A description of Belfast in the Victorian era. Written by Samuel Smiles, after a visit to Ireland in 1883.
To show what energy and industry can do in Ireland, it is only necessary to point to Belfast, one of the most prosperous and enterprising towns in the British Islands. The land is the same, the climate is the same, and the laws are the same, as those which prevail in other parts of Ireland. Belfast is the great centre of Irish manufactures and commerce, and what she has been able to do might be done elsewhere, with the same amount of energy and enterprise. But it is not land, or climate, or altered laws that are wanted. It is men to lead and direct, and men to follow with anxious and persevering industry. It is always the Man society wants.
The influence of Belfast extends far out into the country. As you approach it from Sligo, you begin to see that you are nearing a place where industry has accumulated capital, and where it has been invested in cultivating and beautifying the land. After you pass Enniskillen, the fields become more highly cultivated. The drill-rows are more regular ; the hedges are clipped ; the weeds no longer hide the crops, as they sometimes do in the far west. The country is also adorned with copses, woods, and avenues. A new crop begins to appear in the fields a crop almost peculiar to the neighbourhood of Belfast. It is a plant with a very slender erect green stem, which, when full grown, branches at the top into a loose corymb of blue flowers. This is the flax plant, the cultivation and preparation of which gives employment to a great number of persons, and is to a large extent the foundation of the prosperity of Belfast.
The first appearance of the linen industry of Ireland, as we approach Belfast from the west, is observed at Portadown. Its position on the Bann, with its water power, has enabled this town, as well as the other places on the river, to secure and maintain their due share in the linen manufacture. Factories with their long chimneys begin to appear. The fields are richly cultivated, and a general air of well-being pervades the district. Lurgan is reached, so celebrated for its diapers ; and the fields thereabout are used as bleachinggreens. Then comes Lisburn, a populous and thriving town, the inhabitants of which are mostly engaged in their staple trade, the manufacture of damasks. This was really the first centre of the linen trade. Though Lord Strafford, during his government of Ireland, encouraged the flax industry, by sending to Holland for flax-seed, and inviting Flemish and French artisans to settle in Ireland, it was not until the Huguenots, who had been banished from France by the persecutions of Louis XIV., settled in Ireland in such large numbers, that the manufacture became firmly established. The Crornmelins, the G-oyers, and the Dupres, were the real founders of this great branch of industry.
As the traveller approaches Belfast, groups of houses, factories, and works of various kinds, appear closer and closer ; long chimneys over boilers and steam-engines, and brick buildings three or four stories high; large yards full of workmen, carts, and lorries ; and at length we are landed in the midst of a large manufacturing town. As we enter the streets, everybody seems to be alive. What struck William Hutton when he first saw Birmingham, might be said of Belfast : "I was surprised at the place, but more at the people. They possessed a vivacity I had never before beheld. I had been among dreamers, but now I saw men awake. Their very step along the street showed alacrity. Every man seemed to know what he was about. The town was large, and full of inhabitants, and these inhabitants full of industry. The faces of other men seemed tinctured with an idle gloom ; but here with a pleasing alertness. Their appearance was strongly marked with the modes of civil life."
Some people do not like manufacturing towns : they prefer old castles and ruins. They will find plenty of these in other parts of Ireland. But to found industries that give employment to large numbers of persons, and enable them to maintain themselves and families upon the fruits of their labour instead of living upon poorrates levied from the labours of others, or who are forced, by want of employment, to banish themselves from their own country, to emigrate and settle among strangers, where they know not what may become of them is a most honourable and important source of influence, and worthy of every encouragement. Look at the wonderfully rapid rise of Belfast, originating in the enterprise of individuals, and developed by the earnest and anxious industry of the inhabitants of Ulster !
" God save Ireland ! " By all means. But Ireland cannot be saved without the help of the people who live in it. God endowed men, there as elsewhere, with reason, will, and physical power ; and it is by patient industry only that they can open up a pathway to the enduring prosperity of the country. There is no Eden in nature. The earth might have continued a rude uncultivated wilderness, but for human energy, power, and industry. These enable man to subdue the wilderness, and develop the potency of labour. " Possunt quia credunt posse." They must conquer who will.
