In 1870 Edward Robinson and John Cleaver set up a business partnership with commercial premises in Castle Place. The two young men had met while working in the firm of James Lindsay and Co. in the Ulster Arcade on Donegall Place. Cleaver was originally from Bishopstone in East Sussex and Robinson came from Ballymena in County Antrim, where his father was a woollen draper.
Belfast was a thriving town at the time with a rapidly rising and expanding middle class. Robinson and Cleaver based their business venture on providing good quality locally produced goods at reasonable prices. They were so successful that in 1879 they moved to larger premises in High Street. As the city developed into one of the major manufacturing centres of the British Empire, Robinson and Cleaver began to promote and export Irish products, such as high quality linen, throughout the United Kingdom. Business continued to boom and again the partners required bigger commercial premises.
The Robinson & Cleaver Building
In the 1880’s Edward Robinson and John Cleaver purchased an extensive property on the corner of Donegall Place and Donegall Square right in the centre of Belfast. This was one of the few remaining residential houses left on this main thoroughfare.
Design & Construction
They employed the prestigious architects Young and MacKenzie to design a new building reflecting the status of their burgeoning up-market store. This Belfast based architectural and civil engineering firm were responsible for many of Belfast City’s most notable public edifices including The Scottish Provident and Ocean Buildings, Belfast Royal Academy and the Presbyterian Assembly Buildings. The sheer quality and sumptuous design of these magnificent Belfast buildings can still be appreciated today – especially in their contrast to modern box-like building designs.
Messrs H and J Martin and Co of the Ormeau Road were selected as the builders for the new Robinson and Cleaver store.
In 1888 the Royal Irish Linen Warehouse, as Robinson and Cleavers was then known, was first opened to the public.
The Robinson & Cleaver Building
Robinson & Cleaver’s department store was indeed a very grand building constructed of Scrabo stone in an impressive Victorian style. The exterior of the ground floor was decorated in polished red and green granite. The building had three striking turrets topped with copper domes. The largest tower, on the corner, was adorned with a large clock 6ft in diameter. The clock was made by Mr Francis Moore of High Street, and had a musical feature with Westminster chimes. The frontage was extremely ornate with intricate carvings and balustrades.
“Carved swags of fruit surmount the fluted pilaster columns, and are emblematic of the fruits of the various countries of the world. The stone balconettes on the third floor are supported by sculptured cantilevers formed by Donatello-like chubby-faced and winged figures of boys; between these are a series of carved panels, into most of which the plump forms of nude or semi-nude children are most happily introduced. These are made to do a manifold number of duties: here holding flax, and there Irish linen; some carry distaffs, whilst others bear shields between them, on which occur the linked monograms of the two spirited owners of the new premises”The Irish Builder 15th March 1888
Robinson & Cleaver Interior
The interior of this grand shop was similarly imposing. Its most arresting feature being a magnificent Sicilian marble curving staircase leading off in two directions. The white banisters were flanked on either side with statues of Erin and Britannia by a local artist. The building had six stories, the upper floors containing the offices of Mr Robinson and Mr Cleaver. A lift to make access easier was installed by the American Elevator Company. There was electric lighting on every floor and pneumatic tubes carried money from 17 counter stations to the main cash office.
“The arrangement and equipment of the almost innumerable departments attains a standard of perfection and completeness rarely equalled and certainly never surpassed even in this age of gigantic mercantile emporia, and in addition to the many splendid show-rooms allotted to the purposes of display for the wondrous variety of textile wares, there are sumptuously-appointed fitting rooms in connection with each of the fashion departments, one of these rooms being so contrived that it can be instantly darkened in order to judge the effect of colours for evening wear”Industrial and Commercial Life in the North of Ireland 1888-1891
Both Robinson and Cleaver were keen to exploit the benefits of international trade. By this time they had a worldwide network of connections. They were famous for sending the highest class of Irish fabrics – double-damask, table linen, Irish embroideries and laces, the length and breadth of the Empire.
“The trade of the firm is enormous in its entirety, and their postal business is something extraordinary in magnitude, over one third of all parcels posted in Belfast (a city of a quarter of a million inhabitants) during the year 1887 having been sent from the Royal Irish Linen Warehouse”Industrial and Commercial Life in the North of Ireland 1888-1891
Robinson & Cleaver were very proud of their royal patrons which added greatly to their reputation and hence profits.
“Her majesty (Queen Victoria) was graciously pleased to express her satisfaction with these beautiful goods, and further honoured Messrs Robinson & Cleaver by causing them to be appointed into the ‘place and quality of Irish Cambric Handkerchief, Embroidery and Lace Manufacturers in Ordinary’ to her Majesty at Belfast”Queen Victoria tribute
In addition the business also had the patronage of Princess Frederick of Germany, as well as many illustrious families, high-ranking government officials and “noblemen of every rank”.
On 12th August 1869 John Cleaver married Mary Ann Spence at Richhill Independent Church in County Armagh. Mary Ann was the daughter of George Spence a cabinet-maker. The couple had met in Belfast. Their married home was Ashley Villa on Ashley Ave, off the Lisburn Road. Here they raised a family of 3 boys and 5 girls. Arthur Spencer (b. 1870), John Martin (b. 1871), Kathleen Mary (b. 1872), James Frederick (b. 1875), Mabel (b. 1877), Florence Edith (b. 1878), Norah Heathcliff (b. 1881) and Eileen Martha Esther (b. 1886). Both Kathleen and Norah died when they were just 9 years old, Kathleen of meningitis and Norah of a kidney complaint. In 1892, as the business was doing so well, the Cleavers moved to ‘Dunraven’ on the Malone Road. This was a beautiful Italianate villa sitting in several acres of parkland including its own lake. John Cleaver died on 22nd September 1926 and is buried in Belfast City cemetery.
Edward Robinson was born on 17th February 1849 in Ballymena. On 25th October 1877 he married Marion Harvey Blair at Elmwood Presbyterian Church in Belfast. Marion’s father was Edward Blair an accountant. The couple lived in Orrington House off the Lisburn Road. Their 3 sons were born here, Edward Arthur (b. 1878), Harold Claude (b. 1882) and Stanley Gerald (b. 1889). Later they moved to Lismara House in Whiteabbey, where Edward became a Justice of the Peace. Edward Robinson died on 6th March 1906.
Robinson & Cleaver in the Twentieth Century
The Good Times
Robinson & Cleaver continued to prosper in the twentieth century. It was known as a very prestigious shop with an affluent clientele. They prided themselves on their exclusive merchandise, especially furs and Irish linen. Staff were specially selected and the emphasis was on a first class personalised service.
“It is a tribute to the management that while the firm’s reputation for Irish linens is as high as ever it was, the addition of further merchandising lines has brought lustre to the house, and there is a happy mingling of traditionalism and progressive outlook. This is pretty well illustrated by a comparison between the exterior and interior of the store. Outside is all solid Victorianism – the florid stonework on the facade proclaiming the prosperity of that very prosperous era, and inside the modernity in lay-out and convenience for busy, present-day shoppers”Irish Times 29th November 1960
All Good Things… the End
Ultimately, times and tastes change and Robinson & Cleaver failed to keep pace. The shop became less popular, being regarded as fussy and old-fashioned. The once thriving business began to decline and finally closed in 1984. The iconic marble staircase was auctioned off to a private homeowner in Ballyedmond, County Down. The ornate and dramatic building however, survives and is a well-known city landmark in front of the present City Hall. It now houses a variety of shops, offices and restaurants. The grandeur of its facade remains a distant echo of Belfast’s Victorian glamour.
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