Glancing over the carefully compiled and compact booklet in which the Town Clerk, Mr. Meyer, records the beings and doings of our civic fathers, it occurred to me that from its resources and those of my own recollections I might recall some memories, or at least names, of the men whom Belfast made, and who in turn helped to make modern Belfast. And, first, I thought I would take note of some of the Mayors and some of the Lord Mayors of the city. We had Sovereigns before we had Lord Mayors, and Mayors before we had Lord Mayors. The Sovereigns and Mayors, as far as titular rights are concerned, have gone; but the Lord Mayors remain, and I hope will go on for ever.
The Mayors within my memory were all very good Mayors, as the demands of the time went; and our Lord Mayors have all been good Lord Mayors as far as such have met all the new requirements of the more exalted title with unfailing dignity and success. They ail labour under a disadvantage compared with holders of the dignity in other is and towns. They have no salaries to cover the expenses of their office, and they are many. A salary of £1,000 a year was attached to the office, but the salary disappeared in the early 'seventies, though the office and its duties remained. The Apostle Paul said that bishops must be given to hospitality. Though I do not think such a duty was as divinely ordered in the case of Mayors, I must say our Mayors, and especially our Lord Mayors, have lived up to injunction quite as much as the bishops have done as far as I can know or hear of such privileged and exalted personages. In the 'seventies and 'eighties, and even in 'nineties, the Mayors were given to hospitality; but it was not till we had Lord Mayors, and a then Mr. Pirrie, to set the example, that we had hospitality in excelsis. In the last century Aldermen and Counsellors, with Judges, prominent and representative citizens, and even newspaper Editors, were entertained in groups at intervals in their private houses. And excellent entertainments many of them were. But with the advent of Lord Mayors, and especially with the fine facilities of the City Hall, the hospitality given to single spies has been given to battalions. And at every frequent intervals not only the blessed Corporators, but other citizens, as well as distinguished visitors, have experienced the hospitable attentions of Lord Mayors in large numbers, and with lavish kindness.
The first Mayor within my recollection to break through the rule of purely private hospitality was Mr. James Alex. Henderson, who was Mayor in 1873-74, and who, in the autumn of his second year, created a pleasant and welcome sensation by inviting the member's of the British Association and hundreds of the citizens to a trip to the Giant's Causeway in one of the Fleetwood steamers, and entertaining to luncheon, and tea, to say nothing of the etceteras, with characteristically tasteful and hospitable liberality. I well remember the disappointment of many noblemen and gentlemen of the district who had made arrangements for entertaining the Association in sections when they found that the majority of the members of the Association, who seemed to have as keen an eye and mind for social enjoyment as for scientific investigation, begged to be excused by their original hosts, and rushed off to enjoy the refreshing breezes and the Northern seas and coasts and the kindly thoughtfulness of the Mayor. I must confess that I, who had intended to stay at home for the day, could not resist the tempting invitation, and joined the crowd of savants and citizens who enjoyed a pleasant excursion. I do not think science was much discussed or thought of on the day; but more pleasant subjects and matters were freely discussed. And I think if ever there was a host who had “For he's a jolly good fellow” sung into his ears it was Mr. Henderson on that day. And those who remember him need no assurance that he was a model host as well as a fine and courteous gentleman; and while happiness reigned around that day I do not think there was a happier man on board than he.