Belfast is a comparatively modern town. It has no ancient history. About the beginning of the sixteenth century it was little better than a fishing village. There was a castle, and a ford to it across the Lagan. A chapel was built at the ford, at which hurried prayers were offered up for those who were about to cross the currents of Lagan Water. In 1575, Sir Henry Sydney writes to the Lords of the Council : "I was offered skirmish by MacNeill Bryan Ertaugh at my passage over the water at Belfast, which I caused to be answered, and passed over without losse of man or horse ; yet by reason of the extraordinaire Eetorne our horses swamme and the Footmen in the passage waded very deep." The country round about was forest land. It was so thickly wooded that it was a common saying that one might walk to Lurgan "on the tops of the trees."
In 1612, Belfast consisted of about 120 houses, built of mud and covered with thatch. The whole value of the land on which the town is built, is said to have been worth only 5/. in fee simple.* " Ulster," said Sir John Davies, " is a very desert or wilderness ; the inhabitants thereof having for the most part no certain habitation in any towns or villages." In 1659, Belfast contained only 600 inhabitants : Carrickfergus was more important, and had 1312 inhabitants. But about 1660, the Long Bridge over the Lagan was built, and prosperity began to dawn upon the little town. It was situated at the head of a navigable lough, and formed an outlet for the manufacturing products of the inland country. Ships of any burden, however, could not come near the town. The cargoes, down even to a recent date, had to be discharged into lighters at Garmoyle. Streams of water made their way to the Lough through the mud banks; and a rivulet ran through what is now known as the High Street.
The population gradually increased. In 1788 Belfast had 12,000 inhabitants. But it was not until after the Union with Great Britain that the town made so great a stride. At the beginning of the present century it had about 20,000 inhabitants. At every successive census, the progress made was extraordinary, until now the population of Belfast amounts to over 225,000. There is scarcely an instance of so large a rate of increase in the British Islands, save in the exceptional case of Middlesborough, which was the result of the opening out of the Stockton and Darlington Kailway, and the discovery of ironstone in the hills of Cleveland in Yorkshire. Dundee and Barrow are supposed to present the next most rapid increases of population.
The increase of shipping has also been equally great. Ships from other ports frequented the Lough for purposes of trade ; but in course of time the Belfast merchants supplied themselves with ships of their own. In 1791 one William Eitchie, a sturdy North Briton, brought with him from Glasgow ten men and a quantity of shipbuilding materials. He gradually increased the number of his workmen, and proceeded to build a few sloops. He reclaimed some land from the sea, and made a shipyard and graving dock on what was known as Corporation Ground. In November 1800 the new graving dock, near the bridge, was opened for the reception of vessels. It was capable of receiving three vessels of 200 tons each ! In 1807 a vessel of 400 tons burthen was launched from Mr. Eitchie's shipyard, when a great crowd of people assembled to witness the launching of " so large a ship " far more than now assemble to see a 3000-tonner of the White Star Line leave the slips and enter the water !
The shipbuilding trade has been one of the most rapidly developed, especially of late years. In 1805 the number of vessels frequenting the port was 840 ; whereas in 1883 the number had been increased to 7508, with about a million and a-half of tonnage ; while the gross value of the exports from Belfast exceeded twenty millions sterling annually. In 1819 the first steamboat of 100 tons was used to tug the vessels up the windings of the Lough, which it did at the rate of three miles an hour, to the astonishment of everybody. Seven years later, the steamboat Rob Eoij was put on between Glasgow and Belfast. But these vessels had been built in Scotland. It was not until 1826 that the first steamboat, the Chieftain, was built in Belfast, by the same William Eitchie. Then, in 1838, the first iron boat was built in the Lagan foundry, by Messrs. Coates and Young, though it was but a mere cockle-shell compared with the mighty ocean steamers which are now regularly launched from Queen's Island. In the year 1883 the largest shipbuilding firm in the town launched thirteen vessels, of over 30,000 tons gross, while two other firms launched twelve ships, of about 10,000 tons gross.
I do not propose to enter into details respecting the progress of the trades of Belfast. The most important is the spinning of fine linen yarn, which is for the most part concentrated in that town, over 25,000,000 of pounds weight being exported annually. Towards the end of the seventeenth century the linen manufacture had made but little progress. In 1680 all Ireland did not export more than 6000£. worth annually. Drogheda was then of greater importance than Belfast. But with the settlement of the persecuted Huguenots in Ulster, and especially through the energetic labours of Crommelin, Goyer, and others, the growth of flax was sedulously cultivated, and its manufacture into linen of all sorts became an important branch of Irish industry. In the course of about fifty years the exports of linen fabrics increased to the value of over 600,OOO£. per annum.
