Royal Hotel – ‘The most excellent hotel’ in Belfast

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Old Royal Hotel image reproduced in the Newsletter 30 Dec 1934
Royal Hotel image reproduced in the Newsletter 30 Dec 1934

Early Days

In 1835 Belfast had at least 27 hotels, ranging from high-class establishments to those catering for commercial travellers. One of the oldest of these was the Royal Hotel (Cairns/Kearns) on Donegall Place. This hostelry had a long and interesting history even before it opened its doors as a hotel.

This area of the town had previously been part of the gardens and grounds of the original Belfast Castle. However, in 1780 it had been laid out in streets. Donegall Place was known as Linenhall Street as it was adjacent to the Linen Hall situated on the site of today’s City Hall. It was renamed Donegall Place in 1810. The throughfare was a prestigious residential location. It was one of the few streets to be paved or ‘flagged’ and on Sunday mornings it was the scene of Yeoman parades.

The original building on the site was erected in 1785 by Mr John Brown, on the corner of Donegall Place and Donegall Square North. This was a large end of terrace house with a side garden. Brown had several houses built in the location. These grand residences with adjoining gardens were aimed at Belfast’s growing wealthy middle and upper classes.

“At that period, Donegall Place, for a time known as Linenhall Street, was a throughfare exclusively residential, when in day-time or after dusk the canopied sedan chair was a mode of conveyance, and many years were to elapse before the entry of a shop trader”.

Irish News 27th October 1965

White Linen Hall (now the site of Belfast City Hall)
White Linen Hall (now the site of Belfast City Hall)

John Brown

John Brown was born on 20th July 1752 in the Peter’s Hill area. At this time this was a very respectable district on the outskirts of Belfast (see Millfield Post below). Brown was an astute businessman and in 1793 became a partner in the Belfast Discount Company – a banking firm. In 1783 he was appointed high sheriff of County Antrim. By 1797 he was sovereign (mayor) of Belfast and again in 1799 and 1800. As a prominent citizen he was chosen to lay the foundation stone of the Linen Hall on 28th April 1783.

Like many other merchants and landowners at the time, Brown joined the Volunteer movement. He rose to the rank of major. This wholly Protestant organisation was formed to provide local defence against foreign invasion, as English forces were involved in a war with the American colonies.

By the mid-1790’s Brown was a captain in the Yeomanry who fought against the United Irishmen. In June 1798 he was actually captured by the rebels but managed to escape.

On 21st July 1785, John Brown had married Ann Lyons, the daughter of a prosperous Belfast merchant David Lyons of Oldpark House. The couple had one son who became a clergyman. John Brown died in office on 12th November 1801.

George Benn in his History of the Town of Belfast (Vol 2) gives an interesting picture of Brown.

While residing in “the rural beauties of Peter’s Hill… this John Brown practiced a custom which may have been general with others; he carried his own quart pot from his house in Peter’s Hill to the corner of North Street, and after getting it filled from a little brewery which then stood there, sat down to enjoy his beer in the open air. “

General George Nugent

In 1798 we know that General George Nugent was residing at this substantial dwelling. This English officer had fought in the Battles of Forts Clinton and Montgomery during the American War of Independence. He had also served under the Duke of York during the Flanders campaign.

Nugent was sent to the north of Ireland to quell the uprising in 1798. He led the English troops at the Battle of Ballynahinch, only narrowly evading defeat.

He was also the man who refused to reprieve the Rev James Porter and left his wife and children at his doorstep in the rain (see James Porter post below).

Donegall House

In 1802 George Augustus, 2nd Marquess of Donegall rented this property on Donegall Place. The family had previously occupied the McCance’s house opposite (subsequently the location for the Robinson and Cleaver store). In due course he purchased the property and named it Donegall House.

“The house now occupied as the Royal Hotel was the Marquis’s town house, in view of the parade ground…Donegall Place, or what was commonly called the ‘flags’, was the aristocratic promenade”

Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast 50 Years Ago, 1875

Donegall House became the centre of social life for the well-off and aspiring citizens of Belfast. Though constantly in debt and hounded by creditors, the Donegall’s attended the town regularly, hosted lavish dinners and parties, attended the theatre and every function and ball held in the Assembly rooms.

