Victoria Street Belfast -A History
Background to Victoria Street
In 1843, following the Municipal Reform Act (1840), the main thoroughfare of Victoria Street was created. This linked Cromac Street with Corporation Street, cutting through the commercial avenues of High Street and Waring Street. This was intended to improve and extend Belfast’s business centre.
In response, a number of merchants and entrepreneurs established businesses on the prestigious new development. The stories behind some of these endeavours are very interesting and are recounted below.
Unfortunately, Victoria Street itself was ravaged during the Blitz and many of the old buildings were lost forever. A few, however, remain.
Although Victoria Street today is a shadow of its former Victorian grandeur, that does not mean that its history and remaining grand buildings should be forgotten.
The Construction of Victoria Street
During the construction of Victoria Street, several residential entries and courts had to be demolished.
One of these was Forest Lane which ran along the east side of St George’s Church. It is depicted on an early map of the town as far back as 1715. In 1822 it contained 49 houses. At the corner of the Lane was a shop belonging to Billy Hutton which stocked a huge range of hardware, nautical instruments and fishing tackle.
Another to be flattened was Weigh-House Lane. Originally called Macarthies Lean (Lane). It got its name from the weigh-house belonging to the nearby Butter Market.
Belfast’s first theatre ‘The Vaults’ was situated in Weigh-House Lane in the 1750’s. By the early 19th century, the lane was the home of 88 men and 103 women tightly packed into only 35 tenements.
“These were occupied by hucksters, hawkers, tinkers, coopers, heather broom makers, and freestone sellers”Thomas Gaffikin Belfast Fifty Years Ago 1875
Leathes Lean, named after the Sovereign (Mayor), Robert Leathes, was later known as Quay Lane and met a similar fate in terms of demolition for the new Victoria Street. It was described as a narrow passageway with houses along one side. These were occupied by folk who made a living selling salted herrings.
“Cow Lane”, now Victoria Street, was where the cows were driven through when they were taken to graze on the Strand groundMary Lowry, The Story of Belfast and Its Surroundings, 1913
Early Victoria Street Residents
In 1850 the newly constructed Victoria Street consisted of only a few premises
- No 1 Richard Bell – Publican and Marble and Stone Yard
- No 3 Eliza Gaussen – Publican
- No 5 James McMeekan – Marble and Stone Yard
- Nos 7-9 Bernard McCann – Brass Founder and Gasfitter
- No 13 Thomas Corry – Surgeon and Chemist
However, just 4 years later there were over 100 properties on the street. Notably Thomas Corry had ‘come up in the world’. By 1854 he is recorded as a surgeon at Victoria Street Medical Hall, an aeriated water manufacturer and the proprietor of the Railway & Steam Navigation Guide Office!
Commercial and Municipal Properties
Victoria Street boasted a variety of wholesale trades and shops in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
There were banking establishments, architects’ offices, printers and insurance companies. There were also grocers and flour merchants such as S B McKeag & Co at No 117 in addition to wine & spirit dealers, seed & tea merchants as well as leather traders.
Richard Shannon had a ‘drapers and clothier’ business at Nos 109-111 Victoria Street while the Majestic Boot House, established in 1889 was at No 53. The intersection of Victoria Street and High Street was known locally as Spackmann’s Corner after a successful drapery store there opposite the Albert Memorial Clock (see post).
There were also a number of municipal buildings on this impressive road.
The Corn Exchange
In 1851 the Corn Exchange was erected on the corner of Victoria Street and Gordon Street. This was designed by Thomas Jackson in beige sandstone and featured carved crossed sheafs of corn.
A quirky fact noted by Marcus Patton in Central Belfast, a Historical Gazetteer (1993), was that the secretary of the Corn Exchange in 1852 was a Mr John Seed.
The Town Hall
In 1869-71 a Town Hall was built at No 80 Victoria Street, on the site of the old Pig Market. Over the years Belfast’s Town Hall had existed in various guises and locations, most notably on the upper floor of the old Market House on the corner of High Street and Cornmarket. In January 1869 a competition was held and the winning design was that of Anthony Jackson of Belfast.
