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Ireland Gazeteer

Belfast in 1835

BELFAST, the chief town of the north of Ireland, is situated on the Antrim side of the Lagan, where that river runs into the southern extremity of the bay of Carrickfergus, distant direct from London about 324 miles N.W., and about 85 English miles, direct distance, N. by E. of Dublin.

Belfast gives its name to the barony of Upper Belfast, in which it is situated, as well as to Lower Belfast, another barony of the county of Antrim, and also to its own parish of Belfast, or Shankil. Shankil parish contains 18,411 acres; and the town land of Ballymacarret, on the opposite side of the river, in the county of Down, the populous suburb of which has been included in the borough by the Reform Bill, has an area of nearly 576 acres.

Although built on a flat, which has in a great measure been reclaimed from the marshy banks and shallow bed of the river, Belfast is a healthy town. Its position, on the confines of two great counties, with a secure harbour and extended water-communication with the interior, is peculiarly favourable.

The scenery around possesses great beauty and variety. Mountains of considerable height and bold outline skirting the western side of the rich valley of the Lagan, stretch northward from the town (which one of their highest elevations may be said to overhang) in a continuous chain, which renders the Antrim side of the bay exceedingly picturesque; while the fertility and cultivation of the opposite county and the intermediate shore can hardly be exceeded.

Two bridges are built over the river, one at the east end of the town, an old bridge 2,500 feet long, and consisting of twenty-one arches; and another, built in 1814, about half a mile up the river, on the south of the town, which connects the counties of Antrim and Down.

The origin of the town itself is modern; but, as an important pass, Belfast was known either by its original name Bealfearsaid (Fordmouth), or by its Norman translated appellation of ‘Le Ford,’ both in ancient Irish history and during the earlier occupation of Ulster by the English.

Prior to the reign of Edward III, the northern pale (or compass of English jurisdiction in the north) embraced the present counties of Down and Antrim, and had even extended partially into Derry; and although the destruction of the early Irish Parliamentary papers at Trim has deprived us of all particular record of its administration, enough still remains in the Close and Patent Rolls of the kingdom to show that a great part, if not the whole, of these counties, up to nearly the middle of the fourteenth century, enjoyed the protection of the English law under regularly appointed and resident authorities. But although the power of the government was able to keep the native chieftains of the interior in comparative subjection, it was principally along the coast that the line of civilization and complete security extended ; and accordingly it appears that the passes by which communication was chiefly kept up invariably lay near the sea.

Of these, the ford at Belfast was the most important, and the castle was in all probability built for its protection, as we find it in the possession of William de Burgho, Earl of Ulster, at the time of his murder there in 1333. This event, more than any other connected with the place, had the greatest effect on the early condition of Ulster; for the rebellious English, by whom the murder was committed, inviting the native Irish to their aid from beyond the Bann, whither they had been driven before the vigorous administration of the early conquerors, let in such a torrent of barbarism, as in a short time swept all that frontier of the pale clear of whatever civilization its previous reduction had forced upon it. The castle of the ford now fell into the hands of the old O’Neils of Dalaradia, who, from a celebrated leader of their nation when in exile, were known as the Clan-Hugh-Buy, a title which still distinguishes two districts of Down, and which, prior to the settlement of the country under James I, extended over a great part of both Down and Antrim.

During the lawless times that followed, when the pale had shrunk to Drogheda, and Carrickfergus was almost the only spot beyond the Newry mountains where the English had footing at all, Belfast castle, though frequently taken and dismantled, still remained in the independent though precarious possession of the O’Neils, until a chief of Claneboy, in 1552, after having been severely handled by two successive lords’ deputies, consented at length to hold the castle by a legal tenure from the Crown. The rebellion of Shane O’Neil shortly after deprived his successor of even this possession, and Belfast, with the rest of the estates of the rebel chieftains, was confiscated.

Sir Thomas Smith was the grantee of this district of the forfeited lands; but his first attempt to take possession being signally defeated, and his son, who commanded the expedition, slain, the adventurers under his grant dispersed, and the conditions of his tenure remaining unfulfilled, the estates escheated to the crown. Walter, first Earl of Essex, was the next to attempt the plantation of this intractable district, but he was still more unsuccessful than his predecessor. After the expenditure of much blood and treasure, he abandoned the undertaking in the course of the first year, and shortly afterwards died.