In these good old days the Corporation only consisted of forty members; but they were very representative members, not only of the city, but the larger interests of the city, more so, I will say, without meaning either offence or reflection, than the sixty members of the present day. And yet those of us who were Liberals – this wa in a day when Liberalism was something dignified and respectable, and not a mere cloak covering a heterogeneous and hybrid collection of Radicals, Socialists, pacifists, pro-Germans, intransigeants, and separatists, who put party before patriotism and place before principle — had many hard things to say of it and had occasion to say many things. The Corporation was a close borough for Conservatives; and if “No Liberal may enter here” was not written over its portals, it was certainly not easy for Liberals to enter. Yet when I look back upon what they were, and what they did, I must admit that they left their mark on the city in many improvements and developments. The Corporation may have travelled at a greater pace and spent thousands where hundreds were spent in more recent years; but having regard to the times and to the fact that it was not till the late Mr. Joseph Chamberlain set an example of what Corporations might do that municipal authorities everywhere rose to anything like the full height of their duty and responsibility. In that year there were in the Council Daniel Dixon, who, with his brother Thomas, was laying strong and deep the foundations for the great enterprises with which his name was subsequently and honourably associated; Thomas G. Lindsay, brother of Robert Lindsay, who had been a kind of king of the Corporation for many years, and representing large business interests; Mr. (afterwards Sir) Wm. Ewart, the head then of one of the greatest spinning and weaving factories in the city; John Browne, whose extensive timber trade was one of the commercial features of the city, and of which the Corporation had ample opportunities of judging; T. H. Browne, his brother, who was as much an upholder of temperance as timber; Samuel Lawther, then blossoming into the great shipowner which he afterwards became; Philip Johnston, who, with James Carlisle, represented what is become the Brookfield Spinning Co.; Wm. Harvey, one of the founders of the firm of M'Laughlin & Harvey, then developing into the great firm it has become; Wm. Gregg, extensively engaged in the iron trade, whose business characteristics and public interests of the city are so well represented by his sons; James H. Haslett (after Sir James), who early gave promise of that municipal, political, and philanthropic potency which he afterwards attained; William Mullan, wholesale grocer, who was described as the only Liberal in the Corporation; Elias Hughes Thompson, then the head of a large firm of linen and flax merchants; Robert Boag, Afterwards Mayor and knight, and head of a high-class tailoring business known as the extensive wire manufacturer, who only passed away a few months ago. Then we had Dr. Whitaker, medical man and chemist, of the then leading firm of Wheeler & Whitaker, a popular member, who subsequently became Medical Officer of Health to the Corporation, and died at a ripe old age, leaving a family whose sons have won respect in their professions, and whose daughters rendered effective service in connection with local political and patriotic movements; Robert Kelly, a well-known and respected solicitor, whose son, Mr. Hugh C. Kelly, is the popular Sub-Sheriff of Down; Mr. Jas. Jenkins, Mr. R. D. Bates, and many others whose names I cannot recall.
I set out with the intention of dealing in some detail with the characteristics and work of our various Mayors and Lord Mayors; but on recalling their number and the variety, I am forced to the conclusion that I have come face to face with a difficulty too great for me to overcome. I find that it would need a page instead of the couple of columns I propose to devote to this corner of my memory to do justice to them. I must, therefore, content myself with a few personal references to each, and as a section, first, to the Mayors up to 1892, when the town became a city, and the name Mayor became absorbed in the greater dignity of Lord Mayor. In these eighteen years we had nine Mayors, which goes to show that several of them enjoyed two years of the office, and one did, in fact, enjoy three years. Mr. Thomas G. Lindsay and Mr. (afterwards Sir) Robert Boag had one year each — one '75 and one '76. The first-named was a member of a family that held an influential position in the business as well as the public life of the city, and was himself a gentleman of very strong and decided views and of marked individuality. He believed in Belfast, he believed in Conservatism, and he believed in Protection, and never hesitated to give expression to hie convictions. And he was a man who did what he thought was right, and little troubled what others thought of him or his projects, and he left the office, having discharged all its functions to the satisfaction of his fellow-townsmen, and lived for several years afterwards. His successor, Mr. Boag, was a very quiet, dignified, and courtly and courteous gentleman, who was the very essence of courtesy and courtliness; and the knighthood which he received at the termination of his year of office was regarded as a fitting compliment. Mr. John Preston, who followed, acquitted himself so well in his first year that he was unanimously accorded a second, earning a knighthood as well as the respect of the Corporation and the ratepayers. He was the head of a very fine business, which still bears his name, and he was, in addition, one of the political leaders of the time, who exercised great influence and gained much respect in his time. He interested himself in the Harbour Board as well as in the Town Council, and was much respected.
Mr. John Browne, who succeeded, was also accorded a two-year term of the office. He took a great interest in the development of the town, and for years acted as chairman of the Improvement Committee, for which his extensive knowledge of the timber trade gave him special knowledge and interest. His great business grew in his hands, and he prospered with it.
