Industry and Commerce in Belfast

An historical overview of the industrial heritage of the city

Among the oldest areas of the city, the Cathedral Quarter and City Hall have been at the centre of Belfast's commercial life since the foundation of the town of 'Bealfaste' in 1603. Despite the expansion of the city through subsequent centuries, both areas have maintained their status as ‘the city centre’, culturally and commercially.

The nature of business conducted in these parts has, however, changed greatly. The great linen warehouses and iron works, which dominated the busy streets in earlier centuries, have gone. Now the cobbled streets of the Cathedral Quarter house offices and restaurants, while City Hall remains the financial and retail heart of the city, in spite of a surfeit of suburban shopping centres.

Early years
Although initially overshadowed by Carrickfergus in commercial importance, Belfast quickly became a flourishing market town and port. Much of Belfast’s trade centred around High Street, which ran parallel to the river Farset allowing ships to dock where the Albert clock stands today. The Farset still flows beneath the street.

In the streets around the river a number of industries developed. Sugar refineries were established in Sugar House Entry off Waring Street, while a market for butter, hides and tallow was established on High Street before the end of the seventeenth century. The area was also home to James Blow, Belfast’s first printer.

The Eighteenth Century
The developing linen industry was a major feature of Belfast’s commercial life during the eighteenth century. In 1784, the White Linen Hall, which stood on the site of the current City Hall, opened for business, enabling local linen producers to market and export their wares in Belfast. In addition, the Brown Linen Hall in Donegall Street traded in ‘brown’ or unbleached linen.

The town’s growing prosperity was formally marked by the erection of the Exchange at the junction of Bridge Street, North Street, Waring Street and Rosemary Street in 1769. With the addition of the Assembly Rooms on a second storey in 1776, the Exchange became the financial and cultural heart of Belfast. The building still stands today and is currently vacant, although it is used periodically for productions staged by Tinderbox, Belfast’s leading theatre company.

A number of cotton and paper mills appeared towards the end of the century, heralding the industrial revolution and transforming Belfast into a major city. High Street also continued to develop as the town’s major commercial thoroughfare, containing the Donegall Arms and the Market House.

However, problems in the city’s development soon emerged, and economic depression due to competition with Britain led to the 1756 food riots.

The Nineteenth Century
In 1888, Belfast was officially granted city status, the culmination of a century of unprecedented commercial and industrial growth. The population at the end of the century stood at 350,000, some 20 times higher than it had been in 1801, and Belfast was the largest city in Ireland. The principal industries that inspired the city’s expansion were shipbuilding, engineering and linen production.

During the early part of the century, cotton had been Belfast’s leading export, and a number of mills dominated the landscape, including John McCracken’s on Donegall Street, employing 200. The area around the White Linen Hall in Donegall Square began to establish itself as the town centre during this era, but High Street remained the main business district, and was the first Belfast street to be illuminated by gas lighting in 1823.

During the 1860s, the American Civil War devastated cotton production, enabling linen to take over. Belfast quickly established itself as the greatest linen producer in the world.

The port also developed during this century. The portion of the Farset that allowed ships to dock in High Street was finally covered over in 1845, moving the harbour closer to the Lagan. In 1849, the Victoria channel was completed, increasing opportunities for trade and shipbuilding, and Harland and Wolff, Belfast’s leading shipyard, was founded in 1858. By 1899, the yard had produced the Oceanic II, the largest ship afloat at that time.

This growth was not without price, however. Many people had emigrated from the country to the city to seek work, so employers could dictate working conditions. Work in the linen mills was notoriously hard and unhealthy, and the mass of the working population lived in cramped and unfit housing. In the mid nineteenth century, average life expectancy in Belfast was a mere nine years.

To The Present
The opening of City Hall in 1906 established Donegall Square as the commercial centre of the city, and banks and other financial institutions began to congregate there. The early years of the twentieth century were boom years for others too. Harland and Wolff built a succession of huge liners, including the Titanic, and productivity in the yard and in other local industries was only increased by the demands of the first world war economy.

Yet during the 1920s, the great depression combined with the effects of partition devastated the shipbuilding and engineering industries in the city. However, the demands of the second world war provided temporary reprieve for many of Belfast’s ailing companies, and helped to establish the fledgling Shorts aircraft company in 1936. Conversely, areas of the city centre such as North Street, Bridge Street and High Street were decimated by German bombers in the 1941 blitz.

After the war Belfast’s linen and shipbuilding powers waned. Some of the great city centre linen warehouses survive today, but in different guises. Richardson Sons' and Owden’s warehouse, built in 1869, now houses Marks and Spencer’s Donegall Square North branch, while further along the square, the Linen Hall Library now resides in Moore and Weinberg’s 1864 building.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the development of suburban industrial estates, which left the city centre to the office and retail sectors. The Troubles also scarred the city enormously. A number of bomb outrages led to loss of life and the destruction of property and commercial vitality. The fear of incendiary devices led to shoppers being searched before they could even enter the city centre.

Yet, following the hesitant peace process since 1994, the centre of Belfast has revived. Increasing numbers of nationwide retail chains have established Belfast outlets, and new city centre shopping centres developed. Additionally, the Cathedral Quarter has been re-invented, with varying success, as a cultural quarter for the city. Trendy restaurants and new offices now loom over the old cobbled streets.

Regeneration has undoubtedly brought new commercial opportunity, but has often led to the destruction of historic sites in the City Hall and Cathedral Quarter areas. How to balance business and heritage is likely to remain a concern in the future.