Essex had, however, already seen the advantages of making Belfast a chief place in Ulster; and his recommendations to build there and erect a dock-yard were repeated by Sir John Perrot, when he visited that country, still lying waste, ten years afterwards. For more than a quarter of a century this state of things continued, until at length, in 1604, Sir Arthur Chichester, then lord deputy, procured from James I the final grant, from which the prosperity of Antrim and rise of Belfast, as a town, may be said to date.

This active and politic governor immediately set about planting his estate with emigrants from his paternal possessions in Devonshire. In addition to this, the general settlement of Ulster, which took place about four years afterwards, brought in a multitude of Scotch and English colonists. All this gave such security and countenance to their undertaking, that, in 1611, those who were settled in Malone had raised a town about Sir Arthur’s castle of Belfast, which had been rebuilt; and this town was already so considerable, that it obtained a charter, erecting it into a borough, with sovereign burgesses and commonalty, and the privilege of sending two members to the Irish parliament.

It has been generally supposed that the prosperity of Belfast ought to date from the year 1637, when the Earl of Strafford, after purchasing certain monopolies enjoyed by the adjacent port of Carrickfergus, threw open the competition to its better-situated rival, which thus prospered at its neighbour’s expense; but it would seem that, long before this event, Belfast was a prosperous and rapidly-improving town, the central mart for the colonists of both Down and Antrim, and, from its vicinity to the woods, the seat of many trades and manufactures, which could not have been carried on in a place so ill supplied with fuel as Carrickfergus had long been. It was the prosperity of Belfast that forced the purchase of these monopolies by the Earl of Strafford, and for that unexampled prosperity Belfast is mainly indebted to the enterprise and liberality of the house of Chichester.

Never perhaps has there been an instance of success so sudden and so complete as that which attended the undertaking of Sir Arthur Chichester in 1604. In seven years the most desert spot in Ulster was a corporate town, which, before it was half a century in existence, had gained a superiority over the oldest foundations north of Dublin. And now, but for the unhappy differences on the score of religion, which soon began to distract the minds of these thriving colonists, all would have been well.

The Scottish clergy, men deeply imbued with the severe spirit which then characterized their national church, had been not only tolerated but encouraged under the liberal ecclesiastical administration of Usher. They enjoyed the tithes and the immunities of the then establishment, were ordained and inducted by its bishops, and were under its general jurisdiction. Their dislike of prelacy, which had slumbered while these advantages were yet uncertain, broke out as they acquired confidence in their confirmed possession; and even before the tyrannical measures of Lord Strafford, which are generally alleged as the prime cause of their discontent, had finally justified their opposition, disputes, complaints, and recriminations were frequent between this body of the northern clergy and their spiritual superiors.

The subsequent interference of Wentworth and Laud, and the attempt to force the already indignant Presbyterians into a further conformity to the prelatic church, completed the breach; petitions and remonstrance’s went forward on all hands, and the resisting party had at length the gratification of mainly aiding in the overthrow of their great persecutor, when, in the midst of their triumph, the rebellion of 1641 threw the whole country once more into tumult and dismay.

The Presbytery of Belfast, after seeing their town successively occupied by the troops of the Royalists, the Parliamentarians, and the Irish, forgot their ecclesiastical grievances in the dread of civil extinction, and throughout the succeeding wars were invariably well affected towards the-royal and episcopal cause. The first expression of their attachment to these principles was made at a time which renders the avowal peculiarly honourable.

On the execution of Charles I, in 1649, the Presbytery of Belfast put forth their ‘Representation of the present evils and imminent danger to religion, laws, and liberties, arising from the late and present practices of the sectarian party in England,’ &c., in which they freely express their indignation and disgust at the conduct of their old associates in anti-prelatic zeal. This brought down the vengeance of Milton, whose reply is written with great acrimony; but ‘these blockish Presbyters of Clandeboy,’ ‘these ‘unhallowed priestlings’ of the ‘unchristian synagogue’ at Belfast, as the indignant republican calls them, evinced the sincerity of their professions, by enduring, with exemplary fortitude, throughout all the troubles that succeeded, the consequences of their fidelity to the crown.

