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
- – Nicholson, Carlisle & Morrow, Manufacturers & Warehousemen
- – 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.
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.
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.
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!
© Researched and compiled by History Hub Ulster Member Richard Graham | August 2018