Royal Avenue is both one of the oldest streets and one of the newest streets in the centre Belfast. The route has existed from the 17th century but not as the broad commercial thoroughfare we know today. Its colourful history reflects the growth of the town and its residents.
In 1660, though only partially built, it was one of five streets listed in the Belfast Survey, running from Castle Place to the North Gate in the town ramparts, today’s North Street. The street was completed by 1680 and is recorded on a 1715 map as Herison’s Lean [Lane]. Presumably Herison/ Harrison was a principal resident or perhaps builder in the area.
Hercules Street – The Street of Fleshers
Later the narrow street was named Hercules Lean. It is thought it was named after Sir Hercules Langford. Little is known of this gentleman except that he lived in Belfast and is described by George Benn as “a rather detached inhabitant”.
Hercules Lane, later Street, was famous as the street of fleshers, that is, butchers. In the days before refrigeration this business was particularly ‘odiferous’. It was thought better to have these traders all in the one designated area. Butchers often kept livestock in back yards or alleyways. Cows, pigs, and sheep were slaughtered on the premises and sold at the shop front.
In the 17th century, butchers were reprimanded for discarding carcasses and unwanted offal into the Farset, which was an open river running along nearby High Street. (The Farset now runs under High Street).
“That whereas dayly complaintes is made by several Inhabitants of the said Borrough that great annoyance is committed by the Butchers of the Towne by killing and slaughtering of Catle they suffer the Blood and Garbage of their slaughter houses, some to lye in ye streets & other parte to run into severall channells and ditches of this Towne, to the corruption and putrefaccon of the River and annoyance of their neighbours by reason of the stinke and evill and infectious smell [that if not timely prevented] will by all likelihood bringe soem Ruinous and pestellentiall desease among ye Inhabitants”Belfast Corporation 1663
On 7th January 1663, the Town Book of Belfast records the new rule passed by the Corporation for the safer disposal of animal remains. From now on any “Blood or Garbage” from slaughtered livestock had to be taken straightaway and dumped beyond the high sea mark. Failure to comply resulted in a fine of 20 shillings sterling.
19th Century Hercules Street
Even in the 19th century Hercules Street was lined with butchers shops and stalls. In 1804 the Sovereign (mayor) James Edward May, decreed that butchers could only operate from Hercules Lane and Arthur Street. In 1822 Hercules Street contained 103 houses with 266 males and 292 female residents.
“By the middle of the 19th century Hercules Street was populated almost exclusively by butchers (of 89 listed in 1861, 49 were at Hercules Street or Place. Two, at Hercules Place in 1870, went by the Beatrix Potter-like names of Samuel Jelly and James Whisker], and as they frequently killed animals on the premises it was an unhealthy and unsavoury area”Marcus Patton, Central Belfast, an Historical Gazetteer 1993
Trading on Hercules Street
While the majority of traders in Hercules Street were ‘purveyors of fleshmeat’, other businesses also existed –
- J Murdock – Cork manufacturer 
- Mrs Hoy – Importer of leeches 
- George Moore – Soap and candle manufacturer 
- William J Cochrane – Bookbinder 
- Thomas Reid – Dealer in fancy pigeons 
- Charles Loughran – Hairdresser 
- Michael McKeown – Onion store
- Thomas Derby – Cabinet and chair maker 
- Jeremiah Barnes – Basket-maker [ 1877]
Much later, in 1946, Cathal O’Byrne describes the street in more rosy terms in his popular book “As I Roved Out”
“With its rows and rows of butchers’ shops – there were 47 in all – it was a quaint, odd, many-coloured, picturesque street, surrounded by a maze of twisting lanes and alleys and byways… Every day was market day in Hercules Street, but in the olden times on a Saturday night it presented a peculiarly busy and animated scene, for to ‘The Street’ on that night most of Belfast’s matrons, on shopping bent for Sunday dinner, found their way”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
Decline and Fall
In 1877 the Corporation had obtained a Provisional Order for slum clearance and towards the latter end of the 19th century the Town Council decided to act.
Due to the unsanitary nature of Hercules Street and the surrounding district it was agreed the area should be demolished and replaced with a grand boulevard more in keeping with the image of a thriving commercial centre the council wished to convey to the world.
Consequently in 1880-81 the entire region was flattened. Around 4,000 folk had to be rehomed. The Town Surveyor at the time was J C Bretland.
Emergence from the Ruins
The new Royal Avenue replaced Hercules Street and extended along the former John Street to the corner of Donegall Street. The many lanes and alleyways leading off Hercules Street were also demolished, such as John’s Court containing 12 small houses, McCoubrey’s Entry, Black’s Lane, New Row, later the site of the Grand Central Hotel and Torren’s Row named after an agent of Lord Donegall.