One guest at Donegall House was Mrs Anne Walker, wife of the Commander of the 50th Regiment. She wrote in her diary

“The house was brightly illuminated with coloured lamps, and ornamented with festoons of lamps and flowers. The party assembled was extremely numerous – the dancers only complained of being crowded – and about one ‘clock the supper rooms were opened. The supper was extremely elegant, wines, choices etc… after this the dancing was again commenced till near six the next morning”.

As recorded by W A Maguire, Living Like a Lord, 1984

Debt and Flight from Creditors

However, the Donegall’s had quite literally, the creditors knocking down their doors.

In January 1806 the contents of their Belfast townhouse were seized and sold at auction to go towards paying off their debts. It is said the Marquess stored his bottles of wine in the dung heap to avoid them being confiscated by the bailiffs.

The family moved temporarily to Edinburgh, which was outside the jurisdiction of the English and Irish courts. Donegall house was closed up. When they returned to Ireland, they lived in their county house at Ormeau (see Ormeau post).

“Then there was the Marquis of Donegall, he had been very wealthy but had wasted his substance on racing and betting; he was popular all the same, and went about among the people ‘notably doing his own shopping, for which he did not pay ‘”

Margaret Garner, Robert Workman of Newtownbreda, 1944

From Donegall House to the Royal Hotel

For a short while Donegall House was the residence of Narcissus Batt, while he was waiting for his new house at Purdysburn to be completed. He was a very successful businessman and one of the founders of the Belfast Bank.

Charles Kearns Royal Hotel Proprietor, Belfast Street Directory 1842
Charles Kearns Royal Hotel Proprietor, Belfast Street Directory 1842

In 1825 the house first opened its doors as the Royal Hotel. It was under the management of Charles Kearns. Kearns had previously been the major domo or butler in the Donegall household.

The hotel also acted as a posting establishment. The carriages could also be used for funerals if required.

Royal Hotel Advert, Newsletter 6 Jul 1832
Royal Hotel Advert, Newsletter 6 Jul 1832

Daniel O’Connell

In 1841 the famous politician Daniel O’Connell, known as the Liberator, stayed for 3 nights (16th-19th January) in the Royal Hotel. He had journeyed from Dublin in a horse-drawn close-chaise. He was accompanied by Robert Dillon Brown (MP for Mayo), Thomas Steele and Charles O’Connell. Extra military were drafted into the town from Dundalk and Charlemont Fort, for fear of violence from those opposed to O’Connell’s Repeal policies.

Daniel O’Connell was a liberal, and supported political reform, full Catholic emancipation and the abolition of slavery. He urged for the repeal of the 1800 Act of Union, which would allow Ireland to have a separate Irish parliament.

Vindicator Notice of Dinner 1841
Vindicator Notice of Dinner 1841
Vindicator Dinner edition 1841
Vindicator Dinner edition 1841

O’Connell’s Presbyterian opponent, the Rev Henry Cooke, orchestrated hostile demonstrations along the Dublin-Belfast route and there was a serious threat of violence.

To try to prevent this, the planned Repeal Meeting was cancelled. However, O’Connell did make a speech at the ‘Temperance Soiree’ given in his honour at the Pavilion, this was previously the old Victoria Theatre in Chichester Street.

The organiser of the event was the editor of the Vindicator newspaper, Charles Gavan Duffy. Interestingly, Duffy went on to be elected Premier of Victoria, Australia in 1871. That night the Royal Hotel was attacked by a stone-throwing crowd.

Freemans Journal 18 Jan 1841 - O'Connell's Visit
Freemans Journal 18 Jan 1841 – O’Connell’s Visit

The following day O’Connell addressed supporters from the first-floor projecting porch of the Royal Hotel. So many came to see and hear this renowned orator that Donegall Square was packed with people. Not all however, were fans. Apparently, he was attired in a surtout (a gentleman’s frock coat) of ‘repeal frieze’ with a white velvet collar and a green cloak.

