Thursday 5 February 2015

Belfast Sixty Years Ago: Recollections of a Septuagenarian (in 1896)

By Rev. NARCISSUS G. BATT, A.M., Rathmullan, Co. Donegal.

DONEGALL PLACE, now full of shops, was, half-a-century ago, a quiet street of private houses. Some of them had gardens and trees in the rere, and there was quite a grove at the corner of the square where Robinson & Cleaver now have their establishment.

The residents were either merchants of the town, or country gentlemen who came to Belfast for society in winter, as fashionable people now go to London for the season. At the beginning of this century the country had hardly settled after the Insurrection, and distant journeys were tedious and costly. My father, Samuel Hyde Batt, has been a week in coming from England, and my Uncle William, when in Trinity College, used to ride to Dublin, with a groom behind carrying his luggage. There was good local society, and people were hospitable. My mother was often taken in a sedan chair to spend the evening at some neighbour's, and we gave parties in return; when, after dinner, I, as a child, was admitted to the drawing-room to be petted by the ladies, and allowed to stand by their whist-tables. There were four members of our family domiciled in Donegall Place. My father, Samuel Hyde Batt, lived at No. 6 (now Cuming Bros.'), where I was born. His brother, Narcissus,1 lived where the Royal Hotel is now till his new house at Purdysburn was finished.2 Thomas, afterwards of Rathmullan, lived at No. 4 (now Hogg's). Thomas Greg Batt, son of Narcissus, was a director in the Belfast Bank. The Rev. William Batt lived near Fountain Street, where he died, long after the rest were gone. Our house had belonged to my grandfather, Captain Batt, who came from County Wexford in 1760. The other inhabitants were Hugh Montgomery, of Benvarden and Ballydrain (a director in the Northern Bank); James Orr, of the Northern Bank; William Clark, J.P., father of the late director of the Belfast Bank; James Douglas, of Mount Ida; Sir Stephen May, Mrs. May, John and William Sinclaire, Henry J. Tomb; Captain Elsemere, R.N.; Henry William Shaw; James Crawford, wine merchant; John S. Ferguson and Thomas F. Ferguson, linen merchants; and Dr. John MacDonnell, one of the MacDonnells of the Glens of Antrim, whose bust is in the Museum. He was a great friend of my mother's. His library, and the skeleton in it, inspired me with awe. The Nelson Club was next door to us before it removed to Donegall Square. Thomas L. Stewart resided in "the Castle," at the corner of Castle Place – a plain mansion with a walled garden in front, now removed. Though our premises behind reached to Callender Street, there was not much playground for me, so I used to take the air in the dull walk round the Linen Hall, or in Maclean's fields, then rural enough. The old paper-mill near the Gas Works in Cromac Street, with its dam and little waterfall, was a pleasant object for a walk, the Owen-na-varra, or Blackstaff, being then comparatively unpolluted. On these walks I used often to see some young men who subsequently made a figure in the world, as Hugh M'Calmont Cairns, Geo. A. C. May, subsequently Chief-Justice, and Thomas O'Hagan, afterwards Lord Chancellor. My generation of Belfast boys was not so distinguished, though Canon Tomb and Rev. Alexander Orr, both from our street, were respected clergymen. Some of my early companions were unfortunate: three boys, of good family, while yet young, destroyed themselves. I was too delicate for school, and only attended the Academy in Donegall Street for a short time. It was a dingy edifice at the corner of Academy Street, but the masters were of the clever Bryce family. One of my tutors was James Rea, a brother of the famous attorney, John Rea, a most amiable man, who died young. Our house was rather gloomy, but the front windows commanded a good view of whatever was going on. An old negro organ-grinder, with his dancing dogs, interested me. Sometimes a party of Orangemen from Sandy Row encountered the Hercules Street butchers, and stones flew about. Dr. Tennent's mansion was the only large house in Hercules Street. Lord Arthur Chichester and Emerson Tennent, son-in-law to Doctor Tennent, were once chaired through Donegall Place, and I was sorry that the handsome chairs, with their gilt canopies and rose-coloured silk hangings, were torn in pieces by the crowd after the procession. Beards were uncommon 60 years ago, and the mob showed their disapproval of Lord Belfast's venturing to wear one, calling him "Beardie" when he was a candidate for Parliament in 1837. The cholera cart in 1834 is a more dismal remembrance. It went through our street draped in black, with a bell to warn people to bring out their dead. There was a great panic, and people were afraid of being buried alive, as it was necessary to remove the infectious corpses speedily. Still our servant's mother was duly "waked" when she died of cholera. My mother made the daughter change her dress when she came home, and the clothes were burnt. The houses of decent working people in the middle of Belfast were by no means uncomfortable, though there were bad slums about Ann Street. The best houses, however, had cesspools, and sanitary arrangements were deficient. Some of the little docks near the end of High Street were very foul, yet I liked to walk on the quays, which were not yet encumbered with sheds, but open to the breeze from the lough. I saw a fine ship, the "Hindoo," launched near the present Harbour Office. The steamers "Chieftain" and "Eclipse" were comparatively small, but their smoke-stacks had iron ornaments, like crowns, on the top. I once left at night for Dublin by steamer, and in the morning found the vessel stuck in the mud where the Queen's Island is now. Before the present improvements in the Port of Belfast, the navigable channel wound like a serpent through the muddy estuary of the Lagan, still crossed in my time by the Long Bridge. It was our custom to spend a month or two in summer at the seaside. Holywood was then the popular resort. The old baths were where the stream falls into the sea near the old Parish Church. The bathing-box was on piles a long way out, and another wooden pier led to the little channel where boats were moored. Beyond Holywood all was rural and woodland. The Carrickfergus side was agreeable too, but not so near Belfast. I remember being shown the "suicide's grave" in the salt marsh at Ringlin's Point, beside what is now the entrance to Fortwilliam Park, on the shore side of the road; and a public-house (Peggy Barclay's) by the wayside rejoiced in the sign of the "Mill for grinding old people young." The picture represented men and women hobbling on crutches into the hopper of the mill and dancing out merrily below. I must have been greatly struck with this painting, as I remember it so well, and I sometimes wish now I could find out that mill. There are still a few of the older-fashioned style of buildings remaining in Belfast, though mostly disguised with stucco – even in High Street some old shops remain by the side of the lofty modern erections, and some of them bear the old names, like that of Patterson, recently removed from the corner of Bridge Street, the evidence of a long-established business. The oldest houses are those at the corner of Skipper Street, and those next Forster Green's. The latter was where the Biggers had long resided, and next to them lived a family called Quinn, where, in earlier times, Lord Castlereagh lodged.

