Anyone remember Robinson & Cleaver?

Published by P&P on

Home » Places » Historical Places » Anyone remember Robinson & Cleaver?
Robinson & Cleaver Rooftop Shop Name
Robinson & Cleaver Rooftop Shop Name

Early Days

In 1870 Edward Robinson and John Cleaver set up a business partnership with commercial premises in Castle Place. The two young men had met while working in the firm of James Lindsay and Co. in the Ulster Arcade on Donegall Place. Cleaver was originally from Bishopstone in East Sussex and Robinson came from Ballymena in County Antrim, where his father was a woollen draper.

Belfast was a thriving town at the time with a rapidly rising and expanding middle class. Robinson and Cleaver based their business venture on providing good quality locally produced goods at reasonable prices. They were so successful that in 1879 they moved to larger premises in High Street. As the city developed into one of the major manufacturing centres of the British Empire, Robinson and Cleaver began to promote and export Irish products, such as high quality linen, throughout the United Kingdom. Business continued to boom and again the partners required bigger commercial premises.

The Robinson & Cleaver Building


In the 1880’s Edward Robinson and John Cleaver purchased an extensive property on the corner of Donegall Place and Donegall Square right in the centre of Belfast. This was one of the few remaining residential houses left on this main thoroughfare.

Design & Construction

They employed the prestigious architects Young and MacKenzie to design a new building reflecting the status of their burgeoning up-market store. This Belfast based architectural and civil engineering firm were responsible for many of Belfast City’s most notable public edifices including The Scottish Provident and Ocean Buildings, Belfast Royal Academy and the Presbyterian Assembly Buildings. The sheer quality and sumptuous design of these magnificent Belfast buildings can still be appreciated today – especially in their contrast to modern box-like building designs.

Scottish Provident Institution, Donegall Square West
Scottish Provident Institution, Donegall Square West (beside Belfast City Hall) – Architects Young and MacKenzie
Scottish Provident Institution Roofline, Donegall Square West
Scottish Provident Institution Roofline, Donegall Square West – Architects Young and MacKenzie

Messrs H and J Martin and Co of the Ormeau Road were selected as the builders for the new Robinson and Cleaver store.

In 1888 the Royal Irish Linen Warehouse, as Robinson and Cleavers was then known, was first opened to the public.

The Robinson & Cleaver Building

Robinson & Cleaver’s department store was indeed a very grand building constructed of Scrabo stone in an impressive Victorian style. The exterior of the ground floor was decorated in polished red and green granite. The building had three striking turrets topped with copper domes. The largest tower, on the corner, was adorned with a large clock 6ft in diameter. The clock was made by Mr Francis Moore of High Street, and had a musical feature with Westminster chimes. The frontage was extremely ornate with intricate carvings and balustrades.

Robinson & Cleaver Building
Robinson & Cleaver Building

“Carved swags of fruit surmount the fluted pilaster columns, and are emblematic of the fruits of the various countries of the world. The stone balconettes on the third floor are supported by sculptured cantilevers formed by Donatello-like chubby-faced and winged figures of boys; between these are a series of carved panels, into most of which the plump forms of nude or semi-nude children are most happily introduced. These are made to do a manifold number of duties: here holding flax, and there Irish linen; some carry distaffs, whilst others bear shields between them, on which occur the linked monograms of the two spirited owners of the new premises”

The Irish Builder 15th March 1888

Robinson & Cleaver Interior

The interior of this grand shop was similarly imposing. Its most arresting feature being a magnificent Sicilian marble curving staircase leading off in two directions. The white banisters were flanked on either side with statues of Erin and Britannia by a local artist. The building had six stories, the upper floors containing the offices of Mr Robinson and Mr Cleaver. A lift to make access easier was installed by the American Elevator Company. There was electric lighting on every floor and pneumatic tubes carried money from 17 counter stations to the main cash office.

