Sunday, 14 February 2021

Chapel of Ease, Belfast

The Corporation Church, High Street, Belfast (sketch by Thomas Phillips, 1685)

There has been a place of worship on the site of the present St George's parish church, High Street, Belfast, since at least 1306, when a church was mentioned in the taxation roll of POPE NICHOLAS IV.

This Chapel of the Ford, as it was known, was a chapel of ease, one of six chapelries subordinate to the ancient mother church at Shankill outside the town.

Thomas Phillips's chart has a likeness of this church in 1685, adjacent to a ford which crossed the river Lagan, greatly extended with a lofty tower, chancel, and transepts.

Most of the buildings across the river Farset (marked Belfast River), to the north of the church (at the bottom of the image), were on the site of the present Merchant Hotel. 

Skipper Street at that time, incidentally, appeared to have a long row or terrace of single-storey dwellings along one side, and the other side (where the hotel’s main entrance now is) comprised two or three gardens.

The crossing at this ford in ancient times could be hazardous at high tides or in poor weather, and many travellers worshipped at the chapel of ease prior to that ordeal.

The dimensions of this church in the 18th century were approximately 160 feet in length and 100 feet in breadth at the central section of the transepts.

We can only imagine the height of the great tower, which must have dominated the skyline of the town in the late 17th and 18th centuries.

By comparison today, St Peter's Catholic cathedral in Belfast measures 180 feet in length and 70 feet in width.

The frontage of the church was 250 feet along High Street, and it was bounded by High Street, Church Lane, Ann Street, and the ground where Victoria Street now exists.

There were originally no buildings between the church and the river Lagan.

It didn't lie parallel to High Street, unlike the present St George's Church: the east end faced the river Lagan, and the west end overlooked Ann Street.

The entrance to the church was from Ann Street.

The smaller river Farset flowed along the present High Street, directly past the Corporation Church (it is said that choir-boys used to fish from the front of the church).

The church or chapel was surrounded by an extensive graveyard, which extended back to Ann Street; so the buildings on the site today - for instance, the Bullitt Hotel - stand on what was once hallowed ground.

This old graveyard was an attraction for citizens in its time: many, if not most of Belfast's prominent merchants having been buried there.

I gather that prior to re-development the graves were removed to Clifton Street cemetery.

In 1613, by charter of JAMES I, the Belfast Corporation was established.

The chapel was subsequently used by the sovereign (or mayor) and burgesses for worship and ceremonial occasions.

As a consequence of this, the Chapel of the Ford came gradually to be known as the Corporation Church.

Twelve burgesses, wearing their official black robes, processed with the sovereign, distinguished from them by his red robe, to church.
Thomas Waring was sovereign in 1652, 1656, and 1664; George Macartney, 1662, 1667, 1672, and 1675. The sovereign in 1685 was Thomas Knox.
The Corporation Church was desecrated and utilized for military purposes between 1649 and 1656 by Cromwell's troops.

Due to the parlous state which Cromwell's soldiers had left the church in, it was either demolished or rebuilt in 1656-7, or restored to such an extent as to be, to all intents and purposes, a new building.

The old communion vessels were, however, transferred to the new St Anne's parish church in Donegall Street.

The years passed, and by 1771-2 the old Corporation Church had become unfit for use and dilapidated.

It was decided that the church should be demolished and a new church erected at a site in Donegall Street instead.

An advertisement was displayed in the local press: The principal inhabitants of the town of Belfast who desire to offer their opinion relative to the situation of a new church in the town, are requested to meet the Rev William Bristow at the market-house on Saturday next...

The last services were held in the Corporation Church, High Street, Belfast, on Sunday, May 1st, 1774, with the Rev William Bristow, Vicar of Belfast, in the pulpit.

Within a week of the final sermon the old church was pulled down, and almost immediately after this the foundation stone of the new church, St Anne's, was laid in Donegall Street.

St George's Church, High Street, Belfast, ca 1900

The present St George's Church was built in 1816 on the site of the old Corporation Church in High Street.


The old churchyard, High Street, Belfast, was bounded by the said street, Church Lane (or Schoolhouse Lane), Ann Street, and Forest Lane or Cow Lane (now Victoria Street).

It was used by prominent Belfast families for burials.

This graveyard was closed to burials, by an act of Parliament, on August 1, 1800.

Thirteen years later, in 1813, when the Rev Edward May was Vicar, an advertisement appeared: Old Churchyard to be sold by public auction on the Premises, at two o'clock in the afternoon, on Friday the 7th of May next, that piece of ground at the extremity of the church yard, in the rear of Ann Street ...

  1. Robert Morley
  2. Simon Chichester
  3. Ludovicus Downes
  4. Roger Jones
  5. Claudius Gilbert
  6. James Echlin
  7. William Tisdall
  8. Richard Stewart
  9. James Saurin
  10. William Bristow

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