The 2-storey building was constructed of red brick with Dumfries sandstone details in the Italianate style. The central doorway was flanked with two pairs of Ionic columns topped with a gabled porch. This featured the Belfast coat of arms. The total cost was £33,000 and the work was carried out by Mr James Henry of Albertville, Crumlin Road.
However, public opinion thought the new Town Hall too plain to represent the growing importance of the town, and a parapet (a low protective wall along the edge of a roof) was added to the construction.
“The public offices in Belfast, when first designed, were without a parapet; the townspeople protested that it was not a public building, not having a parapet; and so great was the agitation that plans had to be submitted to the Treasury for consideration”Irish Builder 1873
This sort of outcry would almost certainly not be repeated today.
“Present-day rate payers are unlikely to emulate this admirable insistence on adornment”C E B Brett, Building of Belfast 1967
Subsequently, when Belfast received city status in 1888, the Victoria Street Town Hall function was taken over by the City Hall on Donegall Place which opened in 1906.
The former Town Hall was used for various municipal activities over the years including being a Family Court. At one time it was also the headquarters of the Ulster Unionist Party and part of Belfast College of Technology. Currently the Old Town Hall is vacant and has been placed on the ‘Heritage at Risk’ register, which is a shame.
Lytle and McCausland – The Seeds of Malmaison
A number of seed and grain merchants had their premises on Victoria Street. Alexander Cross Bryce & Co, Seed, Manure and Agricultural Implement Merchants were situated at No 57. They had a large and thriving business that covered every aspect of farming life.
“The premises present many advantages for a display of these (farming) implements, and of all the other branches of merchandise; comprising two spacious stores at the rear and a front show room and offices, and the whole arrangements manifest the completeness under which every detail of a large and comprehensive business is controlled”Industries of the North 1888-91
This firm were also experts in bee-keeping “in the stocking of an apiary, this firm is in a position to present every facility to bee-cultivators”.
However, probably the most renowned of the commercial enterprises on Victoria Street were the seed warehouses of John Lytle & Sons (No 34) and McCausland’s (Nos 36-38), both constructed in 1868.
These adjoining buildings were built as a pair for the two rival companies. As the premises remain today, we can witness the Victorian delight in ornamentation on even mundane warehouses. The extent of the decoration an obvious reflection of the success of the business.
The two palazzo-type buildings were made to a similar height and of uniform materials with corresponding floor levels, but each was decorated in a different style.
The Lytle Warehouse
The Lytle front edifice has 5 large arched windows at ground level. The central parapet is decorated with a crown and harp, the firm’s trademark. A series of carvings depicting scenes from nature adorn the building.
” Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of the building is the series of capital carvings at the ground floor, which combine plants and animals in joyous profusion – frogs (or tortoises?) peering between waterlilies, squirrels eating nuts, birds with large beaks, and columbines”Marcus Patton, Central Belfast a Historical Gazetteer, 1996
Background to Lytle & Sons
Lytle & Sons was founded by John Lytle, who was born in Garvagh in County Derry, in 1815. He started his seed business in 1835. By 1855 the firm was famous for its process of cleaning rye-grass seeds, which were then exported all over the world.
In 1836, Lytle had married Mary Brown and had a family of 5 – Isabella, Joseph, Robert, David and Mary. When John Lytle died on 18th September 1871 in Yorkshire, the company was taken over by his sons Joseph Hugh and David Brown. The firm continued to prosper.
