A Street Through Time: Millar & Co

From 1877 Millar and Co, owned by Arthur Millar, had a sizeable factory on Clifton Street where they manufactured ‘Jams, jellies and marmalade’.[1] The company operated successfully from this premises for decades, even expanding its operations into the next door building by 1906. The company’s commercial success was paused in May 1922 it was set ablaze during a period of civil unrest. Seventeen buildings were set ablaze across Belfast on 26th May. Such episodes of violence are commonly associated with the 1970s but this overlooks the culture of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland by the 1920s. In particular, the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty and the creation of the Free Irish state contributed to increasing political violence.[2] Indications as to why the factory was targeted are unclear as the owners had no outward political affiliations however Millar and Co were credited widely in the media as producing jams with the ‘choicest home-grown fruit and British refined sugar’.[3] It was one of ninety separate Protestant owned businesses which were targeted during a two month period in 1922. [4]

Millar & Co premises following 1922 blaze (Credit NMNI Photo Collection)

The offices were gutted by the blaze, and the damage was so extensive that by 1924 the premises were demolished. The business subsequently moved to Ravenhill Avenue in East Belfast, in an impressive, state of the art, 50,000 sq ft facility. This allowed the business to expand its production greatly and refine its product. From this site the business, therefore, reached the pinnacle of its success, with one journalist raving that ‘Millar’s gold medal jams have carried the name of Belfast in meritorious manner all over the United Kingdom’.[4] Notably though, the product remained traditional as they continued to be sold in stoneware jars and sealed with cloth tops, tied with string. This laborious manufacturing process meant that Millar & Co could not compete in the increasingly international market that emerged post Second World War. The company eventually shut down, after nearly 200 years of business, and selling its Ravenhill premises to the thoroughly modern Henderson Group (prominent food distributors who own SPAR among other franchises) in 1956.[5]

The Millar & Co Factory on fire, looking from Trinity Street. (Credit NMNI Photo Collection)

Millar and Co’s original Clifton Street site had, in the meantime, been transformed into a mechanic’s yard and garage. It traded initially under the name Clifton Motors then later as W.J. McCrum Auto Engineers. On the 7th April 1972, a particularly bloody year of the Troubles, a bomb exploded in the garage’s forecourt. In the process, a family of three were injured, although they survived they were admitted to hospital following the explosion.[6] The bomb’s impact could be felt in other areas of the street, for example the windows in the opposite Clifton House were shattered.[7] Today, much of the site remains derelict, with a petrol station occupying a small corner of the storied plot of land.

[1] Northern Whig, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000434/18841021/113/0002, 21st October 1884.

[2] Solly, M., ‘One hundred years ago, Northern Ireland’s ‘Unholy war’ resulted in a deadly summer’, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-belfasts-bloody-sunday-and-northern-irelands-unholy-war-180978184/, 4th August 2021. 

[3] ‘Millar’s Jams’, Ballymena Observer, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0001426/19341026/133/0007?browse=False, 26th October 1934.

[4] ‘Millar’s Jams’, Northern Whig, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0001542/19390525/049/0003?browse=False, 25th May 1939.

[5] ‘History’, https://henderson-group.com/about/history/.

[6] Baker, J., ‘The Troubles 12’, https://issuu.com/glenravel/docs/troubles12/17,  28th May 2017, p17.

[7] Ibid. Confirmed in Minute Books of Belfast Charitable Society.

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