At the outbreak of the war, the Guinness Brewery at St. James’s Gate was the world’s largest brewery. The company actively encouraged its workers to enlist for war service and an article on the Herald.ie website in February 2015 estimated that a fifth of the Guinness workforce served. Like many other industrial and commercial concerns, the company guaranteed that the jobs of men enlisting for war service would be there for them on their return. However, Guinness went further, and paid half of the men’s ordinary wages to their families during every week in which they were engaged in the conflict.
After the war, those men who returned expressed their gratitude to the
company for its philanthropic attitude by presenting the Directors with an
illuminated address on 16th February 1920.
A duplicate address was prepared to enable a number of employees, who had
not had the opportunity to subscribe to the address in the first instance, to
similarly express their thanks. The two
addresses were installed in the Board Room at St. James’ Gate in Dublin.
The company subsequently produced a parchment Roll of Honour and a Roll
of Honour book in which the names of 645 employees who served in the Great War
are listed by Department. 104 Guinness
employees (16% of those who enlisted) died, with 96 being killed in action or
dying of wounds. One of the Roll of
Honour books is on display at the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast.
Two of the company’s directors served in the Great War. Captain Edward Guinness, Viscount Elveden,
served with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and was an Aide de Camp to His
Majesty King George V from 1916 to 1918.
Lieutenant-Colonel, the Honourable Walter Edward Guinness served with
the Duke of York’s Own Loyal Suffolk Hussars and was awarded the Distinguished
Service Order (with Bar) and was Mentioned in Despatches on three occasions.
The company had its own steamers for making deliveries to Great Britain and one ship was lost to enemy action. The SS “W M Barkley” was built by the Ailsa Shipbuilding Company of Troon in 1898 for William M Barkley & Sons (coal merchants, steamship owners and agents) of Wellington Place in Belfast but was later sold to John Kelly & Company before being purchased by Guinness in 1913. On 12th October 1917, the SS “W M Barkley” was transporting a cargo of stout from Dublin to Liverpool when she was torpedoed by German submarine UC-75 and sank seven miles east of the Kish lightvessel. Five men from the crew of 14 were lost and their names are commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. Whilst the Guinness Genealogy Archive lists all five men as employees of the company, only Able Seaman Ernest Arthur Kendall (40) of Meany Place in Dalkey is listed in the Guinness Roll of Honour. The other fatalities were Ship’s Master, Edward Gregory (46) of Meadows Lane in Arklow, First Engineer Alexander Corry (48) of Victoria Villas in Dublin (who is commemorated on family memorials in Belfast City Cemetery and Movilla Cemetery in Newtownards), Second Engineer Owen Francis Murphy (27) of South Main Street in Wexford and Fireman Thomas Murphy (29) of Lower Sheriff Street in Dublin.
Another anomaly on the Guinness Roll of Honour is William Geoghegan, who
had joined the company in 1889 at the age of 24 and worked as a labourer in the
Brewhouse Department. He is listed as a
Sergeant with 8th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and he had given his age as
52 when enlisting in October 1914. He was
discharged as “unlikely to make an efficient soldier” on 21st
November 1914 and died of pulmonary tuberculosis at his home address in Dublin on
22nd February 1916. The Register of Deaths records his age as 51 and his
occupation as “Sergeant R.D.F.”.
However, he is not listed as a war fatality by Commonwealth War Graves
Commission as he was not a serving soldier and his death was not attributable
to war service.
The first Guinness employee to die was Private Thomas McDonagh, 1st
Battalion Irish Guards, who died of wounds at Coulommiers on 8th September 1914
at the age of 25 and is commemorated on La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial in
France. The Guinness Genealogy Archive records that Thomas
McDonagh was born on 30th May 1889 and had joined the company as a cleaner in
the Engineer’s Department on 13th November 1911. He left the company on 5th August 1914, being
recalled from the Army Reserve, and was deployed to France on 13th August 1914.
He was a son of Thomas McDonagh and the
husband of Elsie McDonagh, later of 24 Pancras Square in London.
The last Guinness war fatality was Private James Kennedy, 1st Battalion
Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who died of influenza at a Military Hospital in
Shropshire on 9th April 1919, aged 31, and is buried in the Dean’s Grange
Cemetery in Dublin. The Guinness
Genealogy Archive records that James Kennedy was born on 19th March 1888,
joined the company as a labourer at the Cooke’s Lane Maltings on 18th July 1911
and left on 27th March 1915. He was stationed
at Victoria Barracks in Cork when he married Ellen Doyle of Montpellier Parade
in Blackrock on 4th September 1915. He was deployed to the Western Front after
31st December 1915.
The Guinness Roll of Honour records
that 47 employees received gallantry awards during the war, with several men
receiving multiple awards:
Service Order awarded to three men (four awards in total)
Conduct Medal awarded to eight men
awarded to nine men
awarded to 16 men
18 men were “Mentioned
in Despatches” (25 awards in total)
Three men were
awarded the Croix-de-Guerre.
Two employees serving with the Irish Guards are recorded as having
received the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM).
However, the United Kingdom only issued DSMs to naval personnel in the
Great War. It is possible that Henry
Corrin (a fitter in the Engineer’s Department) and George Woods (a Gate Porter
in the Brewhouse Department) were awarded DSMs by the United States of America.
Four men were awarded the Meritorious Service Medal and Captain Trevor Crotty, Royal Army Service Corps, was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Major Edward Gordon Peake, Royal Engineers, and Major Frank Douglas Stevens, Royal Air Force, were made Officers of the Order of the British Empire and Major John Lumsden, Royal Army Medical Corps, was made a Knight of the Order of the British Empire.
One of the Guinness men to be awarded the Military Cross was James Plowman. He was born at Skerton in Lancashire on 15th September 1890 to Louis Plowman and Eliza Thomas, being the second of their seven children. Their third child was born in Dublin in 1892 at which time Louis Plowman was employed as a Coach Painter for the Great South Western Railway. James Plowman joined Guinness as a Fitter in the Engineer’s Department on 9th June 1913. The family was living at St. Patrick’s Terrace in the New Kilmainham district when James married Isabella Small of Rosemount Terrace in the Arbour’s Hill district on 29th July 1914 in St Paul’s Church of Ireland. The Guinness Genealogy Archive records that James left the company on 6th August 1914. He was deployed to France with the South Irish Horse on 17th August, receiving a commission with the Leinster Regiment on 28th August 1915. James Plowman was awarded the Military Cross for an act of gallantry in June 1917, the citation being published in the London Gazette on 9th January 1918. Captain James Plowman MC was serving with 2nd Battalion Leinster Regiment when he died of wounds on 29th April 1918, aged 27, and he is buried in the Cinq Rues British Cemetery at Hazebrouck in France.
History Hub Ulster acknowledges the assistance of Dr Jonathan Mattison in providing access to the Roll of Honour book to photograph and transcribe the contents. A copy of our transcription and the photographs of the pages have been provided to the Museum so that visitors can access the information whilst preserving the integrity of the artefact.
The first outbreak of
influenza in the province of Ulster visited the towns of Belfast, Lurgan,
Portadown and Londonderry during June 1918, causing havoc as businesses had to
close or function on reduced staff.
Services were disrupted throughout these towns. In other Ulster towns such as Larne,
Clones, Cookstown, Newry and the county of Donegal, their main influenza
outbreaks occurred during the second and third waves in the autumn of 1918 and
spring of 1919.
In Ulster, as elsewhere in Ireland and Great
Britain, it was the local authorities and their Medical Officers of Health that
responsibility for public health in their respective towns and cities. They
were tasked with the management of the disease at a local level. It was the Poor Law medical system of the Union infirmary
and dispensary districts – administered by the Board of guardians – that bore
the brunt of medical care. However
Local Government Board for Ireland (LGBI) controlled the activities of the
boards of guardians in relation to the administration of the dispensary medical
system, union infirmaries and fever hospitals it also controlled the
administration of the Public Health Acts by the rural, urban and County
Councils. So how
did these combined forces in Ulster respond to the public health crisis of
During the first wave the Medical Superintendent Officer of Health
for Belfast Corporation, Dr Hugh W. Bailie ordered school closures and
recommended the thorough disinfection of cinemas once or twice a day. He also
proposed sending out his public health department inspectors around their
districts to advise people on what measures they should take if they contracted
influenza. In Londonderry the main recommendation by the
corporation was school closures. This is surprising as influenza was rampant
in the city with burials at the City Cemetery reaching a record number of 50 during
the week ending 6 July 1918 and nearly 20 burials alone on Monday 8 July 1918. There was no evidence that any specific
steps were taken to prevent the spread of influenza in either Lurgan or
Portadown during the first wave. Again this is noteworthy as there were 31
influenza deaths were recorded in the town area from the middle of June until
the end of July 1918. The lacklustre response from
these local authorities during the first wave may be due to the consensus that
this outbreak of the disease was a seasonal flu and therefore unworthy of any
During the second wave, there was a more proactive
response by local authorities in Ulster towns as many of the councils took
preventative measures. A common
recommendation was the closure of day, Sunday and technical schools. It was not
a compulsory measure but in general, school managers adhered to it. However, Methodist College in Belfast
remained open during this virulent wave with tragic results. Influenza hit the
school at the end of October 1918. Student boarders contracted the flu and only
the Medical Officer, matron and headmaster of the school avoided contracting
the disease. Sadly during November, two
members of staff, George Manning and the Rev P. P O’Sullivan, as well as one of the boarders,
Oliver Crawford, aged 15 died from pneumonia following on from influenza. The Friends school in Lisburn may also have
regretted its decision to remain open.
