How Fountain Street got its Name

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Where’s the Fountain?

Lovely Day for a Guinness
Lovely Day for a Guinness

Fountain Street, in Belfast city centre, is a commercial throughfare running from Wellington Place to Castle Street, parallel to Donegall Place. It is full of shops, cafes and a nearby well-known delicatessen, what it doesn’t have is a fountain. So why the name?

View of Fountain Street from Castle Street
View of Fountain Street from Castle Street

The Farset Polluted

As Belfast grew from a few scattered houses on the ford into a prosperous town, the demand for fresh water also increased. The main river, the Farset, was salt water as far as Castle Street and even from the 17th century was polluted and not fit for human consumption.

The Belfast Corporation tried to legislate against further contamination by making it illegal for butchers from nearby Hercules Street (now Royal Avenue) to dump animal carcasses and waste into the river.

“It is ordered and by and with the consent affores it is hereby enacted that if any Butcher or Butchers or any other person whatsoever shall from and after this date hereof slaughter or kill or cause to be slaughtered or killed any catle of what kinde soever within this Towne of Belfast without they or any of them soe doeing shall carry or cause to be carryed the same day all y Blood and Garbage of such beasts or catle soe killed or slaughtered twenty yards beyon ye full sea marke every such Butcher or other person offending herein shall for every offence pay twenty shillings sterling to be levied immediately by distresse or otherwise as is accustomed &c”

Belfast Corporation, 7th January 1663

However, at a time when there were no sewers or drainage it was inevitable that the residents of the town would use the Farset as a ‘garbage disposal’. Options were limited and the river was seen as an easy means of washing debris and rubbish out to sea. Eventually the sight and stench of the mighty river was overpowering and the Farset was culverted. The river still runs through the city today under High Street.

The Lagan and the Blackstaff Rivers

The two other main rivers around which Belfast grew up were also tidal.

The Lagan was tidal as far as Stranmillis, this means it was salt water from the sea. The name Stranmillis comes from the Irish Sruthan Milis which means ‘sweet stream’ indicating that at this point the Lagan was fresh water.

The Blackstaff River was brine up as far as Sandy Row. The Bridge here was originally known as Saltwater bridge.

“All this meant that supplies of fresh water in Belfast were very limited and the town had to be supplied from wells that drew on water-bearing sandstone under some of the town or from the surrounding countryside”

Raymond Gillespie, Early Belfast 2007

Providing Water to Belfast Citizens

In 1678 George Macartney, a wealthy merchant and sovereign (mayor) of Belfast, held a meeting to discuss the problem of providing water for the town. Macartney and fellow businessman Captain Robert Leathes proposed the piping of fresh water from outlying springs into the town centre for use by the inhabitants.

“As the population increased, a purer and more convenient supply became necessary; and, so far back as the year 1678, George Macartney, ever alive to the public wants, engaged in this laudable object”

George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast, Vol 1 1877

The water would be taken from springs, such as the one at the tuck-mill dam near Barrack Street. Wooden pipes then transported it to Sandy Row. Here a ‘water house’ was built at Mundy’s Well with three conduits which would pipe the water a distance of 200 perches (a perch equalled 7 yards) into the town. Three fountains were set up Fountain Street, from which the residents could collect fresh water. The Fountains location mystery solved!

The Fountains in Fountain Street
The Fountains in Fountain Street

The pipes were made of elm wood. They were constructed in 10-14ft straight sections, 10-14inches in diameter. One end was tapered so it could slot into another length. The join was strengthened with iron rings which were covered in white lead.

“….towards the end of the seventeenth century well supplies were found to be totally inadequate for the town’s requirements and we find in 1682, the town authorities expending a sum of £175 in laying 200 perches of wooden pipe to convey water from the ‘Tuck Mill’ Dam to the Great Bridge on the line with the Blackstaff River”

A McClelland, Irish Naturalist Journal Vol 6 1937

The cost of the project was to be covered by subscription from the well-off mercantile classes. It was realised that a well-supplied town would ultimately be beneficial for business. However, the subscriptions raised did not cover the amount required and a tax was put in place to pay the deficit.

“…of ye said George Macartney which sume is not repaid unto him notwithstanding the said subscription and to remedy ye remissness of the said Inhabitants therein….should be raised by way of assessm on ye Inhabitants of Belfast”

17th July 1682

Fountain Street

Fountain Street, known to locals at the time as ‘water street’ would now have been one of the most frequented streets in the town. Folk would gather to fill buckets and pails from the fountains to supply their homes with water for drinking and washing. Cathal O’Byrne in his book ‘As I Roved Out’ (1946) paints an idyllic image

“Here in the old days, women came to fill their pails and pitchers with the sweet well-water, and stayed to gossip under the trees in the cool hours of the summer evenings”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out (1946)

Indeed, in the 17th century the area around Fountain Street was a pastoral scene. In the 1670’s George Macartney lived at the corner of Donegall Place and Castle Street. His rear garden stretched back through todays Fountain Street and beyond. The original name of the street was Stable Lane or Stable Lane Mall, as it ran along the back gardens of the luxury houses fronting onto Donegall Place. It was said to be a popular route for townspeople heading to Cromac Woods for a stroll.

“It is hard to imagine the days when Fountain Street was fringed by high garden walls, big important houses, fruit trees and exotic flowers”

Irish News 30th October 1999

Residents of Fountain Street

Fountain Street remained a desirable residential location. It was the home of Mr Barnett a dentist, Alexander Harkin a well-known doctor, John Hart a professor of music and Joseph Magill commission merchant and Mexican consul.