(Seal with the Batt Arms.)
The cotton-spinning industry did not flourish in Ireland, nor did calico-printing, which my father attempted at Hydepark (so called after my mother, Anne Hyde). The firm was Batt, Ewing & Co. The Ewings, after leaving their house at Cottonmount, resided in Donegall Street (where the premises of the Brookfield Linen Co. now stand). Robert Ewing was married to a daughter of David Bigger, of the Trench, Molusk. who had, in conjunction with Moses and Aaron Staunton, started the Carnmoney Cotton Printing Works (now the Mossley Mills). Robert Anderson, a poet who contributed many pieces to the Belfast News-Letter, was a designer in this firm, having been brought over from the North of England by them for this purpose. Some specimens of these printed calicoes are still in the possession of one of the editors of this Journal, a grandson of David Bigger.

The old Belfast Bank was at the opposite corner of Donegall Street; where it now stands was the Assembly Rooms, where public balls were given and panoramas exhibited. I saw one of the siege of Antwerp, at that time a recent exploit. The Northern Bank was facing Castle Place, where the Bank Buildings now stand.

I was fond of seeing the machinery in the great factories on the Falls Road, but have a clearer recollection of a quaint garden there, where there were little ponds and islands, figures of Dr. Syntax and other celebrities carved and painted, and a water-wheel, which, as it turned, made music on bells. In those days watchmen cried the hours at night. Postage was heavy, and "franks" from members of Parliament were in great request. Our letters were folded square and sealed, without envelopes, and often crossed, making them hard to read, space was so valuable. Small-pox was very common, and blind and marked people were met with everywhere. I was not only vaccinated, but inoculated, by Moore, of Corn Market, who, I fear, broke the law to please my mother. He was a most popular apothecary and practitioner, the husband of a Greek lady. Beside Dr. MacDonnell, Dr. Purdon and Dr. Thompson were the chief physicians in Belfast. Typhus fever was often prevalent. At Newtownards I ventured to take a house that had been used as a temporary fever hospital, and some of my friends were afraid to visit me, but this was later on. I met Lord Dufferin there, fresh from college, and evidently full of talent.