Influenza was rife and by 31 October 1918 only 17 boarders and two
members of staff had not contracted the disease. Helen Clarke, a day pupil died on 31 October
1918. When pupils Anna Magowan and Sadie
Walsh died on 3 November and 8 November 1918 respectively, it was then decided
to close the school and send the remaining
16 pupils home. The larger dormitories
in the school acted as wards where the remaining students who were ill were
nursed. The housekeeper, Miss McCullough
and headmaster’s daughter, Frances Ridges, a student from Queen’s University,
Belfast, worked as nurses but unfortunately they both lost their lives to
influenza. The school eventually opened
again in early January 1919.
In Ulster, as with the rest of United Kingdom,
several councils singled out places of entertainment for closure and
ventilation under the pretext that people gathered there and could therefore
spread the disease. In Newry both local
cinemas closed for one week at the Medical Officer of Health’s request,
however, one of them, the Imperial, re-opened without consulting the Public
Health Authority, while the other, the Frontier, remained closed. The
Public Health authorities in Belfast, Portadown and Newtownards requested
permission from the LGBI to close cinemas in their towns. However, the LGBI advised that they
had no powers to close the cinemas, as this action was not approved in any part
of the United Kingdom.
Mass gathering of people in the cinemas,
theatres and trams were not the only cause for concern and the Irish News feared that the congregation
of huge masses of people on the streets during the armistice celebrations would
further spread the disease. It has been suggested
that an ironic impact of the war was the extra infections and deaths that
occurred as a result of the armistice celebration, where the celebrations
became the foci of new or recurring outbreaks of influenza. In Belfast the armistice
celebration occurred during the peak of the second influenza wave in the
city. Interestingly, deaths from
pneumonia – a common complication of influenza – peaked in Belfast on 23
November 1918 not long after these celebrations took place. Whether the celebrations aided this peak is
a matter for debate.
Larne and Cookstown, public notices of preventative measures were displayed in public places,
published in the local newspapers and printed on handbills for distribution. These notices recommended avoiding crowded
gatherings, good ventilation and cleanliness in homes and discouraged
spitting on the streets. Influenza
sufferers should go to bed early and remain there until completely recovered.
The Irish tradition of waking the dead came in for much criticism as it was feared that the custom would aid in the spread of infectious disease. Both Newry and Ballyclare councils produced public notices which recommended the prompt burial of influenza victims without a wake being held for the deceased. However, again there was no official central government support given to forbid the holding and attendance at wakes. Again it was not a compulsory measure but only a strong recommendation as the local Public Health Authorities had no powers to stop wakes. These were not the only towns to criticise the tradition of holding wakes In Dublin during the second wave, an Irish Times editorial complained that attending wakes of people who had died from influenza was an objectionable practice that was believed to be a fruitful cause of the spread of infection and that this custom more than anything else frustrated the efforts of the public health authorities to eradicate influenza.
There were valid objections to ‘waking the
dead’. Contemporary opinion was that infection was thought to remain in the
corpse and therefore could be spread to the living. However, there is no evidence that this was
the case with respect to the influenza virus. Waking the body in an open coffin may not
have spread the disease through the corpse.
However, anyone attending the wake who had the ‘flu could bring the
infection to a small house where many people congregated in confined
spaces. Once there it could be spread
quickly within a community.
main medical response in towns was by the Poor Law Union under the auspices of
union infirmaries and the dispensary system.
However, these institutions were unprepared for the number of influenza
patients needing treatment. During the first wave in Belfast the number of
influenza patients admitted to the union infirmary was so large that it greatly
increased the workload in the hospital and the Visiting Medial Officer, Dr Gardner
‘Never in my recollection has
the strain on the staff been so great as during the past few weeks.’ The whole staff
has worked most enthusiastically and the generous recognition of our efforts by
the Board is most appreciated by all.
Lurgan union infirmary was also under pressure and there were reports that it had
not been so full in over thirty years due to an influx of influenza sufferers. The workhouse infirmaries throughout Ireland were extremely busy. During 1918 the number of deaths in Irish
workhouses increased by 3,329 on the previous year with influenza and pneumonia
deaths rising by 2,551.
There was also a
scarcity of medical professionals as many doctors were serving at the western
front. Temporary doctors were difficult
to source for both the union infirmaries and the dispensary districts. Doctors
that were available could, in many cases, demand whatever salary they wanted
much to the annoyance of the guardians.
However these doctors were justified in requesting a higher weekly
salary as they were under severe pressure.
During 1918 the Medical officers of health worked long hours to
treat their patients, paying 100,000 more home visits during this period than
in the previous year, indicating not
only the virulence of the disease throughout Ireland but also the work pressure
that dispensary doctors were under during this pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, as the
real cause of influenza was unknown at the time and as there is still no known
cure for the disease, there
consensus among the Irish medical profession on the best treatment for, or,
prevention against the disease, which resulted in many cures and treatments
being suggested. According to Ida Milne,
some Irish doctors recommended gargling with a tincture of creosote or a
solution of permanganate of potash; calomel (as a purgative); oxygen;
stimulants (such as strychnine); some preparation of opium for sleeplessness.An article in the Armagh Guardian advised that if
attacked by influenza, the sufferer should at once take a dose of opening
medicine such as castor oil, and if possible take a hot bath and go to bed and
send for the doctor. It advised that to
work or walk off an attack is dangerous. A popular treatment choice was quinine and the
Belfast MOH, Dr Bailie recommended taking quinine tablets of between 2 and 5
grains twice daily as a tonic and preventative.
Some doctors widely endorsed the use of
alcohol in influenza cases to relieve pain and bolster strength. This treatment was so popular that in February
1919, the Dublin Public Health Committee requested the War Cabinet to call for
the immediate release of supplies of whiskey in the interests of public health. The
lack of a cure for influenza meant that people resorted to over-the-counter
cures to help treat the disease. An
immense assortment of products claimed curative or preventative powers against
influenza. Disinfection was
considered a good preventative as influenza was believed to be a bacterial
infection. Lifebuoy soap claimed to be a ‘reputable germicide and sure
nationally established disinfectant proclaimed ‘Guard against Influenza by the
daily use of Jeyes’ Fluid.’ Disinfection with Jeyes’ Fluid was one of the
recommendations of the Dublin Medical Officer of Health, Dr Charles Cameron in
dealing with influenza. Oxo and Bovril were
popular beef teas of the day and were thought to strengthen the body against
the onslaught of disease. So popular were these products that during
December 1918, a series of advertisements apologised for the shortage of Bovril
during the influenza outbreak. Bovril was considered a very important form
of nourishment during the epidemic. So much so that during November 1918 the
Belfast Guardians increased the nurses’ Bovril rations by one quarter of an
ounce per day to boost their diet to help them cope with their increased
In reality there was no cure for
influenza and traditional
nursing care provided the best and only effective treatment for the disease. However, nurses like doctors were in
short supply as many professional nurses had also volunteered for both army and
naval medical corps during the war. This situation was further exacerbated when
remaining nurses started to contract influenza themselves. In Ulster where
there were numerous reports of professional nurses being infected with
influenza during the course of their duties.
Workhouse infirmaries reported the absence of their nursing staff due to
influenza. Many nurses in the Belfast
Infirmary contracted influenza during the first and second waves and six died from
Similarly, during the second wave several nurses in the Londonderry Union
contracted influenza with two fatalities. Also during the second wave, eight nurses in
the Lurgan Union infirmary contracted influenza and two later died from the complication
The medical response during the second and third waves was similar
to that of the first. Influenza
sufferers availed of treatment and medicines through the dispensary system and
the workhouse infirmaries. The demands of war impacted on the workhouse infirmaries because in many
cases wards or entire workhouse hospitals were requisitioned for military
patients. The workhouse infirmaries were filled to capacity and
suffered from overcrowding.In
Strabane, the military acquired the workhouse for treatment of troops
just prior to the outbreak of influenza in October 1918 and most of the inmates
were sent to the Londonderry workhouse. The chairman of Strabane
council was very concerned about the lack of treatment and hospital
accommodation for the sick poor in the town.
The council eventually convinced the guardians to provide hospital
accommodation for those suffering from influenza but not before a young boy, who
was forced to lay ‘on a bed of straw and bags’, had died from influenza.
authority response to influenza in towns
like Belfast, Londonderry Lurgan and Portadown was poor but
the United Kingdom as a whole did not respond effectively to the crisis. Central government was pre-occupied by the
war and left it up to individual local authorities to deal with influenza at a
local level. In Manchester, the public
health committee—aware of the gravity of the influenza pandemic — were more
proactive. They supplied additional help to nurse and provide domestic
assistance to influenza sufferers where it was needed in the city. They also supplied food and coal for those
unable to provide the same for themselves. It has been suggested that in
Manchester public aid with food, fuel and nursing during the pandemic was of
much more value than treatment by local physicians in the city.
There is no evidence that the bigger industrial
towns such as Belfast, Londonderry and Lurgan took similar measures as
Manchester to help their citizens. Nevertheless, some Ulster towns took more concrete measures to help the
sick poor. Influenza
was rife in Newry with many people dying of the complication pneumonia. Newry council
was aware that the poor needed more substantial charitable help especially with
nutrition. The provision of nourishing food was deemed important. The council arranged for two Newry creameries to supply
sufficient quantities of free milk for distribution due to the influenza
staff of the domestic department of the Newry Technical School provided
nourishing foodstuff for the sick such as beef tea and mutton broth during their
closure. This work was discontinued on
25 November 1918 when the school re-opened.
Despite this aid, the situation in Newry was very
serious. A Relief of Distress
Fund Committee was formed to ‘consider the best means of meeting the
exceptional expenditure that has been and is being incurred by the various
charitable organisations in the relief of distress arising out of the influenza
circular was sent out inviting subscriptions to the fund and it was hoped that
a sum of at least £1,000 would be raised. The fund was
closed on to 31 December 1918 and a total £734 4s. 2d. was raised and was
allocated as follows: three-quarters (£550 13s. 2d.), to the Catholic Charitable Organisations
such as the St Vincent de Paul Society, and one quarter (£183 11s.), to the local Protestant clergymen for distribution. The fund reimbursed the St
Vincent de Paul Society for the expenditure it had already incurred in Newry,
where it had spent several hundred pounds on clothing, coal, groceries,
butter, milk and other necessities for the poor during the pandemic. This indicated that charities in the town rose to the challenges imposed by the pandemic
in a timely manner.