Robinson & Cleaver Staircase
Robinson & Cleaver Staircase – Original source not known

“The arrangement and equipment of the almost innumerable departments attains a standard of perfection and completeness rarely equalled and certainly never surpassed even in this age of gigantic mercantile emporia, and in addition to the many splendid show-rooms allotted to the purposes of display for the wondrous variety of textile wares, there are sumptuously-appointed fitting rooms in connection with each of the fashion departments, one of these rooms being so contrived that it can be instantly darkened in order to judge the effect of colours for evening wear”

Industrial and Commercial Life in the North of Ireland 1888-1891
Robinson & Cleaver Newspaper advertisement
Robinson & Cleaver Newspaper advertisement

International Recognition

Both Robinson and Cleaver were keen to exploit the benefits of international trade. By this time they had a worldwide network of connections. They were famous for sending the highest class of Irish fabrics – double-damask, table linen, Irish embroideries and laces, the length and breadth of the Empire.

“The trade of the firm is enormous in its entirety, and their postal business is something extraordinary in magnitude, over one third of all parcels posted in Belfast (a city of a quarter of a million inhabitants) during the year 1887 having been sent from the Royal Irish Linen Warehouse”

Industrial and Commercial Life in the North of Ireland 1888-1891

Robinson & Cleaver were very proud of their royal patrons which added greatly to their reputation and hence profits.

“Her majesty (Queen Victoria) was graciously pleased to express her satisfaction with these beautiful goods, and further honoured Messrs Robinson & Cleaver by causing them to be appointed into the ‘place and quality of Irish Cambric Handkerchief, Embroidery and Lace Manufacturers in Ordinary’ to her Majesty at Belfast”

Queen Victoria tribute

In addition the business also had the patronage of Princess Frederick of Germany, as well as many illustrious families, high-ranking government officials and “noblemen of every rank”.

John Cleaver

On 12th August 1869 John Cleaver married Mary Ann Spence at Richhill Independent Church in County Armagh. Mary Ann was the daughter of George Spence a cabinet-maker. The couple had met in Belfast. Their married home was Ashley Villa on Ashley Ave, off the Lisburn Road. Here they raised a family of 3 boys and 5 girls. Arthur Spencer (b. 1870), John Martin (b. 1871), Kathleen Mary (b. 1872), James Frederick (b. 1875), Mabel (b. 1877), Florence Edith (b. 1878), Norah Heathcliff (b. 1881) and Eileen Martha Esther (b. 1886). Both Kathleen and Norah died when they were just 9 years old, Kathleen of meningitis and Norah of a kidney complaint. In 1892, as the business was doing so well, the Cleavers moved to ‘Dunraven’ on the Malone Road. This was a beautiful Italianate villa sitting in several acres of parkland including its own lake. John Cleaver died on 22nd September 1926 and is buried in Belfast City cemetery.

Edward Robinson

Edward Robinson was born on 17th February 1849 in Ballymena. On 25th October 1877 he married Marion Harvey Blair at Elmwood Presbyterian Church in Belfast. Marion’s father was Edward Blair an accountant. The couple lived in Orrington House off the Lisburn Road. Their 3 sons were born here, Edward Arthur (b. 1878), Harold Claude (b. 1882) and Stanley Gerald (b. 1889). Later they moved to Lismara House in Whiteabbey, where Edward became a Justice of the Peace. Edward Robinson died on 6th March 1906.

Robinson & Cleaver in the Twentieth Century

The Good Times

Robinson & Cleaver continued to prosper in the twentieth century. It was known as a very prestigious shop with an affluent clientele. They prided themselves on their exclusive merchandise, especially furs and Irish linen. Staff were specially selected and the emphasis was on a first class personalised service.