“…then came a truly great achievement in the demolition of Hercules and John Streets, the clearing away of a lot of wretched, malodorous, and insanitary ‘rookeries’ in the vicinity of those streets, and the opening of that fine stretch of roadway extending from York Street to Donegall Place, and bearing the name Royal Avenue, a title which well indicates its stately aspect”.Industries of the North 1888-91
Trades & Professions
Royal Ave was lined with richly decorated and ornate buildings in the late Victorian style. Each flamboyant edifice indicated the success of a business and the wealth of its owner. It housed a variety of professions and trades from tailors, piano makers, auctioneers, wallpaper manufacturers and travel agents.
The first shop to be opened on the avenue was William Reid’s drapery store. It was housed in a five-bay, red-bricked building designed by the architectural firm of Young and Mackenzie.
One of the most elite stores was the Eclectric at No19. Established by Messrs Sinnamon & Co, the firm produced, imported and sold the latest in ladies and children’s fashions. It was famous for its range of fabrics and materials and for being the first to reproduce European trends. Its products ranged from gowns, bonnets, wedding and mourning attire and accessories, infants’ robes and layettes and underclothing including the celebrated ‘hygienic’ CB corset. The Eclectric was frequented by genteel ladies from Belfast and further afield.
“In catering as outfitters for ladies and children Messrs Sinnamon have spared no expense nor trouble to procure for their now numerous patrons, the finest goods which ready cash purchase and commercial influence can command, and in order to maintain relations with the premier houses in France and Germany, as well as England, frequent visit are made by Miss Sinnamond to the metropolitan centres of fashion -Paris, etc – at least four times every year, every mutation and development of style being thus reproduced with unerring exactitude”.Industries of the North 1888-91
Tate’s Medical Hall
Another notable business on Royal Ave was Tate’s Medical Hall. Situated at No 9, it was the largest and most popular chemists in the town. The building was originally designed by David Salmon and was a 4-storey, 10 bay, stucco edifice topped with a variety of small pediments. Above the doorway are the carved figures of a bearded gentleman and a lady holding an empty pail.
Mr James Tate had founded the firm in 1880. He manufactured and sold a range of medicinal remedies for common ailments. Among the most requested were the Perfect Blood Purifier to cleanse the blood from all impurities, costing 1s 6d, Tate’s Compound Balsam of Linseed, a speedy cure for colds, asthma and bronchitis and the famous Yankee Bitters for stomach, liver and kidney problems.
Mr Tate was also renowned for a delicate, yet long-lasting perfume he had invented called Ososweet. This he had produced to celebrate the visit to Belfast of their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales. Apparently, the scent was a favourite with “Mrs Lily Langtry, Madame Marie Roze and Miss Fortescue etc etc”
Jewellers and Watchmakers
Royal Ave was also known for its jewellers and watchmakers’ shops. Wightman’s Jewellers, situated in Dublin Buildings, No 22 Royal Ave produced a wide variety of artistic gold and silver pieces bearing national emblems, said to rival the work of European craftsmen. He is also said to be the first silversmith to incorporate Connemara marble in his work.
Gilmour jewellers In Garfield Chambers and Steel & Sons, Electo-Plate Manufacturers were other well-known businesses on the street. (Garfield Chambers housed the Regency Cinema which became the Avenue Cinema and then a bingo hall before its demolition in 1987 for the construction of the Castlecourt shopping centre).
At 17 Royal Ave was the firm of Rankin Bros., Watchmakers, with workshops at No 35. The business made a wide range of watches and timepieces in precious metals, as well as watch-chains. It was said to be particularly popular with members of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
“…there is scarcely a police barrack throughout Ireland where their well-known watches and albert-guards are not found”Industries of the North 1888-91
Wining & Dining in Royal Avenue
Royal Ave was also a fashionable venue for ‘wining and dining’. In 1882-84 the Italianate-style, 4-storey Royal Avenue Hotel was designed and constructed by Thomas Jackson & Son. It was located at the corner of Royal Avenue and Rosemary Street. At the time it was known as the ‘best hotel in Belfast’. Among its most famous guests over the years were Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
The Royal Avenue Restaurant, proprietor Mr John Turtle, was a busy eatery. Mr Turtle also had a business on nearby Bridge Street. His restaurants were described as “these popular and excellent restaurants form the favourite resorts of great numbers of city gentlemen owing to their fine arrangements, select menu, splendid cuisine and reasonable charges”.
A very early drinking establishment on Royal Ave was the Century Public House constructed in 1880. It was sited at No101 and survived until 1930.
Grand Central Hotel, Royal Avenue Belfast
The Best Hotel in Ireland
A later hotel to be added to the street was the Grand Central Hotel constructed in 1892. This became Ireland’s premier hotel, boasting 200 luxurious rooms. It added a distinctive sight to the city skyline with an octagonal lantern topped with a copper dome. The inspiration behind the hotel was John Robb, who had an extensive shop at Castle Place.
When it opened on 1st June 1893 it advertised every modern convenience including electric lighting and a hydraulic-powered elevator.
