Millfield’s Forgotten Past
If folk think of Millfield today, it is as a bland urban thoroughfare leading into the city centre. Yet this was once part of the main arterial route from Dublin in the south to Carrickfergus in the north.
Its rise and fall is little recognised by the inhabitants of the city of Belfast. The ‘glory days’ of Millfield are long in the past
The River Farset
Belfast grew up along the river Farset. Beal Feirste means the ‘mouth of the Farset’. The river runs from the Horseshoe Bend on the Crumlin Road, through Ligoneill, down the Falls Road, past Millfield, along Castle Street and along the length of High Street to Belfast Lough.
Houses and shops grew up along it banks and in the following years mills and factories were powered by its fast-flowing currents.
However, the unsanitary condition of the river in the nineteenth century led to it being culverted. The Farset, within the town environs, was finally and completely covered over in 1848.
This waterway which gave birth to the city still flows under Belfast’s busy streets and enters the Lagan near the Big Fish at Donegall Quay.
“The seventeenth century maps exhibit Belfast’s golden stream open all of its course from above Millfield, down High Street, to the Lagan. True, its small open section now above Millfield scarcely suggests gold, but it is irrefutable no other factor contributed so much to Belfast’s wealth and greatness”Alfred S Moore Old Belfast 1951
In 1642, to protect Belfast, ramparts were constructed around the town. These were composed of earthworks and rubble and reached a height of 18ft. They were furthered strengthened by a deep water-filled ditch. The walls stretched about a mile from the river end of Waring Street, by North Street, Hercules Street (now Royal Avenue) via Smithfield, Castle Street to Queen Street then Victoria Street and back to the shoreline.
The burgesses of the emerging town, had to pay a cess, that is, a tax, for its construction. There were complaints at the time that not everyone was paying their share.
“It is agreed that for the finishinge of the Rampier about the Towne all such as have not paid their former rates shall presently pay them or bee distrayned for them”Town Book of Belfast 24 die Junii 1642
The Early Mill
The walls had a number of guarded gates to allow farmers and merchants to access the town. The one at the junction of Mill Street and Chapel Lane was known as Mill Gate. Mill Street is now part of Castle Street.
Millfield is literally the field at the mill. The first reference we have to a mill here is in 1574 when the Earl of Essex wrote to Queen Elizabeth I “The Brewhouse, Storehouse and Mill at Belfast are completed”.
It was built by the soldiers under the command of Sir Thomas Browne.
In 1691 it is referred to as Millfield Green. The manor mill of the growing town of Belfast was situated at the corner of Divis Street and Millfield. We can see its location on the banks of the Farset from Thomas Philip’s map of 1685.
“Outside the town, a row of cottages followed the line of the Farset leading to a mill. The manor mill was sited on the south side of the river and ground the corn of local farmers that was brought to the premises. The millstones were driven by a water wheel that received power from the passing waters of the river. The river was dammed farther back in a series of miniature lakes that fed different operations”Des O’Reilly, Rivers of Belfast, 2010
Originally the road built at Millfield was known as George’s Lean or Lane. It was one of the first streets built off Mill Street. It was named after George Macartney, a successful Scottish merchant and sovereign (mayor) of Belfast.
“George Macartney was the ablest man of his time in Belfast, and it may be said, without exaggeration, that at no period has the town contained a citizen of more ability”George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast, 1877
On 10th January 1657 Macartney wrote that he had begun the foundations of his new mill on the site of the old Tuck Mill (a textile mill). The mill is depicted on maps as having two waterwheels.
It was subsequently converted into a corn mill and, on 9th July 1686, Lady Donegall extended the lease for a further 61 years. Macartney also built a new family home close to the mill which he left to his wife.
“…his new dwelling house in Belfast, with backhouse, garden, meadow, field, and likewise all the furniture, plenishing, and utensils belonging to the same”Will of George Macartney, 1691
When the defensive walls were erected, Millfield was outside the town boundary. It was considered a rural suburbia of thatched cottages and verdant fields.
By the 1680’s some 50 houses had been built for the ‘merchant princes’ of Belfast who preferred to reside away from the increasingly crowded town. It is thought the presence of the nearby military headquarters at Barrack Street gave the area extra security.
