Belfast at its Zenith

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1993), Volume 1

Belfast at its Zenith 1At noon on Saturday 13 October 1888 a locomotive decked with flags steamed into Belfast’s Great Victoria Street terminus. As a hundred men of the Gordon Highlanders presented arms and the band of the Black Watch played ‘God Save the Queen,’ Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, sixth Marquess of Londonderry and lord lieutenant of Ireland, stepped out of the viceregal saloon carriage onto red carpet to be greeted by the mayor of Belfast, Sir James Haslett. Later that day, at a sumptuous banquet in the town hall in Victoria Street, the viceroy explained the purpose of this state visit:
Her Majesty the Queen has been graciously pleased to confer on your town the dignity, the honour and the title of city. And that honour is enhanced by the fact that on no other occasion has this title been conferred except the town was the seat of a bishopric.
This official recognition that Belfast had become a thriving imperial city seemed somewhat overdue and yet it was understandable: the town was the fastest-growing urban centre in the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century. Belfast began the century with only 20,000 inhabitants; in 1851 there were 98,000; and by 1901 just under 350,000 lived there — the increase for the years 1891 to 1901 alone being over 36%.

The largest city in Ireland

In its editorial on the lord lieutenant’s visit, the Belfast Newsletter remarked that if the ‘founders could now revisit the city they might witness conditions which their liveliest imagination could never have contemplated.’ the Pictorial World  the following year observed that Belfast, with ‘some 16,000 streets, the aggregate length of which is close upon 200 miles,’ had become ‘a great, wide, vigorous, prosperous, growing city, already covering no less than 6,805 acres, and at present throwing out its arms eagerly asking for more broad stretches of both Antrim and Down.’ In 1891, the year in which the census confirmed that Belfast had bypassed Dublin to become the largest city in Ireland, the Industries of Ireland  found that ‘in these crowded rushing thoroughfares, we find the pulsing heart of a mighty commercial organisation, whose vitality is ever augmenting, and whose influence is already world-wide.’
Belfast owed its foundation as a town to James I’s lord deputy, Sir Arthur Chichester, and its development to his descendants the Earls of Donegall. By the late eighteenth century, however, the destiny of the town was in the hands of a dynamic, self-confident and independent-minded Presbyterian middle class – a hold strengthened by George Augustus Chichester, the 2nd Marquess of Donegall, who in a vain attempt to avert bankruptcy arising from wild extravagance dispensed perpetual leases for immediate cash payments. In full control this bourgeoisie made Belfast Ireland’s most important cotton town until, in the 1820s, the removal of protective duties and powerful competition from Manchester pushed this industry to the wall.

Victoria Channel

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Belfast’s prosperity depended primarily on trade, on the sending out of butter, hides, salted salmon and linen cloth and on the importation of French and colonial produce such as brandy, silk, sugar and cotton wool. In the early nineteenth century large vessels could approach the quays only at high tide: leading citizens, disdainfully staying away from grubby politics in the Corporation, conducted a brilliantly orchestrated campaign to deepen the estuary and on 10 July 1849 their efforts were rewarded when the Victoria Channel was opened formally, a day, the Belfast News-Letter observed, ‘deserving of record in the brightest pages of the history of the progress of Belfast towards the enviable rank she is hastening to attain among the commercial entrepots of the British-Empire.’ This foresight was swiftly rewarded as a government commission reported in 1852:

‘In 1836, Belfast was ranked as the third port in point of commercial importance in Ireland. It is now the first, the number of vessels and tonnage being greater than at any other port in Ireland…’

Though with the help of the Lagan Navigation Belfast was an important market for linen, in the eighteenth century the manufacture of this cloth was centred on an area bounded by Dungannon, Armagh and Lisburn with Lurgan at its heart. Then in 1825 James Kay of Preston discovered that a six-hour soaking in cold water made flax slippery enough to be drawn by power-spinning machines into fine yam without snapping. Murland’s of Annsborough made the first successful commercial application of Kay’s invention in Ireland but the real revolution began when Mulholland’s converted their York Street mill, burned down in 1828, from cotton to flax spinning. ‘Several of the farseeing merchants of the Northern Athens,’ wrote the manufacturer Hugh McCall,’ began to surmise the truth respecting the new El Dorado that had been discovered in York Street, and no long time elapsed until other tall chimneys began to rise in different parts of the town.’ The threatened collapse of Ulster’s linen industry was thus averted by the enterprise of firms capable of competing with Manchester on its own terms by mass-producing linen of everimproving quality at a steadily falling cost.

