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Friday, 15 February 2019

BELFAST: HIGH STREET LONG AGO

An article of any length based on the contents of this blog post is open for commissioning. Contact: joecushnan@aol.com

Michael Portillo, in his television train journeys shows, carries around his Bradshaw's Guide of railway timetables and travel notes, to compare modern trains and travels to days of yore.


It has struck me on more than one occasion that a series could be developed, based on Cathal O'Byrne's entertaining book As I Roved Out, to seek out places and stories of interest throughout Belfast's history. As I Roved out was first published in 1946 by the Irish News, and reprinted in 1982 by The Blackstaff Press. It's full title is As I Roved Out: A Book of the North - Being a Series of Historical Sketches of Ulster and Old Belfast. So, for the next few blog posts, I will dip into the book and highlight some of the stories within. I was born and raised in Belfast and O'Byrne's tales and recollections have always informed and entertained me.

There has been and continues to be a lot of debate about the state of UK High Streets. The debate is a mixture of blether, blah, emotional outbursts, surveys, reports, all strangled by indecision. There is campaign after campaign to save the High Street, but nothing happens.

I worked in retailing for nearly forty years from the 1970s, including stints in town centre shops as well as out-of-town stores. High Streets have always changed and will continue to do so.

I remember a few years ago when our local Woolworths closed and there was much wailing about the loss of a much-loved name. And for a moment, I felt nostalgic and sad until I wised up. I realised that it must have been about five years before the closure since I bought anything in the shop. In a roundabout way, I suppose I was part of the problem!

In As I Roved Out, in a chapter called In High Street Long Ago, Cathal O’Byrne wrote about some of the trades operating in Belfast in the 1800s. There were no big chain stores or any of the usual suspects that occupy or occupied more recent High Streets. It seems to me that way back then, local, independent shops and businesses were the norm.

For example, James Cleland sold ‘English glass, East-India and English china, with very fine Nankeen ware, Staffordshire or Queen’s ware, Wedgwood and Bentley’s real composition (and mock) Antigua teapots.’

Thomas Lyle, under the sign of a saw offered ‘hardware, tools, silverware, steel malt-mills, and especially mentioned, 50 muskets with bayonets, fit for Volunteers.’

Elizabeth Rea, a grocer, sold ‘Belfast sugar at sugar-house prices, clover seeds, Dantzic ashes, Whitehaven roll tobacco, fine French indigo, and best fatt madder.’ (Whatever that is, but it’s not a typing error.)

Henry and Robert Joy printed the Belfast News-Letter.

Michael Twigg manufactured ‘all kinds of cambricks and sold printed linens, poplins and Irish chintzes.’

Thomas Clownish sold cloth and rugs, Eleanor and Mary McCormick sold caps and trimmings for gowns, John Annesley and James Lilley were grocers, Mrs Cooper was an inn-keeper, Dorothea Garnet sold muslin, gauze, fox-tail feathers and feathers for Volunteers, James Vallance auctioned books, James Lamb was a shoemaker, Henry McKedy was a seeds man ‘at the sign of the Orange Tree’and Mrs Wilson dealt in ‘carpets, carpeteens and stair cloths.’

Cathal O’Byrne noted that ‘in High Street also could be bought a good sortment of English and Irish broadcloths, Forrest clothes, German serges, Sarge denims, worsted and Hair Shaggs, cotton-thick-setts, jeans, fustians, beaver druggets, lastings, velvets, sattings, Persians, riggs, poplins, crapes, chamblets, stuffs, callamancoes, damasks, sattiniscoes and padaway serge.’ You can't get much of that gear in M&S these days!

Yes, High Streets have always changed.

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