No-one knows for sure when the original name George’s Lean fell into abeyance, but the road is referred to as Millfield in a letter to a Captain Henry Wilde, dated July 1726. It is also recorded as such on a map from 1757. At its southern end Millfield led to the ‘Highway to Maloane’ while its northern junction was at Goose Lane (now North Street).
At this time there was a cotton mill at the site. It was advertised in 1796 as having a 32 ft diameter wheel which was pulled by a horse. The surrounding fields were used as bleach greens. The cloth was laid out on the grass to dry and bleach in the sunlight.
In the eighteenth century, the Millfield area was a highly desirable residential area, the houses boasting splendid walled gardens.
“Trees and shrubs were everywhere in the vicinity and there were green fields and orchards around and about the old mill and Millfield was sweet with the scent of new-mown hay, the fragrance of field flowers and sweet-smelling hawthorn blossom”Cathal O’Byrne, Irish News 28th January 1942
The Millfield Thoroughfare
The main road would have seen many people travelling along from the capital and neighbouring areas to Belfast and the busy and thriving port of Carrickfergus.
It was also the main route for military processions.
“Along the selfsame Millfield many were the spectacular events witnessed by the residents. A regiment of infantry, attired in glowing scarlet tunics adorned by yellow facings, pipe-clayed belts, shining brass accoutrements, clad in white trousers, and sporting cutely-poised cocked hats, marching to the tuck of drum, was a common sight”Colin Johnston Robb, Irish News 7th February 1940
A report in the Belfast Newsletter (15th May 1956) describes the festivities on the feast of St John during the reign of Queen Anne, when members of the Corporation and military paraded from the Market House in High Street to the Mill Gate at Millfield. Here there were public addresses followed by dancing and bonfires.
Judges and dignitaries and their retinues would have passed along this way to the main court house and jail in Carrickfergus.
One of the most popular country taverns, the King George, was situated at Millfield. It was said to be a favourite with the ‘gentry and commoner’ alike. Indeed in 1784 it is noted that when Charles Manners, fourth Duke of Ruland visited Belfast he and Lord Moira wined and dined in the King George.
One unsavoury aspect in the late eighteenth century was at the junction of Millfield and North Street. This was known as Mullen’s Corner and was the site for public floggings.
Expansion of Millfield Housing
By the early nineteenth century more parcels of land along Millfield were leased out and more accommodation built. There were now at least 16 smaller streets leading off Millfield.
The gentry had moved to ‘pastures new’ and Millfield was now an area of small businesses with people working mainly from their own homes. These included stocking makers, card manufacturers, tobacco spinners, straw-bonnet makers and bakers.
The Millfield area was most associated with the weaving trade. Almost every home had a loom and the shuttle could be heard from dawn till dusk. Probably the most famous weaver from the area was United Irishman Jemmy Hope from nearby Brown Square.
In 1822 there were 167 homes on Millfield housing 449 men and 508 women.
Growth of Textile Mills
With the coming of the industrial revolution, the area changed becoming the setting for textile mills, foundries and factories.
“Some of the earliest industrial developments were to be found nearer the town, where the Farset reaches Millfield. Flour mills replaced the first corn mills, and to these were added spinning and weaving factories, as well as foundries. They were attracted to the area because of the availability of water and its proximity to the town docks for the import of raw materials and the export of their finished products”Des O’Reilly, Rivers of Belfast 2010
This brought a new set of inhabitants to the area. Those who needed housing close to their places of employment. Cheap, tiny houses sprang up to accommodate the factory and mill workers.
The location quickly became a working-class district with families crammed into landlord-neglected tenements. Little thought was given to sanitation or the health of the workers. Millfield and the lanes, courts and alleyways off it became a disease-ridden ghetto for the poorest of the poor.