Andrew Nichol, who drew many of the views in the Dublin Penny Journal, taught me drawing. He excelled in his water-colour drawings of the coast scenery of Ireland. Sir J. Emerson Tennent took him with him to Ceylon. There was also a promising young artist named James Atkins, who died in Malta in 1835, where my aunt and other friends had sent him to study. He copied the large picture, "The Martyrdom of S. Stephen," now in the Queen's College, I recollect an exhibition of his paintings for his mother's benefit.

In religious matters we were all exceedingly "low church." I was not confirmed till near my ordination by Bishop Mant, at his last ordination, at Hillsborough, in 1848. The great controversies of the day were between the "old light" and the "new light" Presbyterians. Dr. Cooke was the leader of the old lights, and I have often been taken to hear him preach, and can remember his favourite text, Col. i. 19. I liked better to go to the Parish Church, S. Anne's, where a military band sometimes played, and the Sovereign sat in his stall.

I went to see a public disputation between Rev. John Scott Porter, a Unitarian, and Dean Bagot, afterwards Vicar of Newry. It ended, as usual, in both parties thinking their champion victorious. Our own church was S. George's, which our family helped to build. It was a very dull Georgian building, with a huge "three-decker" pulpit in the midst. The oak seats, however, were handsome in their way, and so was the beautiful Corinthian portico. It was carved in Italy for Lord Bristol, the Volunteer Bishop of Derry, and, when his Palace at Ballyscullion was demolished, Dr. Alexander, Bishop of Down and Connor and Dromore, purchased it for S. George's. The Rev. R. W. Bland, late of Whiteabbey, was the incumbent; his curate, Rev. William Laurenson, an Oxford graduate, was a popular preacher, and, though he preached extempore, was never too long. It seems Mrs. Laurenson, in the gallery, made a signal with her pocket-handkerchief when it was time to wind up the discourse. As High Street was not always orderly in the evenings, the young ladies in our street went in a company to S. George's for mutual protection, and took notes of the sermons. Rev. A. C. Macartney was Vicar of Belfast. To Rev. William Laurenson succeeded Rev. William MacIlwaine. I heard him preach his first sermon as curate; he has told me that he unintentionally offended some of us by referring to "bats" as creatures unfriendly to the light, not knowing that there were Batts in the congregation. He was a learned man, and tried to make S. George's into a pro-cathedral, and did beautify it a good deal, brightening up the dull services; but the architecture of the church was too much against him. There used to be a transparency in the East window of David playing the harp.

The National Board of Education was a great subject of dispute among religious people; but my uncles were from the first in its favour, and put their village schools under the National system.

I must not conclude without a few words about the mail coaches, by which we used to get, by day or night, in about twelve hours from Belfast to Dublin or Derry. In fine weather an outside seat on the top of the Royal Mail was an exceedingly agreeable mode of travelling; we saw the country to much more advantage than from the railway, and, instead of skirting the dismal suburbs of the towns on the way, we dashed straight up the best streets to the chief hotel, where horses were changed, and a little crowd always collected to admire. The inside, however, was always stuffy, and often crowded; and the outside dangerous and uncomfortable in cold and wet weather. Besides, it was necessary to bespeak a place beforehand. I have driven 10 miles to Dromore for three successive mornings before I could get a seat in the Dublin coach. The red-coated coachmen and guards were fine manly fellows, and very friendly with the passengers, who, to be sure, always tipped them. The caravans, machines, and long cars that started from public-houses in Cromac Street, or in Ann Street at "The Highlandman," to take us to Ballynahinch or Newtownards, were poor affairs. The Derry coach started from the Donegall Arms, Castle Place (Robb's), and the Dublin coach from 10, Castle Street. The Carrickfergus and Larne coaches stopped in Donegall Street and North Street.

[1]  Narcissus Batt was Founder of the Belfast Bank.

[2]  Narcissus and Thomas were members of the Corporation for preserving and improving the port and harbour of Belfast.

This article appeared in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vol. II, no. 2, 1896.


  1. Yet another great read, thanks, Eddie...

  2. I've reposted part of your article here...