Thursday, 30 August 2018

The Bank Buildings: A Tribute


The Bank Buildings, Castle Place, Belfast, stand between Castle Street to the south, and Bank Street to the north.

The first building on the site (originally part of the grounds of old Belfast Castle) was designed by Robert Taylor and erected by Waddell Cunningham in 1785.

Cunningham, one of Belfast's most prominent business men, opened the premises as a bank in 1787.

Castle Place, Belfast, 1843

Following the bank's collapse in 1789, the building was used as the residence of the Lord Bishop of Down and Connor, the Rt Rev Dr William Dickson.

In 1804, it was converted into a shop and, in 1816, the last public execution was carried on its doorstep.

The Northern Banking Company purchased the Bank Buildings in 1825 for use as their head office.

In 1853, William Robertson and Henry Hawkins from Waterford, J C Ledlie from Cork, and Robert Ferguson, of Belfast, established a wholesale drapery firm, which soon became a commercial department store in the city.

The old Georgian edifice was demolished and a four-storey, seven-bay Italianate building of 1855 was erected in its place by Hawkins, Robertson and Co.
The History Hub Ulster has written an article about the history of The Bank Buildings, including a rare image of the second building built in 1855.
W H Lynn designed the new bank buildings in 1900.

He intended it as a bridge to the 20th century, with a compromise between the classical style of the upper part of the building and the great expanse of plate glass below.

Old photographs show a statue directly above the clock, and a coat-of-arms at third floor level.

I contacted the pre-eminent Ulster architectural historian Marcus Patton, OBE, about this, and he remarked:-
"I have a photo of Bank Buildings which I took around 1980 and there is no sign of the statue then, whereas there is a Hogg one perhaps of 1930 which does show it (a couple of winged cherubs holding a torch). 
It could have gone with the bomb damage in 1975 or the subsequent renovations. 
The coat of arms doesn’t show in the Hogg photo so it must have gone early on..."
Photo Credit: Kyle Leyden

In fact Robertson, Leslie, Ferguson and Co were royal warrant holders to Queen Victoria.

Until 1961, only the ground and first floors were used as a retail store, with the remainder of the building taken up by the company’s wholesale warehouse.

In that year, however, the Bank Buildings underwent total renovation.

The new arcade shop front was lighted at night, and a modernised main entrance was added at Castle Place (or Junction, as it was known when trams operated).

The old pillars and showcases on the ground floor were removed.

The Belfast Telegraph announced the ’bold policy of renovation, repair and the moving and improving of entire departments, has brought it into line with the latest Bond Street ideas.

In 1969, the shares of Robertson, Ledlie, Ferguson and Company were sold to the House of Fraser group, whose chairman was Sir Hugh Fraser Bt.

It was hoped at the time that the Bank Buildings would benefit from the knowledge and resources of a large national firm, expanding throughout the United Kingdom.

Robertson, Ledlie, Ferguson and Co, however, continued to operate the store as a subsidiary company, and only four years later, Boots acquired the Bank Buildings when it took over House of Fraser.

On the 9th April, 1975, three bombs exploded in the Bank Buildings.

A huge fire broke out shortly afterwards and damaged parts of the building.

In 1979, the Bank Buildings were taken over by the Dublin-based group Primark.

Within 18 months, the store was totally refurbished and the exterior restored to its 1903 glory.

A catastrophic fire engulfed the Edwardian building at about 11am of the 28th August, 2018.

The blaze lasted for a number of hours, leaving it a roofless, gutless shell.

It is hoped that the fabric of the building can be saved and fully restored.


alister said...

Timothy I understood that the name,’Bank’ had an ancient history that predated any financial establishments and referred instead to a bank or berm that delineated the perimeter of the old town of Belfast—much as there was a wall where Wall Street is now in New York.
So Bank Street would have pre-dated any financial banks in the vicinity.

J. Mc. said...

It is a possibility that previous to the Northern Bank acquiring the property,it was owned or leased by a couple of the McClean brothers.
Benn (Hist. of Belfast Vol 2) says that the ground floor consisted of three shops, 'the centre being Francis McClean an Ironmonger. Robert Redfern, a saddler held an adjoining shop for many years.
Francis McClean lived in one of the apartments above, his son became a well known civil engineer (John Robinson McClean) and was born there in 1813. The directories of the time list his home address as Bank Lane, (which could indicate that Waddell Cunningham may also resided there when the building was new.)
Francis' brother James McClean, who had a timber yard in Poultry Square had the apartment on the Castle Street side. This is confirmed by a Belfast Inst medal awarded to "James McClean Junr. Bank Buildings" 1819. (Ulster Journ. of Archaeology Vol 2 1895.)