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The steam-powered spinning mills clustered in Belfast with easy access to the docks for imported coal and additional supplies of flax brought in principally from Russia. This concentration, together with competition from cheap English cottons, was at the expense of the domestic industry in south-central Ulster where earnings declined so rapidly that the congested population there was left with few defences when the potato crops failed. Seeking work in the mills, the building trade and the docks, the rural poor poured into Belfast bringing with them ancient fears and traditional hostilities. The power loom was adopted late but just in time to enable Belfast to take advantage of the Lancashire cotton famine during the American Civil War. By 1867 Ulster had nine hundred thousand spindles and over twelve thousand power looms, most of them in Belfast. In 1894 H.O. Lanyon, the president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, made this estimation:

‘I find the length of yarn produced in the year amounts to about 644,000,000 miles, making a thread which would encircle the world 25,000 times. If it could be used for a telephone wire it would give us six lines to the sun, and about 380 besides to the moon. The exports of linen in 1894 measured about 156,000,000 yards, which would make a girdle for the earth at the Equator three yards wide, or cover an area of 32,000 acres, or it would reach from end to end of the County of Down, one mile wide.’

The York Street Flax Spinning and Weaving Company, the largest of its kind in the world, employed 4,000 workers, not including embroiderers and other outworkers. Through its branches and agencies as far apart as New York, Riga, St Petersburg and Melbourne, the firm sold fronting linens, interlinings, sheets, printed dress linens and lawns, damask tablecloths and napkins, glass cloths, elastic canvas, drills, ducks, hollands, cambrics, handkerchiefs, and clothing for Latin America described as ‘Creas, Platillas, Bretanas, Silesias, Irlandas etc.’ Ewart’s Mill on the Crumlin Road was almost as large.

The Shipyards

Wages in the flax mills were lower than in any other factory-based textile industry in the United Kingdom and, though linen remained the biggest employer of labour right into the 1950s, Belfast could not have become the centre of the most prosperous corner of Ireland without its success in shipbuilding and engineering. In some respects the rapid emergence of Belfast as a shipbuilding centre was accidental: a debt-laden ironworks just happened to engage one of the greatest engineering geniuses of the day, Edward Harland, to attempt to build ships with unsold plates and even then he stayed by the Lagan only because Liverpool City Council refused to allow him to transfer to Garstang because of his ‘youth and inexperience.’ Harland secured the financial backing of Gustav Schwabe, a partner in the Bibby Line, who sent over his nephew, Gustav Wolff, to complete the famous partnership. Their ‘Bibby Coffins’ caused a sensation in the shipping world because of their revolutionary design ‘of increased length, without any increase in the beam,’ based on the principle of the box girder.

In other respects Harland and Wolff’s success, given engineering prowess and business acumen, was understandable. Ulster had almost no coal and iron but they were cheaply available just across the Irish Sea. The Belfast Harbour Commissioners showed flair in making available Queen’s Island (created from dredgings when the Victoria Channel was being cut) and this was a time when both the Empire and transatlantic passenger traffic were speedily increasing. From 1880 Harland and Wolff was building its own marine engines and on 14 January 1899 the firm launched the Oceanic, the largest ship ever built up to that time, thirteen feet longer and eight feet deeper than Brunel’s Great Eastern. With a gross tonnage of 17,274, a length of 685.7 feet, a breadth of 68.3 feet, a hold of 44.5 feet, and fitted with four-cylinder, triple-expansion engines, the Oceanic outdistanced all rivals. The Freeman’s Journal, often scathing about Belfast’s pretensions, described the launch as ‘the greatest event of its kind the world has ever witnessed, and in a certain sense, perhaps the most epoch-marking incident of the century.’

The growing needs of the linen and shipbuilding firms fostered the emergence of a vigorous engineering industry. By 1892 Mackie’s Foundry was making one hundred spinning frames a year, in addition to spindles, fluting rollers, flax cutters, bundling presses and twisting frames; John Rowan and Sons invented piston rings still in use; Combe Barbour built quadruple-expansion engines for cotton mills in India; and by the end of the century Davidson’s Sirocco Works had become the world leader in the manufacture of ventilation, fan and tea-drying machinery.

CIty of Superlatives

Belfast was at the zenith of its importance in the years running up to the Great War. It then had the world’s largest shipyard, launching the world’s biggest ships, and the largest rope works, tobacco factory, linen-spinning mill, tea machinery works, dry dock and aerated water factory. ‘With its red-brick and smoke-blackened buildings after the American pattern,’ Paul Dubois wrote in 1907,’ its factories and palaces, this workers’ city resembles Liverpool or Glasgow rather than an Irish Town.’ Yet Belfast was an Irish town with very Irish intercommunal tensions and political problems.

The constant boasts of Belfast’s superiority had a hint of strain in them and the very opulence of the City Hall, completed in 1906, seemed a little too self-conscious. For all the strength of their assertion, the rulers of Belfast were increasingly on the defensive. Mounting labour unrest threatened Unionist solidarity; the loss of the Titanic  cast a shadow over the shipyards; and by 1913 it looked as if nothing less than open rebellion could prevent Westminster from breaking the Union. Then an assassination in Sarajevo precipitated a total war which gravely weakened the British Empire’s relative position in the world and produced a very different and more hostile environment in which Belfast’s export-oriented businesses were attempting to trade.

Jonathan Bardon is a lecturer in the Belfast Institute of Higher Education  and  author of the bestselling  History of Ulster.


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