In Cookstown, although both the council and the
guardians made efforts to combat the pandemic, it was the middle class
population of Cookstown who made the biggest contribution in dealing with the
effects of influenza in the town. As in
Newry, a subscription list was opened and a committee was formed to look after
the sick poor in the town and dispensary district. Many local trained ladies volunteered to act
as nurses in the district offering their services for no payment. The Sick Nursing Society used the Technical
School kitchen to provide nourishing food, not only for the sick poor in the
town, but, also for those families that could afford to feed themselves but were
too sick to provide food and nurture for other family members. This was a popular service with up to 170
families in the town and district receiving this aid.
In Clones the workhouse hospital was full and doctors were working to full capacity. The Clones Relief Committee was formed to assist families incapacitated by influenza with both nourishment and nursing. The committee established a kitchen in the Town Hall and prepared and distributed soup, beef tea and porridge to those patients requiring them. The St Vincent de Paul society placed their funds at the disposal of the relief committee. The committee did not raise a public subscription in the town but instead they took action first and sought reimbursement later from the guardians for any expenses incurred.
In conclusion the
response from most local authorities in Ulster consisted of applying
preventative measures such as closing schools, producing public notices,
encouraging disinfection of factories, cinemas and public buildings. However they lacked the authority from the
central body of the LGBI to enforce recommendations such as closure of cinemas
or prevention of wakes. The boards of
guardians actively tried to obtain sufficient medical personnel to help during
the pandemic and in general adhered to the requests of their Medical Officers
of Health with respect to treatment of the disease. However public aid with food, fuel
and nursing during the pandemic could be of much more value than treatment by
local doctors. So although local guardians in Ulster actively tried
to obtain sufficient medical personnel to help during the pandemic, maybe if
they and the local councils in towns such as Belfast, Londonderry and Lurgan
looked towards the physical nourishment and welfare of the poor, then the
influenza death toll may have not been so high.
Dr. Marsh will be giving a talk entitled “The Spanish Influenza Pandemic in Antrim and Down 1918-1919” at Bangor Library on Thursday 21st February 2019 at 7.30pm, and Lisburn Road Library on Wednesday 27th February 2019 at 6.30pm 6.30 to 7.30 p.m.
Report of the
Irish Public Health Council on the public health and medical services in
Ireland [Cmd 761], H. C. 1920, xvii
2, 1075, p. 4.
 Marsh, ‘The effect of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic
on Belfast’, pp. 66-7.
Irish News, 25 June 1918;
Derry Journal, 26 June 1918;
Dungannon Democrat, 26 June 1918.
Journal, 10 July 1918; Irish News, 9 July 1918.
 Lurgan Medical Officer of
Health Report, 5 Aug. 1918 (P.R.O.N.I., Lurgan Medical Officer of Health
Report, LA/51/9D/6); Lurgan Mail, 10 Aug.
 John Watson Henderson, Methodist
College, Belfast, 1868-1938: A survey and retrospect Vol. 1 (Belfast,
1939), p. 271.
Newhouse, A History of the Friends School,
1974), pp. 90-1.
 Fred, R Van Hartesveldt, ‘Manchester’, in Fred van
Hartesveldt (ed.) The 1918-1919 Pandemic of Influenza: The Urban
Impact in the Western World (Lewiston, Queenstown, Lampeter: The Edward Mellon Press, 1992), p. 103.
Urban District Council meeting, 4 Nov. 1918 (P.R.O.N.I., Newry Urban District
Council minutes, LA58/2CA/6).
 Patricia Marsh, “‘An enormous amount of distress
among the poor’: Aid for the Poor in Ulster during the Influenza Pandemic of
1918-1919’ in Poverty and Welfare in
Ireland 1838-1948, Eds. Crossman, Virginia and Gray Peter, (IAP, 2011), pp,
Irish News, 18 Nov 1918,
Belfast News-Letter, 18 Nov 1918, Mid
Ulster Mail. 17 Nov 1918, 30 Nov. 1918 and 7 Dec. 1918.
Dr. Marsh will be giving a talk entitled “The Spanish Influenza Pandemic in Antrim and Down 1918-1919” at Bangor Library on Thursday 21st February 2019 at 7.30pm, and Lisburn Road Library on Wednesday 27th February 2019 at 6.30pm 6.30 to 7.30 p.m.
Towards the end of the First World War in June 1918, a fatal influenza epidemic not only hit troops in the western front but also the civilians throughout the world. Although the exact mortality figures are unknown, it was responsible for the deaths of more people than the First World War and in 2002 the global death toll of the pandemic was estimated to be approximately 50 million. Although called the ‘Flanders’ grippe ‘by English soldiers’; ‘Blitzkatarrh’ by the Germans; ‘the disease of the wind’ in Persia; the name it became commonly known as was the ‘Spanish Influenza.’ So why Spanish influenza? The neutrality of Spain during the First World War meant that there was no newspaper censorship in that country and consequently reports about the disease were published not only in Spanish newspapers and also in the worldwide press. The Times reported 100,000 victims in Madrid of an unknown disease responsible for 700 deaths in 10 days, which had caused disruption to public services, offices and factories. King Alfonso XIII of Spain and other leading politicians were among those afflicted. It was these reports that gave rise to the erroneous impression that influenza had originated in Spain, leading to the misnomer Spanish influenza. However, the Spanish themselves called it the soldier of Naples.
disease, however, did not originate in Spain.
One theory is that the pandemic originated as early as the winter of
1916, on the Western Front at the British Army camp at Étaples. The outbreaks
at Étaples were diagnosed at the time as purulent bronchitis but in retrospect they
showed the same symptoms as the Spanish ‘flu.
Dr Herbert French, author of the 1920 Ministry of Health Report was strongly
of the opinion that the fatal cases from purulent bronchitis were likely to be
the same as those of the pandemic. It has also been suggested that the pandemic could have originated in China and that
the movement of a very large number of workers from China to France during the
First World War might have played a part in the pandemic’s development. However
the most popular theory was that influenza started in America. The earliest
recorded outbreak of the disease was on 5 March 1918 among army recruits at
Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas. By the end of March it had spread to military
training installations in several US mid-western and south eastern states and
from here it travelled with the troops on the ships to the Western Front.
Flu in Ireland
Spanish influenza struck in three concurrent waves throughout the world and Ireland was no exception with three distinct waves of influenza, which occurred in June 1918, October 1918 and February 1919. Speaking in 1920, the Registrar-General for Ireland, Sir William Thompson was of the opinion that influenza in Ireland was the worst disease of an epidemic nature since the period of the Great Famine. The death toll in Ireland was approximately 23,000, however this is a conservative estimate as not all influenza deaths in the country were registered and also some were registered incorrectly. The morbidity from the disease is more difficult to ascertain as no accurate records of incidences of influenza were kept during this period. However, Ida Milne suggests that as many as 800,000 people could have been infected in Ireland. As many as 300,000 people could have been infected in the province of Ulster, where 7,582 people were recorded as dying from influenza. However, the death toll could have been much higher.
The first recorded outbreak of Influenza in Ireland was on the United States Ship Dixie docked in Queenstown (now Cobh), however this outbreak was confined to the ship as there were no reports of ‘flu in the town. The first wave proper was reported to be principally in Belfast and other districts of the north of Ireland. First mention of influenza in the province appeared on 11 and 12 June 1918 in Belfast newspapers when a notice appeared regarding the re-opening, after influenza, of a department in James Mackie & Sons munitions factory situated in the Springfield Road. Influenza spread from Belfast across the north of Ireland probably via the rail network. Elsewhere in Ireland there were also sporadic outbreaks at towns such as Ballinasloe, Tipperary town and Athlone. It is notable that these towns were situated near army bases as the general consensus was that ‘flu was brought to Ireland with troops returned home on leave or to convalesce from wounds and then spread via the rail network.
The second wave originated in Leinster. Howth on the east coast appeared to be the entry point and was reported to be there as early as 1 October 1918. From Howth it spread to Dublin and then throughout Ireland. In Ulster influenza was first reported in the naval port of Larne on 9 October 1918. The disease did not reach Belfast until the end of October 1918. Influenza spread to most Ulster towns during this wave and this was the most virulent wave in the province. County Donegal was badly affected during this outbreak, especially the Inishowen Union District, which had the highest death rate per thousand of population in Ulster.
The third wave which started in February 1919, again originated in Leinster. It was first reported on 5 February 1919 in the Celbridge district in Co Kildare. Initial reports of influenza in Ulster during this wave were in Holywood on 6 February 1919 and it was in Belfast by 18 February 1919. Influenza visited most Ulster towns but in many such as Belfast, Lurgan, Larne, Newry and Dungannon this was a milder wave than those in 1918 and this may be because immunity was gained from previous waves. However, Dublin county and borough suffered severely during all three waves of the disease. County Donegal was again severely affected with a higher mortality during the third wave in 1919 than in both waves during 1918. This was also the case with other counties in the west of the country such as Mayo, Sligo and Galway.
