St George’s Market – Belfast’s Victorian Market
The Belfast ‘markets’
May Street, near the river Lagan, is the centre of the historic ‘markets’ area of Belfast. There has been a Friday market here in May’s Fields since 1604. The area was owned by the influential May family who had marriage links with the Chichesters.
Mays Market sold grain, wheat and oats while the nearby St George’s Market sold “fresh butter, eggs, poultry, cheese, vegetables, linen yarn every Wednesday and fat cattle and sheep every Friday”.
St George’s was an open-air market with a slaughter house.
The New Market
In the 1880’s Belfast Corporation decided to build an enlarged and enclosed market place on the site. The new Market was opened to the public on 20th June 1890 and immediately proved to be very popular.
“The new covered market in May Street…was formally opened yesterday morning at 7 o’clock, by Mr David Corbett J.P., Chairman of the Market Committee. Between 500 and 600 sellers passed into the market, and it is calculated that close upon 3,000 persons visited it during the day”Northern Whig 21st June 1890
St George’s Market Building
St George’s Market was designed by the City Surveyor J. C. Bretland. It was built of red brick with sandstone dressings. It has an attractive edifice of classical motifs and three pedimented Roman arches. There are two inscriptions – the City’s Latin motto ‘Pro Tanto Quid Retribuamus – what shall we give in return for so much’ and the Irish phrase ‘Lamh Dearg na hEireann – Red Hand of Ireland’. The Belfast coat of arms features over the main entrances. The carved artistic stonework was entrusted to the firm of Messrs Purdy and Millard. The wrought iron gates were supplied by Messrs Shaw of Durham Street.
The interior of the building is light and spacious. The roof was glazed and supported by cast iron pillars constructed by Richie, Hart & Co of Belfast. This firm, situated on Mountpottinger Road was “…favourably known for their large and varied production in columns and other iron work required by builders. A high standard of merit in quality and finish distinguishes all the manufactures of Messrs Richie, Hart & Co in ironfounding, engineering and millwrighting, and the entire business is in a flourishing and progressive condition”. Industries of the North 1891
Josiah Corbett Bretland was born on 4th January 1846 in Nottingham. He became Assistant Surveyor to Belfast in 1868 and City Surveyor in 1884. Bretland was greatly involved with the rapid urban development of the city. He was instrumental in incorporating gas and water mains under new footpaths and improving the drainage system of the town. Under his auspices Alexander Park (1887) and other recreation grounds were approved as well as new housing for the poor and paved roads.
Bretland also rebuilt the collapsed Albert Bridge (1890) as well as designing the former Fire Brigade HQ at 92 Chichester Street (1894). In 1872, while living in Clifton Park Ave, J C Bretland married Maria Elizabeth White, the daughter of an independent minister. The couple moved to Brookvale Ave beside the Belfast Waterworks Park, and raised a family of three boys and four girls. By 1901 the Bretland’s were living in Craigavad, Holywood, County Down.
J C Bretland retired in 1903 due to ill-health. He died on 20th February 1920 in Scotland.
World War 2 – The Blitz
During WW2 St George’s was used as an emergency mortuary. The Blitz of Easter 1941 left 900 people dead. 255 bodies were brought to the market. A local nurse, Emma Duffin, described the horrific scene
“No attendant nurse had soothed the last moments of these victims, no gentle reverent hand had closed their eyes or crossed their hands. With tangled hair, staring eyes, clutching hands, contorted limbs, their grey-green faces covered with dust, they lay, bundled into coffins, half-shrouded in rugs or blankets, or an occasional sheet, still wearing their dirty, torn and twisted garments”From Trevor Parkhill’s 2016 book “A Nurse in the Belfast Blitz” – based on Emma Duffin’s diaries.
On 21st April two services were held in the Market, one Catholic and one Protestant, for those unidentified bodies that remained. The streets were lined with mourners as the funeral procession made its way to the two cemeteries.
St George’s Market Under Threat in the 1980s
St George’s Market continued through the twentieth century providing fresh produce from the local countryside as well as household goods. However, by 1980 the market owners felt the property was costing too much to maintain and repair. They sought to use the listed building for more profitable ventures. There was public dismay that the iconic market place would be lost forever. After a campaign backed by Belfast City Council and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £3.5million St George’s was saved. The Market was restored and refurbished and re-opened its doors on 14th May 1999.
St George’s Market Today
Today St George’s Market is a thriving commercial space and vibrant social venue, with over 300 traders. It is the only surviving covered Victorian market in Belfast. The market is open Friday to Sunday and has become a popular meeting place with a convivial atmosphere. It has a wide range of food vendors and live music. This unique building is a hub of activity for tourists and locals alike. With its entertainment and mouth-watering array of sights and smells it has become one of Northern Ireland’s most visited attractions. In 2019 it was named the UK’s Best Large Indoor Market.
- Friday (6am – 3pm): This is the traditional variety market selling fresh fruit and vegetables and homemade bread and cakes. There are also stalls for antiques, books and clothes. However, the Friday market is most famous for its fresh fish. There are 23 fish stalls selling a great variety of fish and seafood straight from the Atlantic.
- Saturday (9am – 3pm): The Saturday market specialises in local and continental food – cheeses, meats, breads and gastronomic treats. There are also craft stalls selling the work of local artists – pottery, paintings, glass and metalwork as well as flower vendors.
- Sunday (10am – 4pm): This market tends to be an eclectic mix of speciality foods, antiques, souvenirs, handmade jewellery, clothes, books and curios. Something for everyone.
For those who prefer a less busy experience the market provides a Quiet Hour Friday and Saturday (9am – 10am) and Sunday (10am – 11am).
St George’s Market Gallery
Please click to see photos full size
A list of traders and their products is available on the Belfast City Council website at:
Contact Address/ Location: St George’s Market, 12-20 East Bridge Street, Belfast BT1 3NQ
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