“It is a tribute to the management that while the firm’s reputation for Irish linens is as high as ever it was, the addition of further merchandising lines has brought lustre to the house, and there is a happy mingling of traditionalism and progressive outlook. This is pretty well illustrated by a comparison between the exterior and interior of the store. Outside is all solid Victorianism – the florid stonework on the facade proclaiming the prosperity of that very prosperous era, and inside the modernity in lay-out and convenience for busy, present-day shoppers”

Irish Times 29th November 1960

All Good Things… the End

Ultimately, times and tastes change and Robinson & Cleaver failed to keep pace. The shop became less popular, being regarded as fussy and old-fashioned. The once thriving business began to decline and finally closed in 1984. The iconic marble staircase was auctioned off to a private homeowner in Ballyedmond, County Down. The ornate and dramatic building however, survives and is a well-known city landmark in front of the present City Hall. It now houses a variety of shops, offices and restaurants. The grandeur of its facade remains a distant echo of Belfast’s Victorian glamour.


Click images to enlarge…

Do you want to see all new BelfastEntries Posts?
If you like our Facebook posts and would like to see more then please add yourself as a friend to our PandP profile screen or follow our BelfastEntries page. We cannot add posts to all groups and the only way to be sure of receiving notifications of new posts is to follow our page. You will see that the Belfast Entries page has a 5 star rating from readers

If you enjoyed this article please consider a small donation

Belfast Entries is a husband & wife hobby website featuring articles on our shared history, memories and entertaining stories of our past. To help us meet rising website hosting costs please click the coffee cup below to learn how to make a small donation. Please note that every contribution is valued and that we will not contact you directly in order to respect your privacy.

Buy Us a Coffee
Buy Us a Coffee

Donations this month 2 😀

Thank you Helen

Thank you Jackie

We had 3 donations last month

Help Us Find New Readers

If you like our posts please help us to grow our readership by sharing any posts that you like using the social media sharing icons shown with each post.

What are others reading now?

Galboly cottage view

Galboly – The County Antrim Village Lost in Time

By P&P / 30 September 2021 / 4 Comments
Mill chimney - a common sight in Belfast

Ardoyne – The Story of a Village

By P&P / 13 November 2021 / 2 Comments
Bodies Illustration at the scene Belfast Telegraph 13th March 1890

Nora’s Grave 1890 – Love & Death

By P&P / 19 March 2022 / 0 Comments
Belfast Long Bridge crossed the River Lagan between 1688 and 1841

Unusual Laws in Old Belfast 1613 – 1816

By P&P / 11 March 2022 / 0 Comments
Hy Brasil Appears (AI image © Bing Image Creator)

Hy Brasil – The True Story of a Mythical Island

By P&P / 9 September 2022 / 0 Comments

Cost of Living Crisis

Given the current cost of living crisis that will impact so many in coming months we have added a page signposting organisations that may be able to offer support. We have no relationship with these organisations and cannot offer financial advice but we hope that some of the links may prove useful.

Ancestry Antrim Arthur Chichester artist Belfast Belfast Entries Belfast Family belfast roots Carrickfergus Castle Cemetery Church Clifton House County Antrim County Down Department Store Donegal education. family tree Famous Folk Forgotten folk Genealogy Ghost graveyard Historical places History Hotel Ireland Irish Census Records Irish Family Irish genealogy irish roots Mary Ann McCracken Operation Overlord Otto Jaffe Outlaw People Philanthropist Places to see Poor House Sailortown St Patrick Titanic Tourism United Irishmen

Belfast Entries posts & photos are our intellectual property and copyrighted to us. Where we use photos that do not belong to us, it is because we believe them to be in the public domain or shared under a Creative Commons licence with appropriate attribution. None of our content or images can be used without our consent. Note that a link to our Copyright & Takedown notice is included in the website footer on all pages.


We are a Belfast couple adding information on Belfast and the surrounding counties. Over coming months we will add a range of posts covering the people, places, products and stories that interest us and will hopefully be of interest to you. Over time we hope to build up information of use to locals & visitors alike and welcome your feedback on subjects of interest or stories that might be interest to the wider audience. Let us know what you think.


Margaret Salmon manager window dresser · 28 June 2024 at 5:42 pm

Where can I get a copy of the book by Richard Graham 1989 approx. As in the Belfast Telegraph. Thursday January 19th. 1989. Margaret. Salmon

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Would you like notifications of new Belfast Entries posts? OK No thanks