There was an unusual age
distribution for this pandemic as it targeted young adults in particular. Normally influenza kills the very young and
the very old but Spanish influenza showed an unusual age distribution of
deaths. Although there
was still high mortality for the very young and very old there was also a very
high mortality for the age group between 15 and 44. In England and Wales
mortality was concentrated among those aged
20 to 40 and especially those 25 to 35. It has been suggested that this peculiarity
helped to produce Britain’s ‘lost generation’ caused by not only from the high
mortality among young men killed due to the war but also from influenza on the
In Ireland 55.5% of all influenza deaths in 1918 were of those aged between 15 and 45. In 1919 more than 58% of the total influenza mortality was between the ages of 20 and 65. Figure 1 is a graphical representation of the age-specific influenza death rates for Ireland comparing 1918 and 1919. It shows that the age-specific death rates for Ireland followed the global trend of targeting young adults and that during 1918 it was those aged 25 to 35 who suffered the highest mortality of any age group. The Irish figures also show that infants under one year were also at particular risk during the pandemic. This was hardly surprising as, even without epidemic disease, the urban areas of Ireland such as Dublin and Belfast suffered from one of the highest infant mortality rates in the United Kingdom due to infection and poor diet.
was the pandemic so detrimental to 25 to 35 age-group?
One theory was that elderly people had gained immunity to the 1918-19 pandemic due to previous exposure to the influenza epidemic of 1847-48 which may have been caused by a similar H1 virus. Another is that young adults were more likely to attempt to work through illness, thus maximizing their risk of succumbing to influenza. It has also been suggested that many of the age group 20-45 had been soldiers living in miserable conditions on the western front which would have lowered their immunity, but the same death rates were seen in young people in countries unaffected by the war. However, the answer may lie in a scientific study that took place in 2007, which suggested that the strong immune systems of young adults overreacted to the 1918 virus causing this particular age group to be at the most risk during the pandemic.
Public Health Committee meeting, 6 Feb 1919 (P.R.O.N.I.,
Holywood Urban District Council minutes, LA/38/9AA/3)
Belfast Board of Guardians meeting, 18 Feb. 1919
(P.R.O.N.I., Belfast Union minutes, BG/7/A/101).
Andrew Noymer and Michel Garenne,
‘The 1918 influenza epidemic’s effects on sex differentials in mortality in the
United States’, in Population and Development Review, 26:3 (2000), pp.
 Herbert French, ‘The clinical features of the influenza
epidemic 1918-19,’ pp. 90-1.
 Niall Johnson, Britain
and the 1918-19 influenza pandemic: A dark epilogue, (London/New York,
2006), p. 84.
 Thompson, ‘Mortality from influenza in Ireland’, p.
detailed annual report of the Registrar-General (Ireland), p. xvi.
 Mortality figures
calculated from Fifty-fifth detailed
annual report of the Registrar-General (Ireland), p xvi and Fifty-sixth detailed annual report of the Registrar-General (Ireland),
 Ruth Barrington, Health,
medicine and politics in Ireland 1900-1970 (Dublin, 1987), p. 75.
 Christopher Langford, ‘The age
pattern of mortality in the 1918-19 influenza pandemic: An
attempted explanation based on data for England and Wales’, in Medical History, 46 (2002), p. 15. Ann H.
Reid, Jeffery K. Taubenberger, Thomas G. Fanning, ‘The 1918 Spanish influenza:
Integrating history and biology’, in Microbes and Infection,3 (2001), p. 83.
 Johnson, Britain
and the 1918-19 influenza Pandemic, p. 88.
and Fanning, ‘The 1918 Spanish influenza’, p. 83.
 Kerri Smith, ‘Concern as revived
1918 flu virus kills monkeys’, in Nature,
445 (18 Jan. 2007), p. 23.
Following the Great War Armistice signed on 11th November 1918 various peace treaties were signed during 1919. These culminated in a series of ‘Peace Rally’s’ throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland during August 1919.
History Hub Ulster are offering for sale a ‘1919 – 2019 Peace Day’ commemorative lapel badge. Designed for History Hub Ulster by John McCormick, antique brass finish, measuring 35mm x 25mm with 2 pins & clasps on reverse.
Cost is as follows. Postage will be by 1st class.
1 to 5: £3.50 each plus £1 p&p (max)
6 to 10 maximum: £3.00 each plus £1 p&p (max)
any number collected: £3.00 each
Wesley Watson was born in Co Armagh in 1852, coming from a family with wide ranging interests in linen bleaching and manufacture.
In 1886, he entered into partnership with William Mercer and Robert McCrum, to form a linen manufacturing firm styled as McCrum, Watson & Mercer: the company being based in Milford, Co Armagh. It was formerly known as MessrsRobert McCrum & Co, as it was his father, William, who built the village of Milford to accommodate the workers of the mill that had been established in 1808. It produced high quality linen damask, napkins, towels and sheeting.
The company was immensely successful from its inception having been credited as being the first in Ireland to use the dry spinning system using water power. The founder’s son Robert Garmany McCrum (1829-1915) built Milford House, a magnificent Italianate mansion on the outskirts of the village, and appears to have been the partner most involved in the day to day running of the business.
In 1894, McCrum, Watson and Mercer became a limited liability company with members of the management (including Watson) becoming shareholders. The company also owned a linen warehouse at 5 Linenhall Street in Belfast (now occupied by Lancashire House – erected 1959) and another linen factory at Gillis in Armagh.
In 1887, following a severe depression in the linen industry in north east Ireland, one of the largest concerns of its type in Belfast, the Northern Spinning and Weaving Company was forced into liquidation with the Managing Director, Thomas Valentine being obliged to sell the mansion house he had built in 1863 known as “The Moat” in order to liquidate his assets. Wesley Watson purchased the property from Valentine, and he and his wife took up residence shortly afterwards, having previously lived at Hannahville, Greenisland, Co Antrim.
However, George Washington Wesley Watson’s first wife, Margaret Maria, died on 22 March 1894 (at The Moat, left), and three years later he re-married, this time to his cousin, Eliza G Watson, of East 34th Street, New York, daughter of William Watson, a successful dry goods merchant of West Farms, Westchester County, New York. William had emigrated to America earlier in the century.
Eliza, born in 1851, came from a large family, having 4 brothers and 4 sisters. Although Eliza’s father, William Watson died in 1877; the family remained in the homestead, Willmount, until the death of their mother, Maria, in 1894.
Part of the Watson estate property in the Bronx, lying north of Westchester Avenue and extending from the Bronx river to Clason’s Point Road – a tract of more than 93 acres (equivalent to about 1,200 city lots) – was sold in 1909 to the American Real Estate Company for $1,500,000. The Watson estate, with the adjoining estates of the Astors and the Trasks, constituted the largest land area entirely without development in the Bronx. The sale marked the passing of one of the great estates of New York.
Wesley and Eliza’s engagement and wedding were well documented in the Society columns of the New York Times. The service was held at the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, Madison Avenue, and 35th Street, New York, on 5 January 1897.
Wesley and Eliza in later life
“A pretty house wedding was that of Miss Eliza G Watson, daughter of William Watson, to her cousin, G W Wesley Watson of Belfast, Ireland, at the residence of Miss Watson’s sister, Mrs William H Tailer, at 14 East 72nd Street, yesterday afternoon. The house was decorated with orchids, palms, potted plants, and crushed baskets of roses.
The bride was given away by her brother, Francis A Watson. She was attired in a becoming gown of rich white satin, the corsage being tastefully trimmed with old point lace. Her veil was of rare point lace, the gift of her brother, Francis A Watson.
She wore several diamond ornaments, the gifts of the bridegroom, in her coiffure and corsage.
The best man was Charles F Watson, brother of the bridegroom. The ceremony was followed by an informal reception and wedding breakfast, only immediate members of the family and a few intimate friends attending.”
Life was good for Wesley and Eliza. They enjoyed a privileged and opulent lifestyle and enjoyed great standing amongst the Anglo-American community. An article in the New York Times of 15 November 1900 entitled “What is Doing in Society” records their activities at the turn of the century:
As a result of his marriage to Eliza in 1897, Wesley spent most of his time in London, where they resided in a large house at 14 Cadogan Gardens in fashionable Chelsea; and in New York where they crossed the Atlantic in first class luxury aboard the latest Cunard Liner each Autumn. They only stayed at The Moat on their brief visits to Ireland. It would appear that following his good fortune in marrying his cousin, Wesley Watson retired from having any active part in the business, although he continued to be a director and the company retained his name as an original partner.
Eliza was known for her great philanthropic work. Daughter of William Watson of New York, she was also known as the ‘most charitable woman in London’
.No-one knows the extent of her gifts – many of them were given anonymously – but she is estimated to have spent £10,000 a year for charity. Amongst the charities she helped were Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Victoria Hospital for Children, Tite-street, Chelsea and the Queen Charlotte Hospital.
Because of the short time that the couple spent in Ireland, Wesley put “The Moat” on the market and he was approached by Robert John McConnell, a successful estate agent and property developer from Belfast. Upon purchasing the property, he subsequently named the Baronetcy conferred upon him by Queen Victoria during her visit to Dublin, after the house – 1st Baronet McConnell, of the Moat, Strandtown (1900) – the same year that he served as Lord Mayor of Belfast
Subsequently, when Wesley visited Belfast following the sale of The Moat, he stayed at The Ulster Club at Castle Place.
Wesley Watson died in London in 1929 aged 77. Eliza survived him by 7 years (aged 87). Her memorial service was held at Holy Trinity Church, Chelsea on Wednesday 15 July 1936.
McCrum, Watson, Mercer passed from Robert McCrum to his son, William, but he had little interest in the business and by 1930, the company was in the ownership of the Northern Bank, and run by a team of managers.
During his lifetime, Wesley remained in contact with the family in Ireland and in particular, Marjorie Smyth. On his death, he left Marjorie a trust legacy of £3000 from which she was to receive an income for life. A sum of 5% war stock was allocated from Wesley Watson’s estate to meet this legacy and which would produce an annual income of £150.
Captain Watson & Mr Stuart E. Smyth were trustees.
