From Belfast Fifty Years Ago

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FromBelfast Fifty Years Ago


Thomas Gaffikin

In this lecture delivered in 1875 to the Belfast Workingman's Institute, Thomas Gaffikin recollects the city of his youth in the 1820s. At that point in the development of the Belfast textile industry, cotton, not linen, was the dominant fiber. Spinning took place in mills, but the resulting yarn was still put out to handloom weavers whose looms were located in their houses in the city and its environs.

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I endeavour, as briefly as possible, to convey an impression from memory of what Belfast was like in my school-boy days—now more than fifty years ago. . . . That wide and splendid thoroughfare now leading from Cromac Street to Corporation Street could then have been scarcely imagined. This brings us back to our starting point with, perhaps, the impression that few changes in Belfast are more remarkable than the gradual occupation by the town of places formerly, to a more or less extent, covered with water; and this movement has been long on foot. I have heard of old people talking of the time when the river in High Street was open, and describing when markets were held, how both sides of the street were occupied by stalls in front of the houses. . . .

The Dublin Road, like all the other approaches to the town, was paved in the centre with large boulder stones to the rising ground at Fountainville (the only roads about the town that still exhibit this old style of pavement are the Strandtown Road, near Gelston's Corner, and the old Ballygowan Road at Gooseberry Corner). The first toll-bar on the Dublin Road was where the new Methodist Church now stands, it interrupted the progress of all vehicles except the Royal Mail Coach, which, with four fresh horses in front, and a couple of guards fully armed behind, took the hill at a canter. It was a steeper hill then than now.

The Country Down side of the harbour was called Voke's Quay, and was principally occupied by lighters, lime cobbs, or vessels undergoing repairs. This brings us back to

The old Long Bridge, some twenty feet wide,
With numerous arches for spanning the tide;
Holes made in the walls to drain off the wet,
And niches for safety where vehicles met.

About this time the population numbered some thirty-five or forty thousand. The principal trades were cotton-spinning, tanning, timber, and provisions. We had four or five cotton mills, about thirty tanyards, and extensive provision stores, in different quarters of the town. Smithfield was the principal market for miscellaneous goods, such as hides, wool, clothing, house furnishing (new and old), and every description of farm stock and produce.

We had abundance of ballad-singers and musicians, who, with the old watchmen calling the hours, striking their pikes on the pavement, or springing their rattles on the slightest disturbance or report of a fire, and sweeps, oystermen, piemen, tapesellers, cries of Ballinderry onions and Cromac water, kept up the noise from morning till night. . . . Cockeybendy was a very little bandylegged man, who knew the tune to play at every house in the locality he frequented. "Garryowen," "St. Patrick's Day," and, "the Boyne Water" were his best paying airs.

We had two competing lines to Dublin, the Mail and Fair Trader coaches. . . . In times of public excitement great crowds used to collect about the time the coach was expected, and very important looked the guard and coachman as they detailed the latest news from the metropolis. . . . A mail coach, with the English and Scottish letters, also ran daily to Donaghadee in connection with the short sea passage to Portpatrick, which Lord Castlereagh had promoted.

There had been great changes in our local trades in fifty years. While some have increased, others have diminished. The cotton spinning has not held its relative position, while coopering and tanning have almost disappeared. High Street was naturally the best business street, but its shops were very different from the elegant establishments of to-day. Instead of a whole story of plate glass reaching almost to the ground, we had low front and small windows of little panes that were cleaned perhaps once a month, and protected, or rather encumbered, with strong iron railings on the outside. . . .

A buff vest, a swallow-tailed coat, with bright buttons, a frilled shirt, with ruffled cuffs, and a large gold seal hanging from the fob completed the costume of a dandy. I cannot describe the ladies' dress with any minuteness but its tone seemed to be more severe and forbidding than later styles. The coal scuttle bonnet kept the gentlemen at a respectful distance from their faces, while in fine weather they might admire their slender waists, and sandal shoes with ankle ties, but in wet and wintry weather the ladies took their airing in sedan chairs or muffled up and mounted on pattens. The sedan chairs were kept in entries off High Street, and the measured tramp of the bearers could be heard going to and from the theatre, evening parties, or the church on Sundays. The ladies' pattens were heard even more distinctly, and on Sundays in winter the porch of the parish church would be lined during the time of Divine service with the pattens of various sizes and colours.

The population of Belfast then (1823) numbering some forty thousand was of a very mixed character, and as the females preponderated, their labour was cheap and more varied before the flax-spinning mills were established. At that time common labourers' wages were seven shillings a week, while tradesmen and skilled labourers were paid in proportion. The pay of bricklayers and carpenters was about sixteen shillings, their hours of labour being longer than at present. The pay of a foreman or one who had charge of some particular branch of the trade, was sometimes eighteen or twenty shillings. The generality of the workmen and their families appeared as comfortable then as they do now at a time when they are receiving double the pay . . .

The population began to grow rapidly as the spinning mills and weaving factories increased. The districts of Millfield, Carrick Hill, and the Pound were thickly populated by old families long connected with Belfast, and strangers coming amongst them were looked upon with suspicion for some time. In these localities the cock fights and dock fights generally originated. The principal occupation of the people was weaving, but many of them wrought at the production of various articles exposed for sale in the stalls of Smithfield. Ballymacarrett, Sandy Row, and Brown Square were the greatest weaving localities. The sound of the shuttle was heard almost in every house. . . .

The most important changes that have taken place in Belfast are—the great increase in the population, and the price or value of land in the neighbourhood. Farms of land and town parks, which once were held at from seven to ten shillings per acre, on terminable leases, were renewed to the tenants by the late Marquis (of Donegal). . . . The people of Belfast in the present generation are principally strangers. Living examples of successful merchants who came into Belfast from the neighbouring districts are to be found in every street. . . . Long may good and enterprising men be attracted here for commercial and scientific purposes, and may our native town prosper and flourish, and extend on every side until it clambers the slopes of the beautiful green hills that encircle it.

Reprinted in Ireland from Grattan's Parliament to the Great Famine(1783–1850), edited by James Carty (1966), pp. 36–39.

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From Belfast Fifty Years Ago

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From Belfast Fifty Years Ago