Monday, 28 June 2021

Belfast in 1836: I



DONEGALL PLACE, now full of shops, was, half-a-century ago, a quiet street of private houses.

Some of them had gardens and trees in the rear, and there was quite a grove at the corner of the square where Robinson & Cleaver now have their establishment.

The residents were either merchants of the town, or country gentlemen who came to Belfast for society in winter, as fashionable people now go to London for the season.

At the beginning of this century the country had hardly settled after the Insurrection, and distant journeys were tedious and costly.

My father, Samuel Hyde Batt, has been a week in coming from England, and my Uncle William, when in Trinity College, used to ride to Dublin, with a groom behind carrying his luggage.

There was good local society, and people were hospitable.

My mother was often taken in a sedan chair to spend the evening at some neighbour's, and we gave parties in return; when, after dinner, I, as a child, was admitted to the drawing-room to be petted by the ladies, and allowed to stand by their whist-tables.

There were four members of our family domiciled in Donegall Place.

My father, Samuel Hyde Batt, lived at No. 6 (now Cuming Bros.'), where I was born.

His brother, Narcissus, lived where the Royal Hotel is now till his new house at Purdysburn was finished.

Thomas, afterwards of Rathmullan, lived at No. 4 (now Hogg's).

Thomas Greg Batt, son of Narcissus, was a director in the Belfast Bank.

The Rev William Batt lived near Fountain Street, where he died, long after the rest were gone.

Our house had belonged to my grandfather, Captain Batt, who came from County Wexford in 1760.
The other inhabitants were Hugh Montgomery, of Benvarden and Ballydrain (a director in the Northern Bank); James Orr, of the Northern Bank ; William Clark JP, father of the late director of the Belfast Bank; James Douglas, of Mount Ida; Sir Stephen May, Mrs May, John and William Sinclaire, Henry J Tomb; Captain Elsemere, RN; Henry William Shaw; James Crawford, wine merchant; John S Ferguson and Thomas F Ferguson, linen merchants; and Dr John MacDonnell, one of the MacDonnells of the Glens of Antrim, whose bust is in the Museum.
He was a great friend of my mother's.

His library, and the skeleton in it, inspired me with awe.

The Nelson Club was next door to us before it removed to Donegall Square.

Thomas L Stewart resided in the Castle, at the corner of Castle Place - a plain mansion with a walled garden in front, now removed.

Though our premises behind reached to Callender Street, there was not much playground for me, so I used to take the air in the dull walk round the Linen Hall, or in Maclean's fields, then rural enough.

The old paper-mill near the Gas Works in Cromac Street, with its dam and little waterfall, was a pleasant object for a walk, the Owen-na-varra, or Blackstaff, being then comparatively unpolluted.

On these walks I used often to see some young men who subsequently made a figure in the world, as Hugh McCalmont Cairns, George A  C May, subsequently Chief-Justice, and Thomas O'Hagan, afterwards Lord Chancellor.

My generation of Belfast boys was not so distinguished, though Canon Tomb and Rev Alexander Orr, both from our street, were respected clergymen.

Some of my early companions were unfortunate: three boys, of good family, while yet young, destroyed themselves.

I was too delicate for school, and only attended the Academy in Donegall Street for a short time.

It was a dingy edifice at the corner of Academy Street, but the masters were of the clever Bryce family.

One of my tutors was James Rea, a brother of the famous attorney, John Rea, a most amiable man, who died young.

Our house was rather gloomy, but the front windows commanded a good view of whatever was going on.

An old negro organ-grinder, with his dancing dogs, interested me.

Sometimes a party of Orangemen from Sandy Row encountered the Hercules Street butchers, and stones flew about.

Dr Tennent's mansion was the only large house in Hercules Street.

Lord Arthur Chichester and Emerson Tennent, son-in-law to Dr Tennent, were once chaired through Donegall Place, and I was sorry that the handsome chairs, with their gilt canopies and rose-coloured silk hangings, were torn in pieces by the crowd after the procession.

Beards were uncommon 60 years ago, and the mob showed their disapproval of Lord Belfast's venturing to wear one, calling him "Beardie" when he was a candidate for Parliament in 1837.

The cholera cart in 1834 is a more dismal remembrance.

It went through our street draped in black, with a bell to warn people to bring out their dead.

There was a great panic, and people were afraid of being buried alive, as it was necessary to remove the infectious corpses speedily.

Still our servant's mother was duly "waked" when she died of cholera.

My mother made the daughter change her dress when she came home, and the clothes were burnt.

The houses of decent working people in the middle of Belfast were by no means uncomfortable, though there were bad slums about Ann Street.

The best houses, however, had cesspools, and sanitary arrangements were deficient.

Some of the little docks near the end of High Street were very foul, yet I liked to walk on the quays, which were not yet encumbered with sheds, but open to the breeze from the lough.

I saw a fine ship, the Hindoo, launched near the present Harbour Office.

The steamers Chieftain and Eclipse were comparatively small, but their smoke-stacks had iron ornaments, like crowns, on the top.

I once left at night for Dublin by steamer, and in the morning found the vessel stuck in the mud where the Queen's Island is now.

Before the present improvements in the Port of Belfast, the navigable channel wound like a serpent through the muddy estuary of the Lagan, still crossed in my time by the Long Bridge.

It was our custom to spend a month or two in summer at the seaside.

Holywood was then the popular resort.

The old baths were where the stream falls into the sea near the old Parish Church.

The bathing-box was on piles a long way out, and another wooden pier led to the little channel where boats were moored.

Beyond Holywood all was rural and woodland.

The Carrickfergus side was agreeable too, but not so near Belfast.

I remember being shown the "suicide's grave" in the salt marsh at Ringan's Point, beside what is now the entrance to Fortwilliam Park, on the shore side of the road; and a public-house (Peggy Barclay's) by the wayside rejoiced in the sign of the "Mill for grinding old people young."

The picture represented men and women hobbling on crutches into the hopper of the mill and dancing out merrily below.

I must have been greatly struck with this painting, as I remember it so well, and I sometimes wish now I could find out that mill.

There are still a few of the older-fashioned style of buildings remaining in Belfast, though mostly disguised with stucco - even in High Street some old shops remain by the side of the lofty modern erections, and some of them bear the old names, like that of Patterson, recently removed from the corner of Bridge Street, the evidence of a long-established business.

The oldest houses are those at the corner of Skipper Street, and those next Forster Green's.

The latter was where the Biggers had long resided, and next to them lived a family called Quinn, where, in earlier times, Lord Castlereagh lodged.

NOTES: 1. Narcissus Batt was Founder of the Belfast Bank; 2. Narcissus and Thomas were members of the Corporation for preserving and improving the port and harbour of Belfast.

First published in November, 2011.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely fascinating. I had no idea that so many "fashionable" people had residences in the centre of Belfast.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Reminded me of your imaginings of Belmont. VC

Irishlad said...

A fantastic piece of social history...sounded like you a bit,except you weren't too "delicate" for Campbell :)