Thursday 8 January 2015

Reminiscences of Belfast (1855)

It has been stated that there is no town in the empire which has extended so much, or has undergone such thorough changes in its outward appearance, during the last forty or fifty years, as Belfast. Two or three great manufacturing places in England and Scotland can alone, for rapidity of growth, be put in competition with it. It would be desirable, therefore, that those who remember what this town was fifty or sixty, or even twenty or thirty years ago, should, for the information of the present new generation of inhabitants, and for that of those who in time will push them from their seats, detail what they recollect or have heard of its past condition. If all tho old inhabitants would simply relate what they know for publication, some very important and interesting information would be obtained -- so important and interesting indeed, that when this Journal reaches the venerable age of the Gentleman's Magazine (at which distant period Belfast will probably contain about a million of inhabitants), the numbers containing those statements will be sought for with all the zeal peculiar to antiquarian pursuits, and estimated as beyond all price by the discriminating and curious inquirers of another age. To obtain such a result it is essential that facts of the kind referred to should now be placed on record, as the changes for some time past have been so marked that the necessary knowledge of the juvenile days of our town may be otherwise, in a great measure, swept into oblivion.

To begin at the outside -- at the old boundaries. It may appear somewhat strange to those who only know and can think of Belfast in its present condition as a great manufacturing and trading town -- as altogether new -- to learn that it had once an ancient, strong, and beautiful castle, and that it was in a manner a fortified place. It is not very many years since the last remains of the castle were removed. It is possible that some old person familiar with the locality may recollect the appearance of the ruins -- whether anything was found at their final demolition -- or some noteworthy circumstance in connection with an edifice which was a lordly mansion, and commended for its beauty, grace, and ornament both by the casual traveller and the royal visitor. Part of its site is now occupied by a market, but the place at which it stood is sufficiently indicated by the names Castle-Place and Castle-Lane. As far as can be discovered Belfast was not walled, but merely encompassed by an earthen rampart and deep ditch. The writer perfectly recollects the latter in at least two places. One of these places was between Hercules-Street and Smithfield, in what was, at the time, to some extent waste ground. The other was somewhere near the line of Upper Queen-Street, then not much built upon; but both localities have been so entirely changed that it would be quite impossible to denote the situation of the ditch otherwise than by this general, perhaps vague description. The little boys of that day were accustomed to call these places "the Ramparts;" they were very dangerous and ugly ditches; the depth was uncertain, as they were always full of stagnant and fetid water, but the breadth was probably not less than twenty feet. There were two town gates: one was called the Mill-Gate, and is said to have stood at the junction of Chapel-Lane with Mill-Street, which is perfectly confirmed by finding the ditch in Queen-Street not very far distant; the other gate was in North-Street, near John-Street, and was called the North-Gate. These were the two great outlets from Belfast in ancient times, and they remained so till times not very ancient at all; as many persons will recollect when the way to Lisburn -- by the county Antrim side, that is, -- was by Castle-Street, Mill-Street, Barrack-Street, Durham-Street, and Sandy-Row, and so on to the Old Malone-Road: they will farther recollect when the Linen-Hall was unenclosed at the back, and the broad roads, or now rather streets, which approach it in that direction, were not made. Indeed the writer has himself a sort of faint remembrance -- or rather, he is drawing just now on the memory of another -- to have heard, when a child, a person who came to visit his father from a distance complaining of the way he had ventured to come into town -- by some new road they were making through the fields behind the Linen-Hall. His horse, he said, was up to the saddle-girths for a long distance, and he thought he never would get extricated from the difficulties of that perilous way. This was the present Linen-Hall-Street. Now the other great outlet from the town, by the old North-Gate, led not only to Antrim over the mountains by the Shankill-Road, but also to Carrickfergus. The former route to Antrim and the interior of the country was the old Irish way, and was that used within memory; but there is no one now living who can recollect the way by North-Street as that which was required to be taken in proceeding to Carrickfergus, and yet it really was so. The road to Antrim and other places led straight on; that to Carrickfergus turned to the right at the top of North-Street, passing over Carrick-Hill, so called from being the direct route to that town. The writer was once told, a great many years ago, by a very old lady, a native of Belfast, that when a girl she had seen the Judges of Assize proceeding down Waring-Street to Carrickfergus. This was to avoid the circuitous route by North-Street here described: for at the period in question, probably eighty or ninety years ago, not only was York-Street not in existence, but the top of Donegall-Street itself could not have been opened. Indeed York-street, he has been told, is not yet fifty years formed, and when it was being made there were trees, fields, and ditches in Donegall-Street some distance below the Poor-house. The procession of the Judges through Waring-Street, however, proves that there was another method of exit from the town besides the two original gates. There appears to have been a sort of sally-port, or third gate, nearly where the late Mary-Street was, for the purpose of crossing by the Strand to the country on the Carrickfergus side. This, when peaceful times succeeded, settled down like the two greater gates into a common road or outlet from the town. It appears to have taken the direction of a street called Green-Street, and was most probably the outlet on the Carrickfergus side for persons travelling along the Strand. In this year of 1855 there is not the smallest remnant of castle, gates, ramparts, ditches, or any other object to verify the existence of all these in former days.

