From ford to port, an overview of the development of Belfast’s docklands
The relationship between the River Lagan and the town of Belfast has shaped the story and destiny of the city for 400 years. The very name 'Belfast', mouth of the sandbank, alludes to the importance of the river to the placing of the town.
The river was, however, underdeveloped when it came to shipping. For the first one hundred years of the town, the Lagan could only support small craft. ‘The Corporation for preserving and improving the Port and Harbour of Belfast,’ known as the Ballast Board, was created in 1785.
The main geographical problem facing development was the fact that, at low tide, there was little over 1m of water at the quays in the centre of the town. From there to the open Garmoyle Pool, the first area of deep water in the Lough, ran a small channel, which was at no point deeper than 8m. Even at a full spring tide, large vessels had to anchor three miles from the quays and have their cargo relayed to the town by a smaller craft. Thomas Gaffikin recalled this problem in 1885:
'It was usually the fate of the Old Eclipse, the Rob Roy, the Fingal or the Chieftain steamers to miss the tide, and stop between Whitehouse and Holywood. An open boat would come alongside, and any passenger anxious to get up to town had an offer of being rowed up in no time for a shilling.
'After the wearying journey of twenty-two hours form Glasgow or Liverpool, many of the passengers were glad to leave the steamer on the terms; but after the shillings were collected the batman cried out, "Can take a few more at sixpence," When they had secured as many passengers as the boat could carry without a certainty of drowning them, they began their journey, the pleasures of which on a cold wintry morning were not much relished.'
Problems of development
The Ballast Board was charged with solving this problem, which was only exacerbated by the massive growth of trade in the town. John Rennie drew up plans in 1821 to cut a ship canal to the Garmoyle Pool, but the cost of £250,000 was felt prohibitive.
A second less expensive plan by Walker and Burgess was adopted in 1824 and the necessary bill was put through parliament in 1831. It took two years for the money to be raised and in April 1839, they began to cut a channel from Dunbar’s Dock, at the north end of Corporation Street, to the first bend of the river. This process would lead to Belfast becoming one of the largest ports in the world. The Northern Whig recorded, on July 14, 1853:
'We anticipate a great amount of good to our working classes, by their having placed within their reach that legitimate enjoyment which will advance them in the social scale, which will engender in them new tastes and new ideas, and tend to make them useful and honourable members of society.'
Queen Victoria and the People’s Island
The next great development in the port was the purchase by the Ballast Board of the privately owned quays, the Donegall, Cunningham’s, Hanover, Chichester and Merchants, creating a publicly owned harbour. The Ballast Board was now reconstituted as ‘The Belfast Harbour Commissioners’ under the terms of the Belfast Harbour Bill of 1847. The new Victoria Channel, named after the newly crowned Queen, was opened on July 10, 1849. Dargan’s Island was created from this new cut in the river, which later became Queen’s Island. Ostensibly, this ‘island’ was created by the overflow of mud and silt from the newly cut channel.
Until the 1880s, Queen’s Island was the only pleasure park available to the burgeoning working classes of the city. A crystal palace was built there like that of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Uncannily, the Belfast version met the same fate as its London one, burning down in 1865. The Island continued to be a park for the people, with constant invasions during the rare public holidays of the time.
In 1882, however, Harland and Wolff began to lay out four new building berths. The Island now took on its new life as the spiritual home of the shipyards, being no longer the preserve of pleasure seekers but the kingdom of the ‘Island men’.
Belfast at its Peak: The Dock’s Explode
Harbour commissioners proclaimed their importance to the town through the opening of the Harbour Office on Clarendon Dock, an impressive building designed by George Smith. During the next fifty years, the Commissioners ensured that the docks were expanded and developed.
The Donegall Dock was rebuilt, the York dock was opened in 1897 and an Act of Parliament, the Belfast Harbour Bill of 1901, was passed causing the port to explode into growth. The Musgrave channel, built in 1903 ensured that the Harbour commissioners had finally won their victory over nature by creating a deep and wide channel into the mouth of the Lagan.
The Docks Today
The docks today have become a shadow of the packed quays of 1900. Like many big cities, the importance of shipping traffic has fallen away and the city has begun to see the mouth of the river as more than simply where the docks are situated. After the depression of the 1980s, the docks took on something of the reputation of a ghost town, with only the memories of glory days sustaining their existence.
With the Odyssey development on the Down side of the river and the creation of the Lagan lookout on the Antrim side, life is returning. As in London, an attempt is being made to create a living riverside culture and ferry traffic has returned to Belfast after many years of being based at Larne. While the Lagan continues to flow out into the city, the docks will still be an integral part of Belfast life.
Belfast: An Illustrated History (1983) by Jonathan Bardon; Shipbuilders to the World: 125 Years of Harland and Wolff, Belfast, 1861-1947 (1986) by Michael Stanley Moss; Steel Ships and Iron Men: Shipbuilding in Belfast, 1894-1912 (1989) by Harland and Wolff; An Unlikely Success Story: the Belfast Shipbuilding Industry 1880-1935 (2001) by John Lynch.