North Street Today
A walk along today’s North Street, in the city centre, is less than inspiring. Demolition and dereliction, rather than impressive architecture and thriving commerce, are the order of the day. Yet North Street is one of Belfast’s oldest throughfares and was the site of numerous shops, businesses, pubs, churches and theatres.
Earliest Records of North Street
According to Marcus Patton in his book Central Belfast, A Historical Gazetteer published in 1993, the earliest recorded land grant in Belfast consisted of a parcel of land on the North Street site. On 1st August 1619, George Theaker rented this land from the Chichester family. The rate was £1/16/11 and ‘two fat hens or capons’. Theaker was the sovereign or mayor of the town in 1619 and 1620. Seventeenth century leases usually required the tenant to build a house on the cleared land.
Location & Early Days
North Street runs from Rosemary Street to Peter’s Hill. It was originally known as Goose Lane, as poultry farmers would drive their flocks of geese through the town and out of the North Gate to the pasture land beyond.
In the seventeenth century, when Belfast was still a walled city, the North Gate was situated at the junction of today’s Royal Ave and North Street, which was formerly known as Wilton Market. The street is shown on maps from 1680 and 1685.
“This wall – or rampart – of earth and stones, about 18ft high, was about one mile in length. Beginning at the river end of Waring Street, it extended west to the present intersection of North Street and Royal Ave. Here from the North Gate commenced the combined Shankill and Antrim Road”Alfred S Moore Old Belfast 1951
North Street is mentioned in the Town Book of Belfast when the ‘Assembly of the Sovereigne and Burgesses of this Burrough of Belfast’ decreed that the residents of the street pay for and upkeep a culvert that would direct water from North Street through Bridge Street and out to the river.
“…all urging the necessity of repaying the course of the backwater belonging to the Miln and the same to be brought to the Rampyer nere the north gate and from thence on the backside of the North Streete as low as the house of Henry Thetford….And the same to be repayed and maintained from time to time at the cost and charges of the Inhabits of the said North Streete”William Waring, Sovereigne 28th September 1671
North Street Growth
By the eighteenth century North Street contained many tightly packed one storey houses.
In 1822 North Street is recorded as having 183 houses with 501 male inhabitants and 583 female residents (Thomas Gaffikin Belfast 50 Years Ago 1885).
A map of 1833 shows a number of entries and courtyards leading off the main street, such as Round Entry, Daly’s Place and McKibben’s Court.
Commercial Growth in the 1800s
The street increasingly became an area of business premises and small shops. Some of the inhabitants in 1819 were –
No 5 – John Blackadder – boot and shoemaker
No 59 William Wilson – umbrella maker
No 53 James Park – saddler
No 37 James Anderson – bellows maker
No 140 Mary Cinnamond – milliner and haberdasher
There were also 35 grocers including James Archibald at No 183 and Thomas Hughes at No 18
Historian George Benn likened North Street as the learning place for many of Belfast’s successful merchants in later times:
“This street has been truly described as the nursing-ground of many of the merchants of the old day. They first tried their ‘prentice hands’, generally as grocers, in North Street, by degrees becoming the great merchants, shipowners and bankers”George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast, 1880
A prime example of this was the premises in 1900 of E. Marks. His “1 penny Bazaar” was at 109 North Street. Marks subsequently went into partnership and co-founded the well-known chain store Marks and Spencer’s.
North Street Memories
Shops & Newspapers
In the 1850’s North Street was a thriving commercial centre with trades and shops ranging from tea stores, flour merchants, clock makers, confectioners, leather merchants, bonnet makers, wig makers and toy stores.
It also housed the offices of the Ulsterman newspaper with D Holland (former editor of the Northern Whig) as proprietor and editor.
One unusual trade we found in the 1884 street directory was that of P McGinnis. He had 2 gutta-percha warehouses at No5 and No13 North Street. In 1843 Dr Montgomerie, who was living in Singapore, had recorded the usefulness of the latex of the Gutta-Percha tree for soling shoes (among other things). This is where we get the word ‘gutties’ for plimsolls or ‘indoor’ shoes in schools.
Cathal O’Byrne in his book As I Roved Out 1946, says that “North Street was noted always for the number and variety of its old hanging signs”. With large numbers of population illiterate the shops hung illustrations or examples of their wares at the shopfront. He goes on to give numerous examples including –
- The Saddle and Spatterdash at James Peacock’s saddlers
- The Boot at Moses Dawson’s ladies boot shop
- Clothiers Shears at James Orr’s carpet and woollen store
Housing & Boarding Houses
The street also housed professional men such as William Shaw stock and share broker, J M Lindsay banker, F E Beck surgeon and Edward Daly, John Beck and Henry Frazer M D’s and apothecaries.
North Street was also the site of various lodging establishments –
No 104 Adam Duncan’s carmans’ inn and stabling yard
No 29 Mrs Robinson’s commercial boarding house
No 66 George Gorden’s North Star Inn and Hotel
No 156 Patrick Henry’s dealer and boarding house
Approaching the 20th Century
Architecture of Merit
The later nineteenth century also saw the construction of impressive buildings reflecting Victorian Belfast’s industrial and commercial growth.