It was still, however, a handicraft manufacture, and done for the most part at home. Flax was spun and yarn was woven by hand. Eventually machinery was employed, and the turn-out became proportionately large and valuable. It would not be possible for hand labour to supply the amount of linen now turned out by the aid of machinery. It would require three times the entire population of Ireland to spin and weave, by the old spinning-wheel and hand-loom methods, the amount of linen cloth now annually manufactured by the operatives of Belfast alone. There are now forty large spinning-mills in Belfast and the neighbourhood, which furnish employment to a very large number of working people.
In the course of my visit to Belfast, I inspected the works of the York Street flax-spinning mills, founded in 1830 by the Messrs. Mulholland, which now give employment, directly or indirectly, to many thousand persons. I visited also, with my young Italian friend, the admirable printing establishment of Marcus Ward and Co., the works of the Belfast Rope-work Company, and the shipbuilding works of Harland and "Wolff. There we passed through the roar of the iron forge, the clang of the Nasmyth hammer, and the intermittent glare of the furnaces all telling of the novel appliances of modern shipbuilding, and the power of the modern steam-engine. I prefer to give a brief account of this latter undertaking, as it exhibits one of the newest and most important industries of Belfast. It also shows, on the part of its proprietors, a brave encounter with difficulties, and sets before the friends of Ireland the truest and surest method of not only giving employment to its people, but of building up on the surest foundations the prosperity of the country.
The first occasion on which I visited Belfast the reader will excuse the introduction of myself was in 1840 ; about forty-four years ago. I went thither on the invitation of the late Wm. Sharman Crawford, Esq., M.P., the first prominent advocate of tenant-right, to attend a public meeting of the Ulster Association, and to spend a few days with him at his residence at Crawfordsburn, near Bangor. Belfast was then a town of comparatively little importance, though it had already made a fair start in commerce and industry. As our steamer approached the head of the Lough, a large number of labourers were observed with barrows, picks, and spades scooping out and wheeling up the slob and mud of the estuary, for the purpose of forming what is now known as Queen's Island, on the eastern side of the river Lagan. The work was conducted by William Dargan, the famous Irish contractor ; and its object was to make a straight artificial outlet the Victoria Channel by means of which vessels drawing twenty-three feet of water might reach the port of Belfast. Before then, the course of the Lagan was tortuous and difficult of navigation ; but by the straight cut, which was completed in 1846, and afterwards extended further seawards, ships of large burden were enabled to reach the quays, which extend for about a mile below Queen's Bridge, on both sides of the river.
It was a saying of honest William Dargan, that " when a thing is put anyway right at all, it takes a vast deal of mismanagement to make it go wrong." He had another curious saying about " the calf eating the cow's belly," which, he said, was not right, " at all, at all." Belfast illustrated his proverbial remarks. That the cutting of the Victoria Channel was doing the "right thing" for Belfast, was clear, from the constantly increasing traffic of the port. In course of time, several extensive docks and tidal basins were added; while provision was made, in laying out the reclaimed land at the entrance of the estuary, for their future extension and enlargement. The town of Belfast was by these means gradually placed in immediate connection by sea with the principal western ports of England and Scotland, steamships of large burden now leaving it daily for Liverpool, Glasgow, Fleetwood, Barrow, and Ardrossan. The ships entering the port of Belfast in 1883 were 7508, of 1,526,535 tonnage ; they had been more than doubled in fifteen years. The town has risen from nothing, to exhibit a Customs revenue, in 1883, of 608,781?., infinitely greater than that of Leith, the port of Edinburgh, or of Hull, the chief port of Yorkshire. The population has also largely increased. When I visited Belfast in 1840, the town contained 75,000 inhabitants. They are now over 225,000, or more than trebled, Belfast being the tenth town, in point of population, in the United Kingdom.
The spirit and enterprise of the people are illustrated by the variety of their occupations. They do not confine themselves to one branch of business ; but their energies overflow into nearly every department of industry. Their linen manufacture is of world-wide fame; but much less known are their more recent enterprises. The production of aerated waters, for instance, is something extraordinary. In 1882 the manufacturers shipped off 53,163 packages, and 24,263 cwts. of aerated waters to England, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. While Ireland produces no wrought iron, though it contains plenty of iron-stone, and Belfast has to import all the iron which it consumes, yet one engineering firm alone, that of Combe, Barbour, and Combe, employs 1500 highly-paid mechanics, and ships off its iron machinery to all parts of the world. The printing establishment of Marcus Ward and Co. employs over 1000 highly skilled and ingenious persons, and extends the influence of learning and literature into all civilised countries. We might add the various manufactures of roofing felt (of which there are five), of ropes, of stoves, of stable fittings, of nails, of starch, of machinery ; all of which have earned a world-wide reputation.
