The Last Days of Belfast Castle
Belfast Castle in Flames
On Sunday 25th April 1708, the inhabitants of Belfast woke to the sight of their most prestigious building a heap of smouldering ashes. The castle in the centre of the town, the home of the ruling Earl of Donegall, was completely destroyed by an accidental fire.
Belfast castle was situated in the area we know today as Castle Place and Castle Lane. Its main entrance was in Cornmarket facing the old Market House (see link to Market House post below). The Castle Gardens stretched all the way to the banks of the Lagan.
There had been an ancient castle on the site for many years (see link to Old Belfast Castles -What Lies Beneath Out Streets).
The Role of Arthur Chichester
In 1604 the infamous Arthur Chichester was ‘granted’ lands in County Antrim. This included the small village of Belfast with its castle in ruins. Chichester promised to rebuild the castle.
Recognising the potential of the location to control ‘Carrickfergus Lough’ (now Belfast Lough), he drew up plans to establish a town on the mud flats at the fording point of the rivers Farset and the Lagan. In doing so, Belfast was to replace Carrickfergus as the main town and harbour in the North.
As the Chichester family ‘owned’ Belfast, they would receive an income from rents and leases as the town grew. Also, as the port and market developed, they would collect on taxes and levies from shipping. Arthur was an astute businessman.
“The foundation of the town of Belfast was thus laid by Sir Arthur Chichester. Whatever estimate we may make of his character, there can be no doubt that he was an enterprising, astute and daring man; at the same time, he was ruthless in pursuing his own ends, and, such was the morality of the time, in common with the rest of his countrymen (English), he hesitated not to perpetuate any cruelty or persecution in dealing with the Irish people”.D J Owen, History of Belfast, 1921
Description of Belfast Castle
Chichester’s ‘Castell’ was built two storeys high above ‘sellars‘ (cellars) in a north-east aspect. Although described as cellars, it is believed that these were not underground but ground floor chambers. The town is built on Belfast sleech, a wet sticky mud. Underground rooms in this area would be likely to flood on a regular basis.
The ‘cellars’ were lined with stone but the main building was composed of brick. The rooms above had wooden floors and vaulted ceilings. The timber came from the Lagan valley. The building was a compact 50 foot by 20 foot. It is likely this castle was similar in plan to a tower house.
The castle itself was surrounded by strong walls 12 feet high. Outside this was a deep moat filled with water. This original Chichester castle was obviously built for defensive purposes.
“This castell will defend the passage over the foorde at Bealfast between the upper & lower Clandeboye, and likewise the bridge over the Ryver of Owynvarra, between Malon and Bealfast”Plantation Commissioners Report 1611
While the castle was being constructed, much building work was also being carried out within the town. Indeed, many new homes and tenements were composed of bricks left over from the castle development.
“The Towne of Bealfast is plotted out in good forme, wherein are many famelyes of English, Scotish and some Manksmen already inhabiting of which some are artificers who have buylte good tymber houses with chimneyes after the fashion of the English palle, and one Inn with very good lodging which is great comforte to the travellers in these pts”Plantation Commissioners Report 1611
The Redesigned Castle
Later in the 17th century however, the castle had been redesigned and appears to have lost most of its military feel. It is described by Sir William Brereton in 1635 as a “….dainty, stately house which is indeed the beauty and glory of the town”.
From Thomas Phillip’s map of 1685 we can see this castle was a square shape with walls measuring around 120 feet. The cupola over the roof corresponded to a similar architectural feature on the Market House opposite. There was a central courtyard and at least 40 chimneys. (Excavations carried out in 1983 at the corner of Castle Lane and Callendar Street uncovered 17th century artefacts including North Devon and German stoneware pottery).
“This map shows the castle as a large Renaissance-style house with bow windows. It is an undefended building.”Raymond Gillespie, Early Belfast, 2007
It may well be that some of the original tower house walls were incorporated into this new building on the same site. In his book The History of Belfast published in 1823, George Benn describes the demolition of this castle including walls that were 8 foot thick. This is more in keeping with Arthur Chichester’s fort than a residential stately home.
The “dainty” castle did have surrounding walls but these were not as high as the 12-foot walls of the earlier building and may have been for privacy purposes rather than defence. Alas, the walls were to play a role in hampering the rescue efforts in the 1708 fire. One benefit of the encircling walls, however, was that the separation prevented the inferno spreading to neighbouring buildings.
The Castle Grounds
However, while the castle was impressive, it was the castle grounds that drew the most admiration from visitors to Belfast.
“The Castle, as they call the Earl of Donegall’s house, is not of the newest model; but the gardens are very spacious, with every variety of walks, both close and open, fish ponds and groves; and the irregularity itself was, I think, no small addition to the beauty of the place”William Sacheverell, June 1698
The extensive grounds contained lawns and walkways, fruit orchards, a pigeon house, stables and a bowling green. The large stables featured 5 dormer windows and were accessed from Castle Street. Also fronting on to Castle Street was Robin’s Orchard which led on towards the Melon Garden.
Situated in today’s Arthur Square was the Castle fish pond fed with water from the Lagan. The western boundary of the Castle estate was known as Ash Walk. This was planted with Ash trees to act as a wind barrier for the strawberry and gooseberry beds.
