Belfast’s Market House, the Town Hall and the 1798 Rebellion

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Illustration of an Old Market © Microsoft Image Creator
Illustration of an Old Market House © Microsoft Image Creator

Belfast’s First Town Hall

“A Rate made and agreed uppon by the Sovraigne and Burgesses the 12th day of October 1639 for the fittinge of the Towne Hall with p’titiones bench and a Barr & other necessaryes for the use of the Courts”

This is the first mention of a Town Hall in Belfast. The first town clerk is recorded as Roger Robyns.

Following this decree is a list of 46 names and the amount each contributed. This ranged from 10 shillings to 1 shilling. (Archy McCaghan is recorded with a contribution of 0 0, perhaps he was absent that day or found himself financially embarrassed?) The document is signed by Henry Le’Squyre, Robt Foster Sovraigne, John Aishe, John Leithes and Thomas Theaker.

Unfortunately, no mention is given as to the location of this Town Hall. We have no description of such a building from contemporary or later sources. Some historians think it may have existed near Bridge Street.

Belfast was to undergo severe ‘troubles’ over the next decade. It is recorded that, just over 20 years later, the businessmen of the town were petitioning for a new Town Hall. So, what happened to the first premises? Perhaps destroyed by Cromwellian cannon balls? At the moment this remains a mystery.

The Second Town Hall

In the mid-17th century, the little town of Belfast was a growing port and commercial centre. In 1663 the burgesses decided that they required a Town Hall to adequately represent the growing importance and prosperity of the community. A Town Hall would reflect “the splendour and majesty of the town”.

“Whereas there hath benn for a longe time past great want of a Court House or Towne Hall for this Corporacon whereby the decency Authority and well Governing of this Burrough hath received prejudice and determ…”

By the Sovraigne and Burgesses of the Corporacon of Bellfast Assembled ye 25th June 1664

Accordingly, it was agreed that the upper floor of the Market House on the corner of High Street and Cornmarket should be leased for the purpose. The lessee of the property happened to be the current Sovereign (Lord Mayor) Mr George McCartney. All land and buildings in Belfast were rented from the Chichester family (Lords Donegall). McCartney sublet the premises for a yearly rent of £5.

The Market House

The ‘Sellers’ or ground floor of the building remained a Market House with storage. While the first floor was used as a Town Hall and Court House, sometimes called a ‘thorsel’.

The Market-Hall was composed of small red bricks with sandstone dressings. The ground floor had arched iron gate openings. The High Street façade measured 34 feet while the side facing the castle was 91 feet in length. A weekly market was held here every Friday.

The site was a prestigious one as it faced the Castle and was on the corner of High Street, Belfast’s main thoroughfare.

Belfast Market and the Castle - Wikipedia Commons
Belfast Market House and the Castle 1685- Wikipedia Commons

George McCartney was reimbursed for the cost of adding ‘stayres’ to access the upper storey and for providing seats for Corporation members. He also adorned the chamber with his ‘Majties Armes’. The total cost came to £20 16s 9d. The money was raised by a levy/ tax on the Burgesses and ‘comonality’.

Belfast Corporation, 1613

In 1613, the English monarch, James 1, had granted Belfast a Charter recognising it as a town. A Corporation was formed consisting of a Sovereign and 12 Burgesses. These officials could enact “salutary laws and regulations for the prosperity of the town”. The Sovereign, who was also ‘Justice and keeper of the Peace’ would preside over a court “for the recovery of sums not exceeding £20”. The ‘Sovereigns Court’ met twice weekly in the Town Hall.

An important bonus of town status was that two representatives could sit in the English parliament.

“In pursuance of such authority, Sir John Blennerhasset, 2nd Baron of the Exchequer and George Trevillian Esq. were chosen the same year to serve in parliament for this town”

George Benn, History of the Town of Belfast, 1823

While the establishment of a corporation was obviously beneficial for the residents of Belfast, it was not a freely elected democratic institution. The Chichester family ‘owned’ the town and the surrounding lands. All rent and most of the market duties passed to that family.