In 1874 the Devenny Chambers, a four storey building was designed in an Italianate style by Alexander McAllister.
In 1899 the Merchants Building boasted canted bays, scalloped parapets and octagonal finials. While the Windsor Building at Nos 154-164 had oriel windows and decorative foliage carvings (see Marcus Patton for more information).
The burgeoning wealthy middle classes were happy to demonstrate their success with flamboyant architecture.
Quite a few of the buildings display the initials of their owners. ‘McB’ carved in relief at the Windsor Building refers to Robert McBride the soap manufacturer. At No 166 the monogram ‘FC’ over the doorway refers to the owner Francis Curley.
Where there are shops with customers and passing trade there will also be places offering ‘refreshments’. North Street has had its fair share of public houses and spirit dealers over the years. Here are a few
- The Kings Arms, William Jameson at No 45
- The Red Cow, Alexander Davie
- The Hare and Hounds, Eliza Gilliand at No 9
- The White Cross Inn, Mary Graham at No 88
- The Eagle, David Hudson at No 160
- The Wheat Sheaf, Mary Scott at No 76
- The Gin Palace, J Magouran at No 87
- The Stag’s Head Tavern, Mrs C Skene at No 2
The Elephant House Bar
One of Belfast’s most iconic sights, now unfortunately a carpark, was the Elephant House Bar on the corner of North Street and Winetavern Street. It was famous for its 5ft high carved elephant perched over the doorway.
The building was designed in 1893 by architect Robert Watt. Watt had business premises at 77 Victoria Street and resided at 6 Somerton Road. He is also responsible for the premises of Messrs Mitchell & Co in Tomb Street (1879) and Ross’s Mineral Water Factory at William Street South (1883).
The Elephant Building was a 3 storey, red-brick construction with the bar on the ground floor. The porch had a mosaic floor reading ‘The Elephant’ while the walls had a similar elephant theme above a dado of tortoiseshell, turquoise and bronze. Sadly both building and elephant have disappeared.
The Deer’s Head
Another well-known pub that fortunately escaped the wrecking ball is the Deer’s Head. This 3 storey building was constructed around 1885 for publican John Donnelly. It is situated at No 68 North Street with a curved return on to Lower Garfield Street. (Garfield Street was originally named Bell’s Lane). This was previously the site of the North Star Inn.
Today this traditional saloon bar also houses its own micro-brewery making it the first Brew-Bar in Belfast. The Brewery has been named Bell’s Brewery in honour of John Bell who had his own brewery here in the eighteenth century. This new brewery produces ales and beers such as the North Star, Monkey Shaving the Goat, The Capstan and the Black Bull among others – all named after long gone Belfast pubs.
The Deer’s Head is well worth a visit to admire the decorative Victorian furnishings, including cosy snugs. From the terrazzo floor laid by Italian prisoners-of-war to the sumptuous mahogany and tiled bar with brass fittings the Deer’s Head harks back the best of Belfast from the past.
Coaches and Transport
North Street was also a convenient spot for passengers of the local coaches. At the turn of the nineteenth century the coach to Larne ‘The Commerce’ stopped outside Jameson’s Inn, while the James Knowles Car arrived at the Inn every Tuesday from Ballymena and E Vance’s Car arrived every Friday from Antrim. The Miskelly Hotel and Coach Office ran coaches to the northern towns.
“Miskelly’s coaches on all the northern roads were a well-known institution. The proprietor of the Coach office was also an undertaker”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
In the 1840’s the coach for Ballymena and Magherafelt left from outside the North Star Inn and Hotel and Posting Establishment.
North Street Theatres
Alhambra Theatre of Varieties
There has been a theatre or music hall in this street since at least the early 1800’s. North Street was the home of the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties opened in 1872 (just opposite the Deer’s Head). It was founded by Roscrea born Dan Lowrey.
The music hall proved very successful with Lowrey himself treading the boards in comedy sketches such as ‘Pat from Mullingar’ and ‘The Irish School Boy’. The shows provided entertainment for all tastes – singing, dancing, music, pantomime, jugglers, magicians and acrobats. The theatre was damaged by fire in March 1873 but reopened that September under the management of Dan Lowrey junior.
The original Theatre of Varieties was a 2 storey construction with a balustrade parapet. In 1873 the building could hold an audience of 1,000 between the hall, the side balconies and the circle seats. The beautifully decorated arched ceiling featured six star-drop lights hung from each side.
“All the famous sideshows came to North Street in the old days: waxworks, giants, performing fleas, sword swallowers, fire-eaters….With the ‘barker’ at the door trying to make his voice heard above the ‘music’ and the piano-organ inside, he added considerably, as may be imagined, to the general din”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
The Royal Alhambra
In 1879 the theatre was sold to the Irish-American Willie John Ashcroft. He was a talented dancer and comedic actor. Together with his actress wife Miss Kitty Brook, the venue reopened as the Royal Alhambra.
The music hall continued to be a popular attraction for Belfast locals. However, as the theatre also contained a bar, it seems the audience, on occasion, could be described as ‘enthusiastic’.
