Belfast’s Donegall Place and the Imperial Hotel
“It is highly probable that no establishment in the city of Belfast is so well known in all quarters of the globe as the Imperial Hotel”Industries of the North 1888-91
The Imperial Hotel Opens 1844
The Imperial Hotel opened in 1844 on the corner of Donegall Place and Castle Lane. Throughout its long history it was regarded as one of the most prestigious hotels in the town. It was patronised both by Belfast’s elite and by international traders. Its prime location in the city centre was ideal for business.
“Nothing could be better in the way of location than the site of this premier hotel. Commanding a splendid view of the main throughfares of the city, it offers exceptional advantages for observation of varying aspects of its fashionable and commercial life without the necessity of mixing with the busy crowds that pass to and fro intent upon their own errands”Industries of the North 1888-91
Originally this area formed part of the grounds of the seventeenth century Belfast Castle.
In the 1780’s it was laid out as Linen Hall Street, as it led up to the newly constructed White Linen Hall completed in 1788, on the site of today’s City Hall.
The street at this time was mainly residential, and a popular and fashionable district in which to live. Sir Stephen May, the Comptroller of Customs resided here, his garden wall ran along where the Anderson and McAuley’s building now stands.
Similarly, Thomas Stewart, the Seneschal (an agent or steward in charge of a lord’s estate) lived opposite in a plain mansion
“…his garden wall reached along Donegall Place from Castle Place and down Castle Lane, with fruit trees hanging over the wall”Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast 50 Years Ago, 1875
Gaffikin also tells us that a Mr Sinclair kept his hunting hounds “at the rere of his house in Donegall Place, where he also kept his hawks and falcons”
Other notable occupants included James Orr of the Northern bank, the Batt family, William Clark J P and the renowned Dr John MacDonnell.
“The residents were either merchants of the town, or country gentlemen who came to Belfast for society in winter, as fashionable people now go to London for the season”Rev Narcissus Batt, Belfast 80 Years Ago: Recollections of a septuagenarian
Indeed, the Marquis of Donegall had his residence here before moving to Ormeau House and estate outside of the town in the 1830’s.
“In those days (Donegall Place) was undesecrated by trade, being held sacred to the nobility and wealthier portions of the community”John J Marshall, Old Belfast, 1894
The street was known locally as The Flags, as its pavements were one of the few in Belfast covered with stone paving slabs or flags. This made it “the aristocratic promenade of the town”. This also led to the nickname ‘the Parade’.
By the early nineteenth century the street name had officially changed to Donegall Place.
In 1822 it contained 23 homes housing 96 males and 165 females. Donegall Place seems to have been the centre of a great deal of public celebration and entertainment.
“All processions or displays, either civil or military, were witnessed in that locality… the Flags – meaning Donegall Place – was the great promenade in fine weather, especially on Sunday evenings. The great attraction was the military band..which gave a 2 hour performance”.Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast 50 Years Ago, 1875
However, within the next few decades banks, businesses and shops began to take over the properties on Donegall Place. The last residential home and garden to be so converted was Robinson and Cleavers in 1886.
“This locality was formerly the ‘St James’ of Belfast, but it has recently been encroached upon by enterprising merchants and traders, who have so closely pressed upon the elite as to compel them to retire to the new and more appropriate locale of Well-wood Place, Glengall Street, College-square, Wellington Place etc”James Adair Pilson The Rise and Progress of Belfast 1846
Pilson does however, add that “the shops in Donegall-place are in a style of the most sumptuous splendour” and rival those in Dublin, London and Edinburgh.
The Imperial Hotel
The site of the Imperial Hotel was originally the home of Hugh Montgomery.
In Marcus Patton’s Central Belfast, a historical gazetteer (1993) the author writes of Mr Montgomery “…he was known as ‘Split Fig’ from the exactness of his measures”. Meanwhile John Smyth noted that “he thought it as sinful to defraud himself as his neighbour”. Hugh Montgomery was a director of the Northern Bank. He died on 17th June 1867 at Ballydrain in County Down.
The Imperial Hotel Opens
The first Imperial Hotel is recorded as opening under the proprietorship of Thomas Frazer in the spring of 1844. He and his wife Mary (nee Livingstone) from Dromore, ran the hotel for 4 years.
“Thomas Frazer combined good looks with great affability and charm of manner”Belfast Telegraph, 19th December 1957
When Thomas passed away in 1849 Mary continued to manage the business with her second husband Dr Charles Hurst.
William J. Jury – The Improved Imperial Hotel
The hotel was acquired by William J Jury who renovated and extended the previous building and re-opened the new Imperial Hotel in Donegal Place in 1868.
This was a fine late-Georgian building. Two upper floors were added at a cost of £2,000. It was designed by Messrs Charles Sherry and Robert Hughes of Clarence Place. The exterior was described as an adaptation of an Italian Renaissance style.
“…. its chaste and elegant façade must attract the attention of the passenger, ignorant, perhaps, of the secrets of the art which arrests him without his understanding wherefore”ndustries of the North 1888-1891
The Irish Builder journal greatly admired the renovations carried out by the firm of Mr W B McMaster, of 4 Antrim Road. The steep mansard roof and dormer windows dramatically added to the ‘sky-line’ of the city centre.
“The upper storey has a sloping roof, pierced by seven large ‘dormer’ windows to the front, which makes the Imperial now the most imposing building in the street”Irish Builder, 15th August 1868
An important asset was the extensive stabling accommodation nearby.
At a later point a highly decorated curved portico with ‘fish-scale’ tiles was added over the front entrance.
