chapter two

Belfast in the 19th Century

Thomas's adopted home was a town that saw tremendous growth throughout the Victoria era; it was made a borough in 1842, some three years after Thomas arrived, and officially became a city in 1888. At the start of the century, the town was growing so rapidly that a Paving Board was formed to pave the streets. You can imagine the state of the “roads” when it rained, especially if you were driving a horse and cart loaded with coal for the many industries around which the city grew and flourished.

Most of the big buildings (some of which we still know today) were built in the 1800s: the Royal Academic Institution was built in 1810, and the first hospital was erected in 1815 in Frederick Street. St George's Church was built in 1819. A lunatic asylum was built in Belfast in 1829 – obviously there must have been a great need for this at the time! The Botanic and Horticultural Society was formed in Belfast in 1827 and created a private botanic garden, while the Palm House was built in 1840. The Botanic Gardens became a public park in 1895. Although he would have been 71 at the time, maybe he went there to marvel at the Glass House and the neatly laid-out gardens as so many of us have done in recent years.

The Ulster Museum dates from 1833 but I doubt a carter would have paid the entrance fee, even to see the 7th-century “mummy” that frightened so many of us as kids. Queens Bridge was built in 1843 and that would have made it much easier for a carter to get to the docks to load coal and other imported items for Belfast's industries. Queens University was formed in 1845, while the Harbour Commissioners Office was built in 1854 and the Custom House in 1857. The Ulster Hall was built in 1862 and the Albert Clock was erected in 1869 – imagine seeing such a big clock for the first time! Thomas would also have seen the building of the City Hall in 1888 on the site of the old White Linen Hall. Belfast Public Library and the Albert Bridge were both built in 1890. The Grand Opera House was built in 1895, St George's Market in 1896, while St Anne's Anglican Cathedral was begun in 1899.

Belfast suffered two disastrous fires in the nineteenth century: one in 1865 and another in 1873, both of which did considerable damage to the central area of town. But Belfast was prosperous and was quickly re-built.

Our Thomas lived through all this extensive building activity and I wonder if he ever stopped and stared with wonder at the massive edifices being built around him. The very year he arrived in the town, a railway was built from Belfast to Lisburn (1839), and just before his 40th birthday he would have seen horse-drawn trams in the streets of Belfast (1872).