Belfast Corporation had no income of its own. Burgesses were nominated by Chichester and held office for life (unless they lost their position due to misconduct). While the Burgesses appointed the Sovereign, they could only choose from a list of three names presented to them by the Chichesters.

“If the Chichester’s maintained a strict grip on the financing of the town, they exercised equally firm control over the make-up of Belfast Corporation…..Freemen had little say in the running of the town and none in the election of its two members of parliament”

Raymond Gillespie, Early Belfast, 2007

Maintaining the Town Hall

The upkeep of the Belfast Town Hall in Cornmarket was maintained by a levy on the inhabitants of the town. This also included the residents of “Mallon (Malone), Dunmurry with part of the parish of Coole” that fell within the “mannor of Belfast

“And Provided always that persons inhabiting of any the places aforesaid shall yearely and every yeare pay several and respective proportions of money towards the repaire of the said Court house and Market house from time to time as often as the same shall be needful and Necessary”

Edward Reynells Esq. Sovraigne 1665

In 1668, a tax of £4 was imposed on the townsfolk to provide cushions for the Corporation chamber.

Extract from Town Book of Belfast, Robert M Young, 1892
Extract from the Town Book of Belfast, Robert M Young, 1892

On 16th December 1756 a laudable meeting was held in the Town Hall. A committee was formed consisting of the Right Honourable 4th Earl of Donegall Arthur Chichester, the Sovereign Stewart Banks, Burgesses and Church representatives. The purpose was to raise funds “for the relief and support of the poor inhabitants of the town of Belfast”. By January of the following year 450 “objects” had benefitted from this scheme.

While the second floor of the Market House was used for town meetings and court business, it was also a venue for more interesting activities.

John Wesley

The Methodist minister and preacher John Wesley noted his experiences of the Town Hall in his journal in April 1762

“Where to preach in Belfast. I did not know. It was too wet to preach abroad, and a dancing-master was busily employed in the upper part of the market-house”

John Wesley , April 1762

And again, in April 1769

“I designed to preach at noon in the market-hall at Belfast, but it was pre-engaged by a dancing master”

John Wesley , April 1769

Poor John Wesley had been disappointed with the Belfast Town Hall congregations for quite some time

“At 7, I preached in the market-house to as large a congregation as at Lisburn, and to near the same number in the morning. But some of them did not stay till I concluded”

John Wesley, July 1756

“After preaching in the market-house at Belfast, to a people who care for none of these things, we rode on” May 1760

John Wesley, May 1760

Market House Events

Indeed, the Market House was the scene of society gatherings, military celebrations and even balls to celebrate the king’s birthdays.

“Great preparations are now making in town, for feasting and banqueting and other rejoicings which celebrations are to be this evening at the market house for gentlemen, and at Mr Bank’s house for gentlewomen, on account of the birth of a son to the hon. John Chichester esq. brother to the right hon. Earl of Donegal”

Belfast Newsletter ,17th July 1739
High Street Belfast 1786 - Belfast and its Charitable Society,
High Street Belfast 1786 – Belfast and its Charitable Society,

At some point in the late 17th century, Belfast’s Market House acquired a tower topped with a cupola as seen in Thomas Phillip’s map of 1685 and in the illustration above. There was also a clock mounted on a beam overhanging the street.

“Our premier town clock in the eighteenth century was however, the ‘Market House Clock’ which projected on a cantilever beam on the corner of Cornmarket and High Street”

Colin Johnston, Belfast Newsletter, 2nd March 1956

C E B Brett, author of Court Houses and Market Houses of the Province of Ulster in 1973, tells us that the dial fell off the clock in 1739, striking a passer-by and breaking his thigh bone.

