capital was in a great measure the centre of supply. Let not this be wondered at, for there were no steam-boats; and even so lately as the winter of 1822 I knew an instance of a person being three weeks at sea before his passage was made from Belfast to Liverpool. Such cases were probably not rare; they formed effectual bars to any considerable intercourse; and direct trade of the smaller class of dealers with England or Scotland, now so general, was then all but unknown. I mentioned just now, what the curious eye might have detected at certain seasons and at a certain period of our town's history, on the book-shop window. On another closed shutter again, or perhaps on several, but in a more obscure locality, so well as I am informed, – the time being a fine sunny day in the month of July, – this notification might be seen, "Gone to the Races"! – so small and simple were Belfast people in these good old days. As in other large towns, the locality, and even the very residences occupied by the gentry or principal inhabitants of one generation become the shops and warehouses of the next, to descend again in some instances, and as time advances, to tenancies of a still lower character. It is unnecessary to say that Donegall Place was until lately the residence of that extinct body, the aristocracy of Belfast. At another period again, High Street contained the dwelling-houses of some of the most important families. So did Donegall Street, Castle Street, and some others; and even in North Street, it is not yet half a century since ladies might have been seen carried to evening parties in sedan chairs, (vehicles now, at least for that purpose, unknown in the town,) their tottering bearers enabled to see their way by the aid of a few public oil lamps which shed their feeble rays across the street.

The supply of water has always been a fertile source of trouble in rapidly increasing towns. The increase of inhabitants is indefinite, at least cannot be calculated on, and an over-abundant supply has not generally been provided to meet the wants of a subsequent time. Our town, of course, has not been free from the consequences of this perhaps inevitable course; but it also stands conspicuously forward as having, in its day of small things – at a very early period indeed – provided its inhabitants with water by artificial means. In the early part of the last century, underground wooden pipes were laid down in the streets, to convey water from the Tuck-Mill dam for the convenience of the inhabitants. I am not sure that anything of the kind was done so early in Liverpool, or in some other great places which have even exceeded Belfast in rapidity of growth. It is also to be noted, that this early water supply was probably to a great extent the result of private enterprise, being generally attributed to one of the Macartney family. These wooden pipes, however, continued to be serviceable down to a recent period. I remember two establishments, and there were probably others, which received water from this source; and I have seen many of these wooden pipes finally taken up. It must, no doubt, have been an entirely insufficient supply for the wants of the town; but the more recent history of the means taken at different periods to supplement it does not come within the scope of the present paper. I can only refer by light touches to matters of minor importance, and not at all to such a serious subject as pipe-water. Thus, many now rather grave personages in our streets will recollect when in their school-boy days there were two public fountains in Fountain-Street, (from which that street derives its name,) and from which water was carried by the inhabitants of the adjoining localities for domestic uses, their houses being unprovided with it; and also when that indispensable article was very generally conveyed through some of the streets by carriers, for sale, in casks, on small carts, drawn by donkeys or old horses, the owners ringing little bells to announce their approach. It was retailed by the bucket; and I believe that for some very highly-prized water there was, till lately, a revival or continuation of the more ancient and general practice.

The present subject is capable of great enlargement. There are many notices, for instance, regarding certain branches of trade and manufacture which have either become extinct, or have altogether risen up within memory. Flax-spinning, which has probably contributed more than any single cause to make Belfast what it now is, dates only from the year 1829. The cotton manufacture is, as is well known, much older; and persons have told me that they remember horse-power in Waring Street being employed in spinning cotton, at the same time that there were large establishments operated upon by a more powerful agent. Many will recollect also the sugar-houses in Sugar-House Entry, and elsewhere, and probably several other branches of manufacture, which, like states and empires, have had their periods of rise, decadence, and fall. Then again the rapid increase of the population is a subject worth taking a note about. An old inhabitant who died about two years ago, informed me, that when he came to Belfast as a youth to serve his apprenticeship, the utmost limit then put on the population of the town was 12 or 14,000. – But it is perhaps unnecessary to continue these rambling recollections any further; what has been written will serve to explain the nature of the information considered to be worth preserving, and may induce others to relate their reminiscences, and probably to bring forward some facts far more interesting than any which could be recorded by the present writer.


This article appeared in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vol. 5, 1857.

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