Such, however, was the respect in which the mercantile body of Belfast was held by all parties, that, during these wars, the town suffered little more than the negative injury of being, for a time, retarded in its prosperity. It was occupied or taken, time after time, by the troops of all the parties, which, for the next fifty years, made the rest of Ireland one scene of desolation, and was respected and left comparatively unplundered by them all.

At length, in 1690, the arrival of William III restored Belfast to the enjoyment of tranquillity. To reward their loyalty, the Presbyterian ministers of Ulster received from the king a grant of £1,200 per annum. Trade and manufactures now went on with increased vigour, and, in the beginning of the next century, we find the commercial progress of the town so considerable, as to place it in the first rank, on a scale of credit appended to the names of the different commercial towns of Europe, in the Exchange at Amsterdam.

In 1708 the castle was destroyed by fire, and three of the Ladies Chichester burned to death. An anonymous tourist, writing of the town at this time, speaks in terms of high admiration of its commerce and manufactures, especially of its superior potteries. Printing had now been introduced, and Belfast, in 1704, had the honour of sending forth one of the earliest editions of the Bible printed in Ireland. The first newspaper printed in Ulster, the Belfast Newsletter, which still has a large circulation, was commenced here in 1737.

A local militia was also called into being by the Scottish rebellion of 1715; and the inhabitants of Belfast, having once accustomed themselves to look to their own resources for defence, have ever since been ready to take up arms when necessary, whether against foreign invasion or intestine revolt.

In 1758 the first census of the town was taken; it then contained 1,779 houses, inhabited by 7,993 Protestants, and 556 Roman Catholics, in all 8,549; of whom 1,800 were able to bear arms. The number of looms in this year was 399. The introduction of the cotton-spinning trade, in 1777, opened a new field for industry. In twenty-three years, from its commencement, at which time there was not one cotton-loom in Ulster, it numbered no less than 13,500 operatives; while in a circuit of ten miles, including the flourishing town of Lisburn, the number connected with it in every way amounted to 27,000 individuals.

Prior to this, however, the linen manufacture had become, as it still is, the staple trade of the district; and we may form an idea of the wealth and enterprise of those engaged in it from the fact, that in 1782 the merchants of Belfast, experiencing the want of a proper hall for the transaction of their business, at once subscribed a sum of £17,550 for that purpose, the subscription list exhibiting very few contributions under from £100 to £300.

The spinning of linen yarn by machinery, a trade which now rivals either of the other great branches of manufacture, was introduced into Ulster about 1806 or 1808; but so prosperous has it latterly become, that at present it employs perhaps more capital and labour than the cotton trade itself. There are ten factories of this description in the town and vicinity, driving upwards of 65,000 spindles, and several others are in course of erection. Damask and diaper of a superior quality are also manufactured in this district; indeed, Belfast linen fabrics, of all descriptions, have long maintained the highest character.

In 1792 ship-building was first commenced here; previous to this time, the craft required were purchased and generally repaired in the Scotch or English ports; and when we find that, in 1785, the shipping of Belfast so supplied amounted only to 55 vessels, or 10,040 tons, the backwardness of early enterprise in this direction appears very remarkable. The first dock-yard employed only 10 workmen; the shipwrights, block-makers, sail-makers, rope-makers, and smiths now engaged in the constant building, rigging, and repairing of vessels, exceed 200. In 1811 the numbers employed were under 120; but there had already been built more than 40 vessels, the greater number above 200 tons. The largest vessel built in the port registers about 500 tons.

Iron and brass founding have long been carried on with considerable activity; iron founding was actively prosecuted prior to 1641. Castings on the largest scale are now executed in the best manner; and much of the cotton and linen spinning machinery is driven by steam-engines constructed in the Lagan foundries. Belfast presents more of a manufacturing aspect than any other town in Ireland; there is, however, a lightness and elegance about the place that takes away much of the dark effect of its numerous chimneys and their black volumes of smoke; so that no town, perhaps, in the British islands more agreeably unites the appearances of industry and cheerfulness.