The hotel occupied a corner site and the public lounges, a reading room, a writing room, a coffee room and a billiards room overlooked the busy city centre. There were also smoking rooms for gentlemen and private dining rooms.
The entrance and central hall were floored with a marble mosaic. The walls had a mahogany dado and Japanese wallpaper. The dining salon measured 60ft long by 35ft wide. In the centre of the high ceiling were four large glass domes. The bedrooms were sumptuously carpeted and dressed with walnut furniture of the highest standard. The grand ballroom was the scene of Belfast’s grandest banquets, including the official celebratory lunch for the launch of the White Star’s newest ship, the Titanic, in 1912.
“The hotel has been appropriately named, for it is palatial in its grandeur and it is situated at the corner of Royal Avenue and Berry Street… Too much praise cannot be bestowed upon the promoters of the scheme. They have spared no efforts and grudged no expense; they have been animated throughout by the desire to erect an hotel in every way worthy of the importance of Belfast, and it no exaggeration to say success has crowned their laudable endeavours. The Grand Central is undoubtedly the largest and finest hotel in Ireland”Belfast Newsletter 3rd June 1893
Grand Central Hotel – The War Years
In 1914 the owners of the Grand Central Hotel were informed by the English government that their premises were being requisitioned for the war effort. The finely carved furniture, glass chandeliers, crockery and luxury bedding were removed and sold.
After remaining empty for several months, the owners queried the delay only to be told there had been a mistake, the telegram should have been delivered to the Grand Central Hotel Bristol!
A dispirited John Robb was unwilling to spend the money, time and effort to restore this illustrious hotel and sold it in 1927. The hotel eventually closed its doors for the final time in 1969 and the site is currently occupied by the Castlecourt shopping centre.
Grand Central Hotel Guests
Some of the Grand Central’s more notable guests were King Leopold of Belgium, Al Jolson, John McCormick, Paul Robeson, Mario Lanza and Winston Churchill.
Clayton Moore who played the Lone Ranger was also a visitor. He is best remembered for staying in character for the duration of his visit, never removing his mask even when eating in the restaurant!
Association for Employment of the Industrious Blind
With the construction of Royal Avenue, an important charitable institution was to find a new site. This was the Association for Employment of the Industrious Blind.
Designed by the architect Godfrey Ferguson, a large new building was erected to continue the work of the charity which had been founded in 1871. With no welfare state, disabled people had to rely on the goodness of their families or ended up in the workhouse.
“Designed to afford means of honest and honourable livelihood to the afflicted, it is also of necessity a school for their technical instruction, so that the darkness which rests upon their vision does not also overshadow their minds and hearts”Industries of the North 1888-91
The construction cost £6,000, paid for by donations. The ground floor consisted of a shop for the purchase of items made by the blind. On the first floor was a showroom, a basket-making room and a Braille library. The second floor was dedicated to those persons employed in upholstery and bedding. While on the third floor, were 28 blind people, men and women, engaged in the skill of brush-making. The fourth level was for those making cane furniture and mats. Unfortunately, the original building was destroyed by fire in 1908, but was rebuilt by Henry Seaver the following year.
Other Royal Avenue Buildings of Note
Many other grand buildings and institutions graced Belfast’s Royal Avenue including the Romanesque General Post Office, opened in August 1886 and W H Lynn’s 3-storey Belfast Public Library, the first free library in the newly declared ‘city’.
One of the most impressive constructions is the Reform Club situated at No 4. Its mosaic-tiled corner entrance, deep pilasters, iron balcony and corner turret make a commanding statement.
Next to the Reform club but detached, is the highly decorative building originally designed for the Provincial Bank (latterly a Tesco supermarket). In cream painted Cookstown sandstone, this is richly adorned with foliage designs in the ornamental spandrels, interlaced pediments, trefoils between the arches and carved medieval-style heads.
“In the story of the making of modern Belfast, in its rise from a substantial township to the attainment of the rank, dignity, and dimensions of a city, no chapter is more interesting than that which treats of the conversion of the comparatively mean and narrow Hercules Street into the broad and imposing present-day Royal Avenue, the most central artery of Belfast”Belfast Telegraph 7th July 1910
Royal Avenue Today
While Royal Avenue remains today an important commercial route, many of the elegant Victorian buildings are long gone, and it is unfortunate that many of the remaining properties remain empty and uncared for.
The demise of ‘the high street’ with its independent shops, is a common problem in many cities but in a thoroughfare with so many historical connections it is a real shame.
This once-grand city-centre street is blighted with empty shops and an increasing number of buildings in need of attention. Given its historical importance Royal Avenue needs to be re-energised with investment and new commercial ventures. Restoration, or at least preservation, of the remaining period buildings could only benefit a city that has lost much of its historic character to modern architectural blandness. The benefits to tourism would be substantial, not to mention a much-needed boost to civic pride in the city.
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