The Hotel Interior
The large, ornate entrance hall led to a coffee-room (50ft long), the commercial room, the smoking-room and the office. A staircase led to the first-floor dining room. Also, on this level was the ladies’ room “elegantly and expensively fitted” and a writing-room, where one could compose their correspondence. In addition, there was a billiards-room “exceptionally well-lit, and furnished with all the best requisites of the game”
The upper floors contained bedrooms, with electric bells, and bathrooms – an innovation for the Victorian traveller. The Imperial Hotel could accommodate 120 guests and employed over 40 staff.
“The rooms have been furnished with excellent taste, and all are provided with electric bells- an important improvement first introduced into Ireland by Mr Jury”Irish Builder 15th August 1868
Imperial Hotel Guests
The Imperial Hotel saw many famous guests over the years – noted actors such as Sir Henry Irving, and actresses including Lily Langtry.
The singer Jenny Lind ‘the Swedish Nightingale’ was a resident during her stay in Belfast. Also, literary figures including Mark Twain was a guest. The Imperial was also favoured by the wealthy Baron de Rothchild and John Jacob Astor.
Charles Dickens stayed at the Imperial Hotel in January 1867 when he returned to Belfast to read from Pickwick Papers. He performed at the Ulster Hall which had opened just five years previously in Bedford Street. Dickens wrote to his daughter
“The success of Belfast has been of equal success here. Enormous! I think them a better audience on the whole than Dublin; the personal affection was something overwhelming”Charles Dickens, 1867
An amusing story is told by Mr F Frankfort Moore in the Belfast Telegraph in March 1924.
In 1874 a group of distinguished and learned gentlemen from the British Association were residing in the Imperial Hotel. This same week a very charming actress by the name of Ellen Wallis was preforming in the town to great acclaim. She was booked in the same hotel.
It was noted that her popularity was such that
“….the jeunesse d’oree of Belfast were so carried away by her acting that they escorted her, a thousand strong, from the stage door to the hotel, and not content with this, they made a demonstration in her honour in the front of the building and gave her a very tumultuous ‘call’”
Well, no actress ‘worth her salt’ could miss such an opportunity! Ellen’s room however, must have been to the rear of the building, as she had to rush into the scientists’ room to greet her fans from a front window.
We are told that she thanked the crowds and was on her tenth bow, when Mr Jury ran into the room and removed the young actress, while apologising profusely to the stunned ‘savants’ for the infringement.
Among the adoring assembly was a Mr Moore, who admitted that he needed a ‘jubjube’ to soothe his sore throat after all the cheering and added that the scientists were probably “delighted at the appearance in their midst of so exquisite an example of what centuries of Evolution had accomplished”
The Jury Whiskeys
William John Jury was an experienced and well-known merchant in Belfast. He was a member of the Town Council.
As well as a hotel proprietor, William ran a successful whiskey distillery business from 11 Chichester Street. The Special Jury Whiskey and the Grand Jury Whiskey were advertised as non-blended whiskey “specially prepared, unmixed, unmingled and carefully matured in the most approved manner to delight the palates of those who are competent to appreciate and ready to approve a really first-class liquor”
The Special Jury was a pure malt, matured in sherry casks for at least 7 years. The Grand Jury was sold in two types, 13-year-old and 20-year-old.
Life and Times of William J Jury and Family
William J Jury
William J Jury was born in Dublin around 1835. His father, also William, was the proprietor of Jury’s Hotel in College Green and the Shelbourne, St Stephen’s Green.
He started life as a commercial traveller, then with financial backing from his family, came to Belfast in 1864 to set up his own business. He married Mary Ann Mosley from London. The couple had 6 offspring. The first children Edith (born 1865), William (b 1867), Clara (b 1869) and Walter (b 1871) were all born in Donegall Place. The 2 youngest Percy (b 1875) and Arthur (b 1877) were born in the Jury’s new home, Brooklands, off the Lisburn Road.
William Jury was said to be remarkably similar in looks to a member of the English royal family.
“In those days he bore a striking resemblance to Albert Edward Prince of Wales, and he aimed at becoming as popular as his Royal Highness”Belfast Telegraph 24th March 1924
William Jury died on 27th September 1896 at his Brooklands home, aged 61. He left an estate of £12,282-12s-10d. He is buried in the family plot in Belfast City Cemetery.
The Jury Family
Of the Jury family, Mary Ann had died on 22nd June 1892. Edith lived with her brother Walter Mosley Jury, until 1912 when she died of pneumonia aged 47. William Henry passed away from typhoid on 23rd November 1898 at his home 4 Malone Gardens.
On 18th October 1897, Clara married Malcolm McCoull, a tea merchant. By 1911 the couple were living on Deramore Drive with 2 little ones, Olive and Malcolm.
Walter became a horse dealer and farmer. He died, a bachelor, on 2nd February 1916 aged 45.
Percy Morgan Jury went on to be a successful architect. He married Annie Addison Hetherington in 1902. In 1909 he designed and had built a family house in Upper Dunmurry Lane. He named this Brooklands after his childhood home. The house is now Belfast’s Krishna Temple.
The youngest of the Jury children, Arthur Edward, died on 7th August 1892, just a couple of months after his mum. He was only 15
Imperial Hotel – Decline & demolition
The 20th century changed the fortunes of the once-grand hotel. With its former popularity on the wane, the Imperial Hotel was used as a restaurant for a time and then became a hostel for merchant seamen staying in the town.
The Imperial Hotel was eventually demolished in 1957 and replaced with commercial buildings – the sad loss of another famous old Belfast building.
“The old Imperial Hotel seems to have come down almost as silently as Solomon’s Temple was put up, and with its disappearance another link with the past history of Belfast has been broken”Dr D Frazer-Hurst (grandson of Thomas Frazer) 1957
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