Wednesday 10 July 2019

Belfast in the 1830s...

In the Belfast Telegraph of 14 July 1980, a letter appeared castigating columnist Billy Simpson for an article he had recently written for his weekly column in which he outlined an imaginary visit by a country boy to the Belfast of the 1830s. Between them, they do give a brief but interesting insight into the place and characters of the time. Here is that letter with the original article below...

Belfast in the 1830s

I AM a great admirer of your columnist Billy Simpson. His weekly article is one of the highlights of the Telegraph. His humour is always original, droll, spontaneous and funny. But on reading his article on Belfast in the 1830s, there are so many vague generalities in it, which are open to question, that I have reached the conclusion that Billy has added a subtle touch of his humour — that he is pulling our legs and laughing at us for treating him seriously.


The dirty evil-smelling Belfast, with its ignorance, darkness and harlotry, was — if it existed at all — only a tiny part of the growing town. Years before that, Michael Atkins — proprietor of the Rosemary Street Theatre — described Belfast as the Athens of the North! Not only did he bring the greatest actress of that time, Mrs. Sarah Siddons, to his Rosemary Street Theatre but, shortly before 1830, he brought her back to the Theatre Royal.

The only Belfast women that Billy could find in 1830 were painted prostitutes plying their trade everywhere. But the town had also ladies like Mrs. McTier and I think Billy should consult her many letters that are still preserved. Mary Anne McCracken, a saintly woman, lived in Rosemary Street in 1830, and many of the things she wrote are still with us.

He did not mention the practical Christian work that Mary Ann McCracken and other women from the First, Second and Third Presbyterian congregations in Rosemary street — did in Clifton House, then as now, the home of the Belfast Charitable Society.


It amazes me that Billy did not direct the country boy to one of the many Harpers' festivals held in Waring Street, or to one of the two theatres in Smithfield, where there also circuses, fun fairs and singing public houses. S. M. Elliott, a Ballymacarrett writer of the last century, records that at night there was a gay Bohemian atmosphere in Smithfield Square.

Presbyterianism in Belfast in 1830 is summed up by Billy in a narrow-minded quotation from a dim-witted devine who was opposed to railways operating on Sunday. But this gives a false, and indeed an offensive, picture of Presbyterians then in the 1830s, they were doing much to educate children in Belfast, they were concerned with morals, with the teaching of the Scriptures and many of them tried sincerely to be practical Christians.

As well as this they were only 30 years away from the finest hour in their history. In 1798, hundreds of Belfast Presbyterians fought and many died to try and establish more liberty and better justice for all in this country.

People were better educated in 1830 than Billy Simpson suggests. The National Schools had not arrived but there were many church schools. There was a Society for Promoting Knowledge that still lives in the Lurenhall Library. There were also public schools some of which still survive. Does Billy not know how Academy Street got its name?

I think he should visit the old and historic First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street some time. It has been then since the mid 18th century. In it there are memorials to many Belfast folk who lived in our town around 1830. If he studies the inscriptions on some of them, I feel sure he will realise that, in his article he has been unfair and ungenerous to his ancestors.

LOUIS GILBERT, Islandmagee.

Here is Billy Simpson's original article from the Belfast Telegraph, 18 June 1980.

Billy Simpson goes back in time to 1830 and tells of the sights and sounds a spirited country boy would have met on his first visit to the city.

ONE HUNDRED and fifty years ago, before the great famine and the industrial revolution combined to create the urban explosion just a few years on, the "city" of Belfast had a population of around 30,000.

The small farm was still the backbone of the economy and provided the livelihood for most people whether squire, tenant farmer or labourer. Around 30 pc of all families still lived in one-room cottages.

There were no railways, although construction of a line between Belfast and Lisburn had already begun. Roads were narrow, rough dirt tracks. The well-to-do could travel by stagecoach. The poor walked. Although indeed few people travelled more than a few miles from their home throughout their lives.

Places that could not be reached on foot, and returned from on the same day, were not likely to be visited by the rural citizen. It was a darker world by night, brightened only by the candle or oil lamp.

A handful of gas lamps had begun to appear along the cobbled streets of Belfast, but if an aircraft could have flown over the Ireland of the 1830s at night the pilot could have been unaware that there was land below at all. The forest of jewelled lights we see today from the air did not exist.

Few people could reed or write. The National schools had yet to be set up although there were some schools in existence teaching the children of the poor their letters and numbers

Laws were harsh. Theft of a shawl could lead to seven years deportation to Australia. Assaulting a man to steal sixpence could lead to the gallows. The wounds of the '98 rising were still fresh. Sectarianism reared its head at times and in the interests of peace the Government had on occasion to ban Orange marches.

Robbers and footpads stalked the highways and travellers armed themselves as well as finances allowed. For the well-to-do there was the pistol and sword. For the coachman, a blunderbus — and for the poor man, a stout staff or club sufficed.

It was the age before petrochemicals changed forever the taste of the air we breath. The world did not smell any better, but it was different. There area little plumbing. The larger towns held some water supplies in dams but spring water or the village pump was the only source of drinking water available to most people.

A spirited country lad who managed to gather together a few shillings would inevitably be tempted to make the long journey to the city, his curiosity aroused by tales of gigantic buildings and ships with masts taller than a high hill. Of mills powered by steam engines. Of shops and stalls filled with an endless variety of mysterious things. Of the Glasgow steamer that brought secondhand clothes twice a week to the markets for sale. Of women who painted their faces like the wild Indians of the Americas. Of rogues and dandies and golden carriages.