Leaving the military position of our town (in which, it must be confessed, it does not appear to have ever arrived at much distinction), we next come to inquire what reminiscences any old inhabitant retains of any buildings within the small compass of the ancient boundaries. Many, without doubt, will recollect the old Market House, which stood in High-Street, at the corner of Corn-Market: it was long in a ruinous state, though we have heard that it was used as a prison in 1798. When it fell into the ruinous condition in which it appeared at the beginning of the present century, or from what cause, seems uncertain. The building on the "Belfast Ticket," which was described by the writer in a former article in this Journal, was conjectured to be the representation of the Market-House of Belfast, in its palmy days. -- None now alive will remember the old church of Belfast. This was also in High Street, occupying, as is well known, the same ground on which the present St. George's Church stands. An old man once informed the writer that he was attending divine service in this church, when an alarm was given that a beam had broken, which produced the usual effect -- the rapid departure of the congregation. It was taken down soon after, though the use of the consecrated ground around it for burials continued for many years, and no doubt persons are living who have attended interments in this place. It was enclosed next the street with a high wall; there were many old monuments and tomb-stones within its precincts, but it had always a neglected and ruined aspect. In the old map of the town, in the British Museum, this church and the castle are the only two public buildings conspicuously marked within the ramparts, and probably many interesting particulars regarding both may yet be brought to light. There are now several episcopal churches in Belfast, but in the times to which we are looking back there was only one -- the Parish Church, as it was called, in Donegall-Street. More curious still, there was also, in those days, only one Presbyterian Meeting-House, belonging to the Synod of Ulster, in the town; the small congregation in Donegall-Street not being of much account, -- neither minister nor people, as it appears, professing opinions altogether in accordance with the recognised standards of the church to which they were nominally attached. It is, therefore, right to say, that but one congregation, in a town in which they are now so numerous and important, represented the entire body of Orthodox Presbyterians of the Ulster Synod, at a period advanced a good many years into the present century. This was the Meeting-House of the 3rd Congregation, in Rosemary-Street (at present under the ministry of Mr. Macnaughtan), which stood on the same site as the present building. It was a very plain edifice, with A.D. 1722, the date of its erection, placed over one of the windows, and when pulled down, a few years ago, was the oldest structure of an ecclesiastical kind in Belfast. The Meeting-House in Berry-Street, which belonged to the Seceders, is also an old building, as are the two in Rosemary-Street, connected with the Presbytery of Antrim. The oldest Roman Catholic Chapel in Belfast is that in Chapel-Lane. We were once informed by a person that he remembered when there was no Catholic Chapel whatever in this town, and that an old dilapidated house in Castle-Street, or Mill-Street, was used as a temporary place of worship; and so unfit was it for such a purpose, that he and others were obliged to provide themselves with bricks or pieces of wood to kneel on during the service. Most of these things are recorded merely as points of contrast between the past and the present, and by no means exhaust the subject, as there must be many circumstances connected with houses of worship in Belfast, and possibly with other buildings that have ceased to exist, which posterity would like to know. It ends all, however, that the writer can now think of as necessary to relate, and so far as external appearances are concerned, regarding the ecclesiastical architecture of our town of old date; that department so dear to the antiquary -- to all educated persons -- so full of interest, beauty solemnity, to all the civilized world. There is not here -- there never was -- any noble old church or cathedral, with monuments and records, with tombs of the mighty, the pious, the learned, the wise; there is "no castle, fort, or tower" -- not even an old house -- not a building of any description, to attract by its quaint antiquity the notice of the passing traveller.

