Winecellar Entry – Early days
Winecellar Entry was once a busy commercial centre, running from Rosemary Street to the River Farset quays on High Street.
Ships sailed up the Farset and unloaded their cargoes on the quays at High Street. Winecellar Entry and the surrounding streets were packed with businesses, stores and warehouses and formed the heart of the developing town of Belfast.
White’s Tavern in Winecellar Entry is one of the oldest public houses in the city.
In 1630 the inn in Winecellar Entry was awarded a tavern license by the Corporation. This is the earliest recorded instance of such a grant in Belfast.
This business is thought to have been established by Thomas Kane. Towards the end of the 1600’s the Bateson family owned a Wine, Spirit and Grocery store in the entry.
Originally Winecellar Entry was known as Bigart’s Alley and was 6ft wide.
Due to the number of wine and spirit merchants dealing here the name changed through common usage to Winecellar Entry. By 1840 it was the focal point of the town’s spirit trade.
Winecellar Entry has a long association with the Joy and McCracken families who had a warehouse in the lane. Captain and Mrs McCracken and their young family lived around the corner in Rosemary Street having moved from their High Street residence. It was usual at the time for merchants and tradesmen to live near or even above their business premises.
“…the house indeed became known as ‘Noah’s Ark’ for neither stray animals nor dear friends were ever turned from its door”Mary McNeill, The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken 2019
It can be assumed that as a young man Henry Joy McCracken would have visited this nearby tavern. Folklore claims that his ghost has been seen on the premises!
Rosemary Street, Presbyterian Churches and a theatre
Rosemary Street (previously Rosemary Lane) is one of Belfast’s earliest streets. It was famous for at one time being the home of three Presbyterian churches. The first one opened in 1695.
It was a fashionable residential area for wealthy and up-and-coming businessmen and their families. The street also boasted a theatre.
“To be sold at Auction at the Market House on the 29th inst – that large and extensive Tenement in Rosemary Lane, adjoining the Play House Gate”Newspaper advertisement November 1800
The Play House
This Play House was run by the enterprising Michael Atkins. His theatre was described as more comfortable and spacious than even those in the capital. Atkins believed Belfast audiences deserved the best in entertainment. He produced the most popular plays of the day and hired the most famous actors and actresses.
One ‘star’ who treaded the boards at the Play House in Rosemary Street was the renowned Mrs Sarah Siddons.
“Mrs Siddons was at that time the greatest tragedy queen the English stage had ever seen. She played the Lady Macbeth and similar parts magnificently, and by her acting in them struck terror into the hearts of her audiences”Cathal O’ Byrne, As I Roved Out 1946
This was a huge coup for Michael Atkins. Apparently, the town was buzzing with excitement at the news, the local newspapers even appealed to the Belfast inhabitants to tidy up the streets before the arrival of their famous thespian visitor!
Every available room in Belfast was booked in advance and the gentry travelled by carriage from their country residences to see the actress perform in two plays – Macbeth and The Unhappy Marriage – to great acclaim!
“Waddell Cunningham was on his feet three times in excitement. Sovereign John Brown – who had been drinking heavily at Peter’s Hill – was stone sober at the end of the performance. The Earl of Charlemont sat with Lord Bristol – the Earl Bishop of Derry – and they never once uttered a word or moved their eyes from the stage. Rev Dr William Bruce – of the First Presbyterian Church – sighed and groaned. The Rev William Bristow – Vicar of Belfast – wept openly”www. Lisburn.com
Winecellar Entry in the Street Directories
The first listing for Winecellar Entry we could find in the street directories was in 1819.
In 1822 the lane is listed as having 8 houses containing 17 men and 13 women.
By 1850 it was the location of James McCall’s oyster house, Patrick Davey’s spirit dealership and a William Neill wine and spirit merchant. By 1854 we find that Mr Neill has gone into partnership with Hugh White and this is presumably, where the name White’s Tavern originated.
Oyster rooms and stalls were very popular at this time. Oysters were in plentiful supply from Belfast Lough and the surrounding coastal areas, and were a cheap food stuff.
In Victorian Ireland oysters and clams were regarded as peasant food. They were usually pickled in vinegar and spices rather than eaten raw. They were also used in pies instead of meat which was too expensive. There seems to have been an oyster house in Winecellar entry right up until the early twentieth century.
Today the tradition has been resurrected in the Oyster Rooms above White’s Tavern. It is one of the most highly regarded fish restaurants in Belfast and is proud of its long connection with the history of the city.
The Belfast Mercury Newspaper
Winecellar Entry was also home to the Belfast Mercury newspaper office, with James Simms as proprietor. It was situated opposite White’s Tavern front entrance. The paper first appeared on 29th March 1851.
In 1854 it changed title to The Belfast Daily Mercury. The last issue was printed on 2nd November 1861.
“It is not surprising, nor is it coincidental, that these publications had their offices located in the High Street and Ann Street entries. As with many other flourishing business of the day, the printed word had quickly assumed an intrinsic role in the affairs of the town, and the machinery from which the news emanated was necessarily to be found at the very centre of events.
Newspapers were avidly read especially by merchants and shopkeepers… Tavern proprietors took care to ensure that an up-to-date supply of local newspapers and periodicals was on hand for the convenience of their more important customers”Kenneth McNally, The Narrow Streets 1972
Valentine Jones and White’s Tavern
The present White’s Tavern building was constructed around 1790 for successful Lisburn merchant Valentine Jones. The lease was for a term of 86 years with a yearly rent of £18.
“Although the site has associations with the wine trade going back to 1630, this building was rebuilt about 1790 by Valentine Jones (who had covenanted to build ‘two good and substantial Messuages or Tenements of Brick and Lime, three Stories high)”Marcus Patton, Central Belfast, A Historical Gazetteer 1993
Jones, born in 1711, established his wine importing business in the entry. The enterprise flourished and Valentine Jones was a prominent figure in Belfast and throughout the north of the island.
He was also well known for his philanthropy, donating money for the building of the Linen Hall and the Poor House.
A supporter of political and economic reform he aligned himself with the policies of the Volunteers. Valentine Jones died in 1805 and is interred in the New Burying Ground at Clifton Street.
“1805 – Died Valentine Jones, Esq., aged 94, a merchant of long standing and great respectability”Obituary of Valentine Jones
White’s Tavern Description
White’s Tavern is a three-storey, white-rendered building tucked down the dark alley. The façade facing Winecellar courtyard has four rectangular windows and one small one on the ground floor and five each on the two upper levels. The roof is slated with Bangor-blue tiles. The wall now sports some highly ornate lanterns and a brightly painted map of Ireland.
In his book Pubs of the North (pub 1990), J J Tohill describes two wooden figures that used to adorn the front edifice of White’s Tavern above the main door. One was a figure sitting at a printing press with the words Printers Lounge (now the Oyster Rooms above the tavern).
“…while to the right is an 18th century gentleman with a long pipe sitting at a small desk with a feathered quill and the name beneath it ‘Merchant’s Bar’J J Tohill, Pubs of the North 1990
We must admit that we do not recall these figures and wonder where they are now?
History of White’s Tavern
In 1803 the tavern was owned by James Napier and subsequently by John Kane and in the 1830’s by Messrs John Murphy & Co.
In 1860 White’s Tavern had the ‘up-market’ sounding The London Dining-rooms as a neighbour as well as Eliza Davey spirit dealer and James Bradley’s oyster house. While in 1870 the Zetland Reading Rooms were at number 15 and a Temperance Hotel and Dining Rooms had been established at number 19.
In the late 1860’s the partnership of Neill and White dissolved and the property is listed as Hugh White & Co. Wine and Spirit Merchants. For most of this period this was a wholesale business, only opening as a tavern one day a year to keep the licence valid.
Hugh White died in 1882 but the pub continued under the name White’s Tavern. In 1894 the business extended over two buildings numbers 2 and 4. It also had a telephone number listed – Tel 526
In 1901 the properties in Winecellar Entry are rented by John Rooney. The lessor is recorded as Capt. W A Hardy. Numbers 2-4 are listed as a wholesale spirit store, numbers 6-8 as Public House, number 10 Oyster Saloon and number 15 is the private residence of the Rooney family.
Dublin-born John lived here with his second wife Mary Kate, grown-up children Thomas and Elizabeth and three of his employees.
Unfortunately, John died on 4th January 1910 from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. His son Thomas died a year later from cardiac disease at the age of 29. In 1911 the Oysters Rooms are listed under the proprietorship of Mrs M Rooney. The oyster business remained in family hands until 1936 when it finally closed.
Over the years other business have come and gone in Winecellar Entry, such as:
- B McNeill, Commission Agent
- Frederick Hoy, Engraver
- R Dick Balata, Belting and Ropes and
- the office of the Shamrock Football Pools
Throughout the centuries, Whites’s Tavern has remained a permanent feature. There have been lean years to be sure, when Belfast City Centre was like a ghost town at night during ‘The Troubles’, but thankfully times have changed and White’s is now thriving.
White’s Tavern Today
The interior is dark with traditional wooden furniture, panels and low beams. The brick walls are crowded with paintings and memorabilia. The oak bar is said to date back to the seventeenth century.
The small paned bevelled-glass windows create a cosy feel. The whole atmosphere is one of days long past. The air feels heavy with old tales, long forgotten. In winter the open fire adds to the sense of history. This is not a museum however, but a lively pub at the centre of Belfast’s night scene.
An interesting artefact situated in the courtyard outside White’s tavern is what looks like an old metal bollard. Some have suggested that this is actually the remains of a cannon barrel.
White’s Tavern is a welcoming and friendly pub exuding traditional charm. Although in the centre of Belfast, its location down an unassuming alley can make it difficult to discover, but any local will point the way! It has recently been extended to include a covered outdoor area filling the neighbouring courtyard space with “White’s Garden” opening onto High Street.
Visit White’s Tavern Website
The Belfast Entries Project
In 2018 Winecellar Entry, along with 6 other ‘entries’ became the focus of an improvement plan for Belfast city centre.
“The project transformed these entries into vibrant places that are safe, welcoming, playful and imaginative. It also helped to improve wayfinding through the city centre, while promoting the heritage and culture of the entries themselves”www.belfastcity.gov.uk
The rejuvenation of these almost forgotten narrow streets has contributed to bringing new life back into the city centre. The entries can now be appreciated for their history by Belfast residents and visitors alike.
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