York Street is one of Belfast’s main thoroughfares. Dating from the early nineteenth century, it probably owes its name to Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and son of George III. Frederick Street, Great George’s Street, Little George’s Street, Sussex Street, and Henry Street were all also named after members of the royal family.
Street nomenclature is an interesting subject in its own right. To the east of York Street are Nile Street and Trafalgar Street, commemorating famous naval battles, accompanied by a street named in honour of Nelson. On the same side were Dock Street, Fleet Street, and Ship Street, all leading to the docks. On the west side of York Street, Canning Street, Bentinck Street, Spencer Street, and Brougham Street were all reminders of the political proclivities of a past generation. Brougham Street still remains and is named after the man whose defence of Queen Caroline in 1820 gained him widespread popularity. He was also a man interested in an incredible variety of subjects, giving O’Connell the opening for his famous gibe, ‘If Brougham knew a little of law, he would know a little of everything.’
The historian George Benn provides an interesting picture of this part of Belfast in the closing years of the eighteenth century. Corn and potatoes were grown in the tract of land stretching from the corner of John Street (now Royal Avenue) to the Charitable Institution at the junction of Clifton Street and North Queen Street. A map of 1771 shows the old poorhouse sitting in splendid isolation. The Antrim, New Lodge, and Carrickfergus roads (now North Queen Street) appear for the most part to be parks, fields, open land, and rural lanes, with about a dozen ‘villas’ dotted here and there over a large area. Only a short, narrow lane opposite John Street and above Academy Row (now Academy Street), destitute of any facilities for traffic, marked the beginnings of York Street.
On the lower side of North Queen Street, beyond Frederick Street, wasteland extended from the distant waterside up to Carrickfergus Road. This untenanted area is marked on maps as Point Fields. Thomas Gaffikin recalled of this area at the beginning of the nineteenth century:
‘Between the river and York Street lay a great stretch of waste ground—it was called the Point Fields—almost entirely possessed by sea birds in the winter, and in the summer the free grazing ground of promiscuous stock. It was often the scene of man fights, cock fights, dog fights and bull baiting. It was in fact the People’s Park of that day.’
Another Belfast man, Thomas McTear, stated in 1808 that York Street existed only as an opening to John McCracken’s cotton mill in York Lane, and to the offices and stores of the Stevenson’s, linen merchants.
The Royal Hospital
A map of 1791 shows that the thoroughfare now known as Frederick Street was in existence long before York Street was constructed. Originally called Brewery Lane, it then became Patrick Street, before settling on Frederick Street.
On June 5, 1815, the foundation stone of the Public Dispensary and Fever Hospital (later the Royal Hospital) was laid by George Augustus, second Marquis of Donegall, at Frederick Street. The institution was then opened on August 1, 1817. In The Belfast General and Commercial Directory of 1819, it was described as ‘a noble building which cost £6000.’
However, before the end of the century, the hospital was hopelessly out of date. Largely through the overwhelming enthusiasm of Lady Pirrie, a scheme to provide an up to date institution was inaugurated, and in 1897 a site was obtained on the Grosvenor Road. The present Royal Victoria Hospital was opened there in 1903.
With the development of the York Street district as a residential area, the churches became active. The first church built at York Street was the Primitive Secession Meeting House, of which the Rev Reuben John Bryce, principal of the Belfast Academy, was minister. It was erected on a site between Henry Street and Trafalgar Street, remaining there until the 1960s.
An outstanding personality in the York Street area in Victorian times was the Rev Thomas Toye, who founded the Presbyterian congregation at Great George’s Street in 1842, and ministered there for 27 years. He began his work in Belfast in a loft at James Street, now part of Corporation Street. When the revival of 1859 began, Great George’s Street Church had to be enlarged. The services sometimes continued through the night, and on one of these occasions 40 people were converted in the garden attached to the church. The congregation moved to their new church, the Macrory Memorial in Duncairn Gardens in 1896, and the old building became a foundry.
York Street Presbyterian Church was opened in 1839 and had a succession of able ministers, including the Rev Thomas Hamilton, who became the first Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University and a member of the Privy Council of Ireland. This church's history here ended when it was destroyed in the Luftwaffe blitz on Belfast in 1941.
The parish of St Paul’s was one of Belfast’s original pastoral districts. The foundation stone of the church was laid in 1850. The district assigned extended from Corporation Street to Oldpark gate, and from Henry Street and the New Lodge Road to Buttermilk ‘Loaney’ (Skegoniel Avenue.)
The History of the Town of Belfast (1979) by George Benn.
© The Glenravel Local History Project