The private buildings are (with one or two exceptions) invariably of brick, and extremely regular; the general aspect of the chief streets is pleasing, and the neighbourhood of Donegal-square exhibits as good houses and as handsome street-views as almost any provincial town can boast of. The public buildings are more numerous than striking, and the want of steeples cannot fail to strike the traveller who is accustomed to the view of more ancient towns. The parish church of St. Anne’s, built in 1778, has a tower and coppered cupola of good proportions, although the upper part of the tower is framed of painted wood; it is capable of accommodating 1,100 persons, and was erected at the expense of the late Marquis of Donegal.

The chapel of ease, built in 1811-12, on the site of the old parish church in High-street, is a plain building with a beautiful portico. The portico was presented by the bishop of Down and Connor, who procured it at the taking down of Ballyscullen-house, the Irish Fonthill, built by Lord Bristol, the celebrated bishop of Derry in the last century; the building will contain 1,200 persons. Another church, which has lately been erected in the south-western suburbs of the town, is a substantial edifice.

The presbyterian places of worship are eleven in number, three of which, lately erected, possess architectural pretensions; but wanting spires, and being rather clumsily furnished with porticos, they contribute much less than could be desired to the ornament of the town. Of the eleven, four, including the three alluded to, are attended by the congregations professing the faith of the synod of Ulster. The number of persons who can be accommodated in them is between 5,000 and 6,000. Two others, which are attended by congregations professing Unitarian doctrines, are capable of containing from 2,000 to 2,500 persons.

The orthodox Seceders have also two small chapels. The Covenanters, or reformed Presbyterians, have a good though not large meeting-house in the suburbs; the remainder are in the hands of independent congregations.

The Roman Catholic places of worship within the town are two, but in the neighbourhood there are several others. Previous to the year 1763, the Roman Catholics of Belfast, although upwards of 550 in number, performed their worship in the open air. In that year their first chapel was erected, but soon becoming inadequate to their increasing numbers, another was required, and a large and handsome edifice has been erected in Donegal-street, with spacious schools and handsome residences for the clergy attached to it.

These buildings are still insufficient to accommodate the rapidly-growing Roman Catholic population, which is now more than one-third of that of the whole town.

The Methodists have four chapels, and the Society of Friends a meeting-house.

The chief public edifice is the Commercial Buildings, an extensive pile, terminating one end of Donegal-street, to which it presents a handsome architectural front of stone. It was erected at a cost of about £20,000, and is the property of a company incorporated by act of parliament.

Here is a remarkably good and well-regulated news-room, frequented by all the mercantile body of Belfast. Partially fronting this stands the old Exchange at the divergence of Donegal-street and North-street—a heavy and neglected but respectable square building of brick on a cut stone basement.

The exchange used to be held in the lower story, and the upper contains a very excellent assembly-room, much superior both in size and proportion to that in the building opposite; the house is the property of the Marquis of Donegal.

The theatre, a shabby brick structure externally, but of very elegant though small proportions within, is much neglected.

In its charitable institutions Belfast stands pre-eminent; the poor-house at the north end of Donegal-street fronting the Commercial buildings is a fine structure, with extensive wings and a handsome spire, built at an original cost of from £7,000 to £10,000, and supported at an expense of upwards of £2,000 per annum by the voluntary yearly subscriptions of the inhabitants and the produce of their former invested donations.

In 1830 it contained 432 inmates, all of whom were fed, clothed, and the children educated, by the institution; it was incorporated under the title of the Belfast Incorporated Charitable Society, in anno 1774.

The fever hospital opened in 1817 is capable of accommodating upwards of 200 patients; its expenditure in 1828 amounted to £1,239, 6 shillings 10 pence, of which about one-half was granted at the county assizes, and the remainder was the produce of voluntary subscriptions and donations.

A lying-in hospital, a female penitentiary, and a house of industry for the prevention of mendicity, are entirely supported by voluntary subscriptions.