Before leaving home he would breakfast on thick porridge washed down by sweetmilk. Tea was an unheard of luxury indulged in only by the rich since it cost between three shillings and 12 shillings a pound and had to be brought from the Orient

His mother would wrap a soda for him to take to eat on the way and warn him not to talk to strangers or drink city water which could be poisonous to a lad raised on clean spring water. His father would smile and warn him to stay away from the wild city woman and keep his money close to his skin where be could always feel it.

The lad would perhaps walk some miles, get a lift part of the way on a passing farm cart and finally reach the hills above the city where he would catch his first sight of the blue ocean and the clutter of streets hugging the river and the lough shone partly hidden in a haze of chimney smoke.

Walking down through the outskirts he would meet more and more people; and probably make the countryman's common error of trying to have a friendly word for each of them, only giving up when the numbers grew too many, and his "That's a brave day" greeting was ignored too often, or when he was frightened off by the rapid jabber of an alien scent that left him baffled.

Nearer the centre of town he would possibly be overpowered by the evil smells of the place. And would once or twice have had to step smartly to avoid being doused by slops thrown from an upstairs window into the street. The noises and the constant shouting would unnerve him. The clattering wagons on the cobbles and the neighing of hundreds of horses.

When he got to the wide avenue of Hercules Street (now Royal Avenue) the air would be rancid. It was a street of butchers and fishmongers. The entrails and waste of a thousand dead animals would lie behind the shops in steaming piles. Flies hovered over the piles like clouds and some crawling through the eye sockets of decaying skulls.

Escaping from the jostle and the throat-clutching aromas of the street of butchers, he might wander to the docks to breath fresher air from the sea.

Here the jostle would be almost as bad. Tail sailing ships from exotic ports would be in the process of being loaded or unloaded. Piles of tanned cowhides would sit high on the wharf waiting for export as chests of tea, coffee and tobacco were lowered ashore in nets by a crane mast.

The city men working the docks seemed incredibly small and frail for such heavy work, belying the wiry toughness under the dirty shirts.

A more rugged breed seemed the sailormen on the decks. Some, he would note, wore rings in their ears and, more shocking still, some were not even white men.

It was here that he met the painted women he heard of. One or two smiled and jabbered at him in their incredibly fast speech that continued to mystify him but the implication of the invitation was difficult to misunderstand in any language and he hurried off red-faced, automatically checking that his money was still there.

On a quieter street he noticed for the first time the lamp at the roadside. He want over and sniffed the strange odour and decided that they were unhealthy things and destined eventually to poison the inhabitants. At the same time he wished it was dark so that he could see one lit up.

Back on the wider avenues the market stallholders were shouting their wares. The odd drunken scut staggered out of an ale house and wandered off talking to himself.

There was a crowd at a corner surrounding a hell-fire Presbyterian preacher calling the Lord's wrath to descend on the Ulster Railway Company for planning to run trains on a Sunday when the new steam engine began operating between Lisburn and Belfast next year.

"I would rather join a company for theft and murder than the Ulster Railway Company because its business is sending souls to hell at the rate of sixpence apiece. Every sound of a railway whistle is answered by a shout in hell," he bellowed.

Some of tha crowd shouted "Hallelujah." Some of them shouted other things. A man with ale on his breath started shoving and a scuffle developed until someone shouted "It's the Peelers." The young man hadn't seen a Peeler before and stayed where he was while part of the crowd disappeared.

The constable was a tail, serious-faced individual in a blue frock coat with bright buttons. Closer to, the youth realised it was the tall hat that made him seem larger than he was. The constable walked through the throng in the firm and obviously correct, belief that his mere presence would quieten tempers.

Admiring his strut, the young man thought such a personage would be a highly decorative addition to his neighbouring village and regretted that the local folk had voted against having Peelers in the area since it would reflect on the honesty of the people of the district.

Back in the markets the hawkers, peddlers, water carriers, fish merchants, egg wives and wagoners kept up their cries and the young man struggled through the crowds to enter an ale house where he paid his 2d for a jug of Kane's Beer, brewed nearby in North Street.

Here he would over hear yarns of varying degrees of veracity. A sailorman might tell of seeing a sea serpent two miles long from bow to stern and someone recently back from America would tell of a newly-invented cart that loaded itself with scoops attached to the wheels. "It can do the work of 20 men and will take all our jobs if we allow them in here."

Another man complained about the new gas lamps being against nature since God had specifically made an endless supply of whales in the sea to provide oil for lamps.

Outside again the young man wandered through the streets for hours. Tay Lane, Clabber Lones, Cripple Row, Leggs Lane and through the rich Georgian street called Linenhall (now Donegall Place).

A street crier for the Dublin stagecoach company shouted the virtues of this wonderful mode of transport guaranteed to get to Dublin in just 14 hours — and for the ridiculously cheap price of only £1 16s 3d.

The young man wondered who on God's earth had £1 16s 3d. to spend on anything — never mind throwing it away on a tedious journey to another city. Having seen one city he had begun to appreciate the virtues of the farm.

By nightfall he would stand for some time watching the gas lamps being lit before finding lodgings for the night and a warm supper. He would not buy anything until he was starting home tomorrow. A few small shillings would be easier to guard from suspicious looking strangers than the few gifts he would purchase.

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