Messers Marsh & Co. Donegall Street Biscuit Makers.

North Belfast was once a place of proud industrial heritage however its history and identity has been eroded and erased through years of conflict and urban decay. The rubble strewn site at 140 Donegall Street is representative of this. Once an area of affluence, industry and worship, Donegall Street’s downturn in fortunes is symbolised by this derelict brownfield site at the junction with North Queen Street.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, 140 Donegall street was part of the Marsh & Co Biscuit Factory. John Marsh, and his brother Joseph, were born in Dorking, Surrey, but relocated to Belfast to earn their living. John owned a ‘Steam Bakery’ in York Street,[1] before making the decision to focus on the production of biscuits in 1880.[2] The consequence of this decision was the construction of new buildings at the corner of Donegall Street and Carrick Hill, opposite St Patrick’s Roman Catholic church.[3] The site had lain derelict for some time after the owner of the neighbouring Lyttle & Brown starch works had died. However, Marsh’s redevelopment of the site was met with great excitement in the surrounding area:

Marsh & Co Cart: Northern Whig 28th May 1927

The change that has been wrought in the appearance of the block of buildings at the corner of Donegall Street and Carrick Hill must have struck every person acquainted with the locality. The old building was dingy, dirty and deserted… an eyesore to the thoroughfare in which it had its principal front. The requirements of an increasing business directed the attention of Mr Marsh to the premises and by him a perfect transformation has been effected[4]

The newspaper article continues to detail not only the architecture of the converted building, but also the machinery within. The design for this factory were drawn up by his brother Joseph Marsh, now an architect, who also had offices on Donegall Street. [5]

Marsh & Co would prove to be an integral part of Belfast society in the years after the opening of the factory, until John’s death in 1891. His passing was keenly felt in the local community, as he was described as “an honest, sincere and unostentatious gentleman, held in great respect by all who knew him.”[6] Whilst the biscuit company of Marsh & Co would continue to thrive in the years after his death, it would see a number of hardships in its future.

One Friday morning, 3rd August 1894 a fire was discovered by workhands shortly after beginning their shifts. The alarm was raised at 7:15 am with the fire brigade arriving shortly afterwards at 7:18 am.[7] The factory was quickly engulfed; the building gutted, and the roof collapsed, despite the best efforts of several fire crews.

“The place disappeared bit by bit; sullen crashes in the centre of the pile announced the fall of roof or floor…Slates, ridge tiles, spouts, slinters and glass peppered down…All that remains of the factory now is charred flour, several walls, the office, portion of the front despatch and the pastry department which has suffered only in the top storey.”[8]

The Marsh Building in the present day. 1894 is on either end of the building, marking when the work on the new factory began.

Whilst the factory suffered heavy damage totalling nearly £30,000,[9] an advertisement in the Irish News stated the commitment of Marsh & Co to deliver on Christmas orders.[10] Construction of a new factory began shortly after the fire and was eventually completed in 1895. One of the major improvements to the factory was to ensure the building was fireproofed where possible, constructed out of rolled iron joints, brick and concrete.[11] This would be tested in subsequent years as fires were reported in 1906 and 1909; however, these caused little damage to the new building, with one being extinguished with just the use of buckets.[12]

Marsh & Co would remain at the premises on Donegall Street until June 1928, when they liquidated their assets, before moving the company to a new factory on the Springfield Road.[13] The site then went through a cycle of occupation and abandonment, with Murray, Sons & Co LTD listed as using the factory in the 1947 and 1951 street directory, before it was then taken over by a shirt manufacturing company.[14] Each new industry adapted the old factory to their needs. The factory was heavily damaged in the 1970’s, when a bomb detonated on Donegall Street during the Troubles. Shrapnel from the blast struck the façade of St Patrick’s directly across the road, and the damage can still be seen on the presbytery’s brass door.[15] As a result, the building at 140 Donegall Street was condemned and demolished: the site being turned into a private car park.[16]

Enamel sign showing a Marsh & Co advertisement,

Today, all that remains of Marsh & Co Biscuit Manufacturers is the 4-storey redbrick building still standing on Donegall Street, now home to a solicitor’s office and many small businesses. The ornamentation at the top of the building memorialises the year 1894, whilst the central feature which would have proudly sported Marsh & Co has had the name by obscured previous occupants.

The site of the old factory is symbolic of the rise and fall in fortunes of north Belfast: once a bustling hub of industry that suffered terribly during the 20th century. However, with the completion of the Ulster University campus on York Street, the trajectory of the area has changed. In 2021, the former Marsh & Co factory at 140 Donegall Street was proposed as a site of new student accommodation.[17] As the area continues to adjust alongside the new university campus, there is reason to be hopeful that we will see Donegall Street return to its former glory, the buildings of industrial yesteryear a backdrop to the intellectuals of the present and future.

[1] Belfast Morning News: 13 September 1865.

[2] Northern Whig: 9 September 1880.

[3] Belfast News Letter: 9 August 1881

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. His offices were at 107 Donegall Street.

[6] Ulster Echo- 7 October 1891.

[7] Irish News and Belfast Morning News: 4 August 1894

[8] Belfast News Letter: 4th August 1884.

[9] Irish News and Belfast Morning News. 4 August 1894.

[10] Irish News and Belfast Morning News. 2 November 1894

[11] Irish News and Belfast Morning News. 6 December 1895

[12] Irish News and Belfast Morning News. 22 February 1906

[13] Belfast Telegraph: 30 June 1928. Belfast Telegraph: 12 November 1928.

[14] Lennon Wylie Street Directory:

[15] O’Regan, R & Magee, A. The Little Book of Belfast. The history Press Ireland, Dublin. (2015) p.132-133

[16] Ibid

[17] Irish News: Boulevard and Junction owner Lotus launches new £55m Belfast student accommodation bid. 9 March 2021.

Members Involved