From Agriculture to Industry

An overview of the early life of industrial east Belfast

In 1600, the townlands of Ballymacarrett and Ballyhackamore, along with the other districts that make up modern east Belfast, were part of the Clandeboye territories of the Gaelic aristocrat Conn O'Neill.

The terrain was densely wooded and sparsely populated, rising from marshy shoreline along Belfast Lough and the mouth of the river Lagan, to the low hills of north Down and Castlereagh.

The agriculture of the region, disrupted by a century of internecine warfare and sporadic resistance to plantation, was probably dominated by the raising of cattle, with some cultivation of oats in clearings in the woods.

As elsewhere in later medieval Gaelic Ulster, the population may have led a semi-nomadic existence as creaghts, family groups in attendance upon a peripatetic nobleman.


Ballymacarrett was the site of at least one battle in the early 1570s. The townland’s strategic position, on route between Carrickfergus and the Ards, underlay its ultimate incorporation into the town of Belfast more than two centuries later.

As early as 1568, Sir Brian McPhelim O’Neill contracted to ‘make, or cause to be made, a good and sufficient bridge, that men, horse, drag, cart and wayne … may safely pass … in some convenient place over the Ford at Belfast’.

In the coming centuries, the successive bridgings of the Lagan and, to a lesser extent, the Connswater, would mark east Belfast’s integration into the growing town on the Co Antrim side of the river.

Although a member of the native Irish nobility, Conn O’Neill also held his lands under English law.

However, following a dispute with troops under the command of Sir Arthur Chichester at Belfast, O’Neill was imprisoned in Carrickfergus castle in 1602.

His escape was orchestrated by the Scots laird Hugh Montgomery, in return for half of the Clandeboye lands, although the bargain was complicated by the third share claimed by another Scot, James Hamilton.

In the following years, a demoralised O’Neill sold his land piecemeal to Scots and English planters like Sir Moses Hill, who bought the manor at Castlereagh, and the townlands of Braniel and Cregagh.

Hamilton and Montgomery’s dispute over the Clandeboye estates led to the 1625 survey of the area by Thomas Raven, who records only eleven houses in Ballymacarrett and forty-two in Ballyhackamore.

Raven’s map shows a working salt marsh on the Ballymacarrett shoreline, but the area’s economy remained a rural one. The Owen O’Cork mill, among others, exploited the district’s many watercourses to grind oats, and a 1644 lease speaks of fishing rights.

There seems to have been little development by the 1670s when Orkney born Thomas Pottinger established himself at Ballymacarrett. The Long Bridge, spanning the Lagan and the mud flats on the Co Down shore, was constructed in the 1680s, but even by 1744 there seems to have been no large settlement in Ballymacarrett. 

Eighteenth Century Industrialisation

The urbanisation and industrialisation of what would become east Belfast began in 1779 when Cork born Barry Yelverton purchased Ballymacarrett from Eldred Pottinger.

Between 1781 and 1791, the population of Ballymacarrett increased from 419 to 1208; Belfast itself had a population of 18,320. Nevertheless, the lands on the Co Down side of the Lagan were dominated by a small number of large houses and their estates, noted as ‘Gentlemen’s Seats’ on a 1791 map.

Downshire Pottery was established on the Ravenhill Road in 1787. The area also contained glassworks and iron foundries.

In 1792, The New Rope Walk Company appealed in the Belfast News Letter for ‘Canvas Weavers, Hemp and Flax Dressers, and Twine Spinners’. A few years later, in 1799, an advertisement seeking ‘a few stout lads’ to work as apprentices in William Ritchie's shipbuilding yard gives a foretaste of the pre-eminent role the shipyards were to play from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.

By 1831, Ballymacarrett had 791 inhabited houses. Of the families who lived there, 77 were employed in agriculture, but 545 were employed in ‘trade and manufactures’.

At this point, ‘the greater part of the inhabitants … are employed in weaving muslins, calicoes and all kinds of cotton cloth’.

By 1854, there were four large mills on the Connswater. The textile, chemical, engineering and shipbuilding industries drew a workforce from rural areas and from elsewhere in Britain, shaping the culture of the increasingly populous district.

Sydenham and Belmont, rural areas along the shore towards Holywood, drew in merchants and industrialists eager to avoid the crowded streets and factories where their wealth was created.

JH Connop’s 1864 ‘View of Sydenham, Belmont and Glenmachan’ shows a landscape of villas and country houses, a number of them still in existence, set among rolling hills, park and woodland.

Even at this early stage, the still visible contrast between the innermost industrial districts of east Belfast and the outlying, more affluent suburbs was firmly established.

Further Reading 

Belfast: An Illustrated History (1982) by Johnathan Bardon; The History of the Town of Belfast (1880) by George Benn;, Ordnance Survey Memoirs: Parishes of Co Down II Vol 7 (1991) edited by Angelique Day and Patrick McWilliams; East Belfast: Paintings and Stories from Harbour to Hills (2001) by Keith Haines and Martin D Cooke; As I Roved Out (1946) by Cathal O’Byrne.

Consult the Linen Hall Library catalogue.