Wednesday 7 September 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 12



I sometimes get afraid that my memory is becoming fleeting and fitful, scattered and diffused, and, like myself, somewhat disjointed. Like myself, too, it has not been trained satisfactorily in the way it should go. When I projected these papers I had no definite line or subject in my mind, and I now find it difficult to concentrate my mind on any one subject. As I take my walks abroad, I meet one person who suggests memories in one direction, and another immediately afterwards turns it in another. One place or one incident recalls certain memories, which are all driven out of my head as I come in contact with others. In fact, it seems to be of a chameleon character, and takes its hue from its surroundings.

For example, every time I meet my friend Dr. Lowe, the General Secretary of the Assembly, all my memories take an ecclesiastical turn, and Presbyterian at that, and then for a time I can think of nothing else until my path is crossed by someone else. The other day, for example, in pursuit of same aid to memory on some subject I came into contact with my friend Mr. Meyer, the Town Clerk, and at once municipal matters, and the marvels of Corporate foresight, activity, and virtue became my obsession. No doubt, Mr. Meyer was little more than an infant in arms when my Corporate studies commenced; but he was rather a precocious youth, and was able to recall as a child many things that had first impressed me as a man.

We began to exchange memories of the Corporation and the town, and we were both able to recall, if not the old Town Hall in Police Square, at least the new Town Hall in Victoria Square, which was its successor. That, of course, has given place to the new Town Hall, or, rather, City Hall, and the old Town Hall is now more associated with war than peace — recruiting for the war or assisting those who have gone to war. Mr. Meyer, however, called my attention to one item that he had accidentally come across to show the care and economy that were practised in those days. A committee, after careful inquiry, had come to the conclusion that a clock was required for the Town Hall, and they reported in regular form that they recommended the Corporation to spend the sum of five pounds in that useful addition to the municipal equipment.

With the aid of maps and memories we both arrived at the conclusion that few of us in this day recognise the comparatively limited area that represented Belfast in the early 'seventies. The Waterworks and Richmond represented the extent of peopled Belfast on the North side, and the Blackstaff its business end on the South. It is true there was further South a Botanic Road, a Malone Road, and a Lisburn Road, and the Queen's College, the Botanic Gardens, the Workhouse, and the Deaf and Dumb Institution beyond, with Wellington Park and Windsor Avenue thrown in. There were also a number of private mansions beyond, enjoying all the privacy of truly rural retreats, and as far from the madding crowd as St. John's Church, Malone, is at present. The old Northern Counties Railway was practically the terminus of the city at the York Road end, and Connswater and Mountpottinger Corner were the inhabited limitation on the County Down side. The Lunatic Asylum represented the utmost fringe of the Falls Road. The Shankill Graveyard was about the last occupied area on the historic road, and the junction of Oldpark Road, save for St. Mary's Church and the Crumlin Road mills and a few private residences, represented all of active or private life that was beyond it.

The great part of all the growth beyond that belongs to the half century under review. It was while recalling these things that I really began to realise the vast strides our city has made, and the vast debt we owe to those men who, as Corporators or capitalists, land developers and investors in land and houses, have created the greater Belfast that is at once our pride and glory.

While in a general way we boast about Belfast, I question if we all realise as we should the changes the last half century have wrought in the growth and life of the city, in its extension of area and increase of population, in the character of its people and its buildings, its streets and its great industrial works, and the teeming population, which have acted and re-acted to raise the city to its present position, industriously and commercially, in population and prosperity, in harmony and contentment.

Since the idea of this took shape in my mind I have taken some walks through the new areas, part on foot and part in imagination; and the more I have seen and the more I have thought the more am I filled with admiration for the grandeur of the conceptions and the excellence of the execution in many cases. In passing from an old area to a new, whether in the urban or suburban districts, one cannot help being struck with the change in taste and character of the streets and buildings. This is, if possible, more conspicuous in what may be called the working men districts. Not only in the size and construction of the houses is there a marked change, a change in the conveniences and comforts; but in the streets and the surroundings there are evidences of taste as well as design, of health as well as comfort. In the olden time houses were built generally to the very front of the street, and usually back to back without either air space or facility for removing refuse. The idea was to utilise every foot of ground regardless of everything else. In these later and better days of houses and streets provision is made for spaces in front and rere; houses are not packed close together, and where refuse used to be thrown out we often find neat flower spots or clean open spaces. I do not think there is a town or city in the kingdom where better provision is made for the working classes not only as to the cheapness, but as to the completeness of the houses and the healthy surroundings that are provided. This is general over all parts of the city, and in central as well as in suburban districts.

Then when we come to the suburban districts, we have miles of extension on all sides, beautiful villa residences with well laid out grounds, splendid wide streets, and good houses, with, in many cases, trees, shrubs, and flowers, which impart picturesque charm to the scene. Hundreds of acres that fifty years ago were only waste unoccupied ground or little cultivated fields are now covered with fine houses, streets, and gardens, and characterised by a neatness, tidiness, and sign of comfort that delight the eye and rejoice the heart. The Crumlin and Shankill Roads are almost encroaching on the mountains; the Antrim Road residential area extends almost to what are ironically called Bellevue Gardens; the Knock and Belmont districts are almost joining with Dundonald and Holywood; Cregagh is fast threatening the Castlereagh Hills; the Malone and Lisburn Roads making a residential race to Dunmurry; the Falls threatening even to leave the Cemetery behind, and the York Road joining up with Greencastle. And in all continual improvements in the character of the houses and in the extent of ground round the houses or margining the streets, signs of growing taste, increasing comforts, and increased prosperity.

I hardly realised myself the real character and importance till my mind or eye became concentrated on it in connection with the article. Familiarity, I fear, makes us forget both the growth and the beauty of our city and its surroundings. The central or low-lying situation of much of it does not lend itself to picturesqueness; but the city has been made picturesque, and a bird's eye view of it from one of the surrounding hills will enable us to realise fetter the extent of the charm of our city, and fill us with just pride. Only the other day I found myself in what I may call the garden city that Sir Robert M'Connell has created on the Cliftonville Road. I wandered through the maze of its streets, everywhere being struck by the character and variety of the villas and streets, the cleanliness that prevails everywhere, the endless variety of shrubs and flowers that adorn the grounds in front of and around the houses. Only a few years ago this was waste fields, and now it is a small town, a perfect scene of beauty and comfort. And one feature of this is that all the houses are owned bv the occupiers; each occupier is his own landlord, and feels the personal interest in making his home, his estate, as neat, picturesque, and comfortable as possible. The project of Sir Robert in developing the property on these lines was an ideal one, and it has been carried out ideally and successfully. The development of which such fine finish is shown here is going on in various parts of the city, if not quite on the same lines, at least on the lines of tasteful improvement.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 8th September 1916.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

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