Home » Places » Places to See » Waring Street Belfast – From Early days to the Merchant Hotel

Waring Street 1660 – One of only 5 complete Belfast Streets

The city of Belfast grew up along the banks of the River Farset. In fact the town name Belfast is derived from the Irish Béal Feirste meaning the mouth of the Farset.

An early map, drawn in 1660 shows the town comprising of 15 streets or lanes. However, only 5 of these are complete – High Street (on either side of the river), Bridge Street, North Street, Skipper’s Lane and Waring Street.

Belfast Map - 5 Streets
A representation of Belfast with the 5 Streets highlighted (from a Ceramic Belfast map by artist Eleanor Wheeler)

Waring Street Belfast, originally known as Broad Street (as was modern Bridge Street), ran from the Four Corners at the bottom of North Street and ended at the strand on the banks of the River Lagan.

Archaeological evidence has proven the existence of tanneries and potteries on the street with saltpans at the eastern end. As it was located close to the quays it soon developed into the commercial hub of the burgeoning town. With the destruction of Belfast Castle, by accidental fire, the focus for businessmen moved away from the central medieval settlement towards areas convenient for mercantile trade with the opening of bigger and deeper docks.

The street at this time was not the most salubrious. The tanning process produces obnoxious odours while the nearby Farset River was described as

“….of theTowne to the corruption and putrefaccon of the River and the annoyance of their neighbours by reason of the stinke and evill and infectious smell (that if not timely prevented) will by all likeyhood bringe some Ruinous and pestellentiall disease amongst ye inhabitants”

Town Book of Belfast   7th January 1663
High Street Farset River 1685
High Street Farset River 1685

Also, in the early days, the town’s sewers emptied into Lime Kiln Dock at the eastern end of Waring Street. Despite this we are told that the street was a desirable and fashionable location in which to reside. Many of Belfast’s first sovereigns lived in the street and it is likely the weekly Sunday procession of the burgesses to the Corporation Church passed along this route.

“Waring Street, as we have said, was a residential district, but fortunately the good people of Belfast were not too squeamish with regard to odours in the early days”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946

In 1802 a notice appeared that “the old Salt and Lime works at the foot of Waring Street are to be disposed of” and in 1846 the Lime Kiln dock was filled in. Modern Victoria Street was built on the reclaimed land, which must have been a relief to the locals.

Waring Street Excavation

Pottery & Ceramics Production

On a 1757 Belfast map a collection of buildings in Waring Street (then known as Broad Street) are recorded as Potthouse tenements.

Recent excavations have found the timber and brick remnants of seventeenth structures as well as delftware and kiln equipment. The pottery shards date from the seventeenth to the mid+eighteenth centuries. They include brown mottled wares and tin-glazed earthenwares.

Further investigations in 2002 uncovered what is thought to be the actual houses were the potters resided fronting onto Waring Street.

“Pottery, clay pipe, glass, bone and metal from the same periods were also retrieved along with a 1694 halfpenny of William and Mary [1689-1694 issue]”

Ruairi O’Baoill, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol 64 2005

The potters were producing everyday black-glazed vessels but also fine quality ware in competition with the highly-prized Dutch delft.

The Waring Street Skull

Another find in a Waring Street property with a back garden, was a skull with post-mortem trephination holes.  This was a method of drilling holes in the skull to treat brain disease or release blood after a head injury.

This skull was probably used for doctors to practice.

Cathedral Quarter Wall Map
Cathedral Quarter wall map by artist Eleanor Wheeler, Northern Ireland

From Broad Street to Waring Street

Thomas Waring

Subsequently the street was renamed Waring Street after a successful business family. The Warings settled in Ireland around 1600. They originally came from Lancashire in England.

Thomas Waring began a tanning business in Toome and then moved to Belfast. In 1670 the Warings leased land on the north side of Broad Street and established a tannery.

This was very profitable and by the time of his death he owned a thriving business and a number of merchant ships. Another member of the family founded Waringstown in County Down.