Carrickfergus being the assize town for the county, there is no jail at Belfast, but a large house of correction and a handsome police-office have been lately built.

The barracks on the high ground in the north-western part of the town have been lately enlarged; they are capable of accommodating one regiment of foot, and a troop of horse or company of artillery.

Belfast is well lighted; the gas-works which supply the town are the property of a company; they have been erected upwards of ten years.

The supply of water, which is neither very copious nor good, is brought by open drains from the country a mile to the south, and is conducted by pipes from an open reservoir to the cisterns of the houses.

As coal is the fuel of Belfast, a great amount of shipping is constantly employed between this port and Newcastle, Whitehaven, and other ports of England. The coal quay is highest up the river, then come those where the general merchantmen are moored, and beyond these, towards the bay, lie the ship-yards and ballast corporation graving-docks; lower down a new floating-dock is nearly completed, the property of an enterprizing individual, and still further improvements are contemplated between this and the pool of Garmoyle, a deep and secure station about three miles down the bay.

A plan of these works, by Messrs. Walker and Bourges of London, has been adopted by the town authorities, and sanctioned by act of parliament, but as yet no step has been taken to carry it into execution. By the improvements however effected by the ballast corporation, ships drawing thirteen and fourteen feet of water can already lie at the quays, and the dry docks are sufficiently capacious to hold vessels of equal size during their repairs; a patent slip is also completed in one of the private dock yards.

The manufactures and commerce of Belfast have been so intimately connected with its rise as a town, that in its civil history we have already spoken of their introduction and progress.

The export trade, which must in all Irish ports be commensurate in great measure with the prosperity of their several districts, has long been very considerable here. It consists chiefly of bacon, butter, pork, beef, corn, and raw hides; and, in manufactured articles, of linens, calicoes, muslins, cotton-yarn, linen-yarn, soap, tanned leather, candles, and starch.

The chief imports are the raw material of the staple manufactures, and foreign luxuries; cotton, wool, flax-seed, flax, barilla, potash, groceries, wine, &c.

The gross amount of customs including excise amounted in 1783 to £32,900; the customs exclusive of excise, for the year ending 5th January, 1834, were £228,945, 6 shillings 10 pence.

In 1682 the shipping of the port was 3,307 tons; in 1827 the registered tonnage of the port was 21,557 tons.

The value of the exports in 1810 was £2,904,520, 19 shillings, being upwards of half a million more than in the year previous; the linens alone making more than two millions of this amount; the cotton-yarn exported in that year valued but £4,942, 6 shillings, and the cotton fabrics of all kinds did not exceed £35,000.

The items on a similar return for the last few years would be materially different, but the increase of the export trade we can only exhibit by a comparison of the tonnage as cleared outward.

In 1831 there cleared outwards, coastwise, 155,416 tons, and for foreign ports 35,335. In 1834 the export tonnage was coastwise 174,894 tons, and for foreign ports 31,665. Inwards, there entered in 1831, of British tonnage 27,970, and of foreign 4,276 tons; in the year 1833, of British tonnage 20,947, and of foreign 2,537 tons; and in 1834, of British tonnage 30,733 tons, and of foreign 2,395 tons.

From a comparison of these items with similar returns for the port of Cork, it appears that Belfast, with fewer vessels, has in the foreign trade a greater amount of tonnage; but that, taking the amount of British and foreign shipping, their tonnage inwards for the last three years is very nearly equal.

The post-office also indicates the activity of the commercial body of Belfast; the annual amount of postage being since 1832 nearly £10,000.

There are four banks in Belfast—two of them branches of the great metropolitan establishments, and two in the hands of private companies. There is also a savings bank, in which on the 30th November, 1830, there was lodged a sum of £40,679 by 2,423 depositors.

The amount of stamps sold here averages £25,000 per annum; the number of stamps for newspapers for the year 1823 was 335,000, and since then a considerable increase has taken place; there are now four newspapers and two small periodicals published in the town.