Mr. E. P. Cowan, afterwards knight, was the first liberal in my time to be called to the office of Mayor — Mr. Wm. Mullan, who was described by John Rea as a Whig, was Mayor the winter I came to Belfast. He was connected with the whisky trade, which, perhaps, was not so much under a ban then as it has become since; but he was very popular among Liberals — in fact, he was one of the leaders of the party; and more than once in his lifetime entertained the Liberal leaders visiting the town at his picturesque residence, Craigavad, now occupied by Mr. John C. White. The hospitalities of his mansion were great, and his wife, Lady Cowan, was a model hostess He was knighted in his first year of office, and he certainly was a very popular and dignified Mayor. Mr. (afterwards Sir) David Taylor, like Sir Robt. Boag, was Scotch by birth and accent, too, but his enterprise in connection with the house of Arnott & Co., his chairmanship of the Poorlaw Board, his interest in the municipal and philanthropic life of the city identified him and His interests so closely with Ulster that we forgot that he was not native and to the manner born. Certainly Sir David was a very fine, kind-hearted gentleman, and a devoted Presbyterian to boot, and he gave to the Church one of his sons, now Dr. D. A. Taylor, who has done so much in connection not only with its pulpit, but its philanthropic work.
I must make a pause at the next Mayor — the Mayor of 1885. Mr. E. J. Harland had been the prime factor, in transforming the Queen's Island from an Easter Monday and summer evening pleasant resort into a hive of industry, and laid strong and deep the foundations of the great firm that still bears his name, and has attained such world-wide fame and rendered such brilliant service to the commerce and the war service of the country. He devoted many years to the shipyard and the White Star Line, and some of the leaders of the city I thought he might devote some of his energy, and, I will add, his cultivated taste, to the town. And he gave both in lavish I abundance for two years, and so impressed the community with his worth that the fine statue now in front of the City Hall perpetuates his memory so far as the public life of the city is concerned. His work as a great master and industrial pioneer is perpetuated in the name of the firm.
It was during his Mayoralty that the late King Edward and Queen, Alexandra, then Prince and Princess of Wales, visited Belfast, and no man could have done more than he did on that occasion to honour the Royal guests, and the town at the same time. The magnificent ball that he gave their Royal Highnesses in the Ulster Hall eclipsed everything that had gone before, and in its special characteristic anything that came after it. The decorations of the hall, the brilliancy of the gathering, the scene of life and grace and beauty were such as could not fade from the memory of anyone present, while the supper arrangements, in charge of the most celebrated London caterer of the day, rounded off an evening of joy and pleasure and charm unbroken and unconfined. The baronetcy that he received shortly afterwards was regarded by all the citizens as a mark of Royal appreciation, both to the Mayor and to the town, and as a tribute richly deserved. During his term of Mayor Sir Edward Harland also discharged the duties of chairman of the Harbour Board; but so well was his mind and time organised that no interest, public or private, suffered during his term of office. Though he owed his birth to England, he devoted his life to Ulster, and his name deserves to be remembered and honoured by all who can appreciate work and worth for the welfare of the community. He afterwards faithfully served the city in Parliament, and died rich in its honour and respect.
Mr. James Haslett, who followed Sir Edward Harland for two years, did not occupy such a prominent position in the industrial life of the city as he; but no man of his day, or, indeed, of any day, was more prominently or more assiduously associated with the municipal and political life of the community in which he lived. He was an assiduous worker, an admirable speaker, a most courteous and obliging gentleman, and as Chancellor of the Exchequer — a position since admirably filled by the Mayor-elect — he looked carefully after the pence as well as the pounds of the ratepayers. He was a most popular Mayor, and his popularity continued as member of Parliament till death took him. He was one of the most obliging and kindly of men, to whom it was a pain to refuse a request. His Mayoralty involved a new departure in the hospitalities of the office, for which he was much criticised by some and much applauded by others. He was a rigid and consistent teetotaler, and he had the courage of his convictions — and it required courage at the time — by refusing to introduce any wines or liquors at his official luncheons or dinners. It required a strong man to do this at the time, but Mr. Haslett was a strong man and a consistent one, too, on the temperance question, and he set an example which, however, has since been more honoured in the breach than the observance. Sir Robert Anderson, to whom reference will be made later, did the same.
His successor was Mr. C. C. Connor, whose name and family had been prominently identified with the linen trade of the town. He was himself a most cultivated gentleman, and more attached to pursuits of science than of business. He devoted himself unceasingly and ungrudgingly to the duties of his office, and the fact that, he was called upon to fill the chair three times in succession was a proof that his worth and services were appreciated by his fellow-citizens, Parliamentary honours followed.
Here endeth the Mayors.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 22nd December 1916.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.