Banking in Belfast

For centuries banks have been part of the fabric of this industrial city

The history of banking in Belfast is geographically centred around Waring Street and the area known as the 'Four Corners' in the eighteenth century city.

For some people this was the site of riches and prosperity. Coffee houses, such as Tim’s Coffee house, were generally places for the dissemination of financial information carried by newspapers and travellers disembarking into the Garmoyle Pool.

Rise of banking

The first bank in Belfast was Mussenden’s Bank, which opened in 1751 and was named after its founder. The bank lasted six years until the unfavourable conditions that governed merchant dealings at the time, forced Mussenden to close.

The law at the time stated that you could not be a merchant and a banker at the same time, while the emerging merchant class of Belfast was busy building up shipping interests.

It was not until 1787 that John Ewing, John Holmes, John Brown and John Hamilton started the Belfast Bank. Known as the ‘Bank of the Four Johns’, it soon was doing decent business in the town. Indeed, such was the extent of their success that other merchants in the town set up a rival partnership.

In 1789 competitors included the legendary Belfast figure, Waddell Cunningham, who gave the name ‘Cunningham’s Bank’ to the building in which the bank was housed. This site, at the head of High Street, (now a Primark store) still proclaims itself the 'Bank Buildings' in memory of its eighteenth century purpose.

Decline

The war with France throughout the 1790s and the unrest in Ireland caused by the 1798 uprising, led to the collapse of the first Belfast Bank by the end of the eighteenth century.

The lack of banking facilities in Belfast caused less scrupulous companies to fill the breach, with loan companies and counterfeiters setting up business in order to provide currency and capital.

The authorities took steps to stamp this behaviour out, with the Belfast Commercial Chronicle of February 5 1806 reporting, ‘last Wednesday a woman was whipped through this town, convicted by the Sovereign of passing counterfeit guineas’.

Alongside a steadier political situation in Ireland came increased prosperity in the north. On August 2, 1808, the Belfast Newsletter was happy to announce:

'we learn with pleasure that business commenced yesterday at the Belfast Bank, No 1 Donegall Square. The partners are David Gordon, Narcissus Batt, John H. Houston and Hugh Crawford, Esquires. The rising opulence of Belfast and the great increase in its trade, evidently renders such an establishment necessary.'

The Banks of Belfast

The Belfast Bank was to last until 1970 and paved the way for many other organisations. The Belfast Commercial Bank and the Northern Bank both opened in 1809, with the Ulster Bank following in 1836. By the middle of the 1830s, two Dublin based organisations, the Bank of Ireland and the Provincial Bank of Ireland were also operating in Belfast city centre.

In addition to these five city centre based banks, the Belfast Savings Bank opened on the site of the House of Industry in Smithfield in 1816. The savings bank was markedly different from the other banks set up at the time due to its philanthropic nature and missionary zeal.

An early manifesto published by the board of the bank, which included many people of the town’s charitable societies, aptly conveys this distinction, with the motto:

'To promote the prosperity and happiness of those who may be anxious to provide for their future comforts and necessities, yet cannot at the one time spare from their earnings such a sum of money as will be received in a Public Bank.'

All the banks were based in and around the city centre with the Bank of Ireland at Royal Avenue, the Ulster Bank at Waring Street and the Belfast Bank at the Assembly Rooms, the centre of the ‘Four Corners’. The Northern Bank made its home in the Bank Buildings at the top of High Street.

Northern Irish banking continued to thrive and expanded its business from the strict limits of the city centre, to more provincial areas. Withstanding the many crises that befell the industries of Belfast during this century, the banks managed to make huge profits for their shareholders at times.

Banking restructured

A major restructuring came with the takeover of the two largest banks, the Ulster Bank and the Belfast Bank, by the National Westminster and the Midland banks respectively in 1917. In many ways this helped to safeguard the banks during the period of immense political and financial upheavals that characterised the 1920 and 1930s.

Banking remained fairly static in Belfast until 1966, with the formation of the Allied Irish Banks, formerly the Munster and Leinster Bank, the Royal Bank of Ireland and the Provincial Bank of Ireland. This set the scene for the amalgamation of the Belfast and Northern banks, which were both owned by the Midland banks. The Belfast Bank, the first bank in Belfast, became the Northern bank in 1970.

Northern Ireland’s banks have been part of the fabric of the industrial city for centuries, and their architecture has provided Belfast with much of its identity. As new bank buildings appear in the city centre, the architecture changes, but the importance of these financial institutions to the life of the city does not.

Further Reading:
The Story of Waring Street Head Office: 1860-1960 (1960) by the Ulster Bank; The Belfast Bank, 1827-1970: 150 Years of Banking in Belfast (1975) by Noel Simpson; Belfast: An Illustrated History (1983) by Johnathan Bardon; Banking in nineteenth century Ireland: The Belfast banks, 1825-1914 (1987) by Philip Ollerenshaw.

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