The increase of the population of Belfast has been extremely rapid within the last half century. In 1782 the town contained 6,132 males and 6,972 females, in all 13,105 inhabitants. In 1807 they were nearly doubled, being in all 22,095; in 1821 they were 37,277; and in 1831 their numbers in the town and suburbs stood thus—males 24,559; females 28,754, total 53,313; of whom there are 14,597 persons belonging to the Established Church; 18,715 Presbyterians; 18,268 Roman Catholics; 1,111 Protestant dissenters, and 622 unclassed.

This enumeration is exclusive of Ballymacarret, a portion of the borough which contains between four and five thousand inhabitants. The population of the borough itself by the last returns is 39,146, and its constituency 1,700 voters.

Belfast has long had the reputation of possessing a well-educated community. In 1824 there were in the town and parish sixty-three schools of all kinds, educating 2,152 males and 1,666 females, exclusive of the Royal Academical Institution, which in 1825 had 462 males in its various classes. This great collegiate school was erected by public subscription, and incorporated by act of parliament in the year 1810. The original subscriptions amounted to £25,000, including £5,000 received from India by the liberality and exertions of the Marquis of Hastings.

The object of the undertaking was to procure a cheap home education for those who formerly frequented the colleges of Scotland; and since the synod of Ulster receives the general certificate of this institution as a qualification for ordination in their ministry, it may now be looked on as the great seminary of the Presbyterian church in Ireland. Its affairs are directed by a president, four vice-presidents, twenty managers, and eight visitors, chosen by the proprietary ; and it enjoys an annual grant from parliament of £1,500.

The chairs in the collegiate department are eight, embracing professorships of divinity, moral and natural philosophy, logic, mathematics, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and, within the last year, a lectureship on Irish. The schools afford ample means of instruction on all subjects generally taught, and the faculty and managers have succeeded in forming a very respectable library and museum.

There is no regularly endowed school here. The Lancasterian and the Brown-street institutions may be called free-schools; both have enjoyed the patronage of the Kildare-street association, but the Lancasterian school is now under the national board; nearly 2,000 poor children are educated in these two establishments alone.

Of the private schools, the Donegal-street academy is the most respectable; it has upwards of 150 scholars. A number of literary and scientific individuals in 1788 formed themselves into a body and took the name of the Society for Promoting Knowledge; they publish their transactions, and have a good library of upwards of 6,000 volumes, together with a philosophical apparatus.

A literary society more private, but comprising men of considerable eminence, was established in 1801. In 1821 another literary and scientific body was formed, called the Natural History Society; they have lately built a handsome house for their meetings, where they have a thriving library and a museum, which bids fair to be the next in Ireland to that of the Royal Dublin Society.

In 1825 a mechanics’ institute was erected, and a scientific school for artisans opened, where lectures are delivered on mechanics and chemistry.

A botanical garden has been formed within the last four years, which is highly ornamental to the vicinity of the town, and already rich in a good assortment of plants.

A patriotic institution, called the Irish Harp Society, for the cultivation of national music, has been long supported by voluntary subscription.

The town expenses are levied by twelve commissioners and a committee of police, by virtue of an act passed in 1810. The paving, lighting, and cleansing of the streets, and general police of the town, are under their management. The amount of the police-tax for the first year of their superintendence was £3,087, 18 shillings; in 1834 it amounted to £8,058, 2 shillings, 2 pence.

The sovereign has the control of the markets, the regulation of the cranes and weights, and is ex-officio a magistrate of the county of Antrim. A police magistrate, town-clerk, and seneschal of the manor are the other chief officers of the corporation.

Since the year 1775, upwards of £100,000 have been expended on a canal connecting this port with Lisburn and Loch Neagh, which is now the property of the Lagan Navigation Company.

A plan for a railroad from the lime-quarries on the Cave-hill to the new docks is now being carried into effect; it is the property of private individuals, as well as a new bridge across the Lagan, about a quarter of a mile above the old long bridge which was built in 1682, and is now in a ruinous and unsafe condition.

A lunatic asylum, capable of accommodating 106 patients, has been built by government in the vicinity of the town, at an expense of above £50,000; it is intended for the two counties of Down and Antrim.