By the 19th century Fountain Street was a mixture of residential and commercial premises. In 1822 there were 12 houses with 37 male and 28 female occupants. The Spring-Water Commissioners had their offices in the street at Nos 15-16.

Spring Water in Fountain Street from Historical Account of the Town of Belfast 1819
Spring Water in Fountain Street from Historical Account of the Town of Belfast 1819

From the 1840’s to at least the late 1880’s a National School with a separate Gymnasium, was situated in Fountain Street. In 1850 the headmaster of the boy’s school was Hugh Montgomery Kelly while the headmistress of the girl’s school was a Mrs Hayes.

Belfast Street Directory 1843 - National School & Gym at Nos 15 and 16
Belfast Street Directory 1843 – National School & Gym at Nos 15 and 16

In 1861 Miss McBride presided over a ‘ladies’ school’ at No 31. While in the same year Mr Lynch from Gloucester Street, is recorded as a professor of dancing at No 32.

Subsequently a variety of trades and enterprises took up residence in the street, as nearby Donegall Place and Castle Street became commercialised. For example, in 1887 businesses such as the Northern Spinning and Weaving Company, Lyle & Kinahan Wine merchants and J R Christian Linen manufacturers all had premises on Fountain Street. Other occupations also represented were

No 27 Thomas McCarthy – a porter

No 25 James McAdam – apron and pinafore manufacturer

No 10 Ellen Brown – a milliner

No38 John Smyth – a coachbuilder

No37 N Jackson – a hemstitcher

No31 J C Allen – despatch clerk

Belfast Street Directory 1887 with Coates & Son at 6-11 Fountain Street
Belfast Street Directory 1887 with Coates & Son at 6-11 Fountain Street

One important business situated at Nos 7-11, was William Coates and Son, Metal Manufacturers, Brass Founders, Plumbers, Gas and Steam Fitters. They also had offices in adjoining Castle Street and employed 100 staff.

“The premises now occupied cover an acre in extent, and comprise elegant show-rooms with a frontage to Fountain Street, and workshops and warehouse accommodation of unrivalled character”

Industries of the North 1888-91

It was also noted that the head of the company, Mr William Telford Coates was “for years Chairman of the Belfast Water Trust, perhaps the most successful public trust, both financially and from a sanitary point of view, of any in Ireland

Fountain Tavern Front View
Fountain Tavern Front View

Hostelries and the Fountain Tavern

Over the years Fountain Street was also home to a number of hostelries – Mrs Mattier’s Boarding-house (1843), William McKeown’s Fountain Inn (1850), the Fountain Restaurant proprietor G Elliott (1887) and the rear entrance to the Prince’s Café (1899).

One establishment that has certainly stood the test of time is the Fountain Tavern. It is situated on the intersection of Fountain Street and Fountain Lane on the site of the old National School. It is first mentioned in the street directories in 1892 and remains a popular pub today.

Fountain Street and its Tavern
Fountain Street and its Tavern

In the 1890’s the Fountain Tavern was run by publican Sarah Little (nee Willoughby]) from County Down. By 1901 Sarah had been married and widowed twice although she was only 38.

Firstly, she wed William Faulkner in 1877 with whom she had a son named Arthur.

Secondly, she married brush-maker William Little in 1888. He passed away on 13th August 1892. Sarah was left to manage the business on her own, which she did till the early 20th century. Sarah moved to Ballymacruise near Donaghadee, where she passed away on 1st March 1904.

In 1905 the Fountain Tavern was in the hands of Peter Convery. It remained in the Convery family throughout the following decades. In 1941 the building was severely damaged in the Blitz. The Convery’s had the tavern rebuilt in 1955. It was subsequently sold to the conglomerate Croft Inns.

Fountain Street viewed from Queens Arcade Entrance
Fountain Street viewed from Queens Arcade Entrance

Fountain Street Today

Fountain Street remains a busy pedestrianised street today, but all traces of its three fountains are long gone. In the 1950’s there was apparently a small brass plaque on the corner of Fountain Lane recognising the area’s history. It was inscribed

“This old delivery plate commemorates the public fountain which in 1840, stood hereabouts ‘beset by crowds of itinerant carriers’ and from which this and adjoining throughfares took their name”

Belfast Newsletter 4th February 1952
Queen's Arcade Belfast
Queen’s Arcade Belfast with an entrance via Fountain Street
Linen Hall Library Cafe on the corner of Fountain Street
Linen Hall Library Cafe on the corner of Fountain Street
Fountain Street and its Tavern
Fountain Street and its Tavern
Entering Fountain Street
Entering Fountain Street from Castle Street
Fountain Street 1888 Building
Fountain Street 1888 Building
Waterstones Bookshop Fountain Street
Waterstones Bookshop Fountain Street
View Towards the Scottish Provident Building and the Grand Central Hotel
View Towards the Scottish Provident Building and the Grand Central Hotel

Related Posts

The Farset – Belfast’s Hidden River

River-Farset-High-Street-Belfast-c.1830
The Farset gave Belfast its name (originally Béal Feirste, ‘mouth of the sand-bank ford) and was at the heart of Belfast’s industrial success. High Street Belfast circa1830

From Hercules Lane to Royal Avenue, Belfast

Royal Avenue. Belfast. Co. Antrim Ireland (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license Courtesy of snapshotsofthepast.com)
Royal Avenue has existed from the 17th century but not as the broad commercial thoroughfare we know today.

Queen’s Arcade – The last remaining Victorian Shopping Arcade in Belfast.


Queen's Arcade roof view
Queen’s Arcade, constructed in 1880, is the last remaining Victorian Arcade still open in the city of Belfast.

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