“Proceeding along Millfield, we came to Samuel-street….Here as I beheld the dense population, and felt the atmosphere, like a leaden weight, and looked at the wan mothers, and sickly, emaciated children all around, it occurred to me to ask if these poor creatures ever breathe God’s pure air, or look out at nature, out amid fields, and trees, and hedgerows? The inquiries, though made in the least sentimental fashion, exhorted smiles – ghastly smiles, indeed. They never think of such things”Rev William O’Hanlon, Belfast 15th September 1852
Trades and Pollution
The factory chimneys spewed out smoke and noxious gases, coating everything with a layer of grim. As well as the larger enterprises other businesses sprang up in this neighbourhood. Many of these produced unhygienic waste products and offensive smells. Some of these “odiferous trades” included soap and candle making using animal fats, glue manufacture by boiling the hides and hooves of cattle and tanneries for the processing of leather. For example
- W Patterson 24 Mill Street Soap & Candle Manufacturer
- Samuel Johnston 37 Mill Street Glue Manufacturer
- Hugh Montgomery 48 Mill Street Tanner, Currier and Skinner
- John Kane 34 Millfield – Dyer
- William Moore 11 Mill Street – Soap & Candle Maker
- Patrick McMullen 25 Mill Street – Tanner
- William Wetheral 49 Mill Street – Tanner
- Robert Greenhill 49 Mill Street – Tanner
- William Johnston 13 Mill Street – Tanner
- W & S Johnston 37 Mill Street – Tanner
- John McBlain 108.5 Carrickhill – Tanner
The present day apartment block at the junction of Millfield and Castle Street is named Tannery Building.
Also in the area were numerous fleshers, that is butchers. In the days before refrigeration, animals were kept near the business and slaughtered on the premises.
Animal sewage often spilled out onto the streets and the disposal of carcasses was haphazard.
Other indicators of the poor nature of the area are the number of cheap lodging houses. In 1850 there were 12 of these premises on Millfield alone as well as 7 dealers, that is, people who sold second-hand clothes & bedding and 5 marine dealers (junk shops or ‘rag and bone’ men licensed to buy and sell used goods such as rags, timber, bottles and household utensils).
Most of the residents of the Millfield area attended nearby St Mary’s Catholic Church in Chapel Lane.
However, in 1865 a Church of Ireland church dedicated to St Stephen was commissioned. It is sited on the old Thompson’s Entry – Millfield corner. It was designed by Irish architect Sir Thomas Drew and was consecrated on 28th October 1869.
The first sermon was preached by Bishop Alexander of Derry. His wife, Cecil Frances Alexander, was the writer of the hymns All Things bright and Beautiful and There is a Green Hill Far Away.
The church was extensively renovated in the 1960’s. It originally featured a campanile tower, a rounded apse (a curved or rounded section at one end of a building) and a Gothic-style interior. The stained-glass windows, which are still in situ, are the work of renowned local artist Daniel Ignatius Braniff. The church continues to provide religious services today.
Poverty & Mortality
In the late nineteenth century, a Special Committee was formed to investigate Belfast’s high mortality rates. A Mr Edward McInnes, a member of Belfast Trade Council gave evidence.
“When asked whether the habits of the people had anything to do with the excessive death in infants, he agreed that living on tea and soda bread by mothers who work in factories would weaken their children. However, just having visited the slums he was unable to see how people living in these conditions could have cleanly habits. He wondered how infants existed long enough to be registered”Dr Roger Blaney, Belfast 100 Years of Public Health, 1988
According to this report Millfield Place was recorded as one of the most wretched streets in Belfast. Like most poor areas the small, dark houses were the homes of 2 or 3 families. The houses were nearly always damp and had no running water or toilets.
In some streets there would be a communal ‘privy’. Homes with a rear yard or entry might have an ashpit. This was basically a hole which was used as a toilet and was emptied periodically.
Otherwise, rubbish and human waste was carried through the house and left in the street for collection. In some cases, the floor of the upper level rotted as a consequence, with residents stuffing rags between the beams but human sewage still dripped down onto the inhabitants on the ground floor.
It was only after the Public Health Ireland Act of 1878 that Belfast Corporation began a more serious policy of slum clearance and the commencement of a main drainage system for the city.
During WW2 the Millfield area suffered damage during the Blitz.
Redevelopment of the area in the 1960’s included widening the road which brought about further changes to the area.
Today Millfield is mostly carparks and the rear of Castlecourt shopping centre.
Very few streets branch off from it, only Francis Street, Samuel Street (referred to by O’Hanlon), Brown Street, Wilson Street and Smithfield Square North. Of these only one is residential.
For better or for worse the people of Millfield are long gone with current residents consigned to the side streets. Like many Belfast streets, this innocuous throughfare has had a long history of opposing fortunes – the early rural wealthy suburbia giving way to one of the worst Belfast slums before redevelopment.
It is a story worth remembering.
“It is quite true that Millfield never possessed any architectural beauty, but notwithstanding this it has historical associations with many events and remarkable people, by which and by whom Belfast has been made famous”Colin Johnston Robb, Irish News 7th February 1940
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