Wellington Place, being a relatively short thoroughfare from Donegall Square North to College Square East, was, like its neighbouring streets to the north, “laid out as superior terraces” in the 1790s, making it Georgian in character, rather than Victorian, as so much of the rest of Belfast is characterised by, following the expansion of the town because of the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 1840s.
It was originally named South Parade, followed by Upper Chichester Street (after the family who held the freehold to the town of Belfast) and finally Wellington Place by 1819 – so named after the Duke of Wellington, (1769-1852) who spent part of his boyhood by the River Lagan at Annadale in South Belfast. ‘Annadale’ was named after Anna, the Duke’s mother, who was a daughter of Arthur Hill, whose family established the Downshire dynasty of Stranmillis (now Stranmillis University College) and Hillsborough Castle, now the Queen’s official residence in Northern Ireland. The Duke of Wellington was the nemesis of Napoleon, Emperor of France, whom he defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
These superior dwellings would have housed the burgeoning middle class, such as solicitors, merchants and physicians, who would have had several servants to tend to the family’s needs looking after a large house over four floors. Although there have been many changes to the thoroughfare over the past 200 years, three of the fine terraced houses can still be seen on the north side of the street occupied by such names as Solo Restaurant and the Oasis Gaming Centre
In the early 19th century, the occupants of Wellington Place would have sent their sons to one of the most prestigious private schools in Ulster – the Royal Belfast Academic Institution (also known as Inst) which was located at College Square at the top of the thoroughfare. The main part of the building was completed in 1814 and its classical façade still stands today behind John Bell House.
However, as the century progressed, Wellington Place ceased to be exclusively residential and many of the houses were gradually converted for commercial use.
The Evangelical Union Church of 1858 (now Roost Coffee), which served the local population was demolished by 1895, and soon ornate linen warehouses such as that of James & Robert Young (on the corner of Queen Street) were being built along the thoroughfare. By 1850 Belfast was fast becoming the largest producer of linen products in the world, exporting to every corner of the globe such as the United States; South America; Australia and South Africa.
It was against this dramatic change in urban living that a property developer of the time, acting on behalf of a private client, acquired a narrow plot of land in 1885 next to Young’s Linen Warehouse for the purposes of erecting a four-storey building which would service the needs of an ever-expanding metropolis. It was built of red brick over five floors with a distant ornamental gable. When it was finished it was one of the tallest buildings on the street and must have looked very impressive compared to the Monumental Sculptor’s Yard which stood on the site before. It was designed as a private residence over 5 floors … but who could afford to have such a sizeable property designed for their own use?
The first occupant of 29 Wellington Place in 1885, was Doctor Joseph Nelson, MD; L.R.C.S.I (Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland). This was no surprise as the area around RBAI (Inst) on College Square was known as the ‘Harley Street’ of Belfast. Dr Nelson would have used the ground floor as his consulting rooms and used the upper floors as his private residence. Two doors up, was the residence of Dr. J. Cumins, Professor of Medicine at Queen’s College (now Queen’s University), so the importance of the area by the time Queen Victoria bestowed the Charter of a City upon Belfast in1888 should not be underestimated.
By 1901, Wellington Place was further becoming more commercial in nature. The former large houses were further converted for use as small hotels to serve the thousands of travellers arriving into the Great Northern Railway terminus (the main line from Dublin) on Great Victoria Street (now the site of the Europa Hotel). It was however chosen as the location for the City of Belfast YMCA, an enormously important organisation of the time for the development of young people by the Church of Ireland. It housed the Café Royale, one of the largest and most important meeting places for the people of Belfast.
One significant lodger at the home of Dr and Mrs Nelson was a young man from Comber, Co Down, by the name of Thomas Andrews. Although he came from a wealthy background, Thomas entered the shipyard of Harland & Wolff as a ‘gentleman’s appretice’ in 1889. Part of his training was to attend the nearby Municipal College of Technology (now John Bell House) when he studied maritime architecture. In order to do so, he stayed up in Belfast during the week at Wellington Place on the top floor of No 29, returning to Comber by train at the weekends. His studies led him to become a member of the Institution of Naval Architects, after which he became Managing Director of Drafting at Harland & Wolff. Thomas Andrews is best remembered as being the Chief Designer for RMS Titanic, built at Harland & Wolff for the White Star Line in 1912. He was selected to be part of the ‘guarantee group’ aboard RMS Titanic when she set off on her maiden voyage, but was lost at sea along with 1500 other passengers and crew when the ship sank in the early morning of April 11, 1912. The rest is legend …
Dr Nelson happily remained at his consulting rooms and residence at 29 Wellington Place but nearby, one major change in the area in 1906, saw his fellow physicians and surgeons on College Square leave the area in large numbers – the building of the Municiple College of Technology (now John Bell House) in the grounds of Royal Belfast Academical Institution. RBAI had almost gone bankrupt, and in a desperate attempt to raise funds, sold off the former lawns of the school to the Corporation of Belfast for the building of the new college. The surgeons and physicians felt that the area had degenerated as a result and they took themselves off to University Square beside Queen’s University which they considered to be much more prestigious.
29 Wellington Place remained the residence of Dr Joseph Nelson from 1885 until his death on 31 August 1910. His importance to the medical profession in Ireland was enormous, serving as President of the Ulster Medical Council for the session 1898-1899. However, as a young man, and after studying at Queen’s, he set sail for Italy where he obtained a commission from Garibaldi’s “Regimento Inglese” to fight for Italy’s unification. He was later presented with two medals for gallantry by the King of Italy. After gaining his MD at the University of Ireland in 1863, he once again took off, this time to India, where he became a surgeon on a tea plantation before becoming a tea planter in his own right. He returned to Belfast in 1885, where he was appointed the first ophthalmic surgeon to the Royal Hospital, where he held classes for students at 8:00 am daily. He regularly entertained his fellow surgeons and members of the Ulster Medical Society with his wife, Elizabeth at 29 Wellington Place over a period of 25 years. They had two daughters and one son, and lived comfortably with a staff of 4 servants: a housekeeper, a nurse and two domestic servants.
By the 1920s and 30s, Wellington Place had secured for itself a prominent place in the commercial life of the city. Many of the leading architects who shaped the face of Belfast had their offices here, in addition to the leading insurance companies of the day, distributors, stock and share brokers and solicitors. Mrs Nelson sold up following the death of her husband and what had previously been a family residence was converted into showrooms for Craig & Paton, Ltd., Laundry, Electrical and General Engineers: Telegraphic Address, “Rotary, Belfast” with the upper floor being occupied by the offices of the Belfast War Pensions’ Committee. The ground floor (which today has been authentically restored for Student Roost) had a modern 1920’s shop front added, but the building retained its unique first floor ‘running’ roof.
Next Door was the quirkily named “Merrythought Café” – one of the social hubs of ‘Roaring Twenties’ Belfast. It was “the” place to be seen and many large companies and organisations holding their staff balls and presentations at the premises next door to Number 29 Wellington Place.
During the war years, many different organisations and professions occupied the 5 floors of 29 Wellington Place. Due to aerial bombing of Belfast during the Second World War, many businesses had to relocate from their destroyed premises, one being Robert Patterson & Sons whose Bridge Street store was destroyed in the Luftwaffe Blitz of Easter Monday, 1941. Patterson’s were Ironmongers, Mill Furnishers, Ship Furnishers, and Engineers and traded on Wellington Place until their premises were rebuilt in 1946.
From 1932 to 1960 the ground floor of 29 Wellington Place was occupied by the family firm of W. G. Wilson & Sons, Solicitors – (W. G. Wilson, W. G. Wilson, jun., Commissioner for Oaths; George I. Wilson; Gerard D. Wilson). The Wilsons had an extensive practice in the city with many major clients.
It was in 1960, that the most significant change of occupier took place, when the established firm of Parsons & Parsons (Tailors) moved in to 29 Wellington Place. Parsons & Parsons had been established further along Wellington Place (at Number 37) in 1909 as Ladies and Gents Tailors. As a formal clothing hire company, it dressed the citizens of Belfast seeking to outshine others at special occasions for more than a century. The company specialised in weddings, formal wear, ladies, Highland and bespoke clothing. Whether it was formal attire for a gala ball, a cruise or a college formal, the hire store close to City Hall seemed to cater for whatever was needed. It stocked fine suits, waistcoats, dinner jackets and bow ties, as well as evening dresses, lingerie and kilts. In addition to this it offered customers a tradition bespoke service, with specialist tailors creating jackets, suits, trousers or coats all crafted to customers’ specifications – or waist size. It also provided a service selling barristers’ court suits and accessories.
Sadly, after 104 years of trading on Wellington Place, Parsons & Parsons closed in November 2013. The building which had served so many different people lay empty and neglected. It was a significant property extending from Wellington Place to College Street and sharing a boundary with another historic property at 41- 49 Queen Street known as Swanston’s buildings. When the building came up for auction in 2015, a joint property deal was done to acquire both buildings for the provision of a major student accommodation development which would incorporate both sites, but at the same time retaining the historic facades of both properties.
Plans were drawn up create a purpose-built managed student accommodation (PBSA) comprising 114 studios and 203 cluster rooms (317 units in total) to be named Swanston House with its main entrance at 29 Wellington Place.
The historic façade that was created as the residence for Dr Joseph Nelson in 1890 was secured using the latest construction methods, whilst the rear of the building was demolished and rebuilt, providing some of the best student accommodation in the city. The ugly and intrusive 1960s shop front was removed and a replica of the original doorway and bay windows on the ground and first floors reinstated as it would have looked in 1890.
Swanston House, managed by Student Roost, opened in August 2018 at 29 Wellington Place.
A Short History of Swanston House, 41- 49 Queen Street, Belfast
Queen Street, unlike its more upmarket neighbours to the north and west such as College Square and Wellington Place, was originally called David Street, this information coming from leases granted by the Donegall estate at the time. By 1819, it was being developed, roughly on the old town defences, hence the angle at the crossing of College Street, which would have followed the line of the town walls.
