The Marsh Brothers: Biscuit and Tin manufacturers.

Industrial heritage has often been focused on mechanical advancements, many of which acted as important cogs in British industry, and revolutionised how objects were made. Whilst the focus on machines of the industrial revolution is important, it often comes at the expense of the men, and women, behind the machines. Even when history focuses on people, it is often on those that defined the industrial age in Britain, such as the engineers who designed the tools which drove the burgeoning industries. This may be at the expense those who worked in the factories, as well as the factory owners themselves. Given that individuals such as Isambard Brunel,[1] Andrew Carnegie[2] and Sir Humphrey Davy[3] had an impact on a global level, it is no surprise that they are well remembered. However, it does not diminish the impact those who used their machines had on the local community. It is the role of local historians to uncover the stories of these often forgotten individuals, such as the owner of Marsh & Co Biscuit Factory.

When the biscuit factory first opened on Donegall Street in 1881, John Marsh was already well known in Belfast, having previously been the owner of the Steam Bakery based in York Street.[4] However, he was not from Belfast. Born in Dorking, Surrey in 1841, John was one of seven children. Orphaned at a young age, John then apprenticed with Carrs of Carlisle before relocating to Belfast in 1862.[5]  

Prior to the biscuit factory being opened, it needed a substantial overhaul to tailor the building to its new purpose. Fortunately, Donegall Street also was home to a very capable architect, living at 107 Donegall Street: Joseph Chandler Marsh. Joseph was John’s youngest brother who had also left Dorking and come to Belfast. Born in 1843, Joseph had not followed his brother into the bakery business, instead opting to apprentice with an English firm of architects before setting up offices in Belfast. Joseph drafted plans to overhaul the initial factory to cater to his brother’s burgeoning business, and also consulted and oversaw the rebuild of the Marsh & Co factory after it was destroyed in a fire in 1894, three years after John’s death. Further bolstering his brother’s enterprise, Joseph became proprietor of the Ulster Tin Company between 1880-1890.[6] Whilst not exclusively responsible for creating tins for Marsh & Co’s biscuits, the close familial bond clearly shared by the brothers, along with the proximity to one another suggests that the empty tins created in Joseph’s factory often found their way up Donegall Street before being filled at the biscuit factory.[7]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Joseph Chandler Marsh

John and Joseph were deeply respected in the local community. Both were practicing Quakers, and were members of the congregation at the Frederick Street Meeting House.[8] John was focused on philanthropic ventures. He was honorary secretary of the Royal Hospital, as well as an active committee member in many organisations including the Fox Lodge Industrial School, and a member of the Ulster Reform Club. Despite his office, he was also portrayed as being warm and kind to his workforce:

“The firm has erected extensive premises in Donegall Street…and employs a large number of workpeople, by whom the deceased gentleman was greatly respected, and in his death many have lost a kind and sympathetic friend.”[9] John died on the 7th October 1891.[10]

Whilst Joseph was equally involved in philanthropic work in Belfast, he was a more active figure than his brother in the Frederick Street Meeting house, acting as treasurer for many years, whilst also being described as “one of the best-known members in the North of Ireland.”[11] Like his brother he was involved in the Royal Hospital, (then known as the Royal Victoria Hospital) on Frederick Street, and took a keen interest in the educational work in the area, being closely associated with the Ulster Provincial School and Brookefield School as well as being secretary of Brown Street National School until his death on the 14th March 1913.

After Joseph’s death, his son, Cecil Walpole Marsh, took over as proprietor of the Ulster Tin Company. Cecil was also a key member of the Frederick Street Meeting House and was married there in 1915.[12] He also served as an annual president in the Meeting House.[13] The Marsh family lived in North Belfast for close to a century, and their impact can still be seen. The Marsh buildings are still standing opposite St Patricks Roman Catholic Church, whilst their contributions to philanthropy during their lifetime will have improved countless lives through their work with the hospital and schools. Despite it being over a century since the Marsh family were household names, they recently found themselves making light-hearted news headlines in February 2023 when, a letter addressed to Oswald Marsh was delivered nearly 100 years later.[14] Oswald, son of Joseph, established himself as a stamp magnate in London, with the letter having been addressed to his wife, Katie.

Marsh & Co was bought in 1949 and had their name subsequently changed. Whilst the factory and family name has faded from public consciousness in the decades since, undoubtedly, they were a mainstay in people’s homes in the early 20th century, whether for their biscuits, or as the tin where the knitting needles and darning wool was kept.

[1] S. Brindle. Brunel: the man who built the world. Hachette UK, 2013.

[2] L.B, Edge. Andrew Carnegie: Industrial Philanthropist. Twenty-First Century Books, 2004.

[3] V, Kumar, and L,Milewski. “Humphrey Davy: At the vanguard of a new chemistry.” Journal of Chemical Education 62, no. 5 (1985): 397.

[4] Belfast News Letter. Wednesday 13th September 1865

[5] S.King, History of the Religious Society of Friends Frederick Street, Belfast. 1999. P31-32.

[6] Lennon Wylie Street Directory :

[7] Furthermore, the company later renamed to the Ulster Tin Box Co.

[8] S.King, History of the Religious Society of Friends Frederick Street, Belfast. 1999. P31-32.

[9] Northern Whig. 8 October 1981

[10] Ibid

[11] S.King, History of the Religious Society of Friends Frederick Street, Belfast. 1999. P.19.

[12] Marsh Family Tree. Ancestry.

[13] S.King, History of the Religious Society of Friends Frederick Street, Belfast. 1999. P.19.

[14] BBC News. 16th February 2023.

Members Involved

YEAR: 1840

Location: Frederick Street