Castle Place, Belfast
The Social Centre of Belfast
Castle Place was once the social centre of Belfast. Situated here was the most fashionable hostelry in the town. The Donegall Arms was the place to be seen! (You can see it to the right of the image above)
“Sparkle and splendour reigned here in the Donegall Arms….Balls and banquets ‘with bumper round and no heel taps’ when peers by the dozen danced or orated”Belfast Telegraph 20th March 1944
The New Inn
There appears to have been a small hotel and public house on this site from at least the mid-eighteenth century. This was called the New Inn, its proprietor from 1752-1762 was one Francis Graham.
It was during this time that an act of vandalism occurred outside the premises while Lord Antrim was residing in the Inn. As there was not enough room in the stables, his chaise was left in the street outside the Inn. During the night it was attacked and slashed. The New Inn proprietor, Francis Graham, offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators, but without success.
Businesses Operating from Public Houses
In 1762 a new owner, Adrian von Brackley, took over. He managed the hostelry for eleven years. He was succeeded by Mr James McKane.
At this time, it was commonplace for small businesses or teaching establishments to use rooms in local public houses, for example in 1752 we see John Ozier opening a Reading School in the Eagle and Child Inn, Waring Street.
Cathal O’Byrne (As I Roved Out, 1946) records chimney sweep Hamilton Barr, operating from the New Inn
“Hamilton Barr, chimney doctor, performs curing of smoking chimneys (no cure, no pay) upon reasonable terms, and he performs his work in the neatest manner, and doubts not that he will give satisfaction to any that employs him, as he undertakes none but them that he is sure will cure; any gentlemen that want their chimneys cured may enquire at the New Inn Belfast and the Sign of the Bear in Lisburn”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
The Donegall Arms
James Sheridan became the new owner in 1785. The following year he had the inn rebuilt and enlarged and changed its name to the Donegall Arms. This became a popular ‘watering-hole’ and meeting place.
The early sessions of the Belfast Reading Society (later the Linen Hall Library) met here, as did fashionable societies such as The Coterie and The Belfast Hunt.
Many receptions and feasts were held in the rooms at the Donegall Arms. Among its clientele were the Lord Lieutenants, Lords Hillsborough, Rawdon and Jocelyn, the Bishop of Down and the Duke of Rutland. Plenty of raucous banquets accompanied by multiple toasts were celebrated in the Inn’s chambers.
“The Donegal Arms was situated on the north side of Castle Place alias The Parade alias Castle Street and played an important part in the social and political life of Belfast from the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century”S Shannon Milllin, Additional Sidelights on Belfast History, 1938
Calls for Political Reform
However, in the midst of all this social gaiety, times were changing.
The driving force of the town’s mercantile and industrial success sought to change the ‘status quo’ which saw many of them excluded from local and public office. At the same time the disaffected Catholic population, banished from towns, still sought to escape the shackles of the Penal Laws, to be allowed to celebrate their religion, own land and to vote.
Radical ideas from France and America were sweeping Ireland and found ready advocates in the burgeoning town of Belfast. The founding of the Volunteers, a Protestant defence force against foreign invasion, proved the necessity of Ireland defending herself without recourse to England.
When calls for political reform failed, the recently formed United Irishmen felt they had no option but to take up arms if they wanted to see a fairer society for all Irishmen.
The Government Response
The whole of the country, and Belfast as the centre of liberal thought, suffered a military backlash from the English government. The Habeas Corpus Act was suspended and the town was effectively placed under martial law.
“Soon the shadows were sinking however, and with the 1798 turbulence the Donegall Arms was a Provost’s Prison, and its stables were occupied by yeomanry”Belfast Telegraph 20th March 1944
Buildings, homes and businesses throughout the town were attacked by government forces.
“The natural results of stationing half-disciplined troops in a town so excited as Belfast was then, speedily evolved themselves in riots, bloodshed and murder, and during the next five or six years more than one citizen fell victim to the drunken brutality of a semi-barbarous militia”S Ramsey, Belfast in the Eighteenth Century, 1889
The Donegall Arms – Jailhouse
Wholesale arrests were made of those suspected of supporting the United Irishmen or their ideals. Some of these men were imprisoned in the former Donegall Arms Hotel without trial.
The conditions where the prisoners were kept were abysmal. There was little in the way of sanitation. As was usual at the time, meals and bedding were not provided for inmates.
These men, including Dr Musgrave from Lisburn and Dr William Steel Dickson of Portaferry, had to rely on their families and friends for the basics. Those who had no nearby relations found themselves in dire circumstances.
“The number of prisoners was greatly increased…. Of these, many were destitute of means of procuring a morsel of bread, or a wad of straw to spread over the boards on which they were obliged to lie; and, in the prevailing alarm and ferment, no attention was paid, for some weeks, either to their wants or their distresses, by the servants of government. In fact, they must have died of hunger, had they not been supported by their fellow prisoners, and a number of families in Belfast who generously supplied them with food”Dr William Steel Dickson, A Narrative 1812
Belfast in Lockdown
Belfast citizens who had joyously supported the French Revolution and the American War of Independence now found themselves under curfew and a military lockdown. The former venue for their celebrations now a prison.
“Nigh as jubilantly as did Paris, freedom-loving Belfast celebrated the fall of the Bastille in 1792. Alas! Now a few years later it had its own Bastille, wherein prisoners were huddled together without regard to age or station”Belfast Telegraph, 20th March, 1944
While most of the inmates, who escaped the gallows at Cornmarket, were eventually released, a Court Martial held on 21st April 1799 in the Donegall Arms, exiled several prisoners “to serve the King of Prussia”
The Donegall Arms Restored
The Mail Coach
By the end of the eighteenth century the Donegall Arms was once again a busy lodging place under the proprietorship of Thomas Wilson (1808-1820) and subsequently John C Sloan, James Sloan and John Moore.