“To meet the enormous growth of a trade in which they were instrumental in creating, Messrs John Lytle & Sons have been obliged to introduce very extensive and elaborate machinery, worked by power, which enables them to turn out seed thoroughly clean and fit for sowing on the Continent, in the Colonies and the United Kingdom”Industries of the North 1888-91
On 5th January 1871, Joseph married merchant’s daughter Mary Hannay at Elmwood Presbyterian Church. They had a daughter Margaret Ann and 4 sons John, George, Jonah and Frederick. Little Frederick died in 1873 aged 10 months. The family lived on Derryvolgie Ave. By 1911 they were residing at Carlton House on the prestigious Malone Road. Joseph was a Justice of the peace and a well-known figure in Belfast. He died on 27th August 1914, aged 74.
David Brown Lytle, born c1845, wed Marianne Hill at Fisherwick Presbyterian Church on 28th October 1868. The couple had 5 offspring – Mary, Margaret, James, Amy and Selina.
David was also a J P, as well as a member of the Belfast Harbour Board and managing director of the North of Ireland Chemical Company. He passed away aged 54, on 26th February 1904, at his residence Bloomfield House. Both brothers were described as “well-known and esteemed in all circles for their enlightened interest in the general prosperity of the city and province”.
The McCausland Warehouse
As can be seen from the photos above, the McCausland side of the building had large widely-spaces rectangular windows.
“The paired windows at the ground floor are separated by slender iron columns with feathery capitals; pilasters run full height from the piers to support fluted brackets at the cornice and blocks in the strapwork parapet [some of which become chimneys], with freely carved capitals at each floor”Marcus Patton, Central Belfast a Historical Gazetteer, 1996
The building was designed by architect William Hastings, who also had offices on Victoria Street. The street-facing façade features the work of Thomas Fitzpatrick. These are a series of carved heads representing the five inhabited continents.
Background to the McCauslands
Samuel McCausland, Wholesale Seed and Tea and Sugar Merchants, was founded by its namesake in 1826. By using machinery, both powered by steam and by gas, they produced fine quality seeds which were exported internationally.
“There are few lands in which the name of this firm is not familiar, and wherever it is known it is associated with the highest principles of commercial honour……”Industries of the North 1888-91
Samuel Osborne McCausland was born at Streeve Hill, Drumgiven, Limavady on Christmas Day 1800. His father was William and his mother was Isabella Osborne.
Samuel married Jane Killen on 5th July 1825. The following year he opened his first business premises in Belfast at 25 North Street. The pair had 4 sons – John Killen, William, Samuel and Orr. The family lived at Lodge Cottage in Belfast before moving to ‘Cherryvale’ Ballynafeigh, to the east of the city.
Samuel enjoyed an important role both in business and political circles. He was elected Lord Mayor and was a Justice of the Peace. Even in his 90’s he still took an active role in the company. Samuel McCausland died on 22nd April 1895 aged 94 and was buried in Belfast City Cemetery (Plot H 11).
“He (Samuel) is probably the doyen of mercantile enterprise in Belfast…”
William McCausland took over the reins of the company, older brother John having died in 1886 (brother Samuel had also passed away in 1871 from Tuberculosis). In 1901 William is living in the family home ‘Cherryvale’ with wife Kate and 6 children – William (15), Ethel Osborne (12), Isabella Gertrude (11), Samuel Osborne (8), Emily Frances (6) and Ivan Edward (3).
The residence was a large 15-roomed house with extensive gardens. Within the grounds were a stable, a coach house, a harness room, a cow house, a calf house, a dairy, a piggery, a fowl house, a boiling house (for boiling potatoes for animal feed), a barn, a turf house and a laundry.
William died on 31st March 1918 aged 87, his much younger wife Kate, had predeceased him in 1914.
Today the Lytle and McCausland Warehouses have been combined and transformed into the plush Malmaison Hotel. Naturally the interior of the buildings are much transformed for the new purpose, but the original pillars and ceiling rafters on the ground floor remain. It is to the credit of the hotel owners that the exterior of the hotel is exactly as these two rival masters of commerce envisaged.
The Tea Industry
Another business that was prominent on Victoria Street was the tea industry. This was a very lucrative market.