The original houses would have been substantial, but without the grandeur of those found on nearby Donegall Square beside the White linen Hall (now City Hall) and College Square beside Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst). As the 19th century progressed, Queen Street did however play host to some very important buildings, both commercial and institutional. The most notable of these was The Belfast Hospital for Sick Children which was established in King Street in 1873 and moved to new premises on Queen Street in April 1879.
“The hospital portion is arranged chiefly in the rear, so as to be removed from the noise of the street, the front building being devoted to administrative purposes, comprising board-room, servants’ hall, kitchen, storerooms, matron’s apartments, and bed-rooms for the officials. There are also several rooms which will be used either for a better class of patients, or for lady students, as the board may hereafter decide”
Another important building on Queen Street of the period was the Working Man’s Institute and Temperance Hall built on the corner with Castle Street. Before the days of the internet, this building contained a library of ‘upwards of 3000 carefully selected works’ in addition to a lecture hall where talks and concerts were provided “to check the increasingly bad effects of the music saloons”, where alcohol would have freely been available. This was the beginning of the Temperance Movement which was set up by both the churches and industrialists to counteract absenteeism from the workplace, particularly in the mills and factories of the day.
Against this background, a young man by the name of William Swanston came on the scene. Although born in Barbados in 1841, where his father was serving with the Colonial British Army, the family was of Scots origin, and arrived in Ireland when William was a baby – his father having been appointed as Master Gunner at Carrickfergus Castle – one of County Antrim’s most visited tourist attractions.
From an early age, Swanston showed a keen interest in geology, becoming a member of the highly esteemed Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society (founded 1821) and the Belfast Naturalists Field Club which he joined in 1868.The Society met in one of Belfast’s most historic buildings, The Old Museum, which is located on College Square North just across from John Bell House. Working with Charles Lapworth, later Professor of Geology at Birmingham (the home of Student Roost)
Swanston late produced a valuable paper on fossil remains in the Silurian Rocks of Co Down. In his later life, Swanston became Hon. Secretary of the Club, rising to the position of President in 1893, which he held for one year. Although he was immersed in business for most of his early life, he found time to bring much needed energy and influence to the position
It was his business interests that brought him to Queen Street. Having formed a partnership with Thomas Bones, the two men set about establishing a linen shirt, collar and cuff manufacturing business. Since the 1850’s Belfast had become the largest producer of articles of linen manufacture in the world. The partnership of Swanston & Bones provided the manufacturers of linen clothing with the accessories they required to complete the finished products before exporting them out of the port of Belfast to every part of the Empire and the civilised world. Their first manufactory was based at 50 King Street (adjacent to Queen Street) where they made shirt collars and cuffs.
Soon the partners began to look around for larger premises and found a plot of land on the corner of Queen Street and College Street upon which was a small cottage and garden, one of the last of its type in the city. Upon purchasing the land, they commissioned one of the leading architects’ practices of the day, Young & McKenzie to design a new manufactory and warehouse for their growing business.
The new building, erected in 1890, says much about Swanston as a person. The entrance includes a bust of Sir Arthur Chichester, Lord Deputy of Ireland, founder of Belfast, and a key figure in the Ulster Plantation. The head, made of Scottish granite, is based on a statue in St. Nicholas’ church at Carrickfergus, where he had been brought up with his family when they first arrived in Ireland. Also included in the entrance design are the coats of arms of Belfast and Ulster.
The sculptural detail of the doorway is notable for its quality and subtle wit. Sir Arthur Chichester is wearing a deep ruffle of the seventeenth century which neatly alludes to the collar and cuff making purpose of the business. Swanston settled in North Belfast in a Victorian terraced house at 4 Cliftonville Avenue, with his wife Isabella, son Robert, who attended Royal Belfast Academy, and daughters, Elizabeth and Isabella Forsythe. The family had two servants both named Margaret and worshiped at the nearby Duncairn Presbyterian Church on the Antrim Road.
The new building extended along Queen Street towards Wellington Place. In addition to the plot of land with the cottage and garden, the partners also acquired four Georgian houses and a cabinet manufactory belonging to Messrs McCutcheon.
Swanston, a Scot by parentage, also demonstrated great affection towards his adopted country. Shamrock and thistle motifs are found both on the entrance and in the pediment. A similar show of his fondness for Ireland is found in his bookplate which incorporates round towers, the Giant’s Causeway, a dolmen, a harp and most prominently the castle at Carrickfergus.
Mr Swanston developed the entire site with an imposing frontage of 150 feet to Queen Street and 80 feet to College Street, and in the process formed five distinct warehouses; Swanston & Bones taking occupation of the most prominent corner site. A semi-circular tower on the corner topped with a steeply pitched conical roof rose to a height of 75 feet, being originally covered in green slates and surmounted with a weather vane (now removed).
Swanston’s pride in his family is reflected in the incorporation of his initials ‘WS’, the family crest and motto in the pediment above Queen Street, which has been sympathetically incorporated into the new student residence of Swanston House.
And so, William Swanston had achieved his dream of establishing a successful business, along with his partner, at the same time erecting one of the most impressive buildings in the city centre. The status of a city had been conferred upon Belfast in 1888 during a visit to Ireland by Queen Victoria, just two years before Swanston House was built.
Although he was extremely proud of his new premises, the partnership soon outgrew even this building, and the company built a new shirt, collar and cuff manufactory on the Limestone Road, which he called the Mountcollyer Factory (below). By 1901, his son Robert had joined him in the business, looking after the warehouse side and distribution of the company’s products across Europe. Swanston was by this time 59 years old, but still took an active part in the day to day running of the firm. They developed a laundry on the site which would have serviced other linen manufacturers in the city and to collect and deliver the products, the company built up a fleet of motorised vehicles, some of the earliest in the city. Such goods would have previously been moved around the city by horse and cart.
Back on Queen Street, the five warehouses that William Swanston had built were let out to many different companies.
– Hamilton & Robinson – a sister company of the famous Robinson & Cleaver on Donegall Place
– F Steiner & Co; turkey red dyers (!), prints, sateens, delaines, art muslin, handkerchiefs. Works: Church, Lancashire
– Symington, Kirkwood, & Co., linen merchants, also agents for the Manchester Fire Assurance Co.
– Belfast Art Society
In 1901 the Singer Manufacturing Co moved into number 43 Queen Street, where they would remain for several decades to follow until the early 1970s. Founded in New York in in 1851 by Isaac Merritt Singer, the company’s sewing machines would go on to revolutionise home manufacture of clothing for the next 165 years. These were distributed all over Ireland from the company’s warehouse on Queen Street, managed by Mr James Marshall, having been manufactured in the UK at the company’s factory on Clydebank in Scotland, which was opened in1867.
The Belfast Office Staff of Singer Sewing Machine Co.
Swanston would also have used Singer machines in his shirt factory at Mountcollyer in North Belfast. The majority of mills in Belfast concentrated on the spinning of flax, and weaving and finishing of linen products whereas those in Derry focused on the manufacture of shirts, with that city becoming the largest exporter of linen shirts in the world, so it was a specialist product that Swanston manufactured in Belfast.
At Clydebank, with nearly a million square feet of space and almost 7,000 employees, it was possible to produce on average 13,000 machines a week, making it the largest sewing machine factory in the world (right)… another first, along with the largest shipyard, ropeworks and linen thread manufactory, all of which could be found in Belfast!
With his success in business in the partnership of Swanston & Bones, William Swanston, FGS (Fellow of the Geological Society), moved from the house he had lived in for many years in North Belfast to a new villa in South Belfast, called “Farm Hill” at Dunmurry. His new home was surrounded by many acres of parkland and would have provided him with a restful sanctuary in which to enjoy his retirement.
He was a member of the board of governors of the Linenhall Library (one of the finest in Ireland – top right); was an active member of the Belfast Naturalists Field Club who laid the foundation of our understanding of Natural Science today, and to which he wrote and published many papers on graptolites.
Naturalists Field Club
He was an avid collector and built up what was one of the largest collections of Oliver Goldsmith’s works at his library at Dunmurry, which eventually he had to auction it off at Sotheby’s in London in 1926, as it threatened to take over the house! His wife Isabella had died at the age of 70 in October 1915, so it must have been a lonely existence in such a large house. William Swanston died at the ripe old age of 90 on Christmas Eve, 1932. He was buried at Belfast City Cemetery on Boxing Day, beside his beloved wife.
He left an estate in probate worth £10,414, approximately £680,000 today.
Farm Hill, Dunmurry
One of the last occupants of the buildings at Queen Street was a company by the name of The Athletic Stores. The company was established in 1936 moving to impressive new premises on Wellington Place (seen left – at its junction with Queen Street – now Ground Coffee) describing themselves as “Travel and India Rubber Goods Specialists” but soon the business diversified into all sorts of sportswear, long before the days of JD Sports or Sports Direct! In 1974, the building on Wellington Place was destroyed by fire following a terrorist incendiary attack.
The company then relocated to Swanston’s Buildings on Queen Street, converting what had previously been warehousing to retail use.
Thousands of children would have been taken here for their first tennis or badminton racquet or the latest in “gutties” – the name everyone in Belfast used to use for today’s fashion trainers!
The Athletic Stores was founded and run by the Blakely family from Bangor – of whom one of the family, Colin Blakely, who used to work in the store as a boy, became one of Northern Ireland’s best-loved local actors. He is seen here reprising the role of the infamous Dr Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
The other half of the building was also converted for retail becoming the showrooms of EDCO – the Educational Company Limited. This was and still is, Ireland’s leading educational publisher, and retailed all sorts of media for students and teachers before the days of the Early Learning Centre. Perhaps it was the advent of Competition from these new retaillers, that by 2005, both busineses had decided to cease trading on Queen Street and Swanston’s buildings became vacant and unloved.