Its central location made it an ideal stopping point for the mail coach. The Royal Mail Coach left from the Donegall Arms every evening at 4pm and arrived in Dublin, at Sackville Street at 7am the next morning. While the Dublin coach arrived at the premises at 11 o’clock in the morning and a half hour later the mail coach left Castle Place for Derry.
“In times of unusual excitement great crowds would collect around the door of the Donegall Arms in Castle Place about the time the coach was expected to arrive, and the guard and the coachman were looked upon as very important personages, as they retailed the latest news from Dublin”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
Impact of the Railways
By the 1850’s however, the railways were the preferred method of travel. The postal services now used this quicker means of transport. New hotels sprang up around the railway stations and coaching inns fell out of favour.
New style hotels were built to cater for commercial travellers and tourists. In 1857 Belfast had the Royal, the Plough, the Imperial, the Commercial, the Queen’s Arms, the Thistle, Robinsons, the Eglington, the Ulster Railway and the Victoria Hotels.
The Donegall Arms closed in 1856.
The Ulster Reform Club
In 1857 the Ulster Reform Club held meetings in the old Donegall Arms building. It subsequently acquired its current premises at 4 Royal Avenue.
The grand building of red sandstone was designed by Maxwell and Tuke of Manchester, and built by James Henry & Co. of the Crumlin Road. The Ulster Reform Club remains a very prestigious business, social and dining club to this day.
Belfast’s New Entrepreneur
Meanwhile an enterprising young tradesman, who already had premises on the same side of Castle Place, saw an opportunity for expansion.
John Robb was born in Downpatrick in County Down around 1829. He had a small drapery business on Irish Street in the town. However, with £200 in his pocket, he decided to come to Belfast to improve his prospects. In 1858 he had a ‘wholesale and retail woollen drapers’ at 15 Castle Place in partnership with Alexander Orr Reid.
Robb’s Department Store
John Robb really did find his ‘fortune’ in Belfast. By the mid 1880’s the Robb’s Store stretched from 1 to 15 Castle Place at the corner of Lombard Street. This expansion included the former Donegall Arms building.
“The venture was successful from the outset, and the firm, which was commenced in a small way, rapidly extended the scope of its operations and finally assumed the gigantic dimensions with which the present generation is so familiar”Belfast Newsletter, 3rd September 1921
Robb’s shop retained the façade of the popular Donegall Arms hotel. The upper architraved windows on the first and second floors were the original windows of the Donegall Arms as were the wooden shutters inside. The doors also, were remnants of the former inn
“This door’s pedigree dates back to 1786 when Belfast was tiny compared to now. In sooth, these very doors were the portals of the Donegall Arms Hotel, Belfast’s historic seventeenth, eighteenth and even nineteenth century hostelry in Castle Place”Belfast Telegraph, 20th March 1944
John Robb himself, seems to have been a well-known figure about town
“[He] was undoubtedly a man of vision, stickativeness and faith alike in Belfast – and himself. Even his attire was such that, to be on fashion’s wave locally, was to be ‘dressed liked John Robb’”Belfast Telegraph, 20th March 1944
Expansion of Robb’s Department Store
The Robb’s building was further extended out and upwards in a five storey Victorian style. The architect was William Hastings, who was previously the Surveyor of Works for the Borough of Belfast.
“…pilasters running up to a heavy modillion cornice at third floor level, with tightly packed dormers and tall chimneys above”Marcus Patton, Central Belfast, a Historical Gazetteer 1993
The Robb Family
John Robb died at his home Lisnabreeny, on 26th June 1896. He was succeeded in the business by his son, also called John.
Robb’s Department Store continued to flourish and expand and became one of the most popular stores in Belfast. John (junior) seems to have been a well-respected and admired businessman and employer. He passed away at the age of 61 on 2nd September 1921.
“He was a man of broad outlook and of the most friendly disposition and his relations with the employees of the firm were of the happiest character. Indeed, he was regarded by the workers as a personal friend, and it is worthy of note that some members of the staff have been in the service of the company for over half a century”Belfast Newsletter, 3rd September 1921
In 1937 Nesca Robb, a writer, historian and poetess, gifted the family home, Lisnabreeny in Castlereagh, to the National Trust. This subsequently became part of Lagan College. Some of Nesca’s works include Poems (1939), An Ulster Woman in England (1942) and a two-volume history of William of Orange (1962,1966).
Robb’s Decline and Fall
In 1951 the London based company Great Universal Stores took over Robb’s shop for a sum approaching £500,000.
“The sale of one of the largest department stores in Belfast, John Robb & Co. Ltd, founded in Castle Place 94 years ago, was confirmed today”Belfast Telegraph, 1st August 1951
Like other old department stores in Belfast such Robinson & Cleavers, Anderson & McAuley and Arnott’s, the Robb’s store fell into decline with changing times.
Robb’s Department Store closed its doors for the last time in 1973. Although Robb’s is well remembered by many in Belfast for its fine drapery and its much-lauded Christmas Display, the surprising history behind this grand store in Castle Place is much less well known.
In 1986, in an act of architectural vandalism, Great Universal Stores applied to have the historic Robb’s building demolished.
Despite its listed status and a vociferous campaign by conservationists, the grand old building was shamefully demolished in 1991 to make way for a nondescript modern shopping centre.
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