Its success can be seen by the fact that many of the top acts of the day headlined at the Alhambra – Charles Coburn, Dan Leno, Marie Loftus and Harry Lauder to name a few.
However, with the opening of more up-market rival establishments such as The Empire and the Grand Opera House the Alhambra’s revenue began to decline and it was sold in 1900.
Movies at the Alhambra
The business continued and adapted to showing the latest in entertainment – movies. Such films as The Man They Could not Hang starring Boris Karloff, Triple Trouble starring Charlie Chaplin, Sergeant Murphy starring Ronald Reagan and The Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland. The Alhambra became a full time cinema in 1936.
In 1940, after a cine-variety evening, the building caught fire; a second fire meant a closure of 6 months. The Alhambra was re-opened in grand style in October of the same year with stars Errol Flynn and David Niven in attendance. However on 10th September 1959 the Alhambra theatre was completely destroyed in another blaze.
The Gaiety Picture and Variety Theatre
In 1916 the Gaiety Picture and Variety Theatre opened at Nos 115-129 at the corner of North Street and Carrick Hill. It was purpose built as a cine-variety theatre, capable of showing films but also continuing the music-hall culture.
Traditional acts graced the stage and an orchestra accompanied the (silent) movies. The first film to be shown in the Gaiety was The Eternal Grind starring Mary Pickford.
The Gaiety closed four decades later in 1956.
The North Street Arcade
Early Success of North Street Arcade
In 1938 the North Street Arcade opened on the site of the old Brookfield Linen Co established in 1869.
It was designed by the newly formed architectural firm of Benjamin Cowser and Valentine Smyth. The partners had gone into business together in 1935 at 13 Donegall Square North. The builders employed for the project were F B McKee of 9 Shore Road.
The North Street Arcade ran in an angled line from North Street to Donegall Street. The North Street entrance was 4 storeys high and composed of red brick and sandstone. It had outer bays and a first floor balcony. The Donegall Street entrance was constructed of granite and stone and had a 3 storey façade. Above the entryway a stone relief sculpture of linen workers was retained from the original linen warehouse.
The interior of the shopping arcade was designed in the 1930’s Art Deco style. The roof was made of glass with a central rotunda where the arcade changed direction. The floor was tiled and the general effect was to exude luxury and glamour. Each shop front was adorned with green marble and black granite plinths and pilasters. The large plate glass windows were trimmed with bronze.
North Street Arcade became a commercial success, especially after WW2. Some of the stores included Andrew Smyth’s jewellery shop, Myra Mulligan, gowns, The Ulster Fountain Pen Depot, Mackinson’s Hair Salon and Mrs I Hanna’s gowns and millinery.
North Street Arcade Decline
In the latter half of the 20th Century the North Street area began to lose favour with shoppers with greater investment occurring in nearby streets. This decline was exacerbated with the advent of the Troubles,
North Street Arcade increasingly found it difficult to fill its 20 shop units. Despite gaining Grade B1 Listed Building status in 1990, the Arcade fell into disrepair. On 17th April 2004 it fell victim to a malicious fire and never re-opened.
The Arcade and the surrounding area are now the focus of an organization ‘Save the Cathedral Quarter’ formed in February 2017. Their aim is to encourage the restoration of the the old buildings instead of the proposed demolition.
North Street – The Forgotten Street
The history of North Street spans centuries.
The first Presbyterian Meeting House is believed to have been established here near the North Gate before moving to Rosemary Street in 1717. Also the Quakers assembled in North Street prior to opening their premises in Frederick Street in 1812.
Human Remains Discovered
In 1833, when Messrs Foster Green & Co were extending their Golden Eagle Tea Establishment, at the corner of North Street and Royal Ave, a number of human remains were uncovered.
“…while workmen were engaged in cutting the first section to the foundation, they came upon some interesting relics of old Belfast. At one place they found a number of human skulls and bones, and a little further on – a few feet from North Street – they discovered what were evidently the remains of the wall of the old garrison.”Northern Whig, 2nd March 1833
In addition, a number of hollowed-out tree trunks were recovered which had been used to convey water to the fort.
Several North Street properties were damaged during the Belfast blitz of April 1941. The Chambers at Nos 1-3 was demolished. As were Nos 2-26, which included the former site of the Stag’s Head Tavern and a drapers shop, called The Clothonia (1890).
North Street Belfast Today
Even in the twentieth century North Street was a busy shopping street with numerous popular stores:
- Stewart’s supermarket
- the Florida Cafe
- Thompsons Bakery
Of all these old shops only Noblett’s remains.
It is a shame that an area of such historical and social importance should be allowed to fall victim to decay and ruin.
While investors pour money into nearby streets and developments, the long-promised revitalisation of this segment of the Cathedral Quarter has yet to be seen.
The state of North Street in some images below evokes sadness at the loss of our commercial shopping opportunities and architectural heritage. These should be treasured and protected -not destroyed through decades of neglect.
Squeeze Gut Entry and other old Belfast street names
A look at some of the old Belfast streets – some are now renamed while others have been lost to time and redevelopment.
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