chapter three

Social Conditions in Belfast

Although life in rural Ireland was extremely harsh at the time (an 1835 survey of rural Ireland showed half of all families living in single-roomed, windowless cabins), life in a growing industrial town was even tougher. As in all early 19th century cities, conditions in Belfast in the years 1800-1850 were absolutely appalling. In 1800, the population was around 20,000. By 1861 it was 120,777 – all of whom squeezed into 18,375 houses. There were 230,000 people in Belfast in 1880 and by the time Thomas died in 1900, Belfast's population was in excess of 340,000. Although Belfast got gas light back in 1823 – and what a marvel that would have been – in the small shacks of the poor it remained dark and cold for many decades to come.

The streets were dirty, the small houses seriously overcrowded, and the Lagan was used a sewer. It was only in the late 1880s and early 1890s that Belfast Council built a network of sewers – what they did before that can only be guessed at! Not surprisingly, disease was rampant: in 1847 there was an outbreak of typhus (a disease spread by lice), while cholera struck Belfast in 1848. Between the 1860s – 1880s Belfast had the highest rate TB in the whole of Ireland. There was, as in most industrial towns of the time, very high infant mortality rate – the average age in Belfast at the time was 9 years!

In the later part of the 19th century conditions gradually improved as new by-laws meant all new houses were much better built. Unfortunately, the old ones still remained and these housed the poorest of the poor. In the existing Belfast Street Directories, you can find entries like: “Galway Street - 20 small houses”. These would have been inhabited by those who were unemployed, had very low rent rates, or the elderly without income.

The Glenravel Local History (Belfast Timeline) Project ( has a lot of local information taken from newspapers and court chronicles of the time from the 1830s to the 1920s. I read through the 1880s timeline and found a lot of information that contextualizes everyday life for Thomas and his family. In 1882, the sectarian riots appear to have been centered around Pound Street, Galway Street, and Durham Street. Thomas was living in Pound Street at the time. And in November 1886 – the riots started in July and finally petered out only in December – his next door neighbour Thomas Connolly (of 72 Pound Street) was shot dead by police during a riot in the area.

The cops appear to have been rather heavy-handed and brutal, arresting people for the smallest of things – whistling at a boat, for example! But then the people were also rather badly behaved. There was a notorious blind man called James Towman who was frequently arrested for quoting the bible when intoxicated, and another well-known character called Bella Bogan who had more than 100 convictions for being drunk and disorderly. She was jailed frequently but simply went on another bender when released. Interestingly, there were more drunk and disorderly arrests of women than men – I suppose that is why gin was called “mothers' ruin”! Reports of newborn babies thrown away were many and guns appear to have been plentiful. The suicide rate was seriously high in the 1880s – the preferred methods being razor blades, hanging, and laudanum. And many people drowned at the Quays or threw themselves into the Lagan. Given the number of alcohol-related deaths, it is perhaps fitting that most inquests took place in pubs!

Stabbings were regular and you could expect to be fined 20 shillings for doing so; the same fine would apply for stealing a pigeon, two geraniums from the Ormeau Park, or a plum from the market. However, if you were to throw stones at Lord Churchill's carriage, you would pay a fine of 40 shillings – the same fine levied for soliciting! But if someone stole a shawl and pair of boots from “ a respectable lady”, the sentence was five years penal servitude! Interestingly, cruelty to animals was taken very seriously and was punished heavily, while stabbing your wife meant case dismissed! So you could beat your wife but not your horse!

Belfast appears to have been rather flammable in the 1880s and a fire broke out somewhere in the city almost every day. There was a fire brigade then but they generally responded to business and industrial fires, not domestic fires. And driving seems to have been a problem: the number of injuries and deaths by horse and cart were many.