Belfast's Retail Trade

An historical overview of the retail trade in Belfast

The Seventeenth Century
The retail trade in the earliest years of Belfast’s existence was brisk enough to warrant regular intervention by the town authorities.

In 1616, the sale of ale and other liquor was regulated, and in the following year those selling ‘wine ale or aqua vitae’ during church services were threatened with an eight pence fine. Provisioning garrisons of English and Scots soldiery helped stimulate the economy of this small but strategically important settlement.

The streets and alleys of the town were crowded, noisy and filthy, and ‘great anoyance is comitted by the Butchers of this Towne by killing and slaughtering of Catle they suffer the Blood and Garbage of their slaughter houses, some to lie in ye streets and other parte to run into severall channels and ditches of this towne’.

Similar complaints about the butchers’ district of Hercules Street continued until the demolition of the area in the late nineteenth century. Other streets would have been crowded with carts, barrels, and other goods. An order of 1663 demanded that shopkeepers keep the streets in front of their premises clear.

Shopkeeping developed alongside street and market trading. A 1637 report on the state of the customs tells of ‘pedlars out of Scotland [who] swarm the country in great numbers, and sell all manner of wares, which they may afford at easier rates than poor shopkeepers that live in corporations'.

The Eighteenth Century
The authorities’ efforts to regulate the market continued into the 1700s. The 1702 oath, taken by the sovereign and clerk of the market, committed him to the ‘Correction of Victuals that is to say bread beer ale wine fish and flesh.’

But the rapid increase in size and population by 1770 threatened the containment of the retail trade. The sovereign declared that ‘Fresh butter, cheese, fish, pigs, geese, turkeys, hens, eggs, chickens, wild fowl, conies and other dead victuals [may be sold] in no other place but High Street’.

In 1776, the English traveller Arthur Young noted, ‘There is a considerable slaughter at this place.’ The butchers of Hercules Street were still causing problems in 1785 with ‘shambles that for nastiness have not their equal in the meanest village in Ireland’.

A few years later, nearby Smithfield was laid out over the old corn and hide market known as 'the rails', but improvement seems to have been short lived.

A painting of High Street in 1786 depicts a busy thoroughfare overhung with shop signboards. The alleys or entries running off High Street would have been equally busy with tailors, shoemakers and publicans. White’s Tavern, in Winecellar Entry, dates from the late eighteenth century. The market house (1769), and the Brown (1754) and White Linen Halls (1785) demonstrate the increasing size and complexity of Belfast’s commercial life.

The Nineteenth Century
With the growth of the linen and cotton industries came an increase in population and an accompanying expansion of the retail sector. In Joseph Smyth’s 1807 directory of merchants and traders servicing Belfast's 22,000 inhabitants, it is hardly surprising to find 80 tailors, a similar number of grocers, more than 45 innkeepers and publicans, 20 shoemakers, a dozen watchmakers, and 10 bakers.

Despite the prominence of the settled shopkeeper, in 1841 Hercules Street remained home to many of the town’s 166 butchers, whose district ‘functioned as a daily street market thronged with … merchants and pedlars, huxters, egg-wives and waggoners.’

The industrialisation of the baking industry, with the construction of Inglis and Company five storey bakery in 1882, produced a system of daily horse drawn deliveries of bread to Belfast homes. This form of distribution was also utilised by the growing soft drinks industry in the city.

The trades plied in the High Street entries around the middle of the century included publicans, shoemakers, tailors, fishmongers and bookbinders. In 1840, Pottinger’s Entry hosted four tailors, two stationers, a publican, a printer, and a flesher. As the century progressed, however, industrial districts, complete with their own localised corner shops, developed to the north and east of the city centre.

The closing years of the nineteenth century witnessed the incursion of large scale department stores into the Donegall Place and Royal Avenue area. Ultimately, five local stores—Arnott’s, Robinson and Cleaver's, Robb's, Anderson and McAuley's, and the Bank Buildings—would be joined by the arrival of multinationals. Even the market district was infected with a degree of glamour with the construction of the ornate St George’s Market building in Oxford Street, 1896.

The Twentieth Century
Despite the opulence of the large department stores, street trading continued in areas of the city centre. Michael McLaverty's novel Call My Brother Back describes this scene from the early 1920s:

'Down High Street they went and stood for a while at Robb’s to see the toys and a train with electric lights race round the window; and then into North Street where crowds thronged the pavements and the road. Handcarts were piled with fruit and hawkers shouted...'

There remained other areas of continuity. Smithfield Market was, by the mid century, ‘an unimpressive quad’ playing host to ‘junkshops and higgledy-piggledy’.

Two centuries of disreputable trading is still evidenced by the presence of a number of sex shops in the vicinity. The high status shops of mid century Donegall Place reflected the street’s social history as a wealthy residential site.

In 1960, the area around Cornmarket and Ann Street remained central for grocers, tea merchants and food shops.

The break with continuity was twofold. In the 1970s and 80s, the development of out of town shopping centres and the IRA bombing campaign against commercial targets in the city centre hastened the loss of all five department stores and many smaller shops.

Recession in the 1980s exacerbated decline, though redevelopment has once more focused on the traditional retail districts of the city. Castle Court shopping centre on Royal Avenue contains many well-known chain stores, and a new retail centre for nearby Victoria Square has been given the go ahead in the early years of the twenty-first century.

Further Reading
The Drennan-McTier Letters 1776-1820, 3 vols (1999) edited by Jean Agnew; Call My Brother Back (1979) by Michael McLaverty.