Who Remembers Arnott’s Department Store, Belfast?

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Arnotts on Bridge Street and High Street today
Arnott’s Building on Bridge Street and High Street today

Arnott’s Department Store

Arnott’s was a well-known and respected shop in Belfast city centre. It closed on 17th August 1974 after 137 years of trading.

The department store was the work of two Scots, John Arnott and David Taylor, who came to the city in the nineteenth century. Belfast was recognised as a thriving town offering many opportunities to aspiring entrepreneurs.

John Arnott

John Arnott was born on 26th July 1814 in the small town of Auchtermuchty in Fife, Scotland. His father was John Arnott, a linen manufacturer, and his mother Elizabeth Paton.

As a youth he worked in the linen trade in Glasgow, but in his early 20’s decided to sail to Ireland to make his fortune. After a couple of years working for the Cork firm of Grant & Co, he opened his own small business in the city. However, this enterprise failed.

John moved north to Belfast and in 1837 opened another shop in Bridge Street. He operated as a draper, haberdasher and silk merchant.

Arnotts in Street Directory 1843-44
Arnotts in Street Directory 1843-44

Partnership with David Taylor

David Taylor, named after his father, was born in 1815 in the town of Perth, just north of Auchtermuchty. He also came to Ireland in search of success. In 1840’s the two men were to meet in Belfast and a friendship developed. Later David married John’s younger sister Jessie.

 In 1852 a business partnership between the two men was formed. This resulted in the Arnott’s Bridge Street store expanding around the corner and having frontages on both Bridge and High Streets.

As well as owning the Arnott’s shop, the partners also purchased properties on the Crumlin Road and Donegall Street, including a large boarding-house to provide accommodation for their staff.

Arnott's Store description - Dublin Builder   15th June 1866
Arnott’s Store description – Dublin Builder   15th June 1866

“This building [the Arnott’s store] …the erection of which is transforming the aspect of Belfast…The site on which the building stands is probably considered as a central business position, one of the most desirable in Belfast”

Dublin Builder   15th June 1866
Arnott's Original Store - Dublin Builder   15th June 1866
Arnott’s Original Store – Dublin Builder   15th June 1866

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The Arnott’s Store

Arnott’s Store Design

The front edifice of the Arnott’s store stretched 120ft with a central pavilion and lateral wings. The pillars and clustered piers were composed of red Aberdeen granite, while the tops of the columns were carved sandstone. The first two floors of the building were for retail trade while the 3 upper levels were for wholesale.

The rear of the premises contained workrooms, a kitchen and a dining hall. The interior of the building was spacious and well lit by large windows to the front and back and numerous roof skylights.  Messrs Thomas Jackson & Sons of Belfast were employed as the architects while Mr John Murphy was the builder.

Arnott’s Merchandise

Arnott’s was renowned for their high-quality Irish goods, especially linens, damasks, cambric and poplins. They also sold Irish friezes for ladies dresses as well as woollen goods and tweeds. The company catered for the higher end of the market.

“The stock held in these varied departments is large, general, and of great assortment. Every taste gratified; every pocket suited, although low-priced goods are not a speciality. Their trade has always been what might be termed a ‘responsible’ one, by which a reputation had to be sustained with the middle and upper classes, who are sufficiently intelligent to discriminate between real and sham or apparent cheapness”

Industries of the North  1888-91

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In 1873 the business was flourishing and it was decided to turn it into a limited liability company.

John Arnott’s Career

In the late 1850’s John Arnott had returned to Cork, where he opened another drapery store. This was very successful and subsequently Arnott stores opened in Dublin, Glasgow and Newcastle-on-Tyne.

He was also involved in many other businesses such as the City of Cork Steamship Company, the Cork Macroon Direct Railway and the Bristol Steam Navigation Company.

In 1873 he acquired ownership of the Irish Times.  A year later he purchased The Northern Whig, he sold this shortly after due to his opposition to the newspaper’s anti-Catholic slant.

In 1859, 1860 and 1861 he was elected mayor of Cork and he was an MP for Kinsale from 1859 to 1863. On 12th February 1896 Arnott was made the Baronet of Bailey in County Dublin.