“You might trace the trail of his progress northwards by the scarlet uniforms in Newry, Dromore, Banbridge, Lisburn and Belfast, where the trail culminates in and around the Royal Hotel at the corner of Donegall Place and Donegall Square… Daniel O’Connell has no lack of physical courage, and he steps from the window to the platform with all the old dignity, assurance and beaming self-confidence”

Hugh A MacCartan, The Glamour of Belfast, 1921

On his departure, police provided a protective escort for the politician as far as Ballyhackamore. O’Connell then travelled on to Donaghadee where he embarked on the packet-boat to Portpatrick in Scotland, before journeying on to Leeds in England.

Other Notable Guests

Other notables to stay at the Royal Hotel were William Makepeace Thackery, Charles Dickens and Jenny Lind known as the ‘Swedish Nightingale’. Aristocratic guests included the Duke of Clarence, Lord John Russell and the Duke of Connaught.

Thackeray resided in the Royal Hotel while on his tour of Ireland later produced as The Irish Sketch Book published in 1842.

William Makepeace Thackeray - drawing by D. Maclise, c 1840
William Makepeace Thackeray – drawing by D. Maclise, c 1840

“…the town of Belfast seemed to me really to be as neat, prosperous, and handsome a city as need be seen; and, with respect to the inn, that in which I stayed (Kearn’s) was as comfortable and well-ordered an establishment as the most fastidious Cockney can desire”

Thackeray, The Irish Sketch Book, 1842

He was also delighted to note that a dinner which would have cost seven shillings in London only cost half a crown in Belfast.

Matthew Bowden

Subsequently, in the 1850’s Mr Matthew Bowden was in charge of the establishment. Mr Bowen was also the proprietor of the Clarendon Dining Rooms in Victoria Street. This gentleman is commemorated on the wall of the school of the Sisters of Mercy in Sussex Place, near St Malachy’s Church. This school was built in 1878-80, Mr Bowden was a very generous benefactor.

Royal Hotel - Matthew Bowen Proprietor - Belfast Street Directory 1856
Royal Hotel – Matthew Bowen Proprietor – Belfast Street Directory 1856

Bowen employed a Miss Sarah Doyle to help manage the hotel. She was with him when he died on the premises in 1876, he was 67. Mr Bowen remembered Sarah and other staff, as well as many charities and churches in his will.

It must have been a difficult week for Miss Doyle, for not only was she present at the death of her employer on 7th May, but 4 days later she was also present when an elderly guest passed away in the hotel, Mr Robert Knox.

Royal Hotel, Donegall Square North View (Courtesy of Old Belfast Facebook Group)
Royal Hotel, Donegall Square North View (Courtesy of ‘Old Belfast’ Facebook Group)

Miss Sarah Doyle

In 1883 the Royal Hotel came under the proprietorship of Miss Doyle. The business continued to cater to high-class clientele and was one of the most prestigious hostelries in Belfast. It was said that Miss Doyle’s name was known by wealthy travellers throughout the length and breath of Europe.

Royal Hotel at number 57 - Belfast Street Directory 1887
Royal Hotel at number 57 – Belfast Street Directory 1887

“This select establishment is advantageously situated in Donegall Place, and may well claim to be, in many respects, the choicest and most excellent hotel in the city… It still preserves its ancient reputation as a high-class establishment, catering for the nobility and the gentry who patronise it, and distinguished from other establishments which seek their customers from among the commercial classes”

Industries of the North 1888-1891

The Royal Hotel

Royal Hotel image Belfast 1870s
Royal Hotel image Belfast 1870s

The hotel had 40 guest rooms serviced by 20 trained staff. Bathrooms had been installed in 1832.

The ground floor boasted a strikingly handsome coffee-room and bar which provided a wide range of fine wines, liquors and malts. The smoking-room is described as “in fine taste, and well calculated to enhance the enjoyment of the divine weed

The dining room measured 60ft long but could be made more private by the use of folding doors. The cuisine was of the highest quality.

