The Industrial Heritage of North Belfast

An overview of the industrial heritage of north Belfast.

North Belfast is defined here as the area between the Shankill Road and the River Lagan, bounded in the centre of the city by North Street, Royal Avenue and High Street, the northern bank of the River Farset. Development was restricted by the presence of the Cave Hill and Belfast Lough.

Among the earliest manufacturing activities in north Belfast were the shipyards of William Ritchie, established in 1791. Before moving to Belfast, Ritchie had been in business in Saltcoats in Ayrshire. His premises were at the Old Lime Kiln Dock, now the Clarendon Dock, and his first ship, the 300 ton Hibernian, was launched in 1792.

His brother Hugh also built ships on former slob land to the north of this dock, and when he died in 1807 a third brother, John, took over the business. This firm became Ritchie and MacLaine and was later inherited by his son-in-law Alexander McLaine. It continued until 1878. Messers Connell and Sons also built ships on the north bank of the Lagan.

The firm of Workman Clark built ships to the north of the Milewater Basin from 1879. This firm was overshadowed by the larger firm of Harland and Wolff, but had a reputation for quality and innovation through its concentration on refrigerated vessels for the chilled meat and fruit trades. AW Hamilton and Company Ltd also operated from the Clarendon docks as ship repairers.

Around 1760, Stewart Hadskis opened an iron foundry off Hill Street, where he made pots and pans as well as boilers for the local bleachers. The business was carried on by the Hadskis family until 1798, when it was offered for sale and closed down shortly thereafter.

Although other foundries were in operation in Belfast, it was not until 1811 that the Belfast Foundry was established in Donegall Street. William Booth came from Manchester and set up another foundry in Union Street at the same time. John Rowan, having experienced difficulty in transporting his products from Doagh, moved his establishment to York Street in 1846.

Stephen Cotton came to Belfast from Leeds and set up the Brookfield Foundry in 1856. His first products were spinning and drawing frames as well as hackling machines. He later added roller-fluting machines, bundling presses and power reels to his range. Attachment of automatic devices enabled the firm to continue in business until 1962.

John Rowan built the first steam vehicle in Ireland in 1836, and demonstrated it in Belfast, but he was unable to find capital to produce more. The available speculative capital was being directed to the railways rather than free roaming steam powered machinery. The Belfast and Ballymena Railway Company opened its line from York Street in 1848, and constructed its locomotives and carriages there.

The OD car was designed at Dunmore on the Antrim Road, but when it was ready to go into production in 1921, the post war depression and high road tax made it uneconomic. The developer, James A McKee, then designed the electric hare, used at greyhound racing tracks worldwide. Parts of the premises were later used by MH Cars Ltd for the production of a series of double deck buses on Daimler Atlantean chassis for the Belfast Corporation.

This company was taken over by Messers Alexander Ltd, and the works transferred to Mallusk. The French tyre giant was also encouraged to make use of post war government grants to open a tyre factory at Mallusk.

Spinning Mills
In 1822, Thomas Mulholland and his son Andrew built a large cotton-spinning mill on Point Fields, which later became York Street. These premises were destroyed by fire in June 1828, and when rebuilt were fitted out with new wet spinning frames to produce fine linen yarn. This developed into the York Street Flax Spinning Company. Further mills and weaving factories were built including the Jennymount Mills, the Brookfield Mills for Ewart, the Whitehouse Mills, those at Ligoneil, and the Campbells Mills at Carnmoney.

Additional Manufacturing Industries
The Cavehill Lime quarries gave rise to an interesting rope tramway, which carried the produce to the docks at the Milewater Basin. Also on the Limestone Road were the McGladdey brickworks. It was here that Rex McCandless developed the ‘Impactopus’ machine, which improved the quality of the end product and eliminated the need for a tall chimney for the furnace. Another in the building trade, Macrete Ltd, part of the McNeill group, made reinforced concrete products at Duncrue Street. These were taken over by Breton Precast Ltd.  Asphalt roofing materials were made at Whitehouse.

Thomas Gallaher, who had been producing tobacco products in Londonderry, transferred his facilities to Belfast in 1863, and by 1891 had 45 tobacco spinning machines at work in his York Street premises.  It was not until 1902 that he started making the cigarettes for which the firm became so widely known.

Following the second world war, the Northern Ireland government’s industrial development programme led to the establishment of an industrial zone in Monkstown, later part of the new town of Newtownabbey. One of the main firms to set up there was Standard Telephone and Cable, a telecommunications firm specialising in telephone exchange equipment. It developed its skills to keep abreast of the computer revolution.

On Church Road, Lear Fan aircraft components were made for final assembly in the US. Although this revolutionary plane met its design criteria, it could not meet the excessively demanding standards set by the CAA for flight certification. The factory was later used by FG Wilson to build standby power generating sets, before being occupied by Shorts as a subcomponent manufacturing plant.

Other industrial concerns in the area were based round the docks, where feed mills were established to take the grain directly from the ships and prepare it for the consumer. The Belfast Abattoir was also situated there, and a meat exporting plant established in Newtownabbey.