“The only public buildings to strike the eye, as in the ground plan of 1660, are still the Castle and the Church, with the Market House added, which were all in the most efficient state. The map is the highest topographical evidence that can be produced, and no written words can convey so clear an impression of Belfast in 1685 as this great contemporary record”

George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast, 1877
Belfast Market facing Belfast Castle (with the River Farset running along High Street) -Source Wikipedia Commons
Phillips 1865 Map showing Belfast Market facing Belfast Castle 1685 (with the River Farset running along High Street) -Source Wikipedia Commons

The Importance of the Bell Tower

The bell tower was not only a symbol of prestige but also a way of communicating with a largely illiterate population.

The bell was rung at the beginning and end of the trading day. It was also used to summon gatherings if an important announcement was to be proclaimed and for the funerals of prominent citizens.

George Benn notes that, in the will of Mr Henry Ellis (former Sovereign of Belfast who died in 1719) the funeral expenses included a sum of “5s 5d for the ringing of the Market House Bell”.

In 1761 the old bell was replaced with a newly-cast bell.

The Belfast Market Bell
The Belfast Market House Bell
Reproduction of early nineteenth print depicting the 1791 Bastille Day celebration in Belfast (Wikipedia - The Society of United Irishmen)
Reproduction of early nineteenth print depicting the 1791 Bastille Day celebration in Belfast (Wikipedia – The Society of United Irishmen)

The 1798 Rebellion

After the idealistic but failed Rebellion of 1798, the Court Room at the market place oversaw the ‘trials’ of the leaders of the United Irishmen.

“During the Rising Out of 1798, the Market House of Belfast was a sinister and busy place. In one day as many as six men were brought into the town and hanged in High Street outside the Market House – one of them from a lamp-post – and their heads placed on poles and left to rot and blacken in the sun”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946

Several of the rebels were strung up from the beam of the Market House clock. Major-General Nugent in his official missive recorded the events as “Hanged on the clock of this town

The Execution of Henry Joy McCracken 17 July 1798. Source Old Belfast by Robert M Young, 1896
The Execution of Henry Joy McCracken 17 July 1798. Source Old Belfast by Robert M Young, 1896

The significance of the Market House and Town Hall historically to the people of Belfast can be demonstrated by the flying of the British flag in recognition of the 1801 Act of Union.

“That Act came into force on 1st January 1801, on which day the Union Jack was hoisted over the Market House, the chief building in Belfast”

D J Owen, History of Belfast, 1921

The End of an Era

By the early 19th century, the Market House was, not surprisingly, in a poor condition.

It was purchased by entrepreneur and businessman Adam McClean. McClean (see post on St Malachy’s Church below) came from the Randalstown district, and was a successful linen merchant and had built 9 large townhouses at Donegall Square South.

In 1811 the old Market House-Town Hall was demolished. A shop and house were constructed on the site.

“In this view (1830), the old market house with its tower and projecting clock has disappeared, the corner being now occupied by the shop of William McCombe, bookseller and poet, whilst on the upper storey is the name of Ward, now of world-wide reputation as Marcus Ward & Co., Royal Ulster Works”

John J Marshall, Old Belfast, 1894

The old bell from the tower was presented to the Belfast Harbour Office.

The Market Bell in Belfast Harbour Office
The Market Bell in Belfast Harbour Office

Nothing else of the old Market House was thought to have survived. However, in 2003 an ancient timber was uncovered during excavations at the site. This has been dated to the early to mid-17th century.

In Conclusion

Next time you are approaching Corn Market from High Street, just think of the old Market House and Town Hall that stood on that corner. Take a second to remember those scenes of business and commerce, parties and concerts, trials and executions – so much history!

Castle Place in Moonlight
The brightly lit Dunnes store occupies the Market House site with the darkened Castle Buildings (with arched windows) in the foreground.

Related Post


St Malachy’s Church – “Strangers will look with admiration”

St Malachy's Church Interior
St Malachy’s Church Interior

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