Student Volunteer Week 2022

‘A Street Through Time’: Clifton Street

North Belfast is an often neglected area of the city, divided by the WestLink road and greatly troubled by the 20th-century sectarian conflict. As such, its streets have been subject to great change. Great Place North Belfast aims to support the heritage sites of North Belfast that remain, to encourage confidence in communicating their unique heritage and stories to the public. This facilitates the North’s competition with other areas of Belfast where the presentation of heritage is more refined, particularly in the comparatively affluent South Belfast which plays host to Queens University amongst other widely respected landmarks. The implications of this focus in North Belfast are widely recognized; holding the potential to stimulate economic growth in the area and increasing access to the heritage and culture for the local community.

Original plans for 11-13 Clifton Street, 1874.
Source: Clifton House Archive

Being subject to so much change, much of historic Clifton Street does not exist today, it is now a modern, functional area of the city. The ‘A Street Through Time’ brief aims to reconceptualise the historic street despite limited tangible evidence to work from. The vast archives available in Clifton House are thus integral as the research’s starting point. In particular, original architectural plans have provided a basis for visualizing historic Clifton Street. These buildings can then be identified from older photos of Clifton Street, to give a sense of space and positioning in relation to the modern-day street. Additionally, land deeds attached to the plans divulge the building’s original ownership and construction date. From these archival starting points, the Lennon-Wiley street directory explores the subsequent owners and use of the buildings, with records spanning nearly two centuries. Whilst some gaps in the street’s story still exist, for example, records are lacking for the inter-war years and after 1960, this provides a strong basis for understanding the street’s changing outlook. This can then be verified by a number of maps that, often in detail, depict the changing street over time, including charting the development and destruction of buildings.

The number of fascinating stories uncovered from archival obscurity proves the project and this style of enquiry to be worthwhile. Whilst a street-full of examples exist, a particularly fascinating example is No. 11-13 Clifton Street. The houses were built as the private residence for a prominent Doctor in the local Benn hospital, Dr Johnston in 1874. During his residence at No. 13, he attended the scene of a grisly North Belfast murder, where a woman had killed her newborn child by suspending him from a rope in a manhole. The subsequent trial was high-profile and sensationalized across Ireland. By 1880 No. 11 was occupied by Richard Lilburn Editor of the Belfast Newsletter, a prominent news source started in 1737 that is still in circulation today. Brian Moore, the acclaimed Irish-Canadian novelist, was born in No. 11 in 1921 to a local doctor, Dr J.B. Moore. As Clifton street was heavily impacted by the Belfast Blitz of 1941, causing local residents to flee, post-second world war No. 11-13 ceased to serve as private residences. In 1947 No. 11 operated as a Sancta Maria Hostel, a home for ‘fallen women’ run by Catholic clergymen. Meanwhile, No. 13 had reformed into an RAF Association and Ulster Memorial Air Club. Contrary to initial thoughts, both were not demolished to make way for the WestLink, only narrowly surviving its reaches, however, both have since been knocked down. In its place today stands an unassuming car park, the tales associated with the once grand and important dwelling were buried with the destruction of its physical site.

The site of 11-13 Clifton Street as it appears in 2022.

Reconstructing and imagining historic Clifton Street is only the starting point to understanding the extent of North Belfast’s historic importance in a modern age where it is largely seen as deprived and functional. Research to date shows Clifton Street to have historically been filled with life, stories and culture, the same is true now but in the confines of a modern façade. The hope is that this project inspires other areas of North Belfast to capitalize on its changing, but nonetheless important, history to inspire local confidence. As this shift is still in its infancy, without the opportunity to volunteer at Great Place North Belfast, these stories may never have been accessible to me. I hope that as stories are increasingly uncovered and presented the public shares with my newfound appreciation of North Belfast as a cultural phenomenon.

Cara Jones | QUB MA Public History 2021-22