We prefer, however, to give an account of the last new industry of Belfast that of shipping and shipbuilding. Although, as we have said, Belfast imports from Scotland and England all its iron and all its coal, it nevertheless, by the skill and strength of its men, sends out some of the finest and largest steamships which navigate the Atlantic and Pacific. It all comes from the power of individuality, and furnishes a splendid example for Dublin, Cork, Waterford, and Limerick, each of which is provided by nature with magnificent harbours, with fewer of those difficulties of access which Belfast has triumphed over; and each of which might be the centre of some great industrial enterprise, provided only there were patriotic men willing to embark their capital, perfect protection for the property invested, and men willing to work rather than to strike.
It was not until the year 1853 that the Queen's Island raked out of the mud of the slob-land was first used for shipbuilding purposes. Kobert Hickson and Co. then commenced operations by laying down the Mary Stenhouse, a wooden sailing-ship of 1 289 tons register ; and the vessel was launched in the following year. The operations of the firm were continued until the year 1859, when the shipbuilding establishments on Queen's Island were acquired by Mr. E. J. Harland (afterwards Harland and Wolff), since which time the development of this great branch of industry in Belfast has been rapid and complete.
From the history of this firm, it will be found that energy is the most profitable of all merchandise ; and that the fruit of active work is the sweetest of all fruits. Harland and Wolff are the true Watt and Boulton of Belfast. At the beginning of their great enterprise, their works occupied about four acres of land ; they now occupy over thirty-six acres. The firm has imported not less than two hundred thousand tons of iron ; which have been converted by skill and labour into 168 ships of 253,000 total tonnage. These ships, if laid close together, would measure nearly eight miles in length.
The advantage to the wage-earning class can only be shortly stated. Not less than 34 per cent, is paid in labour on the cost of the ships turned out. The number of persons employed in the works is 3920 ; and the weekly wages paid to them is 4000£, or over 200,000£. annually. Since the commencement of the undertaking, about two millions sterling have been paid in wages. All this goes towards the support of the various industries of the place. That the working classes of Belfast are thrifty and frugal may be inferred from the fact that at the end of 1882 they held deposits in the Savings Bank to the amount of 230,289£, besides 158,064£. in the Post Office Savings Banks. Nearly all the better class working people of the town live in separate dwellings, either rented or their own property. There are ten Building Societies in Belfast, in which industrious people may store their earnings, and in course either buy or build their own houses.
The example of energetic, active men always spreads. Belfast contains two other shipbuilding yards, both the outcome of Harland and Wolff's enterprise ; those of Messrs. Macilwaine and Lewis, employing about four hundred men, and of Messrs. Workman and Clarke, employing about a thousand. The heads of both these firms were trained in the parent shipbuilding works of Belfast. There is no feeling of rivalry between the firms, but all work together for the good of the town.
In Plutarch's Lives, we are told that Themistocles said on one occasion, " 'Tis true that I have never learned how to tune a harp, or play upon a lute, but I know how to raise a small and inconsiderable city to glory and greatness." So might it be said of Harland and Wolff. They have given Belfast not only a potency for good, but a world-wide reputation. Their energies overflow. Mr. Harland is the active and everprudent Chairman of the most important of the local boards, the Harbour Trust of Belfast, and exerts himself to promote the extension of the harbour facilities of the port as if the benefits were to be exclusively his own ; while Mr. Wolff is the Chairman of one of the latest born industries of the place, the Belfast Kopework Company, which already gives employment to over 600 persons.
This last-mentioned industry is only about six years old. The works occupy over seven acres of ground, more than six acres of which are under roofing. Although the whole of the raw material is imported from abroad from Eussia, the Philippine Islands, New Zealand, and Central America it is exported again in a manufactured state to all parts of the world.
Such is the contagion of example, and such the everbranching industries with which men of enterprise and industry can enrich and bless their country. The following brief memoir of the career of Mr. Harland has been furnished at my solicitation ; and I think that it will be found full of interest as well as instruction.
Belfast's ship building industry as told by J.E. Harland in 1884 (Harland of the shipyard Harland & Wolff which built the famous but ill fated ocean liner, Titanic, amongst others.
On Thursday the 1st June, 1911, the Belfast Newsletter published an account of the Titanic being launched in Belfast harbour.