The Story of Belfast’s Very Beautiful Warehouse
“A Beautiful Building”
“In Belfast they had, at any rate, one beautiful building. He referred to the Edifice of the Messrs Richardson Sons and Owden which was beautiful in colour, and very beautiful in design”A report on a speech given by Oscar Wilde, Northern Whig 3rd January 1884
The building which Oscar Wilde is describing is situated on Donegall Square North and currently houses the Marks and Spencer department store.
It was constructed in 1867-70 as a warehouse and showroom for the linen firm of Richardson Sons and Owden, and subsequently was the headquarters of the Water Board before its current use as a retail outlet.
The Richardson Owden Warehouse (now M&S)
The Richardson Owden Warehouse is a large red sandstone building facing Belfast City Hall, previously the White Linen Hall, hence a very prestigious location. It has a frontage of 106ft and extends back 136ft along Calendar Street. It is 4 storeys tall with a basement and is designed in the Florentine Gothic mode. The steep French style roof once boasted Neo-Gothic dormers and massive chimney stacks.
“The architectural style of the building partakes of the Northern Italian style…..The material used in the construction of the building is a red sandstone in a light shade, which adds considerably to the substantial effect of the block. The ground floor is approached through a bold semi-circular arched doorway, with pieces at either side, from which corbels project to carry a stone balcony above”Northern Whig 25th April 1885
The numerous windows are arched and, in the roundels, between are the Richardson trademark – a rampant lion. The building was further illuminated by a central light well.
Within a carved floral motif are the initials JNRS&O referring to the linen manufacturers. At the corners are inscribed foliage and over the main entrance is a pillared balustrade.
The amount of detail on the building is amazing and very beautiful in an understated Italian Palazzo style.
“In the same year, W H Lynn built what was perhaps his most successful achievement, and certainly his most successful venture into the realms of commerce. This was an enormous warehouse at 1 Donegall Square North, built for Messr Richardson Sons and Owden, linen merchants”C E B Brett, Buildings of Belfast 1967
On the ground floor was a packing area and a ‘counting house’. The walls of the counting house were lined with Bath stone and the partition wall contained a large stained-glass window depicting a lion.
Goods could be transported to other levels via a hydraulic lift. The sales rooms were on the first floor and were described as “airy and spacious”. The upper levels provided storage, production rooms, offices and waiting rooms.
Donegall Square at this time was still, at least partially, a fashionable residential area.
From 19th century sketches we can see the railed-in gardens of large family homes. The Square was formerly part of the grounds of the original Belfast Castle. The White Linen Hall (on the site of todays City Hall) was built on the site of the Castle Cherry Gardens.
The north side of the square was known as South Parade as it lay to the south of Castle Place and it was the first side to be developed. In 1822 there were 9 houses here with 21 male and 48 female inhabitants.
At the same time the area behind the Linen Hall had only a few houses recently built by Mr Adam McClean and a small mill. Most of this district was low-lying grassland that was frequently flooded by the Blackstaff river. It was only in the 1880’s that the last domestic homes in Donegall Square North were sold for commercial enterprises.
The Architect W H Lynn
The premises were designed by W H Lynn, a partner in the prestigious Belfast architectural business of Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon established in 1860. The builder was James Henry of 3 Albertville, on the Crumlin Road.
William Henry Lynn was born at St John’s Point in County Down on 27th December 1829. His father, Henry, was a coastguard lieutenant. William served his apprenticeship with Charles Lanyon in Belfast. In 1854 he became a partner and in 1860, when Charles’s son John, joined the firm Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon was born. Lynn was renowned for his Ruskinian Venetian Gothic style.
W H Lynn established his own business in 1872. He worked throughout Ireland, England and Scotland. Some of his most notable works are at Queens University Belfast, Belfast Central Library, Campbell College, Sinclair Seamen’s Church, Paisley Town Hall in Scotland and Burrow-in-Furness Town Hall, North Lancashire in England.