“Tea merchants hold an influential clientele over a wide area, it being notorious that the public taste in Belfast has long demanded a high standard of quality, and it is interesting to note that the first directly imported cargo of tea ever brought to Ireland was to the order of Belfast merchants in the year 1844”D J Owen, History of Belfast, 1921
The Belfast and Dublin Tea Company was founded in 1875 by Charles W Lepper and W C Fry. Its headquarters were a 4-storey building at No 63 Victoria Street. The firm was famous for importing the finest tea leaves from India and China. They enjoyed a reputation as being the leading experts in their field. In 1883 they opened a retail shop at No 73. It was so successful that they soon had branch shops throughout the country.
“…designed for the retail trade alone, which has proved a very great convenience for city customers, and enjoys a flattering patronage”Industries of the North 1888-91
A similar business was situated at No 56 – Shaw & McMullan, Wholesale Tea Merchants. The 3-storey building housed tea-tasting and tea-mixing rooms as well as storage.
During WW2 many buildings on Victoria Street, including the tea establishments, were bombed and had to be demolished. However, a ‘throwback’ to the past was the construction in 1959 of Nambarrie Ltd at Nos 19-23.
Bittles Bar – The Flat-Iron Building
One of the most interesting sights on Victoria Street is the flat-iron building that is currently the home of Bittles Bar. (A tip: Do not ask for a half-pint of Guinness here).
Constructed in the 1860’s by Thomas Jackson & Son, it fills the awkward triangular space between Victoria Street and Church Lane. It was originally the premises of baker and flour merchant John Trueman.
It was also at one time known as the Shakespeare Bar, popular with theatrical folk. Unfortunately, representations of the Bard’s head have subsequently been removed from the exterior of the building. However, a carved shamrock dated 1868 remains.
Other hostelries on Victoria Street over the years include the Clarendon Dining Rooms (1854), the Commercial Hotel (1870), the Dolphin bar (1877), the Victoria bar (1884) and the Horseshoe Bar (1890).
Other interesting facts about Victoria Street
Victoria Street was the site of the first purpose-built Insurance office in Belfast.
St George’s National School existed at No 71 for 60 years. In 1877 the principal was J R Robinson. The school closed in 1930.
The Ceylon Building completed in 1881, required extra supports as it was built on the location of a timber pond.
“These docks were generally filled with logs of timber, and the timber merchants in Ann Street and Poultry Square had slips into them for landing it”Thomas Gaffikin Belfast Fifty Years Ago 1875
A number of commission agents on Victoria Street also took on consular roles –
- Alfred M Munster was the Royal Swedish and Norwegian consul in 1870
- J C Pinkerton held the Italian consulate in 1877
- in 1890 W J Owen was vice-consul for Denmark.
- In the same year Samuel Andrews, Wholesale Tea and Sugar Merchant was also the consul for Honduras, Uruguay and Austro-Hungary.
In 1870 Victoria Street was the proposed location for a new railway station linking York Street, Great Victoria Street and Queen’s Quay. Although tracks were laid the plan never came to fruition.
Victoria Street Today
Before its construction, the inhabitants of Belfast could not envisage this area of lanes and alleyways ever becoming a prestigious avenue yet Victoria Street was to become a prestigious Belfast location.
“That wide and splendid thoroughfare (Victoria Street) now leading from Cromac Street to Corporation Street could then be scarcely imagined”Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast Fifty Years Ago 1875
Today it is hard to imagine the grandeur of 19th century Victoria Street. The fast-moving traffic along the busy 4-5 lane street inhibits any opportunity to ‘take in the view’. The street is now seen more as a ‘bypass’ to avoid the city centre rather than an integral part of the city.
As many of the old glamorous buildings have now gone, it is however important that we respect and guard our architectural heritage in terms of the buildings we have left. Once gone these cannot be replaced. They are not just bricks and mortar but are reminders of the stories of Belfast’s past.
Due to illness it is likely that BelfastEntries posts will appear less frequently for the near future. We hope to see things back to normal in coming months. P&P
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