The large ‘villa’ houses on the lower end of the Cliftonville Road represent North Belfast’s first suburban development. Built from the early 1830s on what was then the northern periphery of Belfast, Cliftonville was designed for affluent middle-class occupiers. Urban sprawl, evident in many other Victorian industrial cities, gradually enveloped these first-wave suburban developments. This blog post examines the growth and social demography of suburbia in North Belfast.
Belfast was a compact port town in 1830. By the end of the nineteenth century, Belfast had gained city status and a reputation as a major economic powerhouse. The mercantile class and industrial barons who engineered this economic growth gravitated from large townhouses in the city centre towards the urban periphery. Private developers ‘took advantage of the high ground around the Malone and Antrim Roads’ and built spacious ‘suburban villas for the middle class’. These villas were often an ‘eclectic mixture’ of architectural styles drawing inspiration from ‘popular English and foreign designs such as Elizabethan, Tudor or Swiss Cottage’.
Waterford-born architect Thomas Jackson designed six villas in a ‘speculative venture’ in North Belfast. Jackson modelled his design on Georgian townhouses in Clifton, Bristol, where he apprenticed. Jackson called the area, then surrounded by fields, ‘Clifton Ville’ in homage to the development’s architectural inspiration. The development was described as ‘rus in urbe’ (‘country in the city’) in local newspaper adverts. The houses were completed in 1833 and advertised for lease in the Belfast News-Letter.
A five-bedroom house at Clifton Ville ‘commanding most extensive prospects of Belfast Lough’ could be leased ‘on moderate terms’ and was ‘free from town taxes’. The houses were supplied with a ‘meat safe’, ‘servant’s pantries’ and ‘never failing supply of spring water’. Jackson’s work also included St Malachy’s Church (Alfred Street), residential properties at University Square and student dormitories at Queen’s Elms. The latter building was demolished in 1966 to make way for a new Students’ Union and prompted the formation of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society to protect valuable buildings.
Dramatic population growth and the saturation of central sites created demand for high-density housing in suburban areas of Belfast. Key to the successful development of suburban working-class housing was the advent of cheap public transport. Horse-drawn (later electric-powered) tramcars, operating at high frequencies and at low cost, enabled industrial workers to commute to their workplace. The suburban encroachment of working-class communities ‘threatened to engulf exclusive villadom’ and social segregation from the prosperous middle classes.
Waves of middle-class out-migration from the urban core to ‘residentially respectable’ suburban neighbourhoods continued into the twentieth century. The process assumed something of a ‘cat-and-mouse’ character as the vacuum left by wealthier residents was filled by lower-income tenants. Vacated villas were often subdivided into smaller one- or two-room flats with shared bathroom facilities. This ‘tenement’ system of multiple occupancy was commonplace in Glasgow and New York.
34-36 Cliftonville Road, originally called ‘Belleville’, along with a large detached house at No. 32, ‘Wingfield’, are the only survivors of the original 1830s Cliftonville development. ‘Wingfield’ was purchased by the Belfast Royal Academy in the 1930s and used as their Preparatory Department for several decades. ‘Belleville’ retained its middle-class occupancy throughout much of the twentieth century. In March 1918 an advert appeared in the Belfast News-Letter for ‘an experienced nurse for an infant’ for the Wales family, occupants of No. 34. By the 1930s, No. 34 was home to the Griffith family who retained ownership until at least the 1960s. 34 Cliftonville Road was North Belfast’s ‘phenological station’ from where regular reports were dispatched by H.A.C. Griffith noting local ecological and meteorological conditions. Griffith, a retired civil servant and ‘well-esteemed’ freemason, died at ‘Belleville’ in April 1938. The last resident of No. 36 was Hugh Shearman. Mr Shearman lived in the house from the early 1940s until his death in 1992 when the building was purchased by Dunlewey Addiction Services and converted to office use.
A disastrous fire ripped through ‘Belleville’ in April 2003. The fire spread from No. 34 to No. 36 and forced the permanent relocation of Dunlewey Addiction Services. No. 34 was re-built into four flats, but No. 36 remains vacant and in an increasingly dilapidated condition. In recent years the building was ‘braced’ with steel beams to avert collapse. The building is a listed structure and still owned by Dunlewey, who hope to attract a Heritage Fund grant in order to refurbish No. 36 into a multi-purpose community space.
 Frank Cullen, ‘The provision of working-and lower-middle-class housing in late nineteenth-century urban Ireland’ in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. 111C (2011), p. 219.
 Tommy Tang, ‘Victorian suburbanisation of Glasgow, 1830s-1910s’ (PhD thesis, University of Glasgow), p. 435.
 Belfast News-Letter, 22 September 1840.
 Belfast News-Letter, 8 February 1833.
 Tang, ‘Victorian suburbanisation’, p. 32.
 Ibid., p. 425.
 Belfast Street Directory, 1924.
 Belfast News-Letter, 22 March 1918.
 Kathleen Bourke, ‘Phenological report for 1934’ in The Irish Naturalists’ Journal, vol. 5, no. 7 (1935), p. 176.
 Belfast News-Letter, 21 April 1938.
 Belfast Telegraph, 5 June 1992.
 Interview with Pauline Campbell, Dunlewey Addiction Services. Available on GPNB website.