Lynn died of pneumonia at the age of 87, in his Antrim Road home, Ardavon, on 12th September 1915. He is buried in Belfast City Cemetery, with his mother and brother under a monument he himself designed [plot D-203]. From his large estate, he bequeathed £5,000 for the completion of St Anne’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Donegall Street.
The Richardson Linen Business
The Richardson linen business is thought to have started in the 1740’s. In 1825 John Owden became a partner in the firm. He was an Englishman of Huguenot descent. Formerly the firm had premises on Donegall Place before moving to the new larger site in 1870.
In 1845 John Grubb Richardson had decided that it would be beneficial to be linen manufacturers rather than just linen traders. To this end he and his brothers purchased a derelict spinning mill on the outskirts of Newry in County Armagh. It was situated in the townland of Cloughareevin meaning in Gaelic ‘the cold stone well’. The factory was powered by the fast-flowing river Camlough.
“The explanation was simply that the Richardsons, until then a bleaching and warehousing firm, were anxious to enter the manufacturing end of the linen business, and that their prime mover John Grubb Richardson, a man of remarkable insight, had a rooted dislike to doing so in a large town”Bessbrook 1845-1945 issued by the Bessbrook Spinning Co., Ltd
The original business owner on this site was John Pollock, who started a linen enterprise with bleach greens here in 1761. Subsequently in 1802, Joseph Nicholson & Sons leased the property. They were one of the first to implement ‘wet spinning’ which produced finer cloth. This process had been invented by Englishman James Kay in 1825.
As with other mill owners, Richardson needed to have a steady supply of employees. He provided housing and facilities in a village setting. The area had been known as Bess Brook from at least 1779 and the village took on this name.
The development had a school, a dispensary, an orphanage, a savings bank and places of worship. The workers also had gas-lighting, sports facilities, allotments and open green spaces.
By the turn of the 20th century, Bessbrook had a population of nearly 4,000 souls. The settlement was highly regarded as a ‘model village’.
Richardson had a home constructed for himself near to Bessbrook. This he named The Woodhouse as it was situated in the grounds of Derramore – ‘the place of the great oaks’
“The setting was worthy of the man, and he bestowed much thought in laying out the grounds among oak trees and granite rocks. He watched the village grow, with a paternal eye, and a constant care for its social and moral welfare”Bessbrook 1845-1945 issued by the Bessbrook Spinning Co., Ltd
What the village did not have was a pub. Richardson, a Quaker, abhorred ‘the demon drink’ and ensured that Bessbrook had a “temperance population”.
“Alcohol was banned due to evidence that its misuse led to crime and poverty, so Bessbrook became known as the village without 3 P’s – no pub, no police, no pawn shop”W Ross Chapman, An Ulster Friend of his time and place
While the ethos of the village was lauded by many, not everyone agreed
“Bessbrook is a model village where the inhabitants never swear or get drunk and look as if they would very much like to do both. This place would make Ruskin cry if he saw it, it is so excessively ugly. In the grounds of the factory is a basin of the water works. They keep a swan there which, I am sure, passes its time regretting that it cannot drown itself”.George Bernard Shaw, 1879
Richardsons Family Life
John Grubb Richardson married Helena Grubb (a distant relative from Cahir Abbey in County Tipperary), and on 7th February 1846 their first child James Nicholson was born in Belfast. Unfortunately, Helena died in 1849 giving birth to their second child, daughter Helena.
John remarried Jane Marion Wakefield of Moyallon House in County Down, and went on to have a further 8 children – 1 son and 7 daughters.
John Grubb Richardson died on 28th March 1890 and was succeeded in the business by his eldest son James Nicholson Richardson.