In June 2008, a planning application was lodged proposing the demolition of the Swanston buildings on King Street – the passing of which by Belfast City Council was met with shock and anger by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society. The UAHS challenged the decision by Judicial Review and won a reprieve for the building in January 2010. Despite proposing several alternative uses for the building, the case proceeded through the courts until February 2014, when the judge hearing the case ruled that the Department of the Environment failed to properly consider a policy presumption in favour of retaining buildings in conservation areas.
This decision by the High Court ensured the future of William Swanston’s buildings of 1890, and in 2015, the building was acquired by Laguna Developments who put forward an impressive plan to retain the façade of the building at 41-49 Queen Street, along with that of 24 College Street and 29 Wellington Place, whilst at the same time creating one of the most exciting student accommodation developments in the city.
Work commenced in August 2016, demolishing the interiors of what had become a very unstable set of buildings (above). Using the latest construction support systems, the original Victorian façade was held in place, whilst the new building was erected floor by floor over the next two years. The new building, to be known as Swanston House was completed in August 2018 – the accommodation comprising of 317 bed spaces in a mixture of cluster bedrooms and studios located in a 7-storey low rise section and a 13-storey tower (see left).
William Swanston would be proud of the impressive and beautiful conversion of the building that still bears his name today, managed by Student Roost, one of the most dynamic student accommodation providers in the UK. You’re more than welcome!
This article commemorates the memory of Lance-Corporal Hugh McNeill of the Royal Marine Light Infantry who died on 21st June 1918, 100 years ago today.
According to naval records, Hugh McNeill was born in Belfast on 5th January 1881. Hugh enlisted on 7th July 1899 and served in the crushing of the Boxer Rebellion (10th June to 31st December 1900) in China, for which he was awarded the China War Medal (1900). He subsequently served on HMS Goliath. In 1911, he was stationed at Fort Blockhouse in Gosport and he was discharged on 6th September 1912, having completed twelve years of service. On the following day, he enrolled with the Royal Fleet Reserve.
He settled in Belfast and was Head Boots at the Imperial Hotel, which was located on the corner of Donegall Place and Castle Lane. When Hugh married Annie Harland on 12th October 1913 at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Belfast, he was recorded as being a “Navy man” and was living at 56 Canal Street in Saltcoats, Scotland. His father’s name was recorded as Daniel (Tradesman) and Annie, a millworker, was a daughter of Michael Harland (Tradesman) of 12 Bute Street in the Jennymount district of Belfast.
At some stage after their marriage Hugh and Annie moved to Ballymena and were living at 11 James Street when Hugh was recalled from the Royal Fleet Reserve. His name is included on the list of 78 men from All Saints’ Roman Catholic Church serving with His Majesty’s forces that was published in the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph on 5th June 1915.
As there were insufficient ships to accommodate all the naval personnel recalled from the reserves and men enlisting with the navy, Winston Churchill, First Sea Lord, instituted a new naval force called the Royal Naval Division, which would fight as infantry in land campaigns. Hugh McNeill served with the Portsmouth Battalion of the Royal Marine Brigade of this new force at Ostend and Antwerp between 26th August 1914 and 1st September 1914. He was wounded in the left leg and right knee by a splinter from a German shell and, during the withdrawal from Antwerp, the train on which he was travelling was knocked off the rails and surrounded by Germans. In the engagement that followed, there were many casualties on both sides and several marines were captured but a party of 90 men under Major French got safely away after a 35-mile forced march to the Belgian village of Ecloo.
Hugh McNeill then served with a Royal Naval Air Service’s Armoured Cars unit under Commander Charles Rumney Samson RN between 10th September 1914 and 17th October 1914 before returning to the Royal Naval Division. Following a period of furlough, an interview with Hugh McNeill was published in the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph in May 1915 in which he spoke highly of the “pluck and daring” of Commander Samson, particularly in engagements with roving units of Uhlans (Light Cavalry, with a Polish military heritage), saying that, “the Germans had come to greatly dread and fear Commander Samson and his gallant men”.
In January 1918, Hugh McNeill was promoted to Lance-Corporal and transferred to HMS President III – this was not a ship but a shore establishment for men serving on Defensively Armed Merchant Ships. Hugh was a member of the gun crew on SS Montebello when she was torpedoed by U-100 on 21st June 1918 and sank 320 miles from Ushant, an island off the coast of Brittany, with the loss of 41 lives. Lance-Corporal McNeill, who is commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, was 37 years old when he died. He was awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal and the 1914 Star, the latter being issued to his widow on 1st July 1920.
Michael Nugent (ww1researchireland.com), John Hoy (Ballymena & The Great War, snake43.webs.com/), Richard Graham, Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, Royal Navy & Royal Marines War Graves Roll and Royal Naval Division Casualties of the Great War.
As early as February 1915, local newspapers reported that 150 artillery pieces captured from the Germans were in London and that they would be presented to districts, “which had done good work in the cause”, after the war. However, during the period of the war some war trophy guns were displayed in locations in the north of Ireland – two machine guns captured by the Ulster Division were sent to Londonderry (November 1916) and Portadown (July 1917) and a field gun was on temporary display in Belfast in 1916.
In December 1918, five captured guns were presented by Brigadier General George William Hacket Pain to the City of Belfast. In accepting the guns, which were placed in front of the Queen Victoria Memorial at Belfast City Hall, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sir James Johnston, said, “they would be cherished as mementoes of the great world war” and finished his speech with “The guns would remind many generations to come of the great victories achieved by our gallant soldiers”. From as early as 1924, there were no guns on display at the Queen Victoria Memorial during the various Somme and Armistice Day commemorations held in front of Belfast City Hall.
As had been intimated in 1915, the captured guns were distributed to locations across the United Kingdom, although guns were generally not delivered to locations in Northern Ireland until 1923 due to the civil disturbances in the opening years of that decade. Documents at the National Archives in Kew record that 72 trophy guns were allocated to Northern Ireland. Whilst most went to urban or rural councils, trophy guns were also on display at Queen’s University in Belfast, Campbell College in Belfast and Portora Royal School in Enniskillen.
However, it is clear from newspaper reports that the trophy guns were not always welcomed or wanted. Also, some public representatives were dissatisfied with the trophies that they did receive and some councils either did not put them on display or removed the guns from display with unseemly haste. Some members of the public also questioned the desirability of having trophy guns on display, as demonstrated by a letter “Enemy Guns” published in the Northern Whig on 6th July 1925.
In April 1923, the Belfast News-Letter reported that the War Office was sending four eight-and-a-half ton guns to Enniskillen and that the council was asking for the number to be increased to six guns. One of the guns was subsequently sent to Portora Royal School, which had already received one trophy gun directly from the War Office. In March 1925, the Northern Whig reported that Enniskillen Urban Council had removed the German gun from the Diamond and the same newspaper reported, in December 1926, that the two guns outside the gaol were, “to be placed at the rear of the old gaol (out of the public view)”. In September 1927, the Belfast News-Letter reported (see inset) that Sir Basil Brooke had written to Enniskillen Urban Council requesting the guns for Colebrooke House and Brookeborough. The Colebrooke House gun has been on display at Enniskillen Castle since February 1976.
In March 1924, the Ballymena Weekly Telegraph reported that Mr George McMullan expressed the opinion at a meeting of Portrush Urban District Council that, “the German trophy should not be exhibited. I would rather it were thrown into the sea”. Mr Christie, Chairman of the council, replied that, “the gun might have been captured by Portrush men”.
Bangor received two war trophy guns – a howitzer/mortar was placed next to the coast at Kingsland and the deck gun from the German submarine U-19 was placed in Ward Park. This submarine was notorious at an international and local level, having sunk RMS Lusitania and landed Sir Roger Casement in County Kerry in advance of the Easter Rising in Dublin. This gun was dedicated to Commander Edward Barry Stewart Bingham VC and is one of only three Great War trophy guns that remain on public display. On 2nd October 1935, the Belfast News-Letter reported that Bangor Borough Council had decided to sell the Kingsland trophy gun for scrap, a decision which incurred the wrath of the Bangor Branch of the British Legion, which submitted a letter of complaint. The council subsequently reversed its decision.
One of the smallest villages to be awarded a trophy gun was Balnamore, three miles west of Ballymoney. In March 1920, the Ballymena Observer reported that Mr James Young JP of the Braidwater Spinning Mills had written to Ballymoney Rural Council congratulating the council on “obtaining a captured German gun in recognition of the splendid response to the call for voluntary enlistment for national service”. In his letter, Mr Young went on to say, “before leaving Balnamore, his company desired to erect a memorial to commemorate their unbounded admiration for the men of Balnamore who went willingly overseas to stem the German invasion, and also to perpetuate for all time their names in the district.”
Their proposal was to erect a suitable platform for the captured German gun on the triangle in front of Balnamore post office, with the names carved on the sides. The gun was delivered to the village in October 1923 and, in September 1933, Hale, Martin & Company (who had taken over the spinning mill) handed over the memorial platform and the gun into the council’s care and keeping.
In nearby Ballymoney, there was uproar at the Urban District Council regarding the gun that was delivered to the town in June 1923.
The Northern Whig and the Belfast News-Letter both reported on discussions in the council chamber concerning the gun. Mr Robert McAfee expressed the opinion that “the town Ballymoney was deserving a better trophy. lt is 32 years ago since it was manufactured, and I question whether it was in the late war at all. It is like a piece of down pipe of spouting set on two wheels”. The field gun was placed on a pedestal in the small green at the Town Hall.