The changes about the quays of Belfast have been so great of late years, and the old land-marks, or rather the old water-marks, have been so entirely removed, that it is very difficult to remember their former situation or appearance. Many persons will recollect the formation of Donegall-Quay, and when almost the entire shipping-trade of Belfast was confined to the small docks that ran up into the town, now closed; and the old narrow quays called Hanover-Quay, Custom-House-Quay, Chichester-Quay, and Merchants'-Quay. These were all quite insignificant, and yet it is to be supposed they were great works in their day. At an earlier period, and before any quays were formed, the embouchure of the little stream which ran down High-Street, depositing its turbid waters in one of the extinct docks above named, was the first and only harbour for ships, in this now important port. Even long after the formation of these quays, it must have retained its use and character; as in the Belfast News-Letter of 22d May, 1770, a tobacconist advertises his goods, and describes himself and place of business as "James Simm, on the Old Kay, opposite the Church."[1] This very strikingly corroborates a statement once heard from an old cooper, that he himself, when one of the "bold 'prentice boys," of Belfast, had often fished in the river beside the church. It does not require, however, to be very advanced in years to call to mind the limited accommodation which existed for shipping till of late times. Older persons will recollect before Donegall-Quay was made at all, and when any quay-room, much above the old Lime-Kiln Dock, scarcely existed; the ship-building yards higher up, and some trifling accommodation beside them, being too far removed at this time from the business parts of the town, and not applied to any extent to general shipping purposes. If we state what is incorrect on this or any of the other subjects touched upon in this paper, we are willing and anxious to be corrected; and as in no particular Belfast has made such rapid strides as in the improvement of its port and harbour, it would be most important that some one duly qualified should describe what the quays and docks of Belfast were seventy or eighty years ago; which could be readily done, if a map of their condition and extent at that time could be procured. There is indeed nothing which will so much strike a native inhabitant of Belfast, or one who has resided in it in his early days and comes to visit it again with his memory awake, as the great changes which have taken place in the part of the town near the sea-side. Not to speak of new cuts and artificial islands in the channel itself, there are docks, quays, houses, public buildings, streets, all the bustle of life and business, where many will well recollect the peaceful strand or solitary fields reclaimed from the tide. The writer of this has bathed, in his juvenile days, in what he thought was deep water, where there are now streets, far within the present outer boundaries, too, of the town in that direction: he remembers when the place called Thomson's Bank was Ultima Thule, a territory quite out of "humanity's reach," and to have heard, a good many years after its reclamation, some of the wise men of the city predicting, or considering it possible, that in the course of centuries Belfast might stretch away to that distant region. There are now on it two flax-spinning mills, the new salt-works, some other large establishments, various buildings, houses, roads, and streets in progress, preparatory to the inevitable, perhaps speedy, submission of the whole tract to the dominion of mortar and bricks and mountain whin-stone, or its restoration to the dominion of old father Neptune in the form of floating-docks. This subject could be extended to a great length, for there are other sides of the town which havo burst their boundaries quite as much, and far beyond the limits to which the most sanguine imagination would have confined them thirty years ago.

When speaking of docks and harbours, we naturally revert to a building which has great connection with them, tho Custom-House of Belfast. This is an old and ugly structure -- as old, perhaps, as the quay which adjoined it, or as the era of the accession of the House of Hanover, to which event that quay was probably indebted for its name. It had been long much too confined for the trade of the port -- was in fact discreditable to it, and will cease to be applied to its present use on the completion of the new Custom-House, now in course of erection. Some inquirer into local history will perhaps preserve the knowledge of its exact appearance and position, at what time it passed away, or was degraded to a meaner office. It would not be less interesting to know what manner of Custom-House preceded it, and what were the nature and extent of the trade of Belfast from the earliest times. In the Belfast Mercantile Journal and Statistical Register there are some papers giving interesting particulars respecting the original Custom-House and the general trade; but these subjects are not precisely those best fitted for the present publication.

G. B.

1. The quay extended as high up as Skipper-Street -- a name in itself suggestive of the vicinity of shipping.

This article appeared in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vol. 3, 1855.

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