“A study of the hotel’s visitors book must have read like a page from Burke’s peerage. Here stayed politicians, poets, painters and men of science and exploration, such as Nansen and literary men like Thackeray appeared on its pages”

C Douglas Deane, Belfast Newsletter 23rd May 1987

The Royal Hotel stayed open till the late 19th century.

Miss Doyle passed away a few years later in her nephew’s house 122 Castlereagh Road, on 9th February 1901. She was 90 years old so must have still been working well into her 80’s. She is buried in Milltown cemetery.

Miss Doyle Death Irish Weekly and Ulster Examiner
Miss Doyle Death Irish Weekly and Ulster Examiner

“Her span of honourable existence filled a space in the reign of five English sovereigns… it fell to Miss Doyle in the course of her long career, to meet and receive a very large number of the nobility and gentry, and several royal personages, English and foreign, besides some hundreds of the greatest celebrities of the Victorian era”

Irish Weekly and Ulster Examiner, 22nd February 1901
Miss Doyle Obituary, Irish Weekly & Ulster Examiner 22 Feb 1901
Miss Doyle Obituary, Irish Weekly & Ulster Examiner 22 Feb 1901

Remembering the Royal Hotel

Richard Hayward, on lamenting the loss of Belfast’s historic architecture in his book Belfast Through the Ages (1952) states

“…what (could be) more pleasing than the Royal Hotel, with its harmonious proportions and graceful trees, that only closed its doors in 1897”

Richard Hayward, Belfast Through the Ages (1952)

While it is inevitable that times, fashions and tastes change, it is sad that so much history is lost in the process. What we know about the Royal Hotel is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’. From the town house of the nobility to the fashionable hotel of wealthy travellers – so many stories never to be told. The Royal Hotel, the ‘grand old lady’ of Belfast’s hospitality industry would surely have some tales to tell!

“…and on the whole it is difficult to recall any establishment to mind so rich in local associations, so excellently organised, and so grateful to the voyager as this historic and high-class house, which has looked on the changing aspects of the life of the city for the greater part of this century, and which has kept the whiteness of its reputation unsullied amidst the new-fangled ideas of our more modern existence”

Industries of the North 1888-1891

Royal Hotel Location over the Decades Since

The Royal Hotel was demolished following its closure with new buildings occupying its corner site in Donegall Place over the decades that followed.

The Singer Sewing Machine Company occupying the former site of the Royal Hotel. View from Belfast City Hall c. 1906-07 (Source Wikipedia Commons)
The Singer Sewing Machine Company occupying the former site of the Royal Hotel. View from Belfast City Hall c. 1906-07 (Source Wikipedia Commons)
Donegall Square North Belfast 1920-1936 (Public Domain from Wikipedia Commons by Robert John Welch)
Donegall Square North Belfast 1920-1936 (Public Domain from Wikipedia Commons by Robert John Welch)
The site of the former Royal Hotel today
The site of the former Royal Hotel today

Related Posts

Belfast’s Donegall Place and the Imperial Hotel

Godkin & Walker 1871 - Belfast Imperial Hotel - Wikimedia.org Public Domain
The Imperial Hotel – “no establishment in the city of Belfast is so well known in all quarters of the globe as the Imperial Hotel”

Millfield – One Belfast Street , 400 Years of History

Millfield Residents - Courtesy of Old Smithfield FB Group
Millfield’s appearance today of a bland city centre road belies its rich history as a main arterial route from Dublin to Carrickfergus. (Millfield Residents – Courtesy of Old Smithfield FB Group)

Betsy Gray and the Battle of Ballynahinch

Betsy Gray on horse
Betsy Gray’s role in the Battle of Ballynahinch was courageous and principled. Through her bravery she became known as ‘Ulster’s Joan of Arc’.

The Execution of Rev James Porter

James Porter's Grave
If James Porter had ignored the injustices around him, he would have lived a long comfortable life. Instead he stood by his principles

The story of Ormeau Park and it’s ‘Lost’ Mansion

Ormeau Flower beds
Ormeau Park in the South East of Belfast was the city’s first public park. The park’s history tells of wealth and waste and a “lost” Mansion.


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