Unusual Laws in Old Belfast 1613 – 1816

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High Street 1780
High Street 1780

Belfast Corporation

At the end of the 9 Years War in 1603, Arthur Chichester was rewarded with a number of land grants in Ireland. One of these was an area around the Farset and Lagan Rivers including the small settlement of Belfast. In 1613 a Corporation was instituted by a royal charter of James I under the title of ‘The Sovereign Free Burgesses and Commonalty of the Borough of Belfast’. This consisted of a Sovereign (mayor) and 12 burgesses, and freemen to control and regulate the growing town. However, as the Chichester’s appointed the burgesses the Corporation had little independent power.

“Belfast is unique amongst the major towns in Ireland in that its development was controlled by one family, the Chichester’s (created earls post 1647 and later marquises) until the mid-nineteenth century”

Ruairi O’Baoill ,2008

However, the legal requirements passed by the Corporation, meeting in the Towne Halle (probably situated in Cornmarket) give us an interesting insight into laws governing the daily lives of the town’s early inhabitants.

Belfast Seal
Belfast Seal

Fines for Absence from Church

In October 1615 it was decreed by the ‘Burrough of Bellfast’ that everyone over the age of 13 had to attend the Corporation Church on Sundays for Divine Service. If you were absent without a good reason, a fine would be imposed. The fines ranged from 12 pennies up to 5 shillings, a substantial amount in those days. If you didn’t have the money, goods to the relevant amount would be confiscated.

“…to be taken upp by the Church Wardens of the parish of Shankhill for the tyme beinge by Warrant from the said Soveraigne out of the goods and chattels of every offender”

Town Book of Belfast

The Parish of Shankill covered the whole of Belfast and surrounding areas. Fines accrued went to cover the ‘expenses’ of the Sovereign and Burgesses.

Chapel of Ease
Chapel of Ease – St George’s Church

Sale of Alcohol on Sundays

Subsequently a law was passed that alcohol could not be sold in Belfast during the time of the Sunday service, or on any time when Divine Services were being held.

“That no person or persons whatsoever shall sell any manner of ale, wine or aqua vitae [whiskey] or anything vendible within this Corporation at ye time of divine Service or sermon time upon forfeiture for every time that he or they shall be convicted thereof six shillings and eight pence ster to be levyed and employed as aforesaid”

Town Book of Belfast

Apprehending Felons

Citizens were obliged to assist in the apprehending of felons, rogues, outlaws or rebels when called upon to do so. Refusal to do so would result in a prison sentence and disenfranchisement

“It was further ordered by a genrall consent that everie Burgis and ffreeman of this Towne shalbe ready either on horseback or ffoote as they are then p’vided and as occasion shalbe given for the service of the Kinge or good of this Towne for apprehending anie felons Rouges woodkernes or Craytes either within the Towne or anie the Libties thereof whensoever anie such notice shalbe given to them or anie of them by the Soveraigne” for the time being uppon paine of Imprisonm ‘ during pleasure of the said Soveraigne Burgises and disfranchising anie such for refusing or careleslie neglecting the same from his or their ffreedome of this Towne

Town Book of Belfast

A Levy of Tongues

A rule drawn up specifically for the butchers of Belfast was passed in 1632.

Every butcher who slaughtered his livestock in the town, had to give the Sovereign a cow’s tongue once a week. (The Sovereign’s larder must have been stuffed with tongues!)

“The Butchers then made free did consent to a bylaw ppetually to be stablished within the said Corporacon should weekelie and evrie weeke soe long and soe often as the same Butcher and Butchers should kill anie beefe theare paie unto the Soveraigne for the tyme being one toung towards the Soveraignes hospetatie”

Town Book of Belfast

Four butchers (probably from Hercules Street, the home of most of the town’s meat purveyors) refused to pay the meaty tribute. They were heavily fined 20 shillings and forced to comply.

“…we wonder what on earth the good man did with all the tongues. That there is a limit to the number of ways in which tongue can be served, we know, and we can well imagine the Belfast Sovereign of that olden day being sick and tired of tongue”

Cathal O ‘Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
Belfast 1660
Belfast 1660

DIY Street Lighting

On 4th November 1686, the Assembly, concerned for citizens safety walking in the dark streets and lanes “to prevent the dangers to which persons walking in the night about their lawfull occasions are incident to” decreed that each householder must put a lighted candle in their window.

From 29th September to 25th March a lit candle or lantern had to be placed in the window from 7:00pm till 10:00pm.

Anyone out after 10pm had to fare for themselves as the lights went out. A fine of 6 pence per night would be levied on those who failed to comply. The only exception was when “moon-shine” illuminated the streets.

“That Lights in Lanthorns be hunge at every other house doore or window time aboute in ye Dark Nights from ye houres of six to tenn from ye 29th of September to ye 29th of March ffollowing to give lights to ye Streets and Lanes of ye Towne for the benefitt of ye Inhabitants and passingers and to prevent disorders and mischeife”

Town Book of Belfast

Drinking and Gambling

In 1665 the Corporation made it illegal for Alesellers and Victualers to sell alcohol or allow gambling on their premises after 9 o’clock at night. Persons lodging in the establishments were exempted.

An innkeeper or publican contravening these rules could be fined 3 shillings and 4 pence while a person “found drinking or playing after the time aforemencioned shall pay to the Soveraigne the sum of One Shilling ster”

Removal of Wooden Chimneys

The continued use of wooden chimneys was forbidden in view of the potential fire risk to the town (many town properties at the time were wooden structures). All wooden chimneys were to be torn down and replaced with brick chimneys.

“It is therefore thought ſit & soe ordered that the said Chymneys shalbe forthwth pulled down and Bricke Chymneyes made in steede thereof upon pain of forfeiture on every p’son that maketh default the some of forty shillings sterl : to be levyed as aforesaid”

Town Book of Belfast

Disposal of Butchers Waste

In response to complaints of the butchers slaughtering their animals and allowing the blood and waste to run in the streets or into river channels and ditches, all butchers were ordered to carry (or have carried) all of their waste and to dump it into the sea at high tide. Failure to do so will result in a fine of twenty shillings

Long Bridge
Belfast Long Bridge crossed the River Lagan between 1688 and 1841

Belfast Firefighting Law

Every inhabitant “of £60 sterling, substance” must provide a “leathern bucket“, 4 ladders and poles with hooks & chains for the purpose of pulling down houses in the event of fire to minimise the risk of a fire spreading to nearby wooden structures.

Sale of Mutton

To combat the theft of sheep in County Antrim and subsequent sale of their meat in town markets, all mutton brought to market must retain their owners marks on body or ears to prove that their source was legitimate.

Whereas many Sheep are stolne in ye County of Antrim the filesh sould in open markett and the skins concealed soe that the theives cannot be discovered Wee therefore present that all Mutton that shall hereafter be brought into any markett within this County that the Skin or Skins of such Mutton with the markes of the same shall soe be brought along with it that the marke of such sheep may be Known whether ear marked or otherwise

Town Book of Belfast


Residents of Belfast were also forbidden to allow dunghills to remain in the street for more than 3 days.

“That no free Burgess free Comoner or other Inhabitant dwelling or Inhabiting within this Corporation shall make or cause to be made any dunghills in ye open streets before their doores to continue there above three days”

Town Book of Belfast

This law passed in 1667 gave the householders a few days grace to remove the offending dunghills before fines were imposed.


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