William Waring

Thomas was succeeded by his son William, who also proved to have entrepreneurial and political skills. William Waring was sovereign of Belfast in 1669 and 1670.

However, for all his wealth William does not seem to have been a happy man. Despite having a wife and family, on his death he left his entire estate to his brother Roger Waring, a church rector. His will states “That my executors allow my ‘pretended’ wife Nothing but what she Recovers by Law

Jane Waring & Jonathan Swift

Of William’s daughter Jane, a thwarted love story is told.

In 1695, on the royal recommendation of William III, a young Jonathan Swift was appointed to be Prebendary (an honorary canon) of Kilroot, a little hamlet 12 miles from Belfast. Swift had attended Trinity College (where he was expelled) and Oxford and found Kilroot dull by comparison.

“To the little village of Kilroot, down yonder on the Antrim Coast near Carrickfergus, came a clergyman as Vicar of the place. His name was Swift. . and before long he hated the place only a little less than he hated the Presbyterians who formed the bulk of his congregation”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946

The young man had few friends in County Antrim, but he had been to college with Lucas Waring. Visiting his school pal, Jonathan met and fell in love with his sister Jane.

Swift, ever the academic, had a habit of Latinising names and he called the object of his affections Varina. The two seem to have had a ‘dalliance’ but when Jonathan proposed Jane turned him down. Whether there was another suitor, parental disapproval or Swift’s lack of means as a country rector influenced Jane’s decision we will never know.

However, Swift left Belfast a fortnight later and never returned. His career and popular writing led him to wealth and social standing. However, as the years went by and no suitable husband appeared for the tanner’s daughter, Jane seemed to have had second thoughts. She contacted her erstwhile beau in the hope of rekindling their relationship. Swift, once spurned, decisively rejected her.

“Poor jilted Jane Waring! Her ghost flits through Waring Street and ever through any mention of Swift, but we know nothing more of her destiny. She may have married a shopkeeper or a tradesman and, while her children laughed over Gulliver’s Travels wiped away a tear that would be unrestrained”

Belfast Telegraph 5th October 1937

Incidentally, it has been suggested that the origin of Swift’s Gilliver’s Travels may have links to his time in the Belfast area with a Lilliput Cottage near Kilroot (no trace remains though Belfast still has a Lilliput Street) and the Cave Hill’s famous profile of a face suggesting a sleeping giant over looking Belfast.

Lilliput Cottage
Lilliput Cottage
Belfast Waterworks lower pond with Cavehill / Napoleon's nose
Belfast Waterworks with the Cave Hill and it’s sleeping giant profile in the background

The Commercial Building in Waring Street

In 1822 there were 50 males and 137 females recorded as living in Waring Street.

At this time the Commercial Buildings were constructed at no’s 1-3. This was originally known as Arthur’s Corner after Arthur Byrtt who had a lease in 1755.

This meant the removal of 4 thatched cottages that were on the site. The first of these, on the corner of Bridge Street, was the home of a saddler “who hung out for a sign above his door a great White Horse, suspended by an iron belly-band” (Cathal O’Byrne). These illustrated advertisements were important in the days when most folk were illiterate. Next was a grocery shop owned by Valentine Jones, then the Thatched Tavern and finally the shop of United Irishman Samuel Neilson.

Sadler 1786
Sadler 1786

The Marquis of Donegall laid the foundation stone for the Commercial Building on St Patrick’s Day 1819. Reportedly he gave the workmen money “to drown their shamrocks

The Commercial Building was designed by Belfast architect John McCutcheon. It was composed of grey Dublin granite in a classical style with 5 central bays sheltered by large Ionic columns. Two end bays are set slightly forward. The windows are arched. The building was originally decorated with carved globes, flags and trophies. The Commercial Building was designed to be multi-functional.