In Omagh, there was opposition from Nationalist councillors on the urban council to the trophy gun that was to be sent to the town by the War Office. In March 1923, Mr Orr spoke in favour of receiving the guns, saying that, “this was a matter above party or politics, as the men of their local regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, of which they were proud, belonged both to the Orange and Green flag”. Two months later, the Mid-Ulster Mail reported on the ongoing wrangle between rival councillors. Mr McLaughlin said, “the council should never have considered the question of taking the gun at all, as the feeling of the majority of the members was totally against”.
Meanwhile, the British Legion in Omagh had secured a German machine gun (reported as having been captured by the 9th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers). The Londonderry Sentinel reported on the ceremony in which the machine gun was placed outside the premises of the Omagh Branch of the British Legion. Following representations from a local solicitor and councillor, Captain William Henderson Fyffe MC, a German gun that had been captured by the 5th Inniskillings in Northern France in the closing days of the war was secured for the Omagh Loyalist Association and this gun was placed outside the Protestant Hall in Omagh in October 1923.
In October 1923, the Ballymena Observer reported that the German guns sent by the War Office to Ballymena had not received a fulsome welcome by Ballymena Urban District Council. The Clerk said the guns they had received – one howitzer and one Maxim – were not suited to the importance of the town. They had been promised two field guns and a machine gun but had only received one field gun and a machine gun. The Chairman remarked, “if we are to have war trophies for the Memorial Park let them be something presentable. Other towns of much less importance than Ballymena have been able to secure something better than derelict German machine gun for their Parks”. One of the councillors, Mr Craig, went further saying, “What do we want with them, a lot of German rubbish?”.
Carrickfergus Urban District Council had requested two field guns and two trench mortars. However, the War Office offered a heavy field gun, a field gun and a machine gun but sent two heavy guns. These guns lay in the London Midland & Scotland Railway Company’s yard in Carrickfergus until 1929. Although they were never put on public display, the council spent £40 cleaning and painting the guns. In November 1929, the LMS Railway notified the council that the guns had to be removed within two weeks, prompting the council to send an ultimatum to the War Office stating that, “unless Carrick is relieved of its cannons they would be sold as scrap”. On 3rd December 1929, the Northern Whig reported that the council had accepted a tender of £12 [approximately £700 today] from O & T Gallagher of Corporation Street in Belfast.
In Dungannon, the trophy gun was pulled into position outside the British Legion’s new club premises for the Armistice Day commemoration in 1923. Six years later, due to bus traffic, the gun was moved from Market Square to a position overlooking the ex-Servicemen’s houses on Empire Avenue. In late 1937, Dungannon Urban Council considered a proposal to sell the gun for scrap, but this met with opposition from the British Legion and ex-Servicemen, who decorated the gun with a Union flag and a notice declaring “Not for Sale Lest We Forget”. There is still a German field gun on display in the park on Black Lane, the site of Dickson’s Mill. The information panel at the site records that the gun had been purchased by the Dickson family at an auction of military artillery in the south of England in 1920.
There are, to the best of my knowledge, only three trophy guns from the Great War still on display in Northern Ireland.
A list of the locations in Northern Ireland that received trophy guns is contained in this spreadsheet which, where possible, details the fate of the guns.
Grand Hotels of Belfast at the outbreak of the Great War 1914
Like any major city in the UK at the time, Belfast had a wide range of hotels catering for all budgets and markets. The most prestigious of these were grand hotels found in the city centre, predominately on Royal Avenue, the premier address in the city, although many smaller commercial hotels also thrived around the railway termini, particularly the GNR on Gt. Victoria Street.
In this study, we will look at grand hotels at the top end of the market, which were designed for and patronised by the successful, the rich and the famous.
The Grand Central Hotel Royal Avenue
Without question, the Grand Central Hotel was the finest hotel in the city, if not Ireland, when it opened for business on Thursday 1st June 1893. With 200 rooms over 5 floors, it was the brainchild of one of the city’s leading property developers, John Robb, who also operated one of the largest department stores in the city on Castle Place. The name came about from the original plan for the site, a central railway terminus, based on the Grand Central in New York. When the hotel opened it boasted every wonder of the age, with electricity generated in the basement which provided lighting throughout and which powered the elevators which took guests to every floor.
The public rooms of the hotel were situated on the first floor, overlooking Royal Avenue, and comprised lounges, a smoke room, billiard room, coffee room and several private dining rooms.
The finest suites were located on the second floor, and it was in these rooms that guests such as King Leopold of Belgium; Winston Churchill; Mario Lanza and Al Jolson stayed during their visit to the city. The hotel also played host to the cream of Ulster Society where the grand ballroom provided banqueting facilities for some of the most important events in the city, such as the official lunch celebrating the launch of the White Star Liner, RMS Titanic, in 1912.
It was therefore with a great deal of dismay that the owners of the hotel learned that they were being served with a requisition order issued by the Imperial government in Whitehall, ordering the hotel to be vacated for use during the first world war which broke out in 1914. The Robb family were forced to close the business, auction off all the contents, and hand the keys over to the War Office in London. It was only after the building remained empty for several months that the awful truth came out – a requisition order meant for the Grand Central Hotel in Bristol had been sent to Belfast by mistake! By that time the damage had been done and faced with the daunting task of re-furnishing the entire hotel, the Robb family decided to sell the business to a consortium led by the Scotch whisky distiller, John Grant, who reopened the hotel in 1927. Today the site of the hotel is occupied by Castlecourt Shopping Centre.
The Grand Metropole Hotel York Street
The Metropole Hotel was located at 95-101 Donegall Street and 2-10 York Street, taking full advantage of a commanding corner site extending round into York Street and looking down Lower Donegall Street and Royal Avenue. Opened as the Queen’s Arms Hotel in 1850, its name was changed in 1890 by the then owners, the McGlade Brothers, no doubt to compete with it’s main competitor the Grand Central further down Royal Avenue.
The hotel was situated over four floors with its main entrance with a grand canopy on York Street, and a restaurant entrance on Donegall Street. It followed an irregular floor plan which allowed it to have lengthy frontages onto both thoroughfares.
Although it opened in the mid nineteenth century, it appears to have reached its zenith in the Edwardian era, when it changed ownership several times. Although it did not achieve the same ‘celebrity’ status as its grander sisters on Royal Avenue (qv), the Grand Metropole was none the less an imposing, significant and important part of Belfast’s social history. It received much business from the nearby LMS railway terminus on York Road, to which hospitality carriages would have been sent to pick up guests, the grand hotel was also located on two of the busiest tram routes, which terminated at Castle Junction in the city centre, giving easy access to all parts of the city.
The hotel continued to flourish until 1929, when it was demolished to make way for a modern Art Deco retail building opening as Berris’s Walk Around Store in 1930. This building was subsequently demolished in 2017 to make way for the development of the Ulster University which will extend along the length of York Street.
The Midland Station Hotel Whitla Street
The Midland Station Hotel opened for business in 1898 and was in the style of the grand Victorian railway hotels of the period. It was designed by the leading railway architect, Berkeley Deane Wise for the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway Co and operated by the railway company in order to capture those passengers arriving into Belfast by rail and sea (at the nearby docks) and also as a base for touring the Antrim Coast and Glens and County Donegal. The competing railway companies built large hotels across the province, such as the Slieve Donard at Newcastle, the Northern Counties, Portrush and the Laharna at Larne.
As can be seen from the photograph, the hotel was directly attached to the impressive railway terminus buildings on York Road. The Corporation tramway also served the railway terminus directly connecting guests of the hotel to all parts of the city. The clientele would have been commercial and tourist in nature, but none the less, well to do, as many less expensive hotels existed around the area. The hotel was completely destroyed in the Blitz of Belfast in Easter 1941, along with much of the original railway terminus. It was however rebuilt, as the Midland Hotel and thrived in what later became a rather isolated part of Belfast until the 1980s when it was converted to use as offices by the Hastings Hotel Group. The building was demolished in 2017.
The Royal Avenue Hotel Royal Avenue
Constructed between 1882 and 1884, and designed by architect Thomas Jackson in the Italianate style, the Royal Avenue Hotel was the first hotel on the city’s main thoroughfare beating its main competitor (The Grand Central) to the title of Belfast leading address by nine years.
A bedroom in the Royal Avenue Hotel overlooking Belfast’s main thoroughfare
A four-storey building with round headed dormers and a rounded corner to Rosemary Street, it originally had 32 bedrooms – this was later expanded to 118 as the hotel grew in importance.
It was a property development devised by several of Belfast’s most successful merchants and was, until the opening of the Grand Central opposite, the most luxurious and centrally located hotel in the city. Synonymous with style and class it was typical of Victorian hotels found in city centres throughout the country.
A lounge in the Royal Avenue Hotel
The Royal Avenue was a much more intimate hotel than the Grand Central which was majestic in size and scale. The main entrance was onto Royal Avenue, with the public rooms overlooking the main thoroughfare and Rosemary Street.
The hotel continued to thrive until the early 1970s, when, with the arrival of civil unrest in the city, the business suffered a dramatic reduction until the hotel was destroyed in an accidental fire in 1984 and subsequently demolished.
The Imperial Hotel Donegall Place
Marketing material of the time proudly proclaimed that “It is highly probable that no establishment in the City of Belfast is so well known in all quarters of the globe as the Imperial Hotel “
Opened on Donegall Place in 1868, it was the brainchild of William J Jury, a Whiskey magnate and proprietor of Grand Jury Irish Whiskey which was exported around the world from Chichester Street, Belfast.
An additional two floors of bedrooms were added in 1868, at a cost of £2000! Jury went on to open hotels (under his own name) on Dame Street in Dublin and in Cork City. These continued to expand as the Jury’s Hotel group and the business still trades today AS Jury’s Inns across the UK and Ireland. The Imperial remained one of Belfast’s oldest and busiest hotels until it closed in 1948, being replaced by a modern retail building in 1950.
Grand Hotels of Belfast Researched and written by: