The Industrial Heritage of South Belfast

An overview of the industrial heritage of south Belfast.

South Belfast, which incorporates the area from the Bog Meadows to the Lagan and the Farset at Castle Place, would at first sight seem to have little or no industrial heritage. Since Victorian times, it has been one of the areas most favoured by the industrialists and merchants from the city to build large and expensive residences. However, it does hide some secrets that can be of interest to the serious student of industrial heritage.

The first reservoir for Belfast’s public water supply was located at Stranmillis. The Belfast Charitable Society undertook the initial work in the period from 1795 to 1805. Water for the growing town was piped through bored-out logs to a pond off what is now Bankmore Street for onward distribution. Householders could have water piped directly to their homes, but had to pay a water rate for the privilege. The springs at Fountainville Avenue also supplied part of the town’s needs.

The presence of the artesian wells around the Cromac district, which were non-alkaline and could absorb the pressurised carbon dioxide gas required by the product, allowed the development of a flourishing industry producing and bottling mineral water. The first manufacturers, Grattans, were local chemists. Their Quinine flavoured ‘Tonic Water’ became a staple drink in the tropics as it was found to be beneficial in combating malaria.

‘Dry Ginger’ produced by the Belfast firm of Ross and Co could, at one time, be obtained in virtually every principal city of the world, and even in many of the remotest places. Export of aerated water was valued at £364 in 1851, although no quantity was given, and this rose to 12,594 tonnes in 1913, but no comparative value was recorded. Other firms such as William Corry and Company, Cantrell and Cochrane Ltd (now C&C) and Wheeler and Company Ltd were also active in this field.

Other aspects of food and drink were important in the area. Bakers Inglis and Company had premises at Eliza Street from which they served the major part of the city. They also had a plant on the Lisburn Road from which their own box wagons could be delivered straight to the Great Northern Railway for distribution throughout the country. Another bakery, McWatters was built in Cromac Street.

There was a jam and soup factory operated by Edwards and Edwards at the Stranmillis embankment. Further upstream at Newforge, there was another food canning factory operated by Wilsons and Ulster Meats Ltd.  These premises had earlier been known as a clog factory. Murray Sons and Company, established in 1810, operated a tobacco factory off Sandy Row, just within the area under consideration.

Messers Finlay operated a soap factory off Ann Street during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They made a feature of the proportions of their soap bars, conforming to the ‘golden rule’ which meant having the sides in the ratio 1: square root of 2:2.  Financial pressure meant the premises have since been put to office and commercial use.

John Boyd Dunlop used premises in Montgomery Street for his veterinary practice, and it was here in 1888 that he developed the pneumatic tyre that had a revolutionary effect on all forms of land transport over the next few years.

Other city centre premises were built as warehousing for the many linen manufacturers and finishers. Robinson and Cleaver, one of the largest wholesalers and retailers of Irish linen in the United Kingdom, built their main premises with workrooms for embroidery in Donegall Square North, adjacent to similar premises occupied by Richardson Sons and Owden. The Ulster Weavers Company Ltd had a large mill off Sandy Row, and nearby was the Albion clothing company.

The firm of Marcus Ward was known worldwide for its primary product, the series of Vere Foster writing books which taught copperplate writing to several generations of English speaking children. Their premises were in the Royal Ulster Works at the corner of Dublin Road and Bankmore Street.

They were one of the principal printing companies in the UK, but a family dispute drove the company into bankruptcy and its assets were taken over by McCaw, Stevenson and Orr, a competitor with premises at Linenhall Street. The combined Damask linen firm of John Shaw Brown then moved to new premises in east Belfast, and the main factory at Edenderry on the Lagan was taken over for its finishing and packing department. It is an interesting coincidence that the printing works were close to what had been one of Belfast’s earliest specialist manufacturers, Joy’s Paper Mill.

An ironworks was established in Eliza Street about 1850, but in spite of three different owners in three years, it did not succeed. The last owner appears to have been Robert Hickson, who introduced iron shipbuilding to Belfast and had hoped in vain to provide iron plates and fittings at a competitive price. Premises in University Street were initially occupied by Corry Ltd for preparing its aerated waters until the artesian well seems to have been unable to sustain the demand around 1910.

The motorcar manufacturing company, Chambers Motors, then moved in from Cuba Street in east Belfast, where they had outgrown their existing factory. Chambers made cars of the highest quality but with certain eccentricities. Their gearbox, which was located in the rear axle, produced three forward speeds and reverse from an otherwise conventional epicyclic system using sun, planet and annulus gears. During the first world war they built ambulances for the Ulster division but could not get government contracts due to the bore of their engines being too narrow. They also made shell cases and hand grenade fuses during the war.

After the war, when supplies were difficult to obtain, they bought in many of their old cars, which had become outdated in bodywork styles but retained useful engines, and refurbished them as commercial vehicles. The firm succumbed to the recession of the early 1930s. Parts of the premises were then used as a garage and workshop by the Belfast Omnibus Company, and a smaller part for making bakery machinery.

The clay deposits at Stranmillis were used as a brick works until the middle of the 1950s when they became uneconomic and were built over.  An adjacent factory produced asphalt-roofing materials.