“The Commercial Building was erected in 1822, opposite the Exchange, at an expense of £20,000, by a proprietary of 200 shareholders incorporated by act of parliament in 1823, and by a committee of whom, annually elected, the affairs of the institution are conducted; the building comprises an excellent commercial hotel, a spacious and handsome newsroom, over which is an elegant assembly-room, and behind these an area with a piazza for the use of merchants; and in connection with them are numerous offices principally occupied by professional men”

Samuel Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of Ireland
The Commercial Building
The Commercial Buildings
Northern Whig 1824
Northern Whig 1824

The building was also became home to the Northern Whig newspaper. The Northern Whig was published from 1824 until 1963. It was founded in 1824 by Francis Dalzell Finlay and moved to Waring Street in 1921. The premises were much damaged internally during the 1941 Blitz which also decimated nearly Arnott’s store. Today the Commercial Building is known for it’s popular Northern Whig restaurant.

The Commercial Building (Northern Whig)
The Commercial Building (Northern Whig)
Northern Whig restaurant
Northern Whig restaurant

Development of Waring Street

By the 1840’s Waring Street housed a number of shops, pubs and offices. It also had at least four hotels

  • the Royal Temperance Hotel
  • Hall’s Hotel
  • the Thistle Hotel and
  • the Commercial Hotel.

Its proximity to the docks is also reflected in businesses such as ship brokers, rope makers and numerous merchants. It was the home of John Gowan ship master at No. 45 and the Excise Office at No. 31.

Just off the main street a narrow alley called Quay Lane was occupied exclusively by salt herring sellers.

Waring Street would also have been the place to visit if you were planning to emigrate, especially during the Famine Years.

In 1842 there existed

  • No. 18   J M Nelson – emigration agent
  • No. 54  Joseph Allen & Co – agents, emigration office
  • No. 68   William Valentine – American passenger office
  • No. 63  McCrea and Harvey – emigration agents
Cathedral Quarter Wall Map
Cathedral Quarter Ceramic Map by artist Eleanor Wheeler
The Exchange 1669
The Exchange 1669
Ulster Steamship 1880
Ulster Steamship 1880
Bonded Warehouse 1840
Bonded Warehouse 1840

The Ulster Bank

Another grand edifice on Waring Street was the Ulster Bank constructed around between 1857-60. The building was designed by Glaswegian James Hamilton and the carving done by Thomas Fitzpatrick of Wellington Place Belfast.

Approached by a broad flight of stone steps the highly ornate Italianate facade of golden Giffnock sandstone has Doric and Corinthian columns and a “..richly whorled acanthus frieze over the first floor” (Marcus Patton Central Belfast: A Historical Gazetteer).

The Merchant Hotel
The Ulster Bank – now the Merchant Hotel

One unfortunate historical incident on 9th December 1867 involved Robert Grimshaw, a bank director, tripping and falling to his death on the stone steps at the front of the building.

At the roofline are a group of three sculpted figures representing Britannia flanked by Justice and Commerce. The roof is also adorned with huge Grecian urns.

Merchant Hotel roofline
Merchant Hotel roofline
Britannia flanked by Justice and Commerce
Britannia flanked by Justice and Commerce

The heads of greyhounds, wings and coiling serpents decorate the black cast-iron lanterns at the front.

Greyhounds at foot of lanterns
Greyhounds at the foot of the lanterns

The interior of the bank was equally ornate with a highly impressive dome with an octagonal glass centre. Pillars, garlands and cherubs abound. The scenes depicting Science, Sculpture, Poetry and Music are the work of George Crowe from Scotland.

Chandelier and cherubs
Chandelier and cherubs

“Belfast’s finest commercial building, an exuberant and ornate Renaissance palazzo….shades of Palladio and ancient Rome combined”

Paul Larmour   Belfast: an illustrated architectural guide   1987

The Merchant Hotel

In 2006 the magnificent Ulster Bank building was converted into one of Belfast’s grandest and most prestigious hotels – The Merchant. Spanning most of a city block, the hotel’s main entrance can be found on Skipper Street. The Great Room Restaurant can be accessed directly via Waring Street and Berts Jazz Bar’s main entrance is on High Street.