John Arnott Family Life

In 1852 John married Mary Mc Kinlay, daughter of John James McKinlay of Stirling in Scotland. The couple had two daughters Rosina and Margaret Jane and three sons John Alexander, David Taylor and Mangerton William. His wife, Mary, died on 29th July 1866 aged only 32.

On the 7th November 1872 Arnott married Emily Jane Fitzgerald. Her father, Edward Loftus, was the rector of Ardagh. The wedding took place in Yougal, County Cork. His bother-in-law, David Taylor was witness.

The Arnotts were blessed with 5 daughters Lilly Eleanor, Emmaline, Jessie Alexandria, Florence Geraldine and Mary and 2 sons Loftus Percival and Maxwell John.

John Arnott died on 28th March 1898 at his home Woodlands, Upper Glanmere Road, Cork. He was 83 years old. His funeral was hugely attended.

John Arnott's Funeral - Irish Times 1st April 1898
John Arnott’s Funeral – Irish Times 1st April 1898

Arnott’s Support for the Poor

John Arnott was also famous for his generosity and was especially concerned with the welfare of children, in particular the unfortunate souls in the workhouse.

In 1861 he set up bakeries in Cork to remove the monopoly of the extortionate established bakers, and sold bread at much cheaper prices. He then gifted those businesses to the workers who had helped him.

In 1887 he distributed £1,500 worth of bedding to the poor; he provided public parks, hundreds of houses and donated large amounts to various charities. Indeed his kind contributions cannot be fully estimated.

“Arnott’s immense popularity was due to his philanthropic generosity, which by any standards was prodigious….Although he was a Presbyterian by faith, his largesse was distributed without religious bias”

Pauric J Dempsy and Shaun Boylan, Dictionary of Irish Biography

David Taylor Career

Meanwhile David Taylor continued to run the Arnotts establishment in Belfast. In 1856 he was elected councillor for St Anne’s Ward and was Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1867, 1883 and 1884. He also served on Belfast Corporation until his retirement in 1893.

In recognition of his contribution to civic life he received a knighthood in 1883. He was presented with this by Lord Spencer, at the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone of Belfast Central Library, a project close to Taylor’s heart.

A record of the period says of him “His civic services were valued for the zeal and diligence with which they were rendered”.

Bertha House

David Taylor resided at 2 Lower Crescent, Belfast. Subsequently the family moved to 71 Malone Road to a large property he had had built. This was named Bertha House. The building was designed by the same architects who designed the Arnott’s store, Thomas Jackson. It was a two storey detached stucco house, set on an elevated site. Unfortunately it was demolished in the 1990’s.

Bertha House Listed on Malone Road - Street Directory 1894
Bertha House Listed on Malone Road – Street Directory 1894

Taylor died on 8th May 1896 at Bath in England. His interests in Arnott’s were carried on by his son, the Rev David Alexander Taylor.

David Taylor Death Notice - Newsletter 9th May 1896
David Taylor Death Notice – Newsletter 9th May 1896

David Taylor’s Support for Charities

Like is brother-in-law, David Taylor was active in numerous charitable societies including the Belfast Charitable Society, the Belfast Board of Guardians and the Belfast Dispensary Committee.

David was president of the Y.M.C.A. and a committee member of Foster Green Hospital. He also sat on the boards of the Royal Victoria Hospital, the Poor-law Board, the Ulster Institute for the Deaf and Dumb and Blind and the Opthalmic Hospital in Great Victoria Street.

He was a regular and frequent visitor to Belfast Workhouse and “…none took a more sympathetic interest in the management of that extensive institution on the Lisburn Road”.  A portrait of Taylor by Richard Hooke hangs in Belfast City Hall.

David Taylor Death Report - Newsletter 9th May 1896
David Taylor Death Report – Newsletter 9th May 1896

“Sir David, who had reached the ripe age of 81, was one of nature’s gentlemen. His urbanity, kindness of heart, and thoughtfulness of disposition were proverbial, and many are the institutions who mourn in his death a genuine and sincere friend. His genial countenance, rarely clouded even by the shadow of a frown, was a truthful index to his character”

Belfast Newsletter 9th May 1896
Article Belfast Newsletter 13th May 1896
Article Belfast Newsletter 13th May 1896

The Benevolent Society of St Andrew

Both John Arnott and David Taylor were founding fathers of the Benevolent Society of St Andrew. The organisation was called after the patron saint of Scotland and held its first AGM on 30th November 1867, St Andrew’s feast day.

