Belfast in the 1890s was an industrious, self-confident city in the throes of economic expansion. Belfast’s staple trades – flax spinning and shipbuilding – had brought much wealth to the city’s merchants and businessmen, and regular (albeit low paid) employment for a growing working-class population drawn from across rural Ulster. Belfast’s economic transformation was a rapid process. The population at 1901 stood at 350,000, some twenty times higher than it had been in 1801, and Belfast was the largest city in Ireland.
Urban growth was both exciting and disorientating, particularly for those who recalled Belfast prior to its rapid economic development. One such observer was Reverend Narcissus Batt, who penned a short article in 1896 titled: ‘Belfast Sixty Years Ago: Recollections of a Septuagenarian’. “Donegall Place”, wrote Batt, “was, half-a-century ago, a quiet street of private houses”. The family home in Hercules Street (now Royal Avenue) “was rather gloomy, but the front windows commanded a good view of whatever was going on”. Urban sprawl had not yet taken hold, and Batt was able to avail of “walks round the Linen Hall, or in Maclean’s fields, then rural enough. The old paper mill near the Gas Works in Cromac Street, with its dam and little waterfall, was a pleasant object for a walk, the Owen-na-varra, or Blackstaff, being then comparatively unpolluted”.
Batt’s spacious home was a world away from the nearby Ann Street slum, but the 1830s urban environment could prove lethal to all citizens, irrespective of social class, against a backdrop of overcrowding and inadequate sanitary provision:
“The cholera cart … is a more dismal remembrance. It went through our street draped in black, with a bell to warn people to bring out their dead. There was a great panic, and people were afraid of being buried alive, as it was necessary to remove the infectious corpses speedily”.
On a lighter note, Batt also commented on changing fashion trends, and all-too-familiar mockery of the political class:
“Beards were uncommon 60 years ago, and the mob showed their disapproval of Lord Belfast’s venturing to wear one, calling him ‘Beardie’ when he was a candidate for Parliament in 1837”.
By the 1890s Belfast’s public transport provision was in municipal hands and the city boasted an extensive (and soon to be electrified) tramway network. Railways connected major towns and cities across the province. In the 1830s, as Batt recalled, only long-distance mail coaches and cross-channel paddle steamers served Belfast, as journeys within the town’s compact boundaries could be completed with ease by walking.
Belfast, wrote Batt, could be reached:
“in about twelve hours from Dublin or Derry. In fine weather an outside seat on the top of the Royal Mail [coach] was an exceedingly agreeable mode of travelling; we saw the country to much more advantage than from the railway, and, instead of skirting the dismal suburbs of the towns on the way, we dashed straight up the best streets to the chief hotel, where horses were changed, and a little crowd always collected to admire. The inside, however, was always stuffy, and often crowded; and the outside dangerous and uncomfortable in cold and wet weather”.
Within a human lifetime, Belfast, a small merchant outpost in 1820, had been convulsed by dramatic economic and social change. Whilst Batt declined to comment on whether he considered Belfast’s transformation to be a wholly positive process, his decision to relocate to Rathmullan, Co. Donegal, perhaps reveals a yearning for the sedate, semi-rural Belfast of his youth.
For further reading, see Narcissus Batt, ‘Belfast Sixty Years Ago: Recollections of a Septuagenarian’ in Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 2, No. 2 (January 1896), pp. 92-5.