This luxury Hotel proudly highlights the grandeur of the original Ulster Bank design.

Merchant Hotel at dusk
Merchant Hotel at dusk
Merchant Hotel Lantern
Merchant Hotel Lantern
Merchant Hotel interior
Merchant Hotel interior
Merchant Chandelier & dome
Merchant Chandelier & dome
Pillars, garlands and cherubs
Pillars, garlands and cherubs
The Merchant roofline
The Merchant roofline

Other Waring Street Businesses

Education

Cathal O’Byrne (As I Roved Out 1946) mentions two educational establishments situated on Waring Street.

One was a Reading School opened by John Ozier in August 1752. It was located in the Eagle and Child (a public house?) but Cathal noted that ‘He (John Ozier) will attend gentlemen’s children at their own house’.

The second educational establishment was run by a Mrs Gregson

“Mrs Gregson continues in Warren [Waring] street to instruct gentlemen’s children in spelling and reading English perfectly free from vulgar erroneous sounds, with a genteel carriage, and also teaches misses samplar and plain work, fuller than usual, and she has an assistant perfectly capable”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946

Ulster Chambers

Other notable buildings on Waring Street included the Ulster Chambers at No. 58 and the Ulster Buildings at No. 33.

The Ulster Chambers was built in 1855 for shipping magnate Gustavus Heyn. He was also the Royal Belgian Consul, Royal Hanoverian Consul and Vice-Consul for Prussia, Russia, Holland, Hamburg, Bremen, Lubeck, Oldenberg, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Spain, Turkey and Greece.

He was obviously an exceptional multi-tasker! The four storey building had elegant moulding and cast-iron window guards of twinning vines. It was, unfortunately, demolished in 1991 to make room for a car-park.

Ulster Buildings

The Ulster Buildings were the work of Thomas Jackson & Son in 1869. It was sited at the corner of Waring Street and Skipper Street.

Ulster Buildings sculpted motif
Ulster Buildings sculpted motif

A three storey building composed of white Scrabo sandstone. It featured a balcony above the main cornice and a square tower. On top of the tower was a lantern topped by a red ball and a metal flag, the significance of which has long been forgotten.

In 1878 the Ulster Buildings contained the offices of at least 13 different businesses including the Irish Linen Trade Association, the Belfast Imperial Building Society and the office of George Gerald Bingham Vice-Consul of Brazil.

Today the premises host the Cloth Ear public house. The roof decorations are no more.

The Ulster Building (now the Cloth Ear pub)
The Ulster Building (now the Cloth Ear pub)

Waring Street Today

The Waring Street of today, like most inner city streets, is no longer residential.

While still consisting mainly of businesses it has in recent years become more popular in the evenings with the increase of pubs and restaurants. The prestigious Merchant Hotel has helped inspire much improvement to Waring Street with the little streets running off it now hosting a wide variety of informal eating and drinking establishments.

The street’s resurgence has succeeded in bringing much needed life and vitality back to the old centre of the city – a fitting status for one of the oldest streets in Belfast.

Merchant Hotel billboard
Merchant Hotel billboard
Merchant Hotel Entrance
Merchant Hotel Entrance
Merchant Chandelier & dome
Merchant Chandelier & dome
Britannia flanked by Justice and Commerce - darkness
Britannia flanked by Justice and Commerce – darkness
The Merchant lit by lanterns
The Merchant lit by lanterns
Ulster Bank plaque within the Merchant Hotel
Ulster Bank plaque within the Merchant Hotel
Gardiner Brothers 1937
Gardiner Brothers 1937
Gardiner Brothers
Gardiner Brothers
The old Ulster Bank building viewed from Skipper Street
The old Ulster Bank building viewed from Skipper Street

Related Post

The Farset – Belfast’s Hidden River

High Street with the Farset River
High Street with the Farset River

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.


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