Bernard Barney Hughes

Victorian baker and Catholic lay leader

A major local entrepreneur and prominent Catholic lay leader during a period of growing confidence in Belfast’s minority community, Bernard ‘Barney’ Hughes was born in Co Armagh in 1808. He came to Belfast as a journeyman baker at the age of 19.

By 1833, Hughes was operations manager at the Belfast Public Bakery, established in 1800 to prevent unscrupulous private bakers overcharging the working class public. However, when presented with an ultimatum by his employers in December 1840 – abandon his intention of attending a dinner in honour of Daniel O’Connell during his visit to Belfast or lose his job – Hughes set up his own bakery at Donegall Street.

Hughes’s new enterprise flourished. Within a year, four additional ovens were installed and by the winter of 1842 the bakery was producing £600 worth of bread weekly. Bread baked commercially was an important staple for a rapidly growing population of urban workers, many thousands of whom lacked basic cooking and storage facilities in their overcrowded homes.

At the end of 1846, Hughes purchased two ships, and following the repeal of the Corn Laws was able to import grain on his own behalf. A new bakery opened at Donegall Place in 1847. Known as the Railway Bakery because of tramlines laid in the cobbles of the adjacent Fountain Lane, the new premises processed up to 1000 sacks of flour each week. By 1852 Hughes had introduced baking machinery into a third bakery, the Model Bakery in Divis Street.

Given the scale and integration of Hughes’ businesses, he was in a position to influence, perhaps even control, prices and practices in the baking trade. During the famine period he kept prices low, and the rural poor, driven to Belfast by hunger and unemployment, looked to bread as a replacement for their previous staple foodstuff, the potato.

Hughes’ public life was increasingly concerned with Catholic causes. He was one of a group of prominent citizens who founded the Catholic Institute in 1859, and the Ulster Catholic Publishing Company in 1862. Nevertheless, one unsympathetic cleric found him ‘liberal enough to give money to heretical purposes.’

Bernard Hughes died on September 23, 1878 at Riverston, his house in Holywood, Co Down. He was buried at the Friars Bush cemetery on the Stranmillis Road.

Further Reading
Barney: Bernard Hughes of Belfast 1808-1878 (2001) by J MaGee; Dictionary of Ulster Biography (1993) by K Newmann.

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