Ann Street, Belfast – The Early Days
Earliest Times – Naming of Ann Street
One of the oldest streets in Belfast is Ann Street, originally spelled “Anne”. Before that it was known as Back Street as it was at the ‘back’ of High Street. The town grew up around the river Farset.
Houses and shops were built along its banks and this became High Street originally characterised by the Farset running along it with bridges in several locations (hence Bridge Street today). The river still runs along High Street but is now underground.
According to Cathal O’Byrne Ann Street was later known as Bridge Street (Modern Bridge Street was then Broad Street). The street was subsequently named after one of the Donegall’s, although as there were several Anne’s in the Donegall family, it is not known for certain which person was the first namesake.
In the seventeenth century the lower end of Ann Street was informally known as Green Row or Back of the Green, due to its proximity to the old graveyard behind the Corporation Church, now St George’s church.
The first rampart around the small garrison town of Belfast seems to have been constructed in the early 1640’s. Benn tells us that the oldest parts of the town were enclosed.
“High Street, which was not then completed; Bridge Street, east side of Cornmarket, and a portion of Waring Street; one side of Rosemary Street, parts of Hercules Street, Castle Street, Ann Street, Poultry Square and North Street from the Exchange to John Street”Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast 1877
From Cornmarket to the Lagan
Unlike today, Ann Street was a residential area. It ran from Cornmarket to the banks of the Lagan. The Long Bridge was built at the end of the street in the 1680’s. At this time Ann Street reached much closer to the water’s edge.
“There was but little space between the river and the dwellings of Mr Waterson at the corner of Ann Street, Mr Shea, Mr Eikenhead and Captain Skinner”Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast Fifty Years Ago (1885)
Mr Waterson was a solicitor, while Mr Shea was the barrack-master and Mr Eikenhead had a rope making firm.
In those days most businessmen lived above their work premises with their families. Ann Street housed the residences of many of Belfast’s timber merchants. The nearby dock at Poultry Square was allowed to fill with water by the tide and was generally filled with floating logs. The timber merchants had slips into it to allow them to collect the wood.
However, the spring tides could often flood the entire area. The inhabitants of the local streets and entries had to go about by boat.
“…planks and window shutters were used by the juveniles. Others gathered coppers for carrying on their backs from one house to another, those having business in the entry”Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast Fifty Years Ago (1885)
(Coppers referred to copper buckets/ containers used to boil water in. Copper was preferred as the boiling water/ steam did not corrode it unlike iron containers).
It is believed that a school founded by the Earl of Donegall in the mid seventeenth century was located at the corner of Ann Street and Church Lane. Church Lane at that time was known as School House Lane.
Also in Ann Street, at Cooney’s Court, was an Artillery Barracks. French prisoners were incarcerated here after the landing of the French pirate/adventurer Francois Thurot at Carrickfergus in 1760.
It is said that the heavy guns employed at the Battle of Ballynahinch were taken from here.
Also in 1789 Henry Joy McCracken was held in this building after his trial. He was led from here to the adjacent Market House for execution. By 1806 the barracks had moved to North Queen Street and the authorities advertised the building for rent.
The Linen Hall
In 1746 Belfast’s first Linen Hall was opened in Ann Street. It was constructed at the expense (£1,500) of the Donegall family.
It was located at the Horse Market adjoining the Artillery Barracks. This old Linen Hall in Ann Street was advertised for auction on 13th July 1756. It was replaced with a new building in Donegall Street.
Ann Street is linked to the main thoroughfare of High Street by numerous narrow lanes and entries. These alleyways were busy centres of trade and commerce as well as residences. Most of the entries still exist such as Pottinger’s Entry, Joy’s Entry, Church Lane, Telfair’s Entry and Wilson’s Court.
By 1822 there are listed 104 houses in the street. The residents numbered 272 males and 354 females. The narrow street was made even more so by the numerous shops displaying their wares on the pavement. We are told that crockery, delph and earthenware as well as cast-metal goods and tin ware cluttered the sidewalk.
We can see by the street directories of the 1840’s and 50’s there were a wide variety of shops and trades on Ann Street.
- John McVicker: tailor
- J Russell: haberdasher
- Alexander Finlay: chandler
- Miss Kennedy: bonnet shop
- Thomas Archer: comb maker
- Isaac Bailie: shoemaker
- W McFadden: leather manufacturer
- James Sergison: tinsmith
Ann Street was also the home of one of Belfast’s first theatres, the Vaults. It was situated at Weigh House Lane in Ann Street almost facing the Barracks. The Vaults were providing double-bill shows from at least the 1750’s. It was a popular establishment and provided a mixture of light entertainment and more serious plays. Two playbills survive from 1751. One advertises the Merry Wives of Windsor and the other a tragedy called Jane Shore. The prices were 2s and 2d for the Pit and 1s and 1d for the Gallery. It is interesting to read at the bottom of the poster
‘N.B. No Children or Servants will be admitted without paying’ and ‘N.B. It is hoped no Gentleman will attempt to come behind the Curtain’Note from poster, The Vaults
One success story linked to the Vaults is that of Harriet Mellon. Born in Ann Street in 1777, she was the daughter of an actress who regularly preformed at this venue. Her father was Lieutenant Matthew Mellon. Continuing in her mother’s footsteps, Harriet joined the Kena Strolling Players. While acting at the Duke Street Theatre in London, she met and eventually married the elderly Thomas Coutts of Coutts & Co Banking. On his death in 1822 she inherited his entire estate and was subsequently a very wealth woman. Five years later she wed William Beauclerk, 9th Duke of St Albans. Harriet herself was said to remark that her life from humble beginnings “ a poor little player child, with just food and clothes to cover me” to becoming a duchess, was worthy of a novel.
The New Theatre
Another place of entertainment in Ann Street was the New Theatre, opened in October 1778. It was situated on the corner of Ann Street and Upper Church lane. Opening night featured a Prologue by a Mr Hamilton ‘in the character of a sailor’. Followed by a comedy play ‘Run a Wife and Have a Wife‘. The New Theatre however, only lasted just over a decade. A deteriorating building and lack of resources forced its closure in 1792.
Printing and Newspapers
The area around Ann Street was also known for its printing and newspaper businesses.
The Irishman was published at 2 Pottinger’s Entry and 6 Crown Entry was the premises of The Morning News.
The Northern Star was produced in Wilson’s Court from 1792 till its presses were destroyed by the authorities in 1797.
The Belfast Commercial Chronicle was published in the same entry from 1805 to 1850 when it relocated to Arthur Street. The Vindicator Office and Victoria News Room was also situated at 10 Ann Street.
The first Catholic newspaper to be published in Belfast The Northern Herald began at 3 Ann Street. Its first issue appeared on Saturday 28th September 1833. It was printed by Macauley and Quinn of Telfair Entry. Writers for the paper included Gavin Duffy later one of the founders of The Nation newspaper and Thomas O’Hagan, subsequently Lord Chancellor of Ireland.
Hotels and Hostelries
Ann Street also featured a lot of hotels and hostelries. Tom Campbell’s hotel was the embarkation point for Patterson’s coach to Portaferry while John Fetherston’s was the coach stop for east Down. At number 10 was James Young’s Circus Hotel later Swanston’s Bar. The Highlandman Inn, Joseph Bailie’s Boarding House and The Plough Tavern, proprietor Samuel Bell were all busy establishments.
Listed as publicans in Ann Street in 1842 are Mary Stewart (at 67), Robert Robinson (at 75), Peter Stephen (at 95), Hamilton Scott (at 118), Patrick McCreanor (at 112), Robert Gilmore (at 104) and Alexander Millen (at 90).
Over the years wine merchants and spirit dealers had businesses in Ann Street, for example John Fitzsimmons (1842), J & W Haddock (1843), Shean & Saulters (1850) and S Peake (1870). Breweries in Ann Street include Leslie Clarkes and William Lewers, brewer and maltster at no’s 102-104.
Another popular venue was the Star Saloon opened on 6th February 1852 at 21 Ann Street. This type of establishment was a combination of a pub, a concert and a sing-a-long. They were the forerunners of the Music Halls. There were singing shows every evening and wine, spirits, coffee and cigars were available to purchase. Also advertised is ‘A Private Snug for Gentlemen Only’
“I am quite confident that in the watering-holes of the time there was a thriving entertainment culture. Belfast’s early theatre scene was up and running, so it followed that the early music hall should thrive too. It is just not credible to imagine a tavern packed with soldiers, sailors, travellers, labourers and so on, supping ale without a sing-song, which would make a singer step up, and eventually lead to regular and organised entertainment”.Jim McDowell, Beyond the Footlights, 2007
Manufacturing & Commercial Premises
Discoveries listed in the Northern Ireland Industrial Heritage Record show that Ann Street also housed manufacturing businesses. Located under the street are the remains of a tannery yard and an iron foundry.
Ann Street was also the location of some of Belfast’s most prestigious firms housed in suitably impressive buildings. One of the grand buildings, now semi-derelict is the Riddel Warehouse. At no’s 87-89 it is on the ‘improved’ section of the street. In 1845 the portion of Ann Street from Church Lane to the Lagan Bridge was widened to 70ft. The Riddel Warehouse was designed by Thomas Jackson & Son in 1865-67 for the ironmongery business of John Riddel & Co.
“In the year 1865 Mr William Riddel purchased for the sum of £4,250 the site and adjoining two plots of land from the Corporation of Belfast, the property thus acquired measuring 185ft in length by 100ft in width. On this site he erected the present fine warehouse, which was completed at a cost of over £6,000, the designs being furnished by Messrs Thomas Jackson and Son, the well-known architects”Industries of the North 1888-91
The warehouse has a typical High Victorian facade with arched windows and is four stories in height. It was built with a mixture of Newry granite and white Glasgow brick. The interior had a glass-roofed courtyard enclosed by five galleries. The warehouse closed in 1974 and was bricked up for security reasons.
It has now been acquired by Hearth, Historic Buildings Trust, who hope to bring the grand old building back to life.
“Riddel’s is a rare survival of Belfast’s Victorian past, and it is uniquely placed to attract visitors to the city, providing a critical link between the Titanic Quarter and the city centre. Its restoration would bring renewed activity to a street that is blighted by demolition, and would provide a vivid image of how Belfast operated at its industrial height”Hearth, Historic Buildings Trust
Other successful businesses on Ann Street were Alexander Finlay Soap and Candle Manufacturer, John Balmer & Co – Wholesale Leather Factors and Merchants, James Lowden & Co, High-Class Sanitary Plumbers, Gasfitters, Brassmongers and Bell Hangers, Musgrave’s New Patent ‘Ulster’ Stoves and of course everyone in Belfast knows Elliotts Fancy Dress Shop (established 1886)!
Ann Street Today
Ann Street has witnessed the development of a village on the banks of the River Farset as it grew into a fortified town, then into an industrial and commercial centre and, over time, emerging as the modern city of Belfast today.
Over the centuries the street has had a long and colourful history with evolving circumstances driving changes of residents and commercial interests. Though Ann Street today appears a rather unremarkable, pedestrianised city centre street it is worthwhile remembering its rich history and the role played in Belfast’s earliest days.
Ann Street Gallery of Images
The Farset gave Belfast its name (originally Béal Feirste, ‘mouth of the sand-bank ford) and was at the heart of Belfast’s industrial success.
The small alleys known as “the entries” are at the heart of historic Belfast. Pottinger’s Entry is one of the best known.
St George’s Church is a place of peace within Belfast’s city centre that visitors cherish, on a site used for worship since Capello de Vado
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