This philanthropic association was composed mainly of the city’s middle and upper classes of Scottish descent. Its purpose was to provide aid for poor Scottish migrants (or those whose parents or grandparents had been born in Scotland). Its charitable works included supplying working-class families with coal, boots, clothing, glasses and food vouchers.

The Society also purchased a large plot in Belfast City Cemetery to provide an alternative to the Poor Ground. It is marked with a rough hewn stone carved with Cross of St Andrew [D-182/3]. A secondary benefit of the association was it provided those Scots at the upper end of the social hierarchy with a useful network of contacts. The Benevolent Society of St Andrew is still active today.

“The Belfast Benevolent Society of St Andrew played a key role for Scots at both ends of the social spectrum in nineteenth and early twentieth century Belfast…..the assistance provided by the St Andrew’s Society spared many of the least fortunate members of Belfast’s Scottish community the indignity of the workhouse”

Kyle Hughes   2014

The business continued to thrive and in February 1937 celebrated its centenary.

Article Northern Whig and Belfast Post - 3rd February 1937
Article Northern Whig and Belfast Post – 3rd February 1937

“In the hustle and bustling of our rapidly changing world one hundred years seems a short period of time, but in the life of a business firm it represents a century of steady progress. And progress has been the keynote of the rise of Messrs John Arnott & Co Ltd, in Bridge Street and in High Street, Belfast, since its inception in 1837” 

Northern Whig, 3rd February 1937

WW2: Arnott’s Destroyed and Rebuilt

Arnotts Building - Above Street Level
Arnott’s Building – Above Street Level

In 1941 Arnott’s department store suffered a direct hit from Luftwaffe bombers and was demolished. (This same attack also demolished much of Sugarhouse Entry). However, Arnott’s was eventually rebuilt on the same site. In the intervening years Arnott’s operated from a number of small shop premises in North Street Arcade.

The new shop opened its doors in November 1958. It was designed in a Neo-Georgian style reminiscent of the architects Young and Mackenzie. Composed of rustic red brick the ground floor windows had surrounds of Mourne granite. The upper windows were decorated with wrought iron balconies.

The interior of the building was described as airy and spacious with good temperature control. The decor of pale colours combined with lots of natural light as well as recessed light fittings and spotlights resulted in an atmosphere of ‘modernity’. The new shop also boasted elevators and a pneumatic tube system for transporting money directly to the cash office.

Arnotts - wrought iron balconies
Arnotts – wrought iron balconies

“The system of heating installed in the new Arnotts building is one of the most up-to-date of its kind in the country, and comes as close as possible to simulating the qualities of radiant heat which [so far] comes almost exclusively from the sun”.

Arnotts Return to Bridge Street, the Shoppers’ Paradise

After an enforced absence of more than seventeen years the firm of John Arnotts & Co, of Belfast Ltd, has returned to High Street and Bridge Street…Now in one of the city’s most handsome post war buildings”

Belfast Newsletter, 15th November 1958

Decline and Closure

Less the 20 years later Arnotts was in serious financial difficulties.

A variety of reasons brought about the mighty store’s decline including

  • Competition from high-street chain stores
  • a shift of commercial interest from the Bridge Street area to Royal Ave drew shoppers away
  • Economic uncertainty during the Troubles
  • Arnotts was bombed several times adding to the problem

On a rainy August day in 1974 this landmark of Belfast commerce finally closed its doors forever.

“It was not just the end of an era for the city, it lost what was the living memory to two Scotsmen who not only made this land their home but who worked for the benefit of all its people”

Paul Carson 2014

Arnott’s Image Gallery

Click to enlarge

Arnotts Advert Northern Whig Dec 8th 1920
Arnott’s Advert Northern Whig Dec 8th 1920

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