“A great house belonging to my Lord Donegall, Lord Chichester, with very fine gardens and groves of ash trees”Montgomery Manuscripts 1689
Belfast City Hall currently occupies the site of the cherry orchard. There was also a barge house positioned on the Castle Wharf at the river end of the garden, where pleasure boats were stored for sailing on the Lagan.
While chosen for strategic purposes, the scenic attractions of this Belfast Castle were also immense.
“The view from the gardens and the castle was, perhaps, unsurpassed for the beauty of its quiet landscape”S Shannon Millan, Additional Sidelights on Belfast History, 1938
In the 17h century, views of the rural surroundings would have stretched over the meandering Lagan to the Castlereagh Hills. To the south was Crummuck (Cromac) Wood, which extended as far as today’s Shaftesbury Square.
The western scene encompassed the Black Mountain and to the north Ben Madigan, known today as the Cave Hill, which sloped down to Belfast Lough.
April 1708 -The Belfast Castle Fire
Tragically, five people perished in the blaze. These were the three youngest daughters of the 3rd Earl Donegall – Lady Jane, Lady Frances and Lady Henrietta. Also trapped in the burning building was a Miss Barklie, the daughter of a local clergyman and a servant named Catherine Douglas.
Another maid, Mary Teggart, miraculously managed to escape by climbing on to the roof and lowering herself down a waterspout on to an adjacent building.
The blame for the unfortunate event, was attributed to a serving girl.
“The cause of the fire is said to have been due to the carelessness of a servant who lit a wood fire in a room recently washed, and took no precautions to watch for sparks”S Shannon Millin, Additional Sidelights on Belfast History, 1938
The fire spread quickly across the wooden beams, catching the staircase. As the floors collapsed beneath them the screaming girls were urged to jump. However, in fear of jumping, they sought refuge in another part of the building only to die there.
The funerals of the victims took place the following week. From a letter written by Belfast merchant, Isaac McCartney we can see the devastation caused by the fire.
“I was to wayte on them this week being at the funerall of the 3 young Ladyes of my Lord Donegall wch were Destroyed in the flames of the Dreadful fire that Destroyed the Castle of this place & all the goods in 6 houres time last Sunday morning, the Ladyes were lost & most of the house burned Before the men of the town could gett in within the wals to help”.Belfast merchant, Isaac McCartney
Following the fire of 1708, the ruins of the castle and surrounding grounds lay untouched for many years as the Donegall’s were not in a financial position to rebuild.
“This failure to rebuild the castle was an important development for the town, since it removed an important focus for Belfast’s urban topographical development and allowed new areas to be opened up, most particularly the lower end of Ann Street”Raymond Gillespie, Early Belfast, 2007
John Maclanachan’s map of 1715 records the location of the old castle and grounds as an unused area. The same map however, shows that houses in Waring Street are now two-storied and made of brick. This would indicate that this was an up-and-coming area for professionals and entrepreneurs.
In 1717, when the 4th Earl of Donegall reached his majority, he began to lease out parcels of the castle lands. For example, on 13th June 1717, John Carpenter, a recently elected Burgess was granted a 41-year lease for –
“all that the demeans and demean lands of Belfast viz., the Castle gardens, Orchards, Pigeon House, Stables, Coachhouses, and all other Outhouses, Yards, and backsides; all the Meadows behind the Orchards and Garden, the March adjoining to it, the Cowpasture, the Oxpark Fryars Bush, the Course of Belfast containing about 111 acres and a half, the 27 acres of land late in the possession of John Brookes; the lands of Cromuck containing 154 acres; and 6 acres of land which Serjeson held at Stranmillis; together with the Bowling green, with passages and easements thereto belonging”
The annual rent was £100, which was low for the day.
However, even by 1757 most of the area was still not built upon. The establishment of an Exchange in 1769 by Lord Donegall to celebrate the birth of his son, further shows a removal of interest from the old castle area. This was built at the Four Corners, that is, the junction of Waring Street, Donegall Street, Bridge Street and North Street. The addition of an upper storey, the Assembly Rooms, made this the focus of business and entertainment for Belfast’s elite.
Re-Development of the Belfast Castle Site
Eventually, the location of the old castle was covered over with commercial properties. The first of these seem to have been ‘fleshers’ perhaps from nearby Hercules Street (see From Hercules Lane to Royal Avenue).
“….commonly called the New Buildings, being nine small houses together with the yard behind the said houses called Butcher’s Shambles”S Shannon Millin, Additional Sidelights on Belfast History 1938
In 1780 Mr Patrick Gaw, a tobacconist, signed a lease for a parcel of land here. He was well-known in the town and the area opposite the Market House where the castle once stood, was locally called Paddy Gaw’s Corner.
Today the site of Belfast’s first castles is covered over with shops and businesses. The glory and prestige of the location long-forgotten, except perhaps in a few street names. However, while the castles and gardens may appear to be gone, who knows what lies hidden just below the surface?
“The excavation (in 2005 at Nos 10-16 Castle Place) seems to show that despite extensive modern re-building in Belfast city centre there may well be portions of the castle, and perhaps the earlier castles, still surviving below ground”.Ruairi O’ Baoill Hidden History Below Our Feet 2011
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