Richardson Sons & Owden
The linen firm continued to flourish and enjoyed an enviable name both at home and abroad
“At the present day it (RSO) is unquestionably one of the largest and most important concerns in the trade, and its reputation is quite unsurpassed, whether we regard it on its merits as a great mercantile institution, or take into special consideration the unfailing and uniform excellence of its manufactures and specialities in linen fabrics of every kind”Industries of the North, 1888-91
The firm was famed for its dress linens and hollands (plain woven linen for furniture upholstery). It produced fine white linens, damask, handkerchiefs and artistic embroidered goods,
“…great numbers of the peasantry of the north of Ireland gaining a livelihood by this work”.
Its Irish Linen, marked with the lion logo was internationally famous.
“Messrs J N Richardson, Sons & Owden, of Belfast, have introduced some new dress linings of pure linen, which will be found much more durable than those used hitherto. The surface has a fine glaze upon it, which obviates friction in a great measure, and prevents it clinging to the material next to it, and all who adopt them will obtain much comfort therefrom”.The Lady (magazine) 6th June 1889
To supply their extensive range of fabric goods, RSO had acquired bleach works at Lower and Upper Glenmore and Millbrook in County Antrim.
They had a workforce of over 7,000 and had opened premises in London, New York, Paris, Berlin and Melbourne. The firm had also won an impressive array of gold and silver medals for their products and for their contribution to the improvement of the flax industry.
The Life of James Nicholson Richardson
Richardsons son, James Nicholson Richardson had been educated at the Quaker school of Grove House in London before learning, ‘hands on’ the family trade.
At the age of 21 he married Sophia Malcolmson of Portlaw in County Waterford. Sophia came from another enterprising Quaker dynasty.
In 1880 Richardson was elected Liberal MP for County Armagh. He held this seat until 1885. He seemed to have a promising career in politics ahead of him, but circumstances deemed otherwise. Sophia was in poor health, and the couple had lost two babies in infancy. When his wife died, James withdrew from public life.
However, on St Valentine’s Day in 1893, James married for the second time. Sara Alexander Bell was the daughter of another linen manufacturer, Mr Alexander Bell. The pair wed at the Society of Friends (Quakers) Meeting House in Lurgan.
In 1901 the couple were living at Cloughervan, Camlough in County Armagh. This was a spacious 23-roomed house with stables, coach house, harness room and various outbuildings.
James N Richardson died on 11th October 1921 at Harborne Road, Edgbaston in England. He was 75. The interment took place in the grounds of Bessbrook Meeting House. Richardson left behind a large fortune of £74,604 6s and 10d
Recognition of the Business
A sign of the status and prestige of the Richardson, Sons & Owden establishment, was that in 1885 when the English royal family were engaged in a State Visit to Ireland, they called at the Belfast premises on Donegall Square North.
The Prince and Princess of Wales, with Prince Albert Victor, were welcomed by the directors of the business. The royal party spent about half an hour touring the building, learning about linen production and meeting some of the staff employed in making the linen products.
“From this department the Royal visitors passed to the handkerchief room on the same floor, where a number of girls were engaged in lapping, ornamenting, and making up for the various markets”Northern Whig 25th April 1885
At the end of the visit, the royal party stood on the balcony over-looking Donegall Square and waved to the assembled crowds. This was a huge coup in terms of publicity for the firm.
World War 2
In the 20th century the grand warehouse was sold to the Belfast City and District Water Commissioners.
Unfortunately, not long afterwards, during the Blitz of May 1941, the building was hit by a bomb. The highly decorated roof and the interior of the premises were destroyed. Thankfully the front edifice remained relatively unscathed. The replacement roof we see today was of a much plainer design.
Subsequently in the 1980’s the building was acquired by Marks and Spencer to extend their Donegall Place store. After 10 separate planning applications and in conjunction with the Historic Building Council, work got underway to renovate the interior of the building into a commercial venture once again.
It was insisted that the exterior of the old Richardson, Sons and Owden Warehouse retain its original features.
This historic and imposing ‘beautiful’ building remains one of the city’s architectural landmarks.
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