The Industrial City
Belfast saw an explosion in its population, production and inquisitive societies
‘Poetry and fluent drivel, know their place –
Take shape in some more glib environment
Away from the shipyard gantry, bolt and rivet.
Elsewhere assess existence, ask to what end
It tends, wherefore and why. In Belfast live it.’
From 'Springtime Revisited' by Derek Mahon
Nineteenth century Belfast was a very different place to the city of the previous century. From a small trading town, important in local terms but a mere blip on the international landscape, Belfast developed into an industrial behemoth.
The population grew to 250,000 and the town’s footprint grew from two and a half square miles to 23 square miles by 1900.
Major industries of the 19th century included the production of rope, ships, linen, bottles and cotton (the main product until 1825). The town was increasingly interested in building itself up as a port and much of the reclamation of land that Belfast is built upon was performed in the first fifty years of the century.
The River Farset was covered by what is now High Street. The Ritchie brothers began shipbuilding where Corporation Street is now, and a ship canal was dredged from the Garmoyle Pool situated in the middle of Belfast Lough to the now bourgeoning city centre.
Ships could now dock in the city centre, with Belfast taking the first steps to becoming one of the most important ports in Western Europe.
As Belfast became the workshop of the British Empire, literature was far removed from its mind. The city did, however, in the early part of the century outdo itself in the creation of organisations that would ensure that the spirit of inquiry, perhaps less radical than its 18th century flame, continued to survive.
The Belfast Natural History Society was established in 1821 to accumulate collections of antiquities and zoological specimens. Ten years later the Belfast Museum of Natural History was opened in College Square North.
This would later become the Ulster Museum, now situated in the grounds of the Botanical Gardens, opened by the Natural History Society in 1828.
The Belfast Literary Society was formed in 1801, and the Society for Acquiring Knowledge, founded in 1805, had ‘an extensive library of well-chosen books and an excellent pair of globes’. The Cosmographical Society saw light in 1811, but was soon ushered back into darkness in 1813.
A Galvanic Society was formed although little was galvanised and a split in the ranks led to the formation of a philosophical society.
Also formed was the Belfast Historical Society which was made up of relations of United Irishmen and pillars of the community such as John Templeton - the ‘Gilbert White of Ireland’, so known for his encouragement of the study of natural history.