The Vicinity of Smithfield

An overview of the history of the area now taken over by Castle Court shopping complex

The Castle Court shopping complex at Royal Avenue, Belfast, covers a 3 hectare site comprising the old Smithfield Market, the General Post Office, the Grand Central Hotel, and several other well known Belfast establishments. However, over 100 years ago, the vicinity was described by the Rev WM O’Hanlon as ‘the lowest place in the social scale, and as presenting, also in its physical aspects all that is most forlorn.’

There were two markets in the vicinity of the present Castle Court, namely Torrens Market and Smithfield Market. The street now known as Royal Avenue was originally called Hercules Street, and had no fewer than 33 butchers resident there. Hercules Street was named after Hercules Langford of the Langford Lodge family.

On the Castle Court side, the site was traversed by Berry Street, John’s Court, McCoubry’s Entry, Law’s Court, Torrens Lane, Torrens Market and Fultons Entry. Berry Street should rightfully be known as Barry Street, as it was named after a Mr Barry, trustee of the Donegall estates. Torrens Market was named after another agent of the Donegall family, and stood on the site of what was originally Williamson’s tannery.

Behind these tightly crammed tenements was Charlemont Street, later to house the GPO depot. It consisted of 30 houses with a population of 224 people, all Irish speakers. Behind this little street were Forcades Entry, Millar’s Lane, Kennedy’s Row, and the notorious Croarkin’s Pad, while Bell’s Lane preceded Garfield Street. The 1878 Improvement Act empowered Belfast City Council to demolish the entire area, an indication on how unsavoury it had become, even by Victorian standards.

Smithfield Market was another well established marketplace where all kinds of nondescript wares could be obtained. The Smithfield of old was described in 1852 as ‘the rendezvous of a gang of youthful miscreants—candidates for the hulks and the gallows—who find a market there for their booty and the eye and hand of justice.’

The Rev O’Hanlon goes on to describe Smithfield as ‘a sort of tumour, a morbid ganglion in the heart of our city; and by a well-known law of disease, the vitiated humours of a system find their way to the diseased part—it draws to itself and assimilates even a portion of the wholesome succulence which would, otherwise, nourish and strengthen the body.’

The immediate area of Smithfield was made up of a courtyard with a large shed in its centre, the scene of regular fairs. One of the streets off the courtyard was Smithfield Court, once the battle-ground of the whole neighbourhood where wrathful pugilists resorted, even from the most distant parts of town, to settle their disputes undisturbed by impertinent policemen. How far these explosions of brutality were connected with the drinking habits of the people may be gathered from the fact that Saturday night and Sunday were the times when these fierce and bloody struggles most often took place. The great social reformers of Belfast pointed out that there were 20 public houses in Smithfield alone.

Another notorious den was Hudson’s Entry. An account of a minister’s fact finding mission to the Smithfield area in October 1852 told how, at the top of Hudson’s Entry, he witnessed a most brutal contest between two lads ‘of tender age’, one of whom was backed by his mother. When the boy grew faint and feeble from loss of blood, the mother spirited him on with the promise of choice eatables if he would only bruise and beat his antagonist. It was Smithfield holiday—the Sabbath—and multitudes both young and old flocked to witness this event and give necessary impetus.

Other missionaries to Hudson’s Entry beheld ‘wretches, squatting at their doors, or staggering along and tottering from side to side of the narrow passage, unable to walk because of drink, even though they visited that place in the morning.’  At the time of this report, the alleyway contained 55 houses and held a resident population of almost 400 people.

By 1878, all that remained of Hudson’s Entry were ten vacant shops. It was eventually demolished and developed into present day Gresham Street. Hercules Street has now been completely revamped into the modern, glass-fronted buildings of Royal Avenue, with all traces of the horrors of Victorian Belfast eradicated forever. The sites of Torrens Market and the old Smithfield Market are now covered by the vast Castle Court complex.

Further reading:
Walks among the poor of Belfast, and suggestions for their improvement (1